So I lied.
This is not the final chapter. But the next one will be more of an epilogue, I guess, so on the other hand, maybe I didn’t quite lie.
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.
In the twenty-first chapter, Kimbal and the Paladin reach Profound Distress, and so does the Custodian.
In the twenty-second chapter, Glonn comes into his power, the Paladin kills Duncan and Kimbal, but also dies herself, and Jamo visits Jakta.
Today on Angelic Duties:
The gigantic cart rumbled and crashed through the landscape, surrounded by the Empty King’s bizarre army of monsters and humans, twigs and branches and trunks alike crunching and breaking like old bones under its steel-girdled wheels.
Profound Distress watched the strange oxen-like creatures pulling the wagon. There was no one there to direct them, but still they seemed to know where they were supposed to take the Empty King and his Custodian, when they were to stop, and how fast to go without visible external influence. Sometimes one of them would shove its horns or snap its jaws in another’s direction, or at some passers-by who had ventured too close to them.
Usually they would miss, but sometimes they would find their marks and draw some blood. They did not seem particularly pleased by either result but did not cease in their efforts.
Profound Distress watched them, sitting on the wagon’s corner and staring down at them, trying to think of something, anything, but what had happened when the Paladin tried to kill her. Trying to think of anything but what had become of Kimbal. Trying to think of anything but how it was all her fault, and how different everything could have been, had she made other choices, and how whatever she tried, whatever she did, seemed to make more and more of a horrible mess of her life.
“Why did you revive him?”
“To show you that I can.”
“But why … I haven’t yet sworn my allegiance, or whatever you want me to do, have I?”
“No, and you mustn’t. I need you to open the barrier, and you can only do that while you are a Cleric to an Angel.”
“But why would I pledge myself to you, then?”
“But he’s … He’s dead.”
“Yes. But he’s up, and walking around.”
“But he’s dead!”
“Sure. But you believe, or suspect, or hope, or want there to be some spark of the Kimbal you loved, somewhere in there, and that he might resurface in time, as Katra did in the Angel’s Paladin.”
“And is there?”
“No. He’s but a husk. Kimbal is gone forever.”
“So why -?”
“Because you don’t believe me, and you won’t. You want it too much. You want it to be there, so you see it. You can’t live with the fear of not having tried everything, not just because you want him back, but because you feel guilty for his death. And you suspect that I’m a liar, anyway.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to tell me so frankly about your plan to trick me?”
“Maybe, but I’m just a child. What do you expect?” Then, more quietly, after a pause: “Also, you don’t know if I have some other kind of handle on you. I touched you, after all, and held you for a while. Why do you think I let you go?”
She smiled and winked.
“Can you really not do anything for him?”
“Nothing. I could kill him for good, but since he’s not there anymore, he doesn’t care.”
Jakta squinted at Jamo and sniffed.
“Why? We have a deal with the Custodian. If we don’t-“
“Whatever you agreed to bring to this deal doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Your son has changed, Jakta. I heard strong rumors of the Hermitage sending a messenger to IX Perdido.”
“You think they …” Jakta blinked stupidly at him and immediately resented his satisfied smile.
“They sent the messenger. Might have been to just bring some flowers and ask for a bottle of milk.”
“Might have been for Terminus. Could he … You don’t think …? He couldn’t cross the Boundary. Could he? None of them have ever crossed into another’s territory.”
“They can see the future,” Jamo growled, pointedly looking at her.
“There are many possible explanations,” she replied, trying for some of her usual haughtiness and nonchalance, and not quite achieving it. “Does the Custodian know?” she asked.
“Well …” Jamo made a sideways nodding motion with his head. “I can’t guess about Her, but I can tell you who certainly doesn’t know: The Empty King.”
Now she couldn’t help but break out into a grin, and a desperate cackle. “You really think they … cooperated? Conspired against Him?”
He just shrugged.
“They’d have had a lot of time for planning, don’t you think?”
She looked at the side of gammon he had brought her, slowly blinking, slowly pulling her face into a scowl. She picked it up in both hands, lifted it put, it down again, shook her head.
“Why do you insist on bringing me these fucking hunks of dead animal whenever I summon you? They stink, and I don’t know what to do with them!”
“Butchers will be butchers,” he muttered.
“So what you’re telling me is I need to run? You want me to flee from my own son, scuttle away from what I have planned for generations?”
Jamo shrugged again.
“I’m just bringing the meat grinder sounds to your attention. Your choice whether you want to stick your hand in.”
She scoffed at him, and sniffed, and shook her head.
“At the end, it always comes down to meat with you, doesn’t it?”
He looked at her without any expression at all on his face.
“Doesn’t everything, always?” he asked.
Jakta considered this, and scoffed again.
“I won’t do it,” she said. “I won’t leave. I’ll see it through, and I’ll die, if that’s what it takes. I’m old, and I’m bitter, and I’m in pain, what do I care? We all die, some day, and few enough for a worthy cause.”
“Kimbal would have agreed,” Jamo muttered, looking down at his feet.
“And here we are,” said the Custodian. “The Boundary. Where no Outsider can enter. Where none may cross without your Angels’ permission. Or at least their Cleric’s. Which means this is your moment. Your choice. Your chance to make history. What will you do?”
“What do you think? What reason do I have to help you?”
“Hope for my gratitude. Fear of punishment. Hatred for the beings who destroyed your life, made you their pawn and killed your only true love in their attempt to punish you for something you had no control over. Burning longing for revenge for … this.”
The Custodian thrust out a hand towards Kimbal, who stood there like a stuffed animal, glassy eyes staring emptily at nothing, unseeing, his face dead as a misbegotten painting, no breath animating his body, no emotion pulling his lips and brows into shape.
“Do you want them to rule everying you’ve ever known, forever, or would you have them overthrown, brought low, humiliated by your own hand?”
“I want you all to leave me alone,” she muttered. “I want you all to die. Painfully, if possible.”
The Custodian shrugged, and smiled with twinkling eyes. “All right. How about you, Kimbal, what would you want her to do?”
Profound Distress could not help but stare in horrified, sad fascination as the one person she had ever really loved lifted his head and took a tottering step in her general direction, his eyes as dead and empty as the rest of his face.
“I want …” he croaked, and had to stop to weakly clear some phlegm from his throat which now ran down his chin.
Profound Distress averted her eyes and buried her face in her hands as a surprisingly deep sob escaped from her throat and she was suddenly crying again, and fell to her knees, and then further down, until she was just a shuddering weeping heap on the great wagon’s floor.
“I want … to die,” Kimbal grated, and took a strangled chortling breath to repeat: “Please … let me … die.”
“Is that really him?” Profound Distress asked the Custodian after she had brought herself under enough control to press the phrase through her shuddering jaws between bouts of sobbing and moaning. “Is that really him, or is it just you making him say this to give me the impression … Aaaaaaaah!”
She screamed, and punched the wooden planks with her fists, not caring if she hurt herself. She screamed and cursed, or at least imagined horrible curses which she was not able to articulate enough for anyone to understand in her grief and her hatred and her wrath. And finally she threw herself against the steel bars of the cage and grabbed the Custodian and pulled her towards herself, and shook her, and pulled her against the bars of the cage, so her face beat against the steal. That was when the little girl calmly took one of Profound Distress’s wrists, effortlessly pried it from her shoulders, and broke it.
“Stop that,” she chided, like a seven-year-old telling her dog that it has licked her face enough for one day, while Profound Distress broke down again, cradling her wrist, but hardly feeling the pain through the haze of her desperation and fury.
“I want it all to stop,” she moaned. “I just want it all to stop. I want the pain to stop, and I want to stop having to figure out who of you monsters is lying to me why to get me to do what and what the fuck at all is happening and please can’t you just give me a little of that Dust you had earlier on, please, can’t you just give me some because I really need it right now I just want it all to stop, please, please, please, pretty please you fucking monster?”
“Hushhh…” The Custodian was actually stroking the back of her hand, and Profound Distress almost uttered a bitter laugh. “Hush … This, too, shall pass, and we shall be great friends one day, you’ll see, the three of us.”
“Fuck you!” Profound Distress replied in a miserable whimper. “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you have to torment me so when you could make it so much easier?”
“Could I? Oh, you might be giving yourself too little credit there. Surely, it takes some agitation for you to betray everyone and everything you believed in?”
“I don’t even know what I believe in!” Profound Distress mewled.
“Exactly my point. So let’s say I were to offer you … the Dust you just asked about plus some vague utterances concerning your friend’s future, might that suffice for you to do my bidding now?”
“Yes, I see you have your doubts, as you well might, for the story I’m telling you truly is unbelievable, but as your doubts are righteous, so will your belief be, for I am going to show you truth, and I am going to show you power, and then I will tell you to follow me, and you’ll do well to obey!”
Glonn took a few heartbeats to glare at the faces of his listeners, to judge them, and to let them know that they were being judged.
“For generations, centuries, millennia, you and your ancestors have lived in fear and slavery, under the cruel yoke of the beings you used to call ‘angels’.”
Again, he paused for a short while to let this sink in before booming in his divinely amplified voice: “They are not. What they are is demons, petty imps who have dared to exalt and idolize themselves in the absence of the true master of this world.”
Glonn saw in his audience’s faces that they were awed and aghast at his temerity to speak such words, which was good, but they did not yet believe, which he needed to amend.
So he continued: “Well, their reign is now come to an end, because the true master has returned, the Creator of this world is reaching for his people again, to unite them, teach them, and heal them. I am the Creator’s hand reaching for you, I am his prophet teaching you, and I am his love healing you.”
“But,” the emphasized voice again, “I am also his fist and his cleansing fire!” With a gesture, he kindled a ball of flame in the air above them, fed it power, made it grow, and let it burn and crackle. His audience yelled and shrank back, but none fled, he noted with satisfaction. “And so I will now proceed to cleanse this world, and to crush our Creator’s foes, which are right now marching upon our land from the Outside, and which will soon try to cross the boundary that used to protect you from them but has now ceased to be, together with the imp you called Lady Sorrow.” There were gasps and frightened looks from the audience at the mere mention of the Angel’s name. “But you need not fear, for I have the Creator’s power, and with his help, we will overcome the invaders and free this world, and once again the rightful master will reign over all of us!”
“But make no mistake, if you oppose me, I will exterminate you, as I will exterminate each and every last blemish on our master’s creation!” By a cutting movement of his hand, he snuffed the flame, and added in a very low, calm voice that, as he made sure, still carried to the farthest and hardest-of-hearing members of his audience: “Tell everyone. And be sure to also tell them that whoever is not with me, and is not obedient, I will consider in opposition to me and to the creator, and I will hunt down without mercy.”
He saw in their faces how much he had shaken them, and nodded to himself with satisfaction. There was complete silence while everyone was processing what he had told them, and Glonn was rather –
He whirled around to the slow clapping sound to see who dared intrude upon his perfect speech, and was more annoyed than surprised to recognize his mother. Come to think of it, he was almost pleased to finally get an opportunity to show her once and for all who ran the House, and who was just an old sick dried-up useless senile hag.
“I suppose this means our deal is off,” the Custodian sighed.
“What do you mean?” Profound Distress asked.
She looked gloomily at the bag of Dust in her good hand, her meagre fee for betraying the Concord and the Angels (But then, she wondered, whom had she really betrayed by opening the Boundary?), which she could not even enjoy. She had wanted to take it. Really. She’d accepted the bag from the Custodian with every intention of indulging until she was no longer fit to control any of her bodily functions, but then she had looked at Kimbal, and imagined what he’d think if he was indeed still in there, and so she could not. And tried to decide whether she hated herself more for wanting to indulge, or for not being able to do it.
“I had an agreement with your Pater Familiae, which I was going to break, of course, that I would rid him of the Angels and leave him as ruler of this land. I would have understood if he’d greeted me with some kind of armed force, if only to demonstrate that he’s someone to be reckoned with, but I’m quite sure he shouldn’t have armed his rural citizenship.”
“Come on then!” Glonn shouted. “Show what you can do, and I will show you true power!”
“He’s really your brother?” the Custodian asked Profound Distress, with one eyebrow raised.
“I … He’s always been … We … He’s not always like this,” she finally answered, feeling silly not just for the weak attempt at defending him, but for attempting it at all, as well as caring about such things right now while her world was toppling.
“None of us are,” the Custodian muttered, and then, in a bored and dismissive manner, waved a hand in Glonn’s general direction.
Like a pack of dogs who had all been kicked at the same time, the Empty King’s army of people and monsters jerked and set upon Glonn’s pitiful assembly of ragged peasants and handimen holding scythes, axes and spades.
“Yes!” Glonn shouted. “Come on!”
He lifted his hands, and lightning crackled between his fingers, and he opened his mouth –
And then the light changed, and Profound Distress immediately felt her stomach sink. She did not want to look into the sky. She did not want to see, but then again, her fear of what she would see was not diminished by imagining it, so she finally gathered her courage into a tight little ball and lifted her face into the unnatural light above her.
To her utter surprise, she did not see Lady Sorrow, but a clearly male body. A male body with wings, its skin as well as its feathers obsidian black, its eyes glowing a dull red, its teeth shining white in its snarling mouth, and a flaming, smoking two-handed sword in one of its claws.
“Terminus,” she whispered.
The two armies, of course, reacted very differently to the Angel.
Glonn’s people stared in awe and fear, huddled so close together that it might have been comical, had the terror in their faces not been so touchingly manifest, and had it not mirrored her own feelings so well.
The Outsiders, on the other hand, looked confused and curious, some even laughing and pointing at the strange naked apparition, only a few concerned and worried faces among them. Probably those who remembered the carnage wrought by the Paladin in their camp, and smart enough to draw the connection, Profound Distress thought.
But the laughter died and gave way first to apprehension, then outrage, then alarm and dread as the Angel landed on the cage containing the Empty King’s pillar of glass as well as the Custodian chained to it. For a few moments, Profound Distress’ heart stopped and she almost keeled over, as she thought He had come for her, to finish what Lady Sorrow’s Paladin hat started.
Glonn called over to them: “Do whatever you wish with them, but don’t think you can cow us! We have been beaten into submission long enough! We are no longer servants, for I have been granted the power to smite you, lowly minion of the True Creator!”
If Terminus heard this, he did not react, and Profound Distress soon realized He did not seem to care about her at all, and neither about Glonn, as He lifted His sword and cut through the cage’s bars as if they were made of paper. He jumped onto the glass pillar, gripped its metal frame with His foot-claws, spread His wings and started beating them.
The Empty King’s soldiers were shouting, running around, and futilely throwing weapons and tools. Most did not even reach him, because the wagon was huge, and the glass pillar very high. A few bolts and arrows and even the odd throwing spear struck the Angel, but bounced off Him without any discernable effect.
As Terminus slowly lifted the pillar, the silver chain fastened to the Custodian’s collar followed, and the little girl watched with growing concern.
“I don’t suppose you know how to talk to them?” she called to Profound Distress. “Explain how I’d like to stay out of it, or some such?”
Profound Distress could not quite suppress a bitter laugh.
For about half a second, the Custodian looked into her eyes with a crooked smile, and gave a half shrug, as if to say: ‘It was worth a try.’
She turned towards the Angel, opened her mouth and started to say: “Hey, up there, that was not what we-“
Then the chain pulled taut, and the Custodian’s head was snapped back, an awful wet choking sound coming from her mouth. Profound Distress watched as the little girl held on with her tiny hand wrapped around the bars of her cage, her slender body contorted in a way that was almost too painful to watch. She had to remind herself that this was not, truly, a human being. She knew, but it was too easy to let herself be confused by the evidence of her own eyes showing her a fragile child fighting for her life.
But then, the evidence of her own eyes was not that clear either, because this fragile child did manage to hold on to the bars, and to stop Terminus’ ascent with the Empty King’s glass pillar.
The glowing eyes turned towards her for a second, before the Angel flicked His wrist and severed the chain with His sword. In a blinding flash, the Angelic blade cut through the strange silvery metal, and with a high-pitched ringing sound, all those fine little links fell on the cage’s floor, and onto each other.
The Custodian fell to the ground when the chain lost its tension, and lay there for a few heartbeats, gasping and coughing.
“They are rather brusque, your Angels, yes?” she wheezed.
Finally, she got up and looked around to consider the results of her recent adventure.
“That’s not at all a bad outcome, is it?” she asked, looking at the chain’s loose end. “I bet we can make something out of this, you and I, don’t you think?”
Book group questions
- keoni thought that the Custodian sounds very grown-up in the first scene, which is not wrong, but we hope it fits. What do you think?
- What did you think of Terminus‘ entrance? Too cliché?
- Would you have liked more battle in the final scene? Less?
- What did you think of the Custodian’s explanation in the first chapter, content-wise?
- If you’re still reading this: Thank you for your patience! I know I’m not making this easy, and I very much hope this is worth it for you.