Well, yes, I’m sorry, and there are reasons why you had to wait so long, but I’m reasonably sure you don’t care about the details, so let me just tell you I’m sorry, I’m trying, and I hope you still enjoy the story and its new chapter. I won’t even promise the next one will appear sooner. I hope, and I try, and I expect, but I can’t promise.
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.
In the thirteenth chapter, Profound Distress meets the Custodian, and Katra an untimely death, the first much to her own chagrin, the second rather to Kimbal’s, since Katra seems to take it in stride.
In the fourteenth chapter, Kimbal is taken by the Paladin now inhabiting his wife’s body, the Custodian offers Profound Distress some Dust, and Glonn decides he will visit the Hermitage.
Today on Angelic Duties:
“I should have taken Selena. This trip is no fun at all, Yarnon!”
Glonn shifted his position on the steamwagon seat again, but it had been hours since he’d been able to find a comfortable one. His butt just wasn’t made for extended travel.
“We should soon arrive at the Hermitage, Sir, then your ordeal will be at an end.”
Yarnon, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem at all to sit on his own bench opposite Glonn without ever moving at all. It was terribly unfair.
“But will it? The damned place will be full of Clerics who’ll be much too full of themselves to be cowed into obedience. I should have taken Selena. Did you notice if one of the drivers or other servants could be … Oh.”
The Hermitage sat on the mountain’s head like a red crown. With its sprawling size and its many spires, he had to admit it was a lot more impressive than House Teneract itself, at least from the Outside.
“I didn’t think it would be this big,” he said to Yarnon. “But then, how difficult can it be if you have Divine support for your buildings?”
“I doubt the Angels helped them build the Hermitage as such, Pater Familiae,” Yarnon replied, his tone of voice carefully neutral.
“What do you take me for? Do you think I imagined them laying bricks and spreading mortar with their huge winged Angelic trowels? Of course they didn’t build the Hermitage for the Clerics, but they gave them their weight to throw around so other people would. I can’t tell you how much I despise these stuck-up lazy parasites and how much I look forward to crushing them like the disgusting ticks they are.”
When they finally drove their steam wagons and the horsecarts making up his retinue through the high brick arch into the Hermitage’s yard, Glonn was surprised at the idyllic picture spreading out before his eyes.
The Hermitage hosted blooming gardens, some very impressive flower decorations, a sizeable orchard and even a large fish-pond within its walls, and each building, each patch of vegetables, each statue and each path was meticulously kept. As if that wasn’t enough, the people bustling around in the late afternoon’s mild sunshine all seemed of good cheer, and none gave the appearance of resenting their work. Glonn opened his mouth to make a disparaging remark to that effect when his eyes happened upon one especially interesting specimen and he forgot his bad mood.
“Oh … Oh, Yarnon! That one. Definitely. I want her in my room tonight when I … Damn it, she’s a Cleric, isn’t she? Too bad. Guess I’ll have to wait a few more days – or … Yarnon, do you know how to get women when you can’t threaten and bully them? There must be some kind of trick, and they probably won’t all have a drug habit I can exploit as with Cerya, will they?”
“You could try being kind and appreciative and show her-“
“Well, never mind. I can be patient, if needed. Their time is coming. All great lords need patience, don’t they?”
“For certain, Pater Familiae.”
“So let’s see if we can find someone without those abominable red robes whom I can order around to show me their Abbott.”
The Custodian rang a small silver bell she seemed to draw out of another invisible pocket in her white silken dress. The bell’s sound was very high-pitched and very thin, and Profound Distress doubted anyone outside this hall could be able to hear it.
“You know”, she said, “I think it might be irritating for you to have this bag of Dust always in plain view but still not be able to get to it. I’ll simply put it where you can reach it whenever you like, alright?”
She strode forward, the silken bag in her left hand, the bell already vanished, the chain around her neck faintly chinking, and bent down to place the bag just inside the silvery metal circle.
All the while, Profound Distress tried to keep her eyes, as well as her mind, from locking on to the bag. She really really wanted that Dust, though she did not want to want it.
The Custodian looked up to her with a bright smile upon her innocent face.
“Alas, I can’t reach any further, so you’ll have to come over and pick it up if you want to have a try.”
Profound Distress opened her mouth to suggest she might kick it over the line with her foot or something because she was certainly not about to stick a hand into her circle of movement, but then she realized this was a bad idea on several levels, so she decided to limit herself to a meek “Thank you.”
She heard steps approaching from the doorway through which Duncan had left, and a young woman in a blue shirt with an embroidered lapel, gleaming dark brown leather boots, baggy black linen pants and an intricate tattoo meandering up from her neckline up to her neck where it vanished in her long wavy black hair.
“I want to challenge the old man, the one who killed my sister,” she said by way of greeting without even looking at Profound Distress.
“You may not,” the Custodian replied. “He should still be of use, and furthermore, I expect his death would unsettle our guest, in spite of recent events.
“Your sister?” Profound Distress asked. “But you are … your skin …”
“She doesn’t mean ‘sister’ in a strict sense,” the Custodian informed her. “She’s my Second Sword …” She stopped and tapped her right index finger against her chin a few times. “Or rather, she used to be, I should say, since she’s First now.” The tapping continued, and an impish smile spread across her face. “Or is he, since he killed the former one?”
“He did not best her, he assassinated her!” the young woman exclaimed.
The Custodian waved a dismissive gesture in her direction. “He killed her. That’s all I expect of you and your sisters: killing people I do not want alive. I never said I cared if you do it prettily or courageously. But let’s not settle this now. You stay Second Sword for the time being, and he can stay whatever he is, until I make up my mind. Meanwhile, bring us some cake and tea and water and ice, alright?”
The woman nodded and went to one knee for a heartbeat before standing up again and leaving.
“So …” Profound Distress began uncertainly, trying to keep her eyes from the bag of Dust, while at the same time trying not to think about it, which was, obviously, a self-defeating endeavor. “You wanted to tell me a story?”
“Oh let’s just wait until she comes back. She won’t be long, and I love having some tea while talking. The air gets awfully dry and dusty in here, you know?”
The girl sat down, laid her head back and stared up at the sky through a hole in the ceiling.
She looked as if she would not even notice if Profound Distress would take a step towards the bag. She looked far away from the bag. Too far to reach it before Profound Distress, certainly.
Don’t look at the bag, Profound Distress admonished herself. Don’t think of the Dust. This is exactly what she wants you to do. And even if you could reach it, the Dust is bad for you. You don’t need it. Don’t think of it. Look at the thistle. High Heaven, that’s a really large and beautiful thistle, isn’t it?
It was a rather small bag, from the look of it, and it probably wasn’t even full. She actually doubted if there would be enough Dust in there to harm her in any way. It was not as if she had a great deal to lose, was it?
She had been abducted and was now in the hands of some kind of dangerous magical being, through no fault of her own, or at least none she could remember. What harm would be in taking a pinch of Dust to calm her nerves and brighten her mood a bit, really?
Still, the bag sat within the circle. If she wanted it, she would have to reach inside and risk being caught by the Custodian. She did not wish to find out what happened to those who got caught by her.
She would wait.
Glonn could not suppress a derisive guffaw when he finally met the revered Abbott Glistening Tears. The man did not look able to keep his own drool in, much less threaten the plans of House Teneract. He was a relic, a ruin, the destitute remains of what once might have been a man.
He grinned, showing – as far as Glonn could make out – all the three teeth he had left, and spread his arms in a gesture of welcome.
“I’m glad to see you, Pater Familiae!” he said with his brittle old man’s voice. “Too many of your predecessors seemed to have considered it their prime objective to avoid their responsibility towards Heaven and its servants. I applaud your decision to reverse this trend and strengthen the relations between your House and the Hermitage, and I will be glad to provide you with any guidance you might require in fulfilling your purpose under Lady Sorrow’s Heavenly rule.”
Glonn bit his teeth listening to this small speech, marveling how the old dry twig could fit this much arrogance, condescension and self-righteousness in this few words. For about two heartbeats, he considered telling him to go fuck himself and break the guy in two pieces with his bare hands, but whether it was his own reasoning or his mother’s nagging voice In the back of his head that stopped him, he did not.
“Thank you for your kind offer, Your Holiness,” he said, nodding as meekly as he could.
“The correct form of address for an Abbott is ‘Your Reverence’, my child, but don’t worry about your failings. You are here to overcome them.”
You will be the last to die, and you will be very grateful when you finally do, Glonn thought at the old man.
“And I’m sure I will, Your WhateveryouliketobecalledbecauseIdon’tgiveafig.”
Glistening tears raised an eyebrow, but did not otherwise respond.
“I would like to see the Well of Power,” Glonn said. “I’ve heard the view really fills people with a special veneration for Heaven’s proxies on earth.”
“Frankly, I am surprised you have heard anything of the Wells at all. Few people know about their existence, Pater Familiae.”
“It is part of my position to know what few others do, Abbott.”
Glistening Tears sighed, shuffled around his big desk with the strange claw marks upon its surface, and sat down in the chair behind it. Resting his head on his fists, he looked at Glonn and asked, not in an unfriendly manner:
“Pray tell, what is your real reason for visiting? Are you looking for your sister? Because she is not here.”
“I am not looking for Cerya.”
“Her name is Profound Distress now.”
Glonn gave a dismissive wave.
“Let’s just say I wanted to find out about your and your minions first hand. And I’m really interested in seeing the Well of Power for myself, assuming there is anything to see at all.”
The Abbott nodded, smiling a thin smile. “There is. And if you wish, you may look at it, but be warned, it is not easy.”
“How can it be not easy to look at a well?”
Just when Profound Distress was ready to take the risk of whatever the Custodian did to people, the woman in the blue shirt returned, carrying a wooden tray with a giant clay pot, a small cake with white frosting and some red floral decoration, a crystal decanter filled with water and wet with condensation, and a bow of perfectly clear shards of ice, looking like large diamonds, as well as cups and beakers.
The girl clapped her hands, beaming. “Marvelous!” she exclaimed. “The water and the ice you can give to our guest.”
The woman nodded, murmured “Custodian,” knelt besides Profound Distress and set down the requested items for her, still treating her exactly as if she did not exist at all.
“Thank you,” Profound Distress said.
“And now, give me the rest, please,” the Custodian said, still grinning widely in anticipation.
The woman approached the silvery circle on the floor, moving ever more slowly the closer she came, and finally got down on her knees again. She put the tray on the ground and, with the tips of her fingers, pushed it towards the metal inlet. As soon as the tray’s far corner entered the circle, she pulled back her hand, got up again and retreated.
The Custodian had watched all this with an expression of world-weary disappointment, but now she moved towards the tray with obvious delight, and did not even take the time to break a piece off the cake with her hands. Instead, she picked up the whole thing and took a huge bite out of it, chewing contentedly, not caring about the sticky clumps raining down upon her white dress.
“You outdid yourself, Likhava, this cake is a veritable epiphany. What’s in there, candied cherries? I told our guest here I’d like lemon, but you couldn’t have known, so I don’t blame you, and this is … I think I might weep for joy at any moment.”
She bit another large chunk off while pouring some tea without taking her eyes off the cake.
Profound Distress took note how she lifted and handled the gigantic pot which must weigh at least three stone without any visible effort.
“Thank you for your praise, Custodian. May I repeat my request from before –“
“You may not”, the girl interrupted her, “and you should know better than to try. But you may leave, because I’m still in a good mood. Unless you want to continue your work on changing this?”
The woman bowed and hurried out of the hall.
“Do you think she could really kill him?” Profound Distress asked. “Is she that good? Duncan is kind of a legend in Iustok …”
The Custodian shrugged and waved her hand beside her head in an uncertain gesture.
“Sure she could,” she said. “Any one of you can kill anyone else. You are so fragile, you could keel over right now if you just breathed in something wrong. There’s hardly anything in this room that could not kill you. It’s quite distressing if you think about it, isn’t it?”
… which is why we usually don’t, Profound Distress thought, but thank you for reminding me.
“What about you? You don’t look all that different from us humans.”
Again that waving gesture. “It’s just a body. Who cares?”
Profound Distress sighed. “You were going to tell me a story?”
“Right!” The girl nodded primly, folded her hands, and began:
“In the beginning, there was this thing akin to a god, whatever this might mean to you. There also was the Empty King, although he was not yet called that, as you can probably imagine, because he was not yet empty, and not yet imprisoned in this tank and hooked up to machines and all dead and creepy, but let’s not make things more complicated than necessary and still call him the Empty King, because who cares what he was called then, right?
The Empty King was kind and good, and so the humans worshipped him and obeyed him, while this thing akin to a god was capricious and prone to anger, so the people asked the Empty King to protect them from the thing akin to a god.
Because the Empty King was so very kind and good, he did not like to see his people suffer, and so he thought how he might protect them from the god’s anger.
The Empty King was very powerful – remember, he was not yet empty at the time, but the thing akin to a god … well, you can probably imagine how difficult it is to defeat such a being.
The Empty King realized that he would not be able to destroy the god, because gods are, obviously, very powerful and immortal. They cannot be killed. So he had to contain it somehow, and so he devised a ritual to tear the thing akin to a god’s soul into ten pieces and bury them in enchanted shrines. This was, obviously, a very complicated ritual requiring much effort, immense powers of contemplation and some rather wild adventures on his part, but let me make a long story short: He finally succeeded, but he soon found out that even his power was not enough to make sure the thing akin to a god would stay buried forever, because – are you listening? If you’re listening, you know.”
“Because … gods are immortal and powerful, as well?”
“Exactly! Very well, I like a good listener! So he needed help, and he decided to open a gate to … somewhere else, and shape the raw magic he found into ten immensely powerful great beings, and he commanded them to guard the pieces of the thing akin to a god and to protect the people from its attempts at resurrection. This worked like a charm, possibly because it was one, and the Empty King was very pleased, and the people frolicked, for the thing akin to a god was a threat no more.
Can you guess where this is going, Profound Distress?” The Custodian clapped her hands. “I bet you can!”
“The ten beings are … the Angels?”
“You’re so horrendously smart! You know, I’m actually a little afraid of you right now. So, as you most certainly guessed, everything went well for a few hundred years or so, and the ten beings kept order and peace and held the thing akin to a god in its confinement. But after a time, the Empty King noticed that the beings were not as obedient to him as he ha expected. While they continued to keep order and peace according to how he had shaped them in the beginning, it proved very difficult to change their shape now they had solidified, and when he tried to reprimand them, they just looked at him with their creepy silver eyes and said something about the Will of Heaven or some such nonsense.
Too late, the Empty King became aware that he was unable to subdue these ten beings because they had grown into their own power – I’ll admit I’m a little hazy on this part because he was very reticent about telling me the exact way they got out from under his thumb, can you imagine that? Terribly rude, don’t you think? Almost as if he doesn’t trust me.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Glonn muttered, mopping cold sweat from his brow while leaning back against the pillar in the middle of the … thing they were in.
The contraption the abbot had lured him into looked like an ordinary, if somewhat small circular brick room, but after the door had closed, it had started rotating with loud and distressing grating and crunching noises while, as the abominable doter had explained to him, it slowly lowered them down below the Hermitage, towards the Well of Power.
This went on for what seemed an hour to Glonn, until finally the contraption ground to a halt, and the abbot cheerfully opened the door and gestured Glonn to follow him.
“I’m afraid the last few steps will have to be made on foot. The hoist cannot reach down to the well itself.”
Glonn answered: “I don’t think I’ll ever say that again in my life, but I’m glad to walk.”
“So, you see, the Angels – as you now know them – continued expanding their sphere of influence little by little, and pushing back the Empty King’s. They were tremendously patient and tenacious about this, and the Empty King realized that soon they would conquer his whole beautiful world and force their iron law upon all his lovely human beings who revered him so much and who had been so very grateful for being freed from the thing akin to a god’s tyranny.
And so he resolved to sacrifice his own very soul and his own very freedom in a desperate attempt to contain the ten terrible beings he had called into this world, and he poured all his magic and all he was into the shape of a great boundary the Angels could not cross.
You know this boundary, of course, but you probably never noticed that it is twofold. On the one hand, there is a border erected by the Angels which keeps those from Outside from entering their territory. You Clerics can open this boundary so traders can travel into the Concord and bring you Engines and fish and all that other stuff needed to sustain your cute little sandbox civilization.
On the other hand, there is the boundary established by the Empty King, which no one ever notices, because it merely keeps the Angels inside so they cannot subjugate this beautiful land of the free ruled by a wise and benevolent monarch through a certain young and lovely intermediary who is cute as a button and sits more or less in front of you right now.”
“What are you?”
She smiled up at Profound Distress and shoved the last piece of cake into her mouth.
“You know, I’d be willing to kill for this stuff if I had to, I really would. I can’t even say I regret not having offered any to you. But if you like, we can order more.”
Profound Distress was not hungry.
“He called you from the same place he called them, right? Are you a servant of Heaven, too?”
The Custodian’s laugh resembled that of the silver bell she had used before.
“My dear friend,” she said, “Did any of this give you the impression that any of us were called here from a place that could be described as Heaven?”
“Are you mocking me, old man?” he wheezed another perceived hour later, bracing his arms against his knees to keep from simply dropping on his ass. “What is this shit? How deep does this fucking stairwell go?”
Glistening Tears slowly turned back to him, the patient smile on his face making Glonn want to push him right down the rest of the stairs, hoping they’d never end.
“I warned you, Pater Familiae. The Well of Power is very far below ground, so as to protect the world from ill effects whenever it opens.”
“Ill effects?” Glonn asked, still gasping for breath, “What ill effects?”
“The Angels are not the only beings to use a gate into our world.”
“And those other beings can be daunted by stairs?”
“It’s not the stairs that dissuade them.”
Glonn grimaced and shook his head.
“Who cares, anyway? Let’s go on down before I throttle you to death and then die down here with no one to show me the way.”
The Abbott smiled at him indulgently. “It’s not that complicated. You just go upstairs until you reach the hoist again, then you close its door and wait for it to start moving.”
“Don’t encourage me, old man.”
Chuckling, Glistening Tears led him on.
The stairs went on for a very long time, and just when Glonn considered taking another break before he fell from exhaustion, broke his neck and gave his mother the satisfaction of ruining everything the way she’d told him he would, he saw a light ahead. It was not the flickering light of a candle or even a large chandelier. It was the merciless glare of the noon sun, so he had no doubt that they had finally reached their destination.
When they rounded the final bend, and he saw the large spindly shape in front of the glaring brightness spread its wings, his mouth was suddenly dry as sand.
Now he would find out if the Empty King’s Blood would keep what the Custodian had promised.
Book group questions
- Did you feel I was lazy about describing the Hermitage? Because I certainly do.
- How did you like the Custodian’s story?
- Did you mind the many segments in this chapter?
- Would you like to see the Second Sword fight Duncan?