Just for future reference: Do you like me to go on apologizing for the long delays, or is this about as embarrassing to you as it is to me, and we’d all rather just pretend nothing’s wrong?
And just for your possibly welcome reassurance: This current ebb of activity here is not because something’s wrong. I’m fine, just otherwise occupied, sometimes even pleasantly so, and the final chapters are always the most difficult because I can no longer just fantasize away but need to pull the threads together and lead them all to a more or less satisfactory conclusion, which is, as you might have noticed, not so much my strong suit.
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.
In the nineteenth chapter, Glonn meets a messenger of the Creator, and Cerya sees another side of the Custodian, or at least of the body she is currently occupying. Or he. Or it. You know what I mean.
Today on Angelic Duties:
In the morning, Profound Distress awoke in a huge cold bed in a huge cold room in this huge cold palace, and it took her quite a long time to remember where she was, and what had brought her here, or more to the point: who.
When she remembered, she felt even more unhappy about her situation – and damn, this bed was cold, how had that happened? It was not like the covers weren’t heavy enough. Maybe that was the problem. They were so heavy – and slightly damp, unfortunately – that no amount of body heat could ever hope to warm them up sufficiently.
Oh, how she wanted some Dust. Or some liquor. Anything, really, to blurr the harsh edges of reality even a little. Or, whom was she kidding, make that a lot. As much as possible. Reality could definitely need lots and lots of blurring right now.
Why again had she not accepted the bag of Dust the Custodian had offered her?
Was the offer still standing, perhaps?
She sat up and undecidedly looked around the huge room for a while. With daylight shining through the filthy cracked windows, it did not look as scary as it had at night, and the lack of dead monsters’ remains was also a definite plus.
But still, it was a disgusting place. There were layers upon layers of dust and dead spiders everywhere, on cabinets, carpets and chairs, there were two rather large birds’ nests, one in the broken chandelier which hung askance from the ceiling, a small number of crystal tears glittering in the dust beneath it, the other in a gusset where the far wall met the ceiling. She did not want to know what she might find, were she to look into those nests. Come to think of it, she had no interest in finding out any more about her surroundings, not even or especially not about the bed she had crawled into last night, exhausted and confused and unable to see exactly what else was in there with her.
At least she had kept on all of her clothes. They were wrinkled and crumpled up anyway from lying in the coffin Duncan had put her in.
So she pulled her blanket aside while pointedly looking somewhere else, not seeing what was revealed beneath, crawled out of the huge cold bed and tip-toed through the dust and grime covering the floor towards the hallway.
Thankfully, she found Duncan already waiting for her beside the door. For a few moments, she wondered if he had stood there all night, but then decided against sympathy for the man who had dragged her here in a tight wooden box.
She turned right and stopped when Duncan held up a hand.
“Not that way,” he said. “This way.”
Profound Distress stood confused, looking in both directions of the empty hallway.
“I could have sworn we came from there last night!” she finally proclaimed.
“We did,” Duncan agreed. “But the Custodian is going out to war.”
“You mean she’s left that Circle?” Profound Distress asked, remembering the events in her bedroom, wondering how alarmed she should be.
“More or less.”
“The Empty King is preparing for battle. His dominion has been gathering an army for quite some time, and today, after your arrival, it is going to march.”
“And the Custodian is marching with it?”
“They both are.”
“Well”, she muttered, “At least I’ll have stories to tell. Lead the way, please.”
They had removed the large cable from the top of the glass pillar and encased the pillar in some kind of cage standing on the back of a huge wagon pulled by a team of eight tremendous beasts which vaguely resembled oxen but were much larger, naked, and apparently a lot less docile, because they were constantly fidgeting and straining in their harness, snorting and pawing the ground.
Within the cage, the Custodian was still collared to the Empty King’s glass pillar, but her leash would have allowed her much more leeway than even this gigantic cart could have accommodated.
“How on earth did they manage this?” Profound Distress asked. “She was all the way up there in that tower, wasn’t she?”
“There are some ingenious people Outside,” Duncan answered. “Also, they have magic. Not much is impossible, if the Empty King’s will favours it.”
“Is there still someone in there, do you think? Can he do things? Or is he just a husk, and the Custodian the real ruler?”
The old man shrugged.
“Does it matter? This land is ruled by a powerful, ruthless, howling mad magician. What difference the shape?”
He had a point, Profound Distress decided. Sure, it might make a difference if there were two powerful, ruthless, howling mad magicians, but she resolved to stop asking questions for now. Instead, she took in the view as they strode towards the wagon, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what was going on. Failing, she rather suspected.
The wagon stood in a courtyard at the foot of the tower where she had first met the Custodian, or the Empty King, if either of them was real, in any meaningful sense of … she tried not to think too deeply about it, consoling herself with Duncan’s idea that it probably didn’t matter.
A courtyard which might well have fit the capital Iustok in its entirety. At the foot of a tower higher than any structure, human or natural, Profound Distress had ever seen.
A courtyard full of monsters. And people. And people masquerading as monsters. And, quite possibly, the other way round as well.
She saw those massive armors strutting around, like the one in the other bedroom which had fought against the reptile monster, who knew what for. Were there men and women in these, as well?
She saw people in servants’ liveries dismembering tents and packing supplies, saddling creatures which resembled bears more than horses, and evading more or less humanoid beings with scales instead of skin, fangs instead of teeth, talons instead of fingers, and in some cases wings instead of arms, or strange antennae-like protrusions instead of eyes.
She found it impossible to even try and estimate the number of creatures inhabiting the area, but was convinced without a doubt that she had never seen so many of anything in one place.
However many of them there were, and however malformed and monstrous and huge they might be, all of the creatures avoided the vicinity of the Empty King’s glass pillar, and the Custodian’s cage, so Profound Distress and Duncan had no trouble approaching them.
The only difficult thing was getting up onto the gigantic wagon. The closer they got, the larger it loomed in front of and above them, and the clearer it became that Profound Distress would not even be able to reach the platform above its steel-bonded wheels if Duncan gave her a leg-up.
Would she have to climb up the spokes?
“There is a ladder on the other side,” Duncan explained, and led her round the wagon, carefully keeping his distance from the restless beasts in front of it, and they found and climbed up the ladder.
When she noticed them, the Custodian ran up to the bars of her cage and griped them in her tiny fingers, pressing her face between two bars as far as it would go, grinning broadly.
“Hello!” she exclaimed, “So good to see you again! It can be terribly lonely up here, you know? I’m so looking forward to you opening that Boundary and making everything alright again.”
Profound Distress looked down at her undecidedly.
“Can you see the future?” she asked the little girl.
“Not like your Angels, I can’t. But …” She closed her eyes, laid back her head and spread her arms a little. “… you don’t need to be a prophet, do you? You can feel it in the very ground, in every drop of rain and each bird call and every single damn mote of dust, can’t you?”
A smile spread across her face.
“There’s a storm coming. Can you hear the screams? Can you see the blood? The suffering? The pain, the hatred, can’t you just feel the tides of gore and violence and death roaring towards us?”
She laughed, high and loud and clear, like a bird, and just the slightest bit shrill.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
“What is she trying to accomplish?” Profound Distress asked Duncan. “Does she want me to oppose her?”
The Custodian laughed again.
“She might”, Duncan answered after a slight pause for thought. “Then again, she might just be carelessly honest. The mighty often are, in my experience. No way to know, but you should not oppose her in any case.”
“So you think I should do as she says?”
“I would like you to, because I don’t want to see you suffer unnecessarily. And I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Why … Duncan, would you? Really?”
“If I refuse, she will order someone else. Someone who might even enjoy it. Which would be bad for you.”
Profound Distress looked from the somber Duncan to the beaming Custodian and back. And then, again, at the Custodian.
“What exactly do you expect of me?”
“It’s very simple: Open the Boundary”, the little girl replied.
“What if I don’t?”
The Custodian rolled her eyes.
“What do you think?” she asked. “I’ll ask you to join us on our journey towards the Concord, listen and watch, and make up your mind about what you think is best. Why, whatever do you take me for? By the way, I’ve brought your present. You left it behind yesterday, but don’t worry, I’m not offended. It’s all quite a lot to take in, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t be a little out of sorts in your place. So here you go.”
And she held out the little silken bag.
“I’m still here, Kimbal;” the Paladin said. “I feel … strange, but I’m still here. I love you. I miss you. I’d like to punch you, but it’s too late for that now.”
Kimbal stared at her and could not speak.
It was unbearable.
It was this agonizing dissonance between the two souls in this one body. Just when he had come close to accepting the idea that his wife was gone and nothing inhabited her but the unhuman single-minded projection of Lady Sorrow’s power, Katra showed up and spoke to him and reminded him of how much he used to worship this person, and just when he started to feel hope and closeness to her again, she vanished behind the cold façade of Deep Sadness.
“I’m sorry”, he finally croaked.
“Don’t be. I don’t need you to be sorry, our children don’t need you to be sorry. We just need you to –“
“Do you know anything about Her?” he interrupted his wife. “Any weaknesses? Her goals? What she needs me for, or something I could do?”
“I can … sense Her,” Katra replied. “But I can’t tell anything like distinctive thoughts or facts about Her. She is more like … like … She … Oh Kimbal, I’m sorry, I think Rise, Kimbal Koment, to continue our journey.”
He stared at her, for a few seconds unable to accept that it had happened again, before finally closing his eyes, nodding, and getting up.
His left eyesocket was still aching. It was not very bad, just a distracting, dull, throbbing pain, not unlike a persistent headache. Nothing compared to the lightning bolt of sheer agony when the Paladin had ripped the eye out and declared that this was his last warning before throwing it into the dust.
Not that Kimbal had been able to clearly perceive what happened after, because he had been a heap on the ground, screaming, crying, sobbing, begging unintelligibly, not even himself knowing exactly for what, mostly for Katra’s return, but also for an end. Yes, that, too. He still wasn’t ready to wish for his own death, as such, but he would certainly welcome an end to this relentless chain of despair, humiliation, grief and hurt. And he would be quite willing to accept death as a way out, if no other should present itself.
Kimbal couldn’t remember how he had brought himself to finally get up and do the Paladin’s bidding, but he must have, because otherwise, the dread thing would have killed him. Maybe it had shown some patience, realizing that he was actually unable to comply right now, and that more punishment would not help, but he honestly could not remember the time after Deep Sadness had taken his eye.
Still, he had learned from it. He did not like it, or more precisely: He did not like himself for it, but he had learned to obey, without hesitation, and without any more senseless attempts and showing defiance.
Kimbal was unsure how much of this was just cowardice, but he honestly felt that there was no reason to keep much of his dignity about himself, because there was no one watching. The Paladin did not appreciate it. It had no sense for any human emotion, and there was no hope of winning respect from it, or making it doubt its mission.
The only other person who might get something out of seeing him disobey was himself, and since he had lost his eye, and wailed and whined about it like a kicked dog, he had exhausted any respect for himself he might have had left, so there was nothing to lose there, either.
So when the Paladin answered “This way” in its cold and empty voice, and climbed upon the cart, Kimbal followed, quickly, and sat beside it, like a good dog, and hoped he would not give offence.
His children needed him, he reminded himself. That was why he must not die, why he must not risk the Paladin finally deciding he had outlived his usefulness. He was not a coward. He was not … Ah, he thought with a wry smile.
So it seemed, there was still some self-respect left. Or at least the wish for it, which was kind of the same thing, wasn’t it?
“What do you even need me for?” he was almost surprised to hear himself ask.
“You are this vessel’s guide to the human world, and a link to the apostate Cleric. As such, Lady Sorrow deemed the nuisance you might pose negligible.”
Kimbal’s wry smile grew a fraction.
So She thought he might pose some kind of nuisance. If that was no reason for a small remainder of confidence, he did not know what was.
He sat beside the Paladin and did his best not to break down crying for the rest of the voyage. When he finally saw the army they were headed for, Kimbal literally felt off-balance for a few seconds, and had to hold on to the cart in order to keep from falling off. That is, after the long time it took him to recognize what it was he was seeing.
“So then, what kind of great work are we talking about here?” Glonn asked. “I’ve never been prone towards doing great works for others, or at all, for that matter.”
“You will contribute to the greater glory of the almighty Creator,” the vision before him replied.
“For the Creator made the world by thinking and speaking it into being from the Abstracta of his mind. And he populated it with birds and plants and fish and all the animals, and finally he chose to create man, and found that man was jealous and petty, and so he chose to create a guardian, to watch over man, and turned his attention away to rest from his work.
But to his chagrin, the Creator discovered that the guardian he had made had turned jealous and petty himself, and he envied the Creator’s power and wisdom, and he misused the creator’s love and trust to gain dominion over Creation itself. The treacherous guardian had chained the sleeping Creator, and although the all-powerful being would have been able to break the chains with ease, the power unleashed in this would have shattered the world and destroyed all the creatures he had so lovingly formed. Thus, he limited himself to sending out Angels to protect the world from the first guardian’s festering power, and the Angels set up the Concord and kept the peace amongst its population. So it has been for many Millennia, until you brought the Creator’s Blood to this place, and opened a door into the world from his prison. Now it is your privilege to free the Creator and restore his loving rule unto the world, Glonn Teneract. Will you rise to this task?”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Glonn replied. “If the Angels are on your side, how come you act now, right when Lady Sorrow has been blocked, and how come you’re asking me instead of that impressive holy warrior over yonder?”
He nodded at the frozen Paladin.
The apparition took his challenge in stride. “The Angels are very limited creatures,” it explained. “They were created for the simple purpose of protecting the Creator’s flock from the treacherous guardian. It could be no other way because the Creator cannot unleash his full power in this world, lest he break it.”
“So that’s twice he made guardians for his precious creation, and twice they turned against him, and twice he doesn’t know how to subdue them without help. Am I counting correctly?”
Again, the apparition did not seem the least bit perturbed by Glonn’s insolence. “You lack true understanding, but it is pointless to squabble about details before you have been initiated into service of the Creator.”
Glonn looked at the strange man, and considered.
Apparently, there was a third player in the game, not just the Angels and the Empty King’s Custodian, but also some other supreme being who claimed authority over the world and expected Glonn to do its bidding.
Or was there?
Could this be some kind of trick one of the other contestants was playing on him? But who, and why?
The Angels, he immediately rejected. Glonn did not know a lot about them, but he did know that they did not play games. He had never even heard of an Angel lying to or otherwise deceiving anyone, and this apparition did not resemble any tool an Angel might conceive of to further Its goals.
Which left the Custodian, who even Glonn knew loved nothing as much as playing games and might very well enjoy hiding behind different faces, maybe even just for the fun of it. So the simple fact that he couldn’t see what She might have to gain by this charade wasn’t a valid argument, but then, there was another fact of which he was rather certain: She had no power here.
The Custodian could not act inside the Concord, or at least not from Outside.
Or could she?
After all, he was here to neutralize Lady Sorrow’s influence on this part of the Concord. Maybe he had succeeded and won more than he’d bargained for.
Or maybe not, and this thing spoke truth.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked. “Why should I help you? I have my own plans.”
“Again, you fail to understand”, the apparition replied. “All you might gain will be for naught as soon as the old guardian achieves its victory. The Creator is the only way, for what good is all the power and wealth in a burning world?”
“What good is an unhurt world without power and wealth? If you plan to make a deal with me, tell me what I’m supposed to agree to!”
“You will be a Cleric of the Creator. Rest assured, Glonn Teneract, you will receive power, such that wealth will never be a consideration to you.”
Glonn looked at the apparition.
“How do I know this?”
The apparition spread out its arms and smiled.
“The truth of the Creator is all around you. Look at the beauty in the world. Look at the majestic sky, listen to the singing of the birds, behold the joy of two fox pups playing with each other. Look at the trees.”
Glonn regarded his opposite with one raised eyebrow.
“Also, you have no choice,” the apparition added with a disgustingly gracious smile. “As soon as I leave, the Paladin will kill you. I can do that, if you insist.”
“You know,” Glonn said, “I just realized you do have a point, and the majestic sky certainly makes for an impressive argument, I have to admit, so … what exactly would I have to do?”
Book group questions
- When I write about the courtyard, I use a lot of ellipsis, like „A courtyard full of monsters. And people. And people masquerading as monsters. And, quite possibly, the other way round as well.“ What do you think of that?
- Talking about the courtyard: How did the monster descriptions work for you?
- How does Kimbal come across in his scene? Did you find him too self-pitying?
- Did you think Glonn gave in too readily? I could have drawn this out more but decided against it.