I have a new chapter for you.
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.
In the seventeenth chapter, Profound Distress is shown to her room, Glonn meets Paladine Vain Tragedy, and Duncan fights the Custodian’s Second Sword.
In the eighteenth chapter, Kimbal gets to talk to his wife, possibly for the last time, and we remember when Cerya told Kimbal she did not want him any more.
Today on Angelic Duties:
“What … But … You’re dead!”
“She’s a Paladin.”
“Your lack of erudition in the workings of Heaven is deplorable, Pater Familiae. Paladins are human projections of the Will of Heaven. They cannot employ the Abstracta because they are human, and are thus able to go where Angelic Power may not reach. Which means, should you have failed to grasp it, that for instance they are not confused by the trinket around your neck.”
Glonn’s hand involuntarily went to the vial of Blood. He looked at the woman he’d thought was dead, and at the old Cleric, and forced a laugh, regretting the pathetic attempt the moment the air left his mouth.
“What … What are you saying, old man? Are you trying to fool me? Well forget about that, because … because …”
“Glonn Teneract”, said the dead woman, “Kneel before me and confess your subversion.”
He rose from his seat and turned completely towards her, his gaze flickering between the Abbot and her.
“What if … how do I know you really are … anything special?” he asked. “You could just as well be some dressed-up Outside slut pretending to act on Lady Sorrow’s –“
“Listen,” the Abbott interrupted him in a gentle tone of voice. “Pater Familiae, please. Listen carefully. Think of me as the velvet glove. The Angels’ outstretched hand, open, reaching for you. You can accept the offer held in this hand, and appreciate its generosity. Or you can shove the open hand aside, and wait for Heaven’s hooked talons to tear you apart.” After a pause, he added: “You can obviously think of her,” nodding in the general direction of the dead woman, “As Heaven’s hooked talons. Do you catch my meaning, Pater Familiae?”
Glonn took a deep breath. He squared his shoulders. He looked into the old man’s eyes.
“Why certainly. And I just hate to be bullied, so you two can take Heaven’s hooked talons and scratch yourselves where the sun never shines. I have nothing to confess!”
Yes. He was scared, obviously. He did not know the first thing about Paladins, but even he could not doubt that something inhuman was inhabiting the Nuntia’s body. Her movements were distinctively unnatural, her voice was the exact same matter-of-fact detached tone that did not demand but … not even expect but simply recognize the obedience following the words with the same certainty he recognized that a dropped stone dropped would necessarily fall to the ground.
Also, she was dead. He had killed her. Or Duncan had. Glonn had seen her die, and he knew Duncan would never dispose of someone without making absolutely sure that the person in question was finished once and for all, in due finality.
Actually, he marveled the Nuntia still had her head.
Or could it be that Duncan had cut it off, but Lady Sorrow’s power, or whatever happened to Paladins, had reattached it?
Inevitably, he had spent some time pondering what limits there were to the Angel’s power.
The Custodian had not been very forthcoming on the details, only telling them that the Blood confused the Angels by diverting their perception, by bending their senses around the area afflicted with its presence, but she had never revealed any other weaknesses or restrictions which could be used to check the cursed monsters.
And confound it, he really didn’t know the first thing about their Paladins.
So there was not much but stubborn self-importance between his defiant stance and sniveling, submissive capitulation when the Abbot looked at him with a mixture of pity, affront and annoyance, and the Paladin – if she was that – looked with no expression at all, her face an empty mask as she walked towards him.
Something was odd about her walk. Very odd. She reminded him of that time when that troupe of artists had visited the House and the puppeteer had allowed little Glonn to try his marionettes. Glonn had been very disappointed how their lifelike movements suddenly became stiff and unrealistic when he himself directed them. The Paladin moved like that.
Again, he took hold of the vial around his neck, as he involuntarily retreated from her until his back touched a wall.
“You can’t touch me!” he said. “I’m Pater Familiae of House Teneract, and I’m protected by the Blood of the One God!”
He put as much conviction and pomp into the two sentences as he could manage, but still they did not seem to impress the Paladin at all.
“Kneel before me, Glonn Teneract,” she droned.
Glonn looked into her cold, dead eyes, and at her cold, inert face and decided to act before his knees buckled and he lost what little dignity he still had.
He closed his fingers firmly around the little glass vial and lunged at her. Without any visible effort, she caught his fist in hers, and she pressed. The vial broke, the shards cutting into his flesh, and the liquid inside oozing out, slowly, thickly, almost not a liquid. Just when Glonn realized what was happening, and that the awful stuff was touching his skin, and more than that –
It just did.
With a sort of sound without a sound, the world held its breath.
Abbot Glistening Tears was frozen in frowning worriedly at Glonn, his hand raised in the beginning of some sort of warding gesture, probably, while the Paladin stood in an impossible position, balance-wise, stooped slightly forward, her left leg hovering just above the ground, and even the flames of the chandelier had ceased their flickering and held still, as in a painting.
And before him stood
A blade of grass
As Glonn’s mind reeled away from the irresoluble perception assaulting it, the vision in front of him gradually coalesced into a tall, but entirely possible slender man in a shining white toga, his chocolatey brown curls shimmering in a light for which Glonn could find no other source imaginable but his bright and inviting smile.
“You are a lucky man, Glonn Teneract,” the vision spoke in a resounding and rich, yet calm and tender voice.
Glonn considered him. He swallowed.
“And who may you be?” he asked.
The vision’s smile turned a little lopsided before it replied, after brief consideration: “I suppose we might call me an aspect of the Creator, and dear Glonn, I am happy to tell you the He has chosen you to fulfill a great work for him, and all of mankind!”
Cerya clutched her arms around her body and shivered.
Someone was tapping on her shoulder. Why was someone tapping on her shoulder?
And it was cold. Why in all Heaven’s name was it so cold? And damp, as well. And … smelly? What was the trickling, dripping noise, and where were her blankets, and her pillows, and… ?
“Hey, you, get up! You can’t sleep here! Get up and – oh no, for goodness’ sake this can’t be true please tell me …”
Whatever could Kimbal be doing here? And why on earth was he prodding her … with his boot?
She blinked up at him, into his horrified, unbelieving face, and noticed the buildings behind and the cloudy grey sky above him.
Why was she outside? Where was she? What had…
“Waddappend?” she mumbled, and creased her forehead when she heard her own voice. Was that really her voice? She sounded sick and weak and hardly comprehensible.
Come to think of it, she didn’t feel too good, either.
“Well. I certainly don’t know,” Kimbal pressed through gritted teeth, “But I’ll take a wild guess and say you got wasted and couldn’t find your way home, or maybe one of your caring friends decided to play a prank on you?”
“Wadda … But … wheremy?” she stammered, trying to comb her fingers through her hair, but finding it hopelessly tangled up and getting stuck.
She felt a vague sense of unease at Kimbal seeing her like this, but the whole of the situation had not yet penetrated the haze of her remaining inebriation.
Kimbal pointed behind himself with his right thumb.
“You’re a few hundred steps away from Pasem’s house. You either didn’t make it very far, or almost got there, depending on where you started.” He looked at her and shook his head. “Damn, Cerya, is this really what you want?” he asked. “Is this really how you want your life to be? Is this fun for you? How long do you think you can keep it up?”
“Y’know f’k you an’ y’r sancin-, santo-, sampti- … sa- you … Fuck you, Kimbal!” she finally hissed, and then spoiled any effect it might have had by asking: “C’nyou takme home?”, and then, after a few heartbeats, adding: “I’ll pay.”
“Yes, Cerya, sure, because that’s what it takes for me to help you. Money. Of course. Glad we got that sorted out so I can finally stop disappointing you whenever you count on me – oh, you know what, Cerya? Fuck you. And fuck your money. I will help you home, I will put you at the doors of House Teneract, and that will be it, and I’ll leave, and hope I’ll never see you again.” Was there a tear glistening in the corner of his right eye or was she imagining things? “And to think what I –“ he faltered. “To think that I – what I … I thought you … we could … Oh and here I – fuck you, Cerya! Let me help you get up so we can get this over with! Come on!”
He knelt beside her and took her arms, and strangely, when he touched her, he felt very cold. His hands were like metal or stone upon her skin, and when he nestled closer to her, lay down beside her and snuggled up to her, it felt like lying with –
Profound Distress jolted upright with an indecisive cry.
What was –
There was someone –
Her second scream was a lot more forceful when she realized that, yes, indeed, she had not dreamed that part, there was indeed someone very cold with her in her bed, clinging to her.
She tried to jump out, but her unwelcome bedmate held her in a vice grip, and although he or she appeared to be rather small, his or her strength was impressive.
“Stay!” a high-pitched girlish voice begged. “Please stay, I’m so lonely. She can’t hurt you, you know? She sleeps at night.”
Profound Distress did her best to fight down her panic and revulsion, but her laboured breathing and shivering betrayed her emotions, though she remained in the bed, sitting half-upright.
“What – who – you – are you … the Custodian?” she asked, realizing that she recognized the voice.
“The monster sleeps at night,” the child repeated. “I guess it thinks I’m dead, but I’m still here. I’m always here, listening, watching, trying to find a way out of its wicked mind, but I can’t. I’m good. It’s the monster doing all these terrible things. It’s not me. It doesn’t know I’m still here. It doesn’t know I’m not bound by the chain the way it is.”
Profound Distress calmed down a little while listening to the girl blabbering on. She instinctively wanted to believe her, but she wasn’t even sure she understood properly.
“What are you telling me? So you are the Custodian, but someone else is controlling you?”
“The monster is really mean,” the child said solemnly, as if explaining something of great importance. “Can you hold me for a while until it comes back and I have to return to the circle? Please? I’m so lonely here, and I have to hide from the monster all the time.”
“What kind of a monster is she?” Profound Distress asked, still unsure whether this might be some new game or ploy by the strange creature.
It had seemed pretty clear to her that the Custodian was indeed bound within the circle by the chain and collar around her neck, so her being here in her bed – she cringed involuntarily – might point towards the truth of the child’s claims, but on the other hand, it might also just point towards the Custodian trying to deceive her from the beginning. Not that she could imagine any point to such a ploy because why deceive a prisoner who was completely in her power? But then, the Custodian’s actions and words had never made a lot of sense to her to begin with.
The creature did sincerely seem to need Profound Distress’ cooperation, so maybe this was some attempt at gaining her trust in a new way. A strange attempt, for sure, but then strange had been the theme of her life since that day at the cliff when Lady Sorrow started talking to her.
She felt the little body beside her convulse.
“Did you think of something the monster doesn’t like?” the girlish voice asked “I felt her stir. Please, you mustn’t do that. It’s so dreadful when she ousts me.”
“So she can do that? Because you said she sleeps at night.”
“The monster is very strong, and she can do things. She has to rest sometime, though.”
“How long has she been … inside you?”
“I can’t remember,” the girl whispered. “It’s been very long, though. Everybody is dead now.”
So she didn’t age. Like the Clerics. Like Profound Distress herself. Or would she? Come to think of it, she was Outside now. Was Lady Sorrow still protecting her?
The girl shuddered again.
“What are you thinking of?” she asked, her voice a little petulant now. “Please stop. She mustn’t awake now. It hurts. It hurts so much. Please don’t stir her awake. Can’t we be friends? I don’t have any. There’s no one here. Your guard killed Likhava today, yes? I liked her. She was nice to me, sometimes.”
There was so much longing and sadness in the little girl’s voice that Profound Distress actually felt tears welling up in her eyes, and her throat close.
Was she being manipulated? If yes, she was in danger of falling for the trap in a very undignified and embarrassing way. If not, she was in danger of treating a lonely sad young girl very unkindly.
“I didn’t ask him to”, she replied, her voice a little brittle with emotion, and stopped, when she realized she’d meant to say something along the lines of “He didn’t want it, either. She forced a duel upon him.” and how that might sound to a child mourning the loss of the closes thing she’d had to a friend for years, decades, who knew how long? Instead she said: “We did not want to kill her, and I’m really sorry about it,” and in the spur of the moment sank back into her bed and hugged the girl.
After all, what did it matter?
If she was being duped, then at least she had only been duped into doing the decent, human thing, and if not, then she was actually doing the only decent, human thing to do.
So she hugged the sad, cold girl, and the girl hugged her back, and she was really fiercely cold, though Profound Distress felt as if her body was slowly warming up where they touched.
“Thank you,” the girl whispered.
“What’s your name?” Profound Distress asked.
She had a suspicion that it was not Srew.
“No… Oh no no no!” The little girl was panting. “No! You … What did you do?” she bawled reproachfully, disentangling herself from Profound Distress’ embrace. “She’s coming now. She’s rising. I have to leave. Did you call her? Oh it hurts. It hurts, why did you…?”
She was clambering out of the bed, tumbling towards the half-open door.
Profound Distress tried to follow, worried, but the girl screamed at her.
“Don’t come with me! The monster is dangerous! Stay here!”
“Don’t trust her!” the girl warned as she patted on naked feet towards the hall. “Never trust her! She can play nice, but she hates you. She hates everyone. The monster is cruel and mad and so very hateful. Don’t help her, okay? Don’t accept whatever she offers! Never help …”
And she was gone.
Profound Distress looked after her, through the deeper darkness of the open door, until she fell asleep again.
In the morning, she wondered if it had all been a dream.
Book group questions
- Did you buy Kimbal’s stubbornness towards the Paladin? I think it fits, but I have my doubts how you see this.
- How do you interpret the many different things Glonn sees before he perceives the aspect of the Creator as a man in a toga?
- What did you think of the girl’s chatter in the second scene?
- The sentence „It just did.“ after time stops for everyone except Glonn is a little silly, but I kind of like it there. How about you?