Thanks for waiting. I hope it’s been worth it.
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.
In the twentieth chapter, Profound Distress awakes and is led to the Custodian’s army and Kimbal and the Paladin arrive at its camp, while Glonn is convinced to become the Creator’s prophet.
Today on Angelic Duties:
“Halt! What is your busi-“
The sentinel’s words drowned in a wet gargle as the Paladin’s left hand literally ripped his throat out while her right drew the battleaxe out of its holster at his belt. Without even breaking her stride, she passed him as he sank to the ground and marched on toward the center of the gigantic army’s camp.
Kimbal followed behind her, turning to look in horror at the dead body as another opponent already attacked, this one not even human, but a startling monster with yellowed tusks protruding from its mouth and long claws from its paws, and again, the Paladin did not even slow down, slashing the axe’s blade through its head. The last enemy at the post retreated a step from her, raising her sword in defense, but the Paladin did not even seem to notice the resistance, driving the sword’s blade so deep into the woman’s shoulder with her own axe that she was nearly chopped in half.
“You can’t really believe you’ll be able to fight your way through the whole camp!” Kimbal exclaimed. “There must be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands!”
“Be they millions,” the Paladin droned in her voice without inflection, marching on through the camp. “Whosoever stands in the way of Heaven’s will shall perish.”
To Kimbal’s surprise, no one else yet seemed to have noticed what fate had befallen their comrades at the sentinel post. Apart from the initial challenge and the sounds of the fight itself, the whole affair had happened almost without sound, the beast possibly not able to do anything but snarl, and the woman too shocked to utter a cry before her death.
“Yes, but still …” Kimbal fell silent, unsure how or even whether to express his disagreement.
Since the Paladin ignored him anyway, he could do nothing but trot after her. Well yes, he could conceivably have turned around and left, and hoped to escape because she was too focused on her principal mission, but after the last time he had disobeyed her, this did not seem a very promising path to choose.
He honestly felt quite sure that he feared her more than this whole damned army.
It did not take many steps until they were challenged again.
“You yonder! Angelic mortal! Immobilize!” a strangely distorted voice called, and when Kimbal followed it to its source, he beheld what took him several heartbeats to interpret correctly.
The thing approaching them appeared to be a bulky contraption of matte steel with bulky spherical joins in its arms and legs. Its right hand was similar to a human one, just enclosed in the same matt steel as the rest of it, while the left arm ended in a coil surrounded by flickering blue lightning
„Halt, and state your purpose!“ the steel thing shouted, and still the Paladin didn’t even deign to slow down.
It answered, though: „I have no dealings with you nor the Empty King. Angelic Power may not be applied outside the Concord, so this projection will not interfere with you unless you hinder its mission.“
„You may not pass if you do not belong to this army,“ the monstrosity intoned, and the blue lightning around its coil-arm flared and crackled. „Halt without delay.“
„This projection’s concern is but with internal judgment in the name of the Concord. None of you shall -“
The blue spark shot out from the coil towards the Paladin with a sharp, piercing bang, inundated her in its ethereal glow and actually brought her down. Unsure whether to be surprised – she had seemed perfectly unstoppable up to now – Kimbal watched her knees buckle under her as she fell onto her outstretched hands, her back arched spastically and a small sound of pain escaping with her breath.
Panting, she knelt there for a while before moaning his name.
„Kimbal! Kimbal, are you there? What happened? Oh, this hurts. Where are you?“
The steel warrior ponderously lifted one of its unwieldy legs, moved it towards her, and put it down unto the trod-down grass with a heavy thump.
When she heard this, she fell over onto her back, her wide eyes darting from Kimbal to the huge iron shape back to Kimbal.
„What is that thing?“ She screamed, „oh Heavens, what is that?“
It took another slow step towards her as she scrambled backwards from it, the blue lightning around its arm crackling threateningly.
Kimbal stood there, frantically trying to find a way to help her beyond his immediate impulse to jump onto the thing’s back and uselessly hammer it with his fists until either he lost the strength to hold on or the thing finally got tired of him and brushed him off like an annoying gnat.
He stared at its steel armour and searched feverishly for weak points, but could not make out any.
„I’m sorry!“ He called out to Katra. „It attacked the Paladin, and … I don’t know what to do. Maybe we can outrun it.“
He jumped towards his wife, grabbing her arms and helping her onto her feet, dragging her with him while the thing continued clonking towards them, getting ever closer. He was just barely able to get her away before the gigantic leg punched a hole into the ground where her arm had been just moments before.
“I’m not going to say I told you so”, she panted as they ran, and he had just opened his mouth to reply when he found himself lying on the ground, his appendages feeling strangely far away and tingling. It was an extremely unpleasant sensation, but not quite pain in the usual sense.
“What in Heaven…?”
“You will not receive another warning,” the Paladin droned, making him wonder for a moment if he had dreamed the brief resurfacing of his wife’s personality. “This projection of Angelic power cannot interfere in matters outside the Concord but will remove any obstacle in the path of its mission.”
“If your mission leads you into this camp, this obstacle will not be removed,” the metal monstrosity answered, and lifted its coil-arm.
But this time, it was too slow. The Paladin saw the attack coming and jumped onto the armor, quite like Kimbal had imagined himself trying. But unlike Kimbal, the Paladin had the strength to exploit this position. She slung Her legs around the steel armor and grabbed the ting’s left arm, the one that ended in the coil of flickering blue light. With a visible effort, she contracted all her muscles, and Kimbal watched open-mouthed as the monstrosity’s arm bent back, screeching, something within its joints snapping and crunching, until the arm was twisted all the way onto the thing’s back.
Its strangely distorted voice uttered a howling scream that was all the more blood-curdling for sounding slightly inhuman.
The Paladin repeated the same process with the thing’s right arm and then continued, letting it lie there, shrieking and sobbing.
“Will not be removed,” She muttered. “Will not be removed, my foot.”
“Katra? Are you still there? Is that you? But how …”
“I don’t … I feel like her hold is weakening. But I’m not completely …” She giggled, a touch of frenzy in the shrillness of the sound. “I don’t think I’m completely here, either.”
He rushed towards her and enclosed her in his arms, trying to calm her, while behind them, the camp started to stir further and people began assembling around the screaming steel sentinel.
“Shhh, my darling, Everything will be –“ He couldn’t bring himself to utter the lie. “Do – do you think we can get out of here?”
“I don’t know, Kimbal.” She was panting, as after heavy exercise, which would not have been surprising, had not the Paladin always been completely oblivious to the strains she inflicted upon her body. But Katra was not the Paladin. Did she now feel the exertion of the fight against the steel behemoth? Confusing, this whole body-changing game.
“Let’s try,” he pleaded. “Let’s try, as long as we still can.”
She looked at him, and smiled, and her smile broke his heart, so affectionate and kind – and miserable.
“How?” she asked. “What do I do? Even if we should manage to outrun them, how can we escape Her?”
“I don’t … but you’re winning, aren’t you? She’s getting weaker!”
“Maybe she is. But still … She’s within me. I can feel her like a steel clamp around my soul. Even if She’s weakening, She is still so unbelievably strong. You probably can’t imagine what it’s like –“
“But we have to try, at least!” he insisted. “What else is there? There is one way we have a chance, and only one.”
Some of the soldiers gathered around the sentinel pointed towards Kimbal and Katra, and a few started approaching them, hesitantly, constantly reassuring themselves that others were following them, but with hands on the hilts of their weapons.
“Katra, come on!” he shouted. “We have to try!”
She looked at him, and again smiled that smile, her lips pressed together, her brow wrinkled, her eyes narrowed.
Some of the soldiers now broke into a trot, and drew their blades.
Her face set, and the smile melted away.
“No,” she said. “I’m sorry, but it’s … it’s no … I can feel Her, Kimbal. I can – Oh … I love you, but – step aside, Kimbal Koment.“
Whatever remnant of spirit had stirred inside him, died in that moment. So he did, and hid behind her, and watched her slaughter them all.
Almost involuntarily, Profound Distress’ hand went towards the bag offered by the Custodian through the bars of Her cage, but at the last moment, she stopped to consider what she was doing, right before Duncan’s hand shot out and gripped her wrist.
“Don’t!” he growled.
The Custodian threw her arms up and rolled her eyes.
“Oh come on!” she called, “What am I gonna do to her? I need her, remember? And even if I didn’t, I’m in a cage here, and on a leash, and I weigh about as much as a dead cat after a few weeks in the summer sun, so what’s the harm in letting her have a little something to make her feel better? You know she could use it!”
Duncan ignored her and instead talked to Profound Distress.
“You know you don’t need it”, he said.
“But that’s just the thing,” she replied. “I know I do. I need it so much, Duncan. That’s the hell of it, you see? Oh don’t look at me like that! All my life I had to bear that disapproving look from you, can you really not find it somewhere in that steel-clad soul of yours to spare me for once, now, at least?”
He looked at her with his pale blue eyes, his expression unfathomable apart from a slight dimple between his brows. He looked at her like that for a long time, and finally shrugged.
“If you need it, you need it,” he said. “But you might want to reconsider needing it right now. She could rip your arm off using only two fingers.”
“Pffffshh!” the Custodian replied, spraying spittle through the cage’s bars. “Why would I want to?” she asked. “
“No idea,” Duncan growled.
The Custodian fell silent when they noticed the commotion in the camp behind them. Profound Distress turned to follow Her gaze and saw a large knot of soldiers and monsters and whatever else might have made up the army moving toward them, some of them walking backwards, all of them obviously tense, screams and fighting sounds emanating from among them.
“Oh my,” the Custodian purred, “I feel flattered. They actually bothered to attend my little party, even though they are so powerful and … and …” A strange tremble came into Her voice, and for a second or two, even without looking at her, Profound Distress felt the Custodians mask of childish flippancy crack and slip. “… so fucking detached.” The next words were again spoken in the girlish voice She always used. “Look! I bet that’s a real Paladin in there, don’t you think? I bet it is. I’ve never actually seen one. Do you think she’ll make it to the wagon? Do you? Oh, I would so love to meet her!”
Besides Profound Distress, Duncan shifted to better see, but made a dissatisfied grunt, so she surmised he’d failed.
“A Paladin,” she murmured, dumbfounded. “Fuck.”
For a time that seemed very long to her but probably wasn’t, the movement, the fighting, the screams and the dying continued until the Custodian finally raised one small hand and called out in her silver-bell voice:
“Yield! Let Her pass!”
The battle faded, a corridor opened in the crowd, and out marched a woman covered in gore holding a sword in her right hand and a huge axe in her left, handling them as if they had no weight at all. She appeared to walk with a slight limp, and something else about her movements seemed strange, but Profound Distress could not quite put her finger on what it was.
Behind her trotted –
Profound Distress stumbled backwards, and she was too stunned to even marvel at Duncan’s presence of mind when he lightly held her back from touching the bars and thus getting too close to the Custodian.
“Oh dear Heaven … Is … It can’t … But he … Oh Heaven what happened to his …?”
But it obviously was Kimbal. She knew him too well to honestly doubt his identity. He had changed. His posture was different, his whole demeanor more cowed, his head hanging low, he seemed a lot smaller than the last time she’d seen him.
And of course there was the other thing.
The gaping wound right there in this face.
It seemed so very gruesome from a distance, her morbid mind making up details she could not possibly make out, but something told her it would look no less horrible up close, though maybe in a different way.
What had happened to him?
Behind Profound Distress, the Custodian whooped and clapped.
“Oh look, it really is a Paladin. How very quaint, don’t you think?”
Profound Distress was still staring at Kimbal, conflicting emotions creating a sickening turmoil inside her and making her dizzy while she tried to figure out what was going on, and what the fuck her place in it all might be. The impulse to flee warred with the impulse to run toward him, but for now, she just stood there, frozen, watching it all in horrified fascination.
“Duncan, what are you doing?” she asked when he stepped in front of her, blocking her view.
“This thing,” he growled, “has not come to destroy the army, or the Empty King, or even his Custodian.”
“Not? Then it does a very good job pretending, don’t you think?”
“Cerya, It has come for you.”
“Oh,” she said, and again: “Oh. Of course.”
Without even thinking about it, she started looking around, searching for a hiding place or a way of escape, feeling slightly ashamed of herself for abandoning Kimbal, but then, he did not seem in any immediate danger, did he?
She herself, on the other hand, was. Very much so.
She had studied in the Hermitage of II Lacrimosa, and she knew about Paladins. She obviously had no clue about the Custodian’s power, but she felt pretty sure no one else would be able to stop it, and the Custodian did not seem very much inclined to try.
On the other hand, the thing could not rely on Angelic power out here, or at least as much as she knew in this world where nothing seemed to make sense any more. So that meant it could be stopped. Probably. Somehow.
But Profound Distress would certainly not be the one to do it. She was no fighter, no creature of magical power. She was nothing. So all she could do was stand behind Duncan and try her best to hold on to her courage and not run away and cower behind some rock like a frightened –
“Oh fuck …”
The Paladin had now reached the huge wagon, Kimbal still closely in tow behind her, and finally, this close, beneath all the blood and dirt and things Profound Distress did not even dare think about, she recognized Her face.
“Oh Heaven, Duncan, do you see?” she breathed. “It’s his wife! Katra! How could this … How can he … Oh the poor …”
“Shh!” Duncan hissed. “I need to concentrate. You don’t want me distracted now. And you don’t want me to think about the person inside.”
With a seemingly effortless leap, the Paladin jumped up to them, onto the platform before the cage, to some whistling and applause from the Custodian.
“Neat!” the little girl exclaimed.
Profound Distress could now see that the front third of the Paladin’s left foot was missing, blood seeping out of her cut-open shoe, there were some deep gashes in her arms and legs, and no way to know how many smaller injuries were obscured by her enemy’s bodily remains smeared generously over her body.
“Step aside, Duncan Klaut,” She said.
“Fuck,” she repeated, pulling her fingers through her hair and trying not to break down, not to despair about the sheer horror of it all.
“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 interfere with your life in any way, but my mission will not be obstructed. Remove yourself from my path, or you shall be removed.”
The crowd was now approaching the cage, and more and more soldiers as well as some of the strange monsters gathered around to watch the spectacle.
Duncan did not move.
Until he did. So quickly that Profound Distress uttered a loud gasp and jumped backwards.
His head jabbed against her face in a motion so fast the she could only perceive it for certain by the blood spurting from the Paladin’s nose, and his sword was suddenly out of its hilt and in Her shoulder.
Her reaction was, in a way, exactly what Profound Distress would have expected from a Paladin, and still it felt unreal to actually watch a human being have her nose broken and her shoulder pierced by a blade and not move a muscle in her face but just grab the blade in one hand and rip it out, cutting through her own flesh, but also wrangling it from his grip.
Duncan stepped back and pulled a dagger from somewhere, waiting for the Paladin’s next move while, belatedly, Profound Distress felt the bars of the cage pressing against her back and felt her entire body grow cold while drops of sweat began to form on her brow.
She just flexed her muscles to get away when she felt a small hand wrapping around her index finger, and heard a bright voice murmuring into her ear:
Reading group questions
- keoni is unsure whether the steel sentinel should scream. She had thought of it as a machine and this reaction felt wrong to her. How about you?
- I personally like the figure of speech „my foot“, but keoni found it slightlyconfusing in this context: “Will not be removed, my foot.” How about you?
- There is a slight glitch in continuity here, which you probably didn’t notice because of the loooooooooooooooooooong gaps between chapters, but just in case: Did anyone? If you did, don’t worry. It’s lazy writing here, but I will fix it in the final version of the story.
- „On the other hand, the thing could not rely on Angelic power out here, or at least as much as she knew in this world where nothing seemed to make sense any more. So that meant it could be stopped. Probably. Somehow.“ This explanation seems pertinent to me. On the other hand, I feel it might obstruct the narrative’s flow and take out tension. What do you think?