Yes, the episodes are still too far apart, but at least they’re good, and if you ask me – though why would you? – we have a particularly fine one today, so enjoy the new part of our serialized novel „Angelic Duties“!
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.
In the fifteenth chapter, Glonn arrives at the Hermitage and meets Glistening Tear, while Profound Distress has cake with the Custodian. Well, she doesn’t actually have cake, it’s more that she watches the Custodian eat it. But still.
Today on Angelic Duties:
Nothing more than crumbs on the plate were left of the cake the Custodian had ordered, and she sat on the floor within her circle, content, her mouth smeared with glazing. Profound Distress sat opposite her, so tense she had to concentrate to keep from shaking, trying not to stare at the Dust, trying not to think about the Dust, wanting not to want the Dust, the Dust in the little bag so close, the Dust she wanted, the Dust that might help her relax at least a little, which might even lead to better decisions than staying in the mental state she was in right now, so maybe if she tried just a small – she forced herself to look away, to the broken ceiling, took a deep breath and asked the first question she could think of:
“What you told me about the Empty King – do you know this, or is it merely what he told you?”
“It’s what he wants me to tell you”, the girl in the silvery circle answered, as if that ought to settle the matter to everyone’s complete satisfaction.
“So you won’t even tell me it’s true? How am I supposed to trust you?”
“You mean you would trust me more if I lied to you?”
“So it’s not true.”
The girl smiled a pensive smile and shook her head. “Its truth is not relevant. I did not answer your question, but I told you what you need to know. After all, there’s really not a lot you would have to do. Simply open the Barrier for our – oh, by the way: You don’t mind sitting on the floor, do you? I always liked to … just kind of hunker down, you know? It lacks the artificiality and formality that comes with chairs. Feels more honest, don’t you think?”
“I don’t mind,” Profound Distress replied. “At least tell me if you even know whether it’s true.”
The Custodian shrugged. “I just told you the story, didn’t I? He … roused me after it was all done. How am I supposed to know anything about what happened before?”
A low bubbly sound came from the Empty King’s glass pillar, but when Profound Distress looked, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
“What is he? Is he human?”
“He is more than a human, and less, as such things often are.”
“How about you?”
“I am different than human. I am other.”
“But you all use … magic. Him, you, as do the Angels. There must be something you have in common.”
The Custodian smiled. “You breathe. As does a dung beetle. As does a dragon. As do I. Do you think we have much in common, us and the dragon, and the bug?”
Profound Distress was not sure beetles actually breathed, but she did not think this was the right time to discuss that question.
“So … I could use magic as well if I knew how? Could everyone?”
The Custodian broke out giggling.
“What’s so funny?”
“It is …” She sighed, put an index finger against her lips, tapped three times, and said: “It is like a dung beetle asking if he could build an Engine. I might say: Yes, of course you could, all you need is more strength than you have, more mind than you have, more understanding than you have, and more time than you have. This would be truthful, but cruel. Or I could lie and tell him no, he could never build an Engine, because he is a bug. If I wanted to be kind.”
“But you prefer being cruel.”
“I am as the Empty King shaped me. But let’s not talk about me. I am beside the point. Let’s talk about the ten beings. Do you know what makes them most dangerous?”
“More than you?”
“Shoo, stop it. I’m unimportant. And I’m not dangerous at all. Just look at me, won’t you? They are, though. Because they can see the future.”
“They can see everything, can’t they?” Profound Distress asked, in the same second realizing she knew better.
“They can see the future,” the Custodian repeated, “Quite clearly, in fact. Their weakness is that they usually don’t understand. While I am other, I also have a human part. I have this body which connects me to your kind. They do not. They are very alien to you, and so, they see but fail to understand, just like you do, ironically.”
“But unlike you. What a funny coincidence that, in your own eyes, of all of us, you should be the only flawless being.”
“Oh, I am far from flawless. I am on a leash, as you might have noticed. But, at least my leash is plain to see, for me and everyone around. I know what it imposes on me, but I also know its limits, and I know its weaknesses. What do you know about yours?”
The shape within the light did not move, did not speak, did not react to their approach at all.
They stood there for a time, each lost in their own thoughts about the immortal powerful being before them, until Glonn finally spoke up.
“What’s in it for you?” he asked. When the abbot just gave him a blank look, he clarified: “Why do you choose this life? Why would anyone leave the world and instead enter … into bondage to these monsters?”
Glistening Tear’s eyes widened slightly at Glonn’s insolence, but he overlooked it otherwise.
“There are many reasons,” he said, “And each of us has his own personal blend of them. There is simplicity in obedience, and a certain calm of mind. If you do as you are told, you let go of responsibility and the anxiety which comes with doubt. The Angels offer us what most people strive for all their life: Certainty. We know there is no resistance against their power. We know nothing is hidden from the eyes of Heaven, and we know their voice speaks undisputable law.”
“If not morally, then at least in fact.”
Glistening Tear made a sideways nodding motion with his head.
“I have found it hard to quarrel with facts, no matter the cleverness of your argument.”
“So you admit –“
“You cannot touch them,” the abbot interrupted him.
“Who says I want to?”
Glonn was taken aback.
“You may not have told me in as many words,” Glistening Tears said, “But remember, Pater Familiae, I have seen about four times more decades than you have seen years. Do you think you are the first one to come here with great plans, with the certainty of youth and the proud knowledge that you will topple the ancient terrors in the way of your boundless ambition?”
The old man shook his head and turned away from Glonn and the bright light in front of them, looking at the wall instead.
“You cannot touch them,” he repeated. “You will founder, as has everyone before you. You will see your ambition shattered, and your plans, and your youthful certainty, crushed in the talons of the Angels. And you will leave us all a little worse off for trying, worst, of course, yourself.”
“Everything comes to an end sometime, abbot. Nothing is forever.”
Glonn thought he heard a smile in the old man’s voice when he answered: “You think so? Based on what evidence?”
Glonn opened his mouth to contradict Glistening Tear. To tell him that, while the abbot might have the advantage of experience over him, Glonn, there was someone on his side who’d merely laugh at his thousand-and-some years. There was someone who had seen, who had schemed and plotted for longer than any human being could imagine, but instead, he closed his mouth again, with an embarrassing audible plop-sound.
There were two reasons why Glonn kept silent. The first one was the obvious one: He realized how stupid it would be to openly talk about his designs in the presence of his enemy.
The second one was more complicated, and much more disquieting: As he ordered his thoughts to put them into words, their newly-won clarity became uncomfortable, making him question if his imaginary argument ran as much in his favor as he had expected it to.
“I think I have seen enough,” Glonn said. “I want to go back to where there is air and sun and not this … thing within the light. Let us leave.”
Glistening Tear nodded, an infuriatingly knowing smile flickering around the corners of his mouth.
“Just lead the way, Pater Familiae, and I shall follow.”
“What about our children? How long will we be gone?”
“As long as it takes,” was all she answered, and then went on: “We will soon cross the boundary separating the Concord from the Outside. As soon as we do, the Lady Sorrow’s mark on this mind will begin to deteriorate as Her magic cannot reach Outside. You will notice this, and you might perceive it as an opportunity. Know that your children are still within the Concord. Know that they would suffer for your disobedience.”
Kimbal listened, unable to breathe as his throat closed upon hearing his wife threaten her own children.
“Further,” she continued, “Know that Katra Koment is lost and will never return to you, and finally that this Paladin, even weakened and confused, will still be able to subdue you without effort. Obey, Kimbal Koment.”
He stared at her, wanting to hit her, throttle her, bludgeon her to death or at least break down in tears, but knowing that he could do neither. So he just stared at her, and tried to keep his thoughts from breaking his skull and leaving him a ruined shell on the road, which, come to think of it, did not seem like the worst possible outcome for this nightmare.
As the landscape rolled past him, he did his best to think clearly about his situation. As little as he might like it, he obviously had no choice but to submit, for the time being. As long as they were within the Concord, any thought of resistance would be ridiculous and extremely dangerous, not least because Lady Sorrow knew his thoughts and would not even have to wait for him to act.
Outside, he might get an opportunity, but would he be willing to risk the Angels’ wrath for … what exactly? His own petty revenge? Or was there more at stake? He did not even know what was going on. And come to think of it, he had no idea what she’d even meant when she said that the mark on her mind would deteriorate. Would she die? Or would she revert to being … He did not dare hope.
So Kimbal resigned himself to his fate and watched as they made their way past Cerya’s cottage and through the Boundary.
He was surprised how quickly the terrain changed after that. The lush green and the gently rolling hills changed into a steppe of high blades of yellowish grass rustling threateningly in the wind. Sometimes they heard noises from within the grass, of unseen things hunting, looking for mates, threatening each other, and dying. Some of the things sounded quite large, but none approached them.
They passed an inn, a sizeable place, but badly built, with hardly a right angle and the windows hung with tattered rags. A teamster was standing in the courtyard tending to his horses, and shouted at them where they were coming from, and where they were going, but when he received no answer, he did not press.
Several hours later, the high grass gave way to the dried-up remains of a forest, the trees looking like hungry skeletons even in the waning daylight. Their long shadows made an
They had to stop because a tree had fallen across the road. Or so Kimbal though at first, but at a second glance, he noticed that something about the position of the trunk and the branches around it looked artificial, when a group of six people stepped out of hiding onto the road, holding clubs and axes and large knives. One of them, a burly man with a thick red beard stepped to the front and, with a broad grin, said:
“Welcome to Halcrahn forest. Time to pay your toll.”
“Remove this obstacle,” the Paladin responded.
The leader started laughing, and, one after the other, the rest joined in. It sounded forced, though. Something about the Paladin’s voice and bearing made it exceptionally difficult to laugh at her.
“Hear, hear,” the leader exclaimed. “She told us to clear the road. Let’s get to work, fellows, eh?”
More strained hilarity, until he cleared his throat and grew sober.
“Listen now,” he said. “Since your folks seem to have closed the Boundary for now, there’s no trade. When there’s no trade, there’s no work here. When there’s no work, there’s no food. So you see we have no choice but to earn our living off whoever still passes through here. Now let’s get this over with. We’ll inspect your cart, take our toll, and you can move on. Fair deal, eh?”
She stood up. “I am Paladin Deep Sadness, a projection of the power of Lady Sorrow. As Angelic Law forbids the application of Angelic force outside the Concord, I will not hinder your scheme or influence your lives in any way. But know that my mission will not be obstructed, and I will assure its success by force if necessary. You will immediately remove this obstacle or be treated as part of it.”
The members of the group shot doubtful looks at each other and the inexplicably confident Paladin, muttering in confusion. The woman holding the bow even lowered it, her mouth wide open.
The leader tried another laugh, but this time, it did not even come out complete.
“She said something about Angelic power,” one of his men hissed at him.
“Piss on Angelic power!” the band’s apparent leader exclaimed. “This is not the fucking Concord, so there’s no Angels here, and I’d be surprised if there even were any real ones inside. They’re a myth to scare children and fools like you. Now grab them and take their stuff!”
No one moved, and most retreated as the Paladin jumped from the cart and started walking towards the barrier on the road.
The horses snorted nervously and took a few steps backward, swishing their tails and flicking their ears after having stopped again.
Kimbal noticed the wrongness of her movement, all the more obvious by how familiar this person had been to him just a few hours ago. The Paladin – he supposed he might as well start thinking of her as Deep Sadness since she certainly was not his wife any more – did not bend her knees as she landed to reduce the jump’s impact. She just walked from the cart, fell, and continued walking, almost as if held by some not-quite-proficient puppeteer.
No one dared step into her way except for the leader. He held out his left hand, gesturing her to stop, while lifting the bludgeon in his right.
“One step more, you stuck-up bitch, and I’ll –“
His words drowned in a pitiful gargling that wasn’t even a scream, as Deep Sadness’ right hand shot out to clutch his outstretched left and squeezed it. Again, the movement grated on Kimbal’s senses because no real human being would have been able to perform it. The Paladin’s hand closed around the bandit’s – and simply continued closing, as if nothing was there. In disbelief Kimbal saw a reddish-gray mass ooze out between her fingers, some of it running down her wrist into her sleeve.
One of the horses gave a low edgy whinny.
The horrid sight held Kimbal’s gaze so tightly, he did not even see what she did to the man with her other hand. He just saw him fall without another sound except of his body and then his head hitting the sandy ground, and saw the body which used to contain his wife stride on towards the barrier.
Three of the remaining bandits fled in panic and the last one started ineffectively grasping at the branches, sobbing and muttering something about how sorry he was, to please not harm him, children and infirm parents, and that he would never disobey her again.
The Paladin strode on towards the heavy logs and branches, lifted them and threw them into the wood as if they were so much kindling. Her hand was still smeared with the bandit leader’s bodily fluids, but she made not the slightest attempt to clean it or even wipe it off on something.
After she was done, she calmly took hold of the fearfully babbling bandit’s head and snapped his neck with a slight movement of her wrist.
“What did you do that for?” Kimbal exclaimed.
She turned back towards him and returned to her seat atop the cart.
“I stated the consequences for them, should they not remove the barrier immediately. They did not. So I enacted consequences. I would have killed the others as well, but it would delay my mission.”
Kimbal looked into her cold passionless face as she tugged at the reins and the horses pulled the cart onwards.
He remembered how he had seen Katra for the first time
He remembered how she had ineffectually attempted to suppress a bright beaming smile as he told her he loved her for the first time.
He remembered what he used to love about his wife.
And there she was, right beside him, alive and strong, and still dead and gone forever. Never again would he see her smile, never again hear her voice, and never would he have another chance to tell her how much he admired her strength and her cleverness and her humor and her warmth and love, and never again would he hear her tell him to be reasonable, just to finally give in and indulge his idealism.
And once more, he wanted to punch the monster that had taken over her body and bash her head in with a heavy rock, but he could not, because it wore the face of the woman he loved, and because it held his children hostage.
Kimbal broke down at this point, slung his arms around his knees and started sobbing.
Profound Distress shifted her weight again. She was starting to really appreciate chairs, and sofas and beds and even stools, for heaven’s sake because this just-sort-of-hunkering down thing was hurting her butt, and having nothing to lean on while not wanting to lie down had tired out her back. And her back was not the only thing that felt tired. She briefly considered actually lying down, but the situation made it seem like a really bad idea. Maybe if she had some of the Dust, she might be able to stand the strain better and …
“So, you basically want me to open the barrier for you so your … people or your army or just you and him over there,” she nodded towards the glass pillar, “can march in and clean up the Concord, right? What about Lady Sorrow? Can She not close it again as soon as She notices?”
The Custodian stretched her arms above her head and intertwined her fingers as she bent her back, laid back her head and yawned. “It’s gotten quite late, hasn’t it? I think we shall call this a day and leave all the rest for tomorrow. What do you say?”
Actually, Profound Distress liked the idea of sleeping unbound, undrugged and outside of a tightly packed box, so she agreed.
The girl rang her bell, and the Second Sword appeared to lead her to her chambers.
Profound Distress followed her down the wide marble stairway – and immediately stopped again after five steps.
It took her several heartbeats to comprehend what she was seeing.
The hall below was exactly the same shape and size as the one she had just left, but one of the walls had partially crumbled, offering a view onto a sprawling city very far below.
She could see playful spires and gigantic rectangular warehouses, mansions that gleamed in the orange rays of the setting sun, apparently built out of some sort of silvery metal, and at the limits of the city with no defensible wall to be seen, huts and tents of a slum which in itself would probably dwarf Iustok in population as well as surface area.
“Is … is this a tower?” she asked, already feeling stupid before having finished the sentence.
“Yes,” Duncan answered.
Profound Distress was surprised to see him standing at the foot of the stairs, his gaze fastened upon the Second Sword, who stared at him as a dog at a cat it hates but knows it cannot reach.
“How high is this thing?” she asked.
The building must be taller than any mountain she had ever seen, judging from the vista she could see through the ample hole in the wall. The orange sky, glowing in the setting sun’s light, was free of clouds, but she would not have been surprised to find herself above them.
“Very,” the Second Sword replied.
She stood directly in front of him, much too close, and looked up, contemplating his scarred weather-beaten face.
Profound Distress proceeded to walk down the stairs, trying to decide between getting to bed faster by passing up the opportunity to look down from closer to the hole, and risking her life by walking up to the wall and dropping something to see how long it took to reach the ground.
In spite of her fatigue, she could not resist in the end. The vista literally took her breath away. As she held fast to a protruding stone and her gaze swept over the gigantic city with its diverse architecture and the people and carts moving in the street, so small she could hardly make them out from up here, Profound Distress completely forgot to breathe, until an unexpected gust of wind broke her balance, the stone she was holding on to gave way and dropped down towards the ground, and she stumbled back with a scream, tripping over her own feet and landing on her behind. In an extremely undignified manner, she crawled backwards from the ledge, panting in terror and silently chiding herself for the completely implausible stupidity that had led her so close to falling to her death.
When he shad calmed down enough to pick herself up and brush the dust from her clothes and turned around, she was slightly disappointed to find that her perilous misadventure seemed to have gone completely unnoticed.
The Second Sword still stood in front of Duncan, contemplating him with a disparaging sneer around her mouth.
“You’re an ugly man, Duncan Klaut.”
One corner of his mouth rose a little bit as he nodded once. “Else, I might have become an actor instead of a murderer. Like you.”
Her hand moved to the hilt of her weapon in a movement that seemed almost involuntary.
“Try me,” she growled, “And you will find out how much actress and how much murderess there is within me.”
He shrugged, not a trace of vigilance in his stance.
“We shall all die one day, and it will be soon enough. What’s the hurry, Likhava? I am an old man without formal training in combat. There is no honor in slaughtering me, nor will there be any satisfaction, whatever you might feel now. And you are a young woman. Should I be the one committing the slaughter, much will be lost, and all for naught.”
“Also, Srew has forbidden you from fighting him,” Profound Distress added, “So please, leave him be and just take me to my room.”
Both Duncan’s and Likhava’s heads turned towards her.
“You shouldn’t say that name,” the Second Sword said after a few heartbeats. “She can hear, and you don’t want to call her.”
Profound Distress looked at her with furrowed brow.
“Call her? She’s confined to that circle, isn’t she?”
“The Custodian is,” she replied.
“But isn’t she the Custodian? I don’t –“
“Just don’t say the name.”
Profound Distress opened her mouth to protest and ask for an explanation, but all that came out was:
She had learned and seen and heard and not understood and almost certainly been lied to enough for one day. Tiredness descended upon her as a physical weight, and she just wanted to lie down and rest and have her mind straighten itself out, at least a bit.
She did not even have eyes for all the other architectonic marvels, exotic beasts behind almost invisibly clear panes of glass and various other improbabilities the Empty King’s palace offered as Duncan and Likhava guided her towards a double door large enough to allow an oxen cart to enter.
“Cerya” Duncan said as the doors swung open without any discernible cause, “You might find this room not quite up to your standards because this whole palace is in a state –“
She interrupted him: “Anything will be better than the coffin you kept me in for the last days, so don’t start playing the concerned loyal servant now,” and started walking through the gate, looking at the room she was supposed to spend the night in.
“Oh,” she said.
Book group questions
- There’s that Stephen King allusion in the beginning. I personally like it, because I loved this piece of dialogue in The Stand. What do you think? Did anyone get it, or is it too obscure?
- Does anyone have an idea what to call this sideways bobbing/nodding head motion?
- What do you think about the Paladin’s development? I thought the speech might be a little out of character, but on the other hand, she’s not identical with the Angel, and it might help readers understand what’s going on.