Much as I may regret this, three weeks seems to be the period it takes for me between episodes of our fabulous serialized novel „Angelic Duties“. And they’re getting shorter, too. Well, at least it gives me something to talk about in the introduction, doesn’t it?
I’m trying, and I thank you for your patience.
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 Tears, 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.
In the sixteenth chapter, the Custodian and Profound Distress talk some more, Glonn and Glistening Tears visit the Well of Power, the Paladin removes an obstacle, and the Second Sword takes Profound Distress to her room.
Today on Angelic Duties:
Flickering yellow beams spilled in from the lanterns in the hallway and formed a puddle in the colder, deep blue glow of dusk shining through the windows.
It was, as she had expected, a huge room. It was half as big as the great hall in House Teneract, and the ceiling was certainly higher. The bed alone seemed about the size of the whole cottage she had lived in since her appointment as Cleric, and there were paintings on the windows that looked a lot larger than her bed there, though the images were mostly unrecognizable due to mold or cracked paint or simply moss or other plants creeping from the wall onto the frames and onto the canvas.
The air was not only stale and damp but also surprisingly cold, and she instinctively wrapped her arms around herself.
The room smelled of rot and decay and kind of like wet earth. Profound Distress noticed a spider with a frail thin body and long wiry legs retreating into the deeper darkness, its shadow melting in front of it and changing shape in a way that made Profound Distress avert her gaze.
The most alarming thing about the room, though, stood in front of a broken window, before some disconcertingly large shards of glass:
It appeared to be something like armor, roughly thrice the height of a human being, holding some sort of reptilian monster in its right mailed fist. The reptile’s jaws were locked around the armor’s left arm, and while its other appendages hung limp and dead, its lower right claw was stuck in a deep gash in the armor’s left leg.
In the back of the armor, a part of the plate had opened, as a door, and limp a human arm, a shoulder and a head were visible, as if someone had tried to escape from within, but had died in the process.
Which was probably exactly what had happened, she thought, but the arm was of normal human size. What would a normal human being do in such a huge piece of armor, unless …?
“What … what happened here?” she asked. “Is this thing … magic? Or is it some kind of Engine?”
“It’s an Engine”, Duncan replied. “They use it to fight the monsters Outside, and each other. The Cleric cannot sleep here, Second Sword. Show us to another room.”
“The Custodian has given me clear orders.”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“The Cleric is to sleep in this room.”
Profound Distress turned around to see the Second Sword again too close to Duncan, staring at him defiantly.
“It’s inacceptable,” he said levelly. “At least go and ask her if she really means her to sleep in a room full of mouldy curtains, paintings, rugs and this disgusting display of two corpses.”
“It’s after dusk,” the Second Sword replied, her voice cold and sharp as a blade. “No one may enter the Empty King’s hall.”
“This is a joke.”
“Feel free to try and go against the Custodian’s command,” the Second Sword said. “I am just waiting for any excuse I can get.”
“Actually,” Profound Distress interjected, “I don’t mind so very much. The bed is far away from those things, and the covers look … thick and warm, so I won’t be too cold, hopefully. I think I can manage here. No need to kill each other over an ill-kept room.” She thought about what might be hidden below the dusty threadbare duvet covering the huge bed and added: “Maybe Duncan could help me clean up a little, before I go to sleep, and everything will be fine, I guess.”
A wide, satisfied smile spread across the Second Sword’s lips as she crossed her arms and nodded at Duncan.
“Alright,” she said, “I’m fine with that. If you don’t dare take up a sword to back up your words, go ahead, take up a broom instead and clean up. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover your true calling.”
Duncan’s smile was a frail suggestion of a thing, and his eyes held only sorrow.
“Give me one, and I’ll find out.”
She stepped up to him. “Come and get one.”
He stepped back, turned towards the huge, cold, moldy room.
“I think we can manage without.”
She stepped into his path and shoved him. Profound Distress saw the fire burning in her eyes, and it frightened her. She must have really admired the First Sword, she thought.
Duncan looked at the Second Sword’s countenance for a while, and finally nodded.
“If you insist,” he finally said, “You’ve got your wish.”
“And Heaven spoke ‘peace’, and peace descended upon the land of the Concord, and Heaven set the ten Angels as its guardians. Those who would not follow the will of Heaven were offered the space Outside, so they could follow their own counsel and bring about their own doom, as they saw fit.”
Glonn looked around in Abbot Glistening Tear’s office while the ancient man read from the apparently even more ancient tome he’d had fetched from the Hermitage’s archives by some mousy guy who hadn’t even dared look into Glonn’s eyes.
The walls were rather plain, mostly displaying the red bricks everything here was built of. There was only one picture in the room, a medium-sized landscape. Glonn guessed it might be the view from the main entrance gate down into the valley he had recently drudged through with his retinue and had thus developed a healthy distaste for.
What really caught his attention and distracted him from the ancient man’s ancient tale from some ancient book were the clawmarks on his desk.
They were about as wide as two of Glonn’s fingers put together, and deep enough that he could have inserted them up to the second joint.
“But those Outside were not content with the choice allotted to them, they wanted their liberty to do as they pleased, and still have the comfort and bounty available within the Concord. So they tried to pass the Boundary set by Heaven to separate the righteous from the selfish, and when they found they could not, they turned to the black offers made from beyond this world, by dark entities only too willing to make promises in exchange for gifts and obedience.
These entities insinuated themselves into their trust, into their society, and into their homes, slowly and patiently and imperceptibly taking more and more control. Thus, the being called the Empty King, who reigned supreme over the land Outside, submitted to an etheric entity which pretended to serve him and his subjects while in truth aiming to subvert their every human instinct and turn them further away from what is right and just and the Will of Heaven.”
He could not stop staring at those clawmarks.
“After several centuries, through sweet promises and lies, the entity finally succeeded in completely subjugating the Empty King, trapping him in a machine to exploit his power in service of its own ends.
To each human it seeks to seduce, it offers power, freedom, fulfillment of any desire, but its real ambition is the utter devastation of this world, and the reduction of all its life to slavery and abject suffering.”
Strange, Glonn thought. I have seen them burn people alive. I have seen them incinerate buildings and sing their horrible magic. And yet, it is those stupid clawmarks that make their monstrous power real to me.
“We call it the Witch of Aidanur, though we might just as well call it a demon, or an evil spirit.”
It was not that he was afraid. Certainly not. He knew they could not harm him. He knew he could beat them. He knew what his mother would do to him if he did not complete his mission.
He was not afraid.
He simply did not like thinking about it.
“The denizens of the Outside call it the Custodian.”
Glonn nodded with what he hoped was a smug, slightly bored and very condescending smile.
“So basically, you’re saying I’m about to shoot myself in the foot, right?”
“But how do you know it’s true? You can’t be that old, and I bet you have never left the Concord. It’s just a story somebody told you, isn’t it?”
“It’s the story they want me to tell you.”
“So you’ve got nothing.” Glonn nodded. “I thought so.”
The Abbott sighed and blinked slowly, twice, and finally nodded, also very slowly, also twice.
“I would prefer not to reveal what I’ve got, Pater Familiae, and I dare to suggest that this would be in your interest, as well. I don’t know the details of your plan, and I don’t care, but you certainly realize I know enough to make it advisable for you to desist and think again, do you not?”
“I’m impressed by what you seem to have figured out, but I don’t see your point. So you know. So what? You can’t stop me. Your Angel cannot even see me. I don’t care what you know, or what you think you know, or what you pretend you think you know, or what you want me to think you pretend you think you know. I’ve had enough of these fucking games. I will –“
A door opened behind Glonn, and although he hadn’t realized how wound-up he was, he immediately jumped out of his seat, whirled around – and looked at the Nuntia. The one he had seen dying. The one he had killed. How could …
But wait. Was it really the same person?
He looked closer, and even took a step towards her without thinking about it.
Something was off about her. Something was wrong.
She did not stand as she had before. Nuntia Kerovia Czekhara had been a swaggering, blustering, boastful whore, and her very stance had spoken of her pride. Her feet wide apart, her mouth split in a disdainful grin.
Nothing of that remained. She stood like a lackluster sculpture of herself, without any movement or sentiment in her face or her body.
Her eyes, which seemed strangely empty, were locked on the chain around his neck.
“I am Paladin Vain Tragedy, a projection of the power of Lady Sorrow. You will immediately remove this obstacle or be treated as part of it.”
Profound Distress did not want to see this. On the other hand, neither did she want to sit in her creepy room and wonder about the outcome.
So she had stayed in the hallway with them, and watched as the Second Sword circled around Duncan, trying to gauge his abilities and his style.
There was more than enough room. This whole building seemed to have been designed for giants.
“Look at us. Why this? Why did we do this? Why did we not learn something beautiful, like music, or dancing?”
“A fighter’s movements can be very beautiful, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Duncan agreed, “They can. Until someone gets hurt.”
“Which is the purpose of the whole thing.”
The Second Sword moved as if made out of a liquid. Her steps did not make any sound, and Profound Distress was not even able to watch how her blade changed hands, so fast and fluid was the movement.
Duncan seemed like a clumsy giant compared to her. He just stood there and followed the Second Sword’s dance with cautious but heavy steps.
When she finally attacked, Profound Distress was surprised to see Duncan actually parry. She really had not thought he would be fast enough.
Like a leaf in the wind, the Second Sword retreated without ever coming into any danger from Duncan’s blade.
“You can yield,” she said, “and I might take pity on you, old fool.”
He sighed and nodded.
“Fine. I yield.”
The Second Sword grinned at him. With a shrug, she replied: “Changed my mind.”
And already, she was on him again, their swords met – and … something – what was that?
A cloud of deep red dust exploded from Duncan’s mouth into the Second Sword’s face. The woman shrieked and instinctively tried to shield her eyes with her free hand, but it was too late. She tumbled backwards, but was still able to parry his attack.
Their blades met with a mighty gonging sound, and Profound Distress wondered how such a slender woman could withstand the strength behind Duncan’s strike.
“Coward!” the Second Sword coughed and wheezed. “What kind of a dirty trick is this?”
He moved back, one step, another, while she leaned against the wall, her legs shaking, one hand clawing at her throat, the other still holding her sword in a defensive posture.
“It’s made from a mushroom found in the forests near Dashiem Hill,” he explained, sheathing his own weapon. “Dried and ground into a very fine dust, it can be hidden in the bladder of a bullfrog and blown into your enemy’s face in the right moment. It blinds them, stuns them, takes their breath, and finally kills them.”
The woman’s sword fell clattering to the floor as she sank down the wall she was holding onto.
“Not fair,” she coughed.
“It must be … very dangerous,” Profound Distress mused, caught between consternation, horror, and even some kind of pity. “What if you breathe some of it in yourself?”
“You can develop an immunity, given enough time and patience, and a certain tolerance to pain,” Duncan replied. “And with the right technique, you can limit your own exposure to a merely annoying amount.”
“Still … Rather finicky, isn’t it?”
He shrugged, and coughed a little himself.
“It beats dying.”
“Is there … an antidote? Could you save her?”
He shook his head, genuine sadness in his face as he looked down upon the dying woman, who glared at him with the rawest, most intense hatred Profound Distress had ever seen in an intelligent being.
“As I said,” he growled. “Nothing beautiful about it. ”
“How are we going to explain this to the Custodian?” Profound Distress asked.
“I doubt we need to. She did not seem to care too much about the other one.”
“Here’s to hoping,” she said. “So what now? Is your room any better than this?”
“I do not have a room,” Duncan replied, “But those,” He gestured along the seemingly endless corridor reaching into the distance before them, “Are all empty. It should not be too difficult to find a better one than this.”
Profound Distress shot one last look towards the dead twosome, or should she think of them as three?, frozen in murdering each other before she closed the door with a deep hearty “Thwump”.
“No doubt about that.”
Book group questions:
- Keoni did not like my description of the guy in the Engine and the reptilian beast, What do you think about it?
- There was not a lot of clear responses to my question whether you want to see Duncan fight the Second Sword, but I made it happen anyway. Thoughts?
- Keoni was also doubtful of Glistening Tears‘ speech. You know, black offers made from beyond this world, and so on. How about you? Would you have preferred a more antiquated style?
- Do you think Duncan did anything wrong in killing the Second Sword the way he did?