The Coven, Interlude

The lawn around the cathedral was dark and barren. Night had cast a veil over the cathedral’s splendour, and feeble lanterns that shone on the walkway only seemed to accentuate the oppressive darkness around them. The sparse patches of green that broke through the dead, brown lawn were washed yellow in the lantern light.  

A scarlet-robed man emerged from the cathedral and stepped onto the barren lawn, as unnaturally bright in the gloom as a rose that blooms in frost. He moved slowly, lingering under each circle of lantern light, which to an onlooker might have seemed to burn brighter as he passed.

Brother Lux’s hands were folded in prayer as he walked, and his eyes were blank and meditative, looking within instead of at the world outside. His lips moved- he whispered his mantra aloud.

My Lord, my lover, my God, I am with you,

My Lord, my lover, my God, you are with me.

My mind’s eye beholds you, my thoughts heed you,

My Lord, my Lover, my God…


Brother Lux paused just outside of a circle of lamplight and sighed.

“Can I still be your conscience if I do this thing? Will I be able to heal the suffering with hands so bloodied?”

He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for sparing me this task.”

He opened his eyes again, and they glowed white for a moment before fading again to brown.

He began to walk at a quicker pace. His posture was altered- regal- and his strides were longer and smoother. He seemed to glide the last few feet to the dark stone building that lay beyond the cathedral.

He took a lantern from a black-clad guard that stood by the door, entered the building, and descended the spiral stairs to the dungeons below.

Voices met his entrance to the dungeon floor, echoing and ephemeral.

“Have mercy.”

“Free me- I am innocent.”

“I have children. Please let me go.”

“I will confess- I swear I will confess.”

Brother Lux stopped suddenly and turned toward an iron grate, lifting his lantern to shed light on the wretch within. It was a man, dressed in brown robes and with skin so coated in bruises and filth that he could hardly be discerned from his surroundings, but for the glitter in his watery eyes.

“If you tell the truth, the Gods will have mercy,” Lux said. Then he knelt and touched the man’s trembling, outstretched hand with his own clean, white one. “What is your name?”

“My name is Faith Simmons,” he croaked. “I have a wife, I have children…”

“What was your crime?”

“I spoke blasphemies.”

Brother Lux placed the lantern on the ground and grasped the man’s hand with both of his. “You must be more specific, or I cannot help you.”

“But what I said-”

“You must repeat it, no matter what it was. It is your only salvation.”

The man opened his mouth, but was racked by a  coughing fit so powerful that it shook his whole body. Then, suddenly, his cough stopped, and he took a lungful of air before he spoke.

“I said that Order was a fool who is blind to the chaos in the world. I said that Chastity was his whore. I was drunk, my priest, and I didn’t know what I said…”

Brother Lux leaned closer. “They say that wine can reveal hidden truths. Think about your answer carefully, and then tell me- was it really just the wine, or did you mean what you said?”

The man was silent for a long time, and then he whispered. “I meant it. My youngest son fell ill with a fever, and we had no money to take him to del Sol for healing. After the little one died, my mother sold my younger sister to a rich lord. This was too much for me; my heart rebelled against the Gods’ will.”

“Did anyone else feed your rebellion? Have any of your friends murmured against the gods?”

“My-” the man started and made a strangling sound, as though he would choke on his words.

“I will show them mercy if you give me their name- you have my word.”

“When she was sold, my little sister told me she didn’t believe Order existed,” the man said. “She didn’t think a good God would allow such a thing to happen.”

“What is her name? What is the name of her master? Speak the truth.”

“Her name is Merry Simmons. Her master is Sir  Montag.”

“I have a task I need to complete now, but when I return I will heal your wounds, allow you to bathe and clothe yourself, and then return you to your family. I will ensure that your sister is escorted to del Sol to take orders, and her master will be compensated. Your honesty has saved you.”

“Oh! My priest, thank you.”

The man let out a sob, and he pulled Lux’s hand through the grate and kissed it, leaving muddy tears smeared against the pristine surface.

Brother Lux allowed the man to weep, and then leaned forward and whispered.

“At this moment, I am the avatar of Wisdom. Do not speak of it, but remember that he has saved you.”

When the man looked up, tears of joy shimmered in his eyes and left tracks on his dirty cheeks. Brother Lux only smiled, passed the man a white lace handkerchief, and whispered once more.


Then he stood and continued down the dungeon path.

He stopped again before a wooden door. No voice cried out from within- there was no plea for mercy. When Brother Lux opened the door, the room seemed empty but for a pile of rags on the floor. Brother Lux raised the lamp and the pile of rags shifted, moved, and morphed into the rough shape of a man.

“Wake up, Lord Frey,” Lux commanded.

The man, Hope, sat up slowly and then stumbled to his feet. His face was covered by a leather mask, which was latched and locked in the back. He groped the empty air blindly as he stood.

“I apologize for the mess,” Hope said, voice muffled, bowing not quite in the direction of his brother. “You see, I was not expecting company. I would order tea, but the guards are so unaccommodating.”

“Think nothing of it,” Brother Lux said dryly. “I have not come for a social visit.”

“Then come to your point quickly, and leave.” Hope’s formal tone dropped away, replaced with a low growl.

Brother Lux did not reply, but removed a key from his robes and stepped forward to unlock the mask.

“You aren’t afraid of what I’ll do?” Hope said.

“You can’t hurt me,” Brother Lux said. He let the mask fall away, revealing a parody of Hope’s face- papery skin pulled tight over delicate bone. Hope raised his hand and shied away from the lantern light as though it burned.

“It will take some time for your eyes to adjust, I expect,” Brother Lux said.

“Why are you here? Why didn’t you send one of your lackeys, as usual?”

“I bring news of a miracle and a disaster,” Lux said. “First, the disaster; Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself. He disappeared in his cell the evening of the incident with Lady Willoughby. The guards could not find him for hours, though they searched his tiny cell thoroughly and then searched the entire dungeon for any breach. Brother Severus was on his way to issue a bounty when Lord Willoughby was found in his cell.

“Lord Willoughby, it seems, has been completely broken. His tongue is still bound by his curse, but his disappearance has been recognized as an act of magic. When he is questioned about it directly, he nods his assent and indicates through gestures his willingness to confess. ”

“I am not surprised in the least,” Hope said. He closed his eyes and stood taller, dropping the hand that shielded his eyes. “Lord Willoughby loves his wife more than anything else in the world. The ‘incident,’ as you so delicately put it, would be enough to break any man.”

“The inquisitor who was responsible has been punished-”

Damn you,” Hope cried, and flung himself at his brother, fists raised to strike. Lux, however, easily sidestepped the attack, and Hope’s fist slammed into the brick wall, leaving a smear of blood where it had struck. Hope cradled his injured hand for just a moment, and then turned to attempt another strike, but froze in place as though bound by an invisible force.

“I never intended for her to be violated in such a manner,” Lux said. “We are purging the practices of the past, but it will take time to change.”

Hope struggled against the magic that bound him, repeatedly raising his fist for another blow and stopping abruptly, as though he’d hit a glass wall.

“Oh yes- you are willing to strip, burn, prick, and whip us, but not violate. You have standards, after all.”

“It will all end- the torture, the prisons, the poverty, and the slavery. I swear on my life, I swear on my magic, and I swear on my power as a God.”

Lux closed his eyes, and when he opened them again they glowed with white light. The light grew brighter and brighter- pulsing and flashing, not only from his eyes, but seeping from his very skin until his entire body was haloed in light.

“You have done it,” Hope breathed. “Pius-”

“Once I was Pius, but now my name is Wisdom. Your brother is acting as my vessel at the moment, but he is still with us, listening.”

“I-” Hope’s words seemed to stick in his throat, and he swallowed hard. He dropped his hand to his side as Wisdom released him.

Hope chuckled darkly, and continued until his soft chuckles had built into hysterical laughter. He laughed until tears fell from his eyes, threw back his head and continued to laugh until he lost his breath.

“Wisdom… you’ve chosen your very name to mock me,” Hope said. “I’ve failed to listen to wisdom every time I’ve heard it spoken. I am a wretched fool; now that I see the patterns I’ve fallen into, it is futile to change. I will ask the questions I should have asked from the beginning, now that it’s too late.”

Wisdom bowed his assent.

“You have gained the power you sought; tell me- has your goal to change the world altered? Can you provide evidence to justify your answer?” Hope asked.

Then Wisdom, still emanating glory- the God in human guise, dropped to his knees before the prisoner in his rags.

Wisdom spoke in a whisper. “I have no evidence to give you. I have nothing to offer but my honesty and my oath. I envision a world at peace, but attaining it will require war. I envision a world of liberty, but attaining it will require imprisonment. I envision a world free from torment, but attaining it will require sacrifice. I did not trust you enough to confide any of this to you, but I was hypocrite enough to condemn you for your lack of trust. I blamed you for your duplicity when I wore a false face.”

“I was guarded,” Hope said, “but far less than I should have been. I realize, now, that Prudence tried to warn me about you many times, but the power you offered me was blinding. When she fled, when she was caught, and when she died, I should have allowed the seed of doubt to flourish.”

“I don’t have the right to ask your forgiveness,” Wisdom continued. “All I can do is fulfill my promise to free your child from her condemnation.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Hope said, the hoarse edge of tears in his voice. “You’ve dragged me through the mud using my dearest wish as your leash. Why torment me with an empty promise now, when you’ve already gained all the power you’ve ever dreamed of?”

Wisdom’s bright aura faded a little, and he bowed his head, clutching his hands before him as though in supplication.

“I mean to fulfil my promise. I am done leading you with lies. The truth is that, to avoid another magical mishap, I require another sacrifice from you. I ask only that you give me a chance to atone. Demand any penance of me that you wish to inflict, and your brother will ensure it is carried out.”

For a moment, the filthy, ragged man looked down at the God who knelt at his feet with a sneer of disgust. Then he cleared his throat, drew himself to his full height, and spoke.

“My first thought is to demand that you suffer. I wish to see you in agony, I wish to hear you scream, and scream, and beg for the pain to stop. But this is rather short-sighted of me, isn’t it? I could watch you suffer a hundred years for each of my friends that you’ve hurt, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Instead, I ask that you undo your most grievous offence- bring Prudence back to life.”

Wisdom looked up at Hope, his eyes wide in shock.

“Surely, that shouldn’t be too difficult for a God. I’m only asking you to resurrect one person. I would prefer that you bring her back along with my parents, Prudence’s father, and every other wretch who has ever died and been cast into hell, but you asked for penance, and as far as I know, Prudence’s death is the only one on your hands.”

Wisdom looked down again and shut his eyes. “Thank you, Lord Frey. Your request has brought me more comfort than you can know. Do you have anything else to ask?”

“Only that you stop hurting the ones I love.”

Wisdom nodded and then leaned forward to kiss the frayed edge of Hope’s tunic. Then he stood.

“Close your eyes. It is time for you to make your final sacrifice.”

Wisdom’s eyes flashed, and his aura grew brighter than the sun at noon. Hope’s eyes shut in reflex, and he stumbled backward.

Wisdom shook the sleeve of his robe, and a silver knife glinted as it fell into his hand. He raised it over his head and lashed out once, then twice.

Blood splashed onto the grey stone floor.

A bloodcurdling scream tore through the air, echoing through the dungeons.

Down the corridor, a caged man heard the scream, but he didn’t pause to wipe away his tears of joy. The screams had become routine, and soon he would leave them behind forever. The dungeons would echo like a nightmare in his past, but he would be wrapped in the loving arms of his family once more.


The Coven, Part LXVI


Lightning glowed far away in the cloudy sky.

For just a moment, I could see the dark outline of the pitch-stained balloon against the light blue clouds, and then the light faded and the balloon disappeared, swallowed up in black.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Trusty asked for what seemed the hundredth time that evening. “It will be painful, and the scar may never fade. You skin might be marred forever.”

“I’ve drawn the symbol exactly- all you need do is apply the acid and be ready to rinse it away with the solvent,” I said firmly. “Give me something I can put in my mouth, so I don’t scream.”

Trusty sighed and handed me a rag, which I placed in my mouth. Then I looked back up at the sky, trying to discern the balloon against the black sky.

I didn’t have the words to explain why I was ready to allow myself to be burned, and perhaps permanently scarred, so I gritted my teeth around the rag and fell silent. When the phenol hit my skin, I felt nothing, and then I felt a warmth that turned into a burning, building more and more until I could hardly stand it.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, but I did not flinch, did not move, and did not scream.

Time seemed to slow. I counted the seconds between the flashes of light and the peals of thunder, but the storm was still very distant, and I could not distract myself for long.

“Your arm is done,” Trusty said. “In a few more moments I will remove the acid. In the meantime, stay still.”

I let the rag drop from between my teeth. “While we wait- let’s go over the plan,” I managed to say in a strangled voice.

“It is a simple plan. I wish we’d had more time so we could come up with something better. Still, we could not hope for a more opportune night. The bombs will sound like thunder to everyone on the mainland, and as long as the weather stays to the west, our craft will remain safe.”

“So- you will carry me to the edge of the eastern cliffs, where I will descend into the temple on foot while you proceed to the northeast entrance. I will do my best to stay hidden-” my words cut off and I groaned as a fresh wave of pain swept over me.

“Hopefully, if you are spotted by any guards, these scars and the slave tunic will help you to blend in. You will have to make sure that the bundle of weapons is hidden until you hear my signal.” Trusty stopped and lifted his lantern to view my arm more closely. “It’s ready. I’m sorry- the solvent will sting.”

He poured a pungent liquid on my arm. At first it felt refreshingly cool, and then the burning on my arm intensified. I gritted my teeth, but I could not stop the guttural cry that emerged from my throat.

“Don’t forget,” I whispered, “that I still need the brand on my chest.”

“Lady Frey-”

“It will be kinder if you go quickly,” I said.

Trusty shook his head, but he took the swab he’d used to apply the phenol to my arm, and began to trace the symbol on my chest.

I gritted my teeth again, but did not use the rag. I looked up again into the blackness and blinked away my tears.

This is pain that I have only escaped by circumstance, until now, I thought.

“I will detonate bombs near the northwest entrance to the temple,” Trusty continued. “Hopefully, the noise will draw the guards from inside the temple to the entrance. Then you will be able to distribute the weapons to the Ancients inside, and you can fight your way back out.”

“Are you sure the shooters are simple enough for us to use without training?”

“Yes- they are simpler to use than a flintlock. It’s a metal tube pre-loaded with thirty charges. Pull the lever in the back, and it will fire a projectile at the enemy. Hopefully, with the help of the martial training the Ancients already have, the weapons will level the playing field- at least enough to take care of the guards that avoid the explosions at the entrance.”

“The plan is dangerous,” I said. “Especially for you, since you will be alone at the entrance. In addition, the guards may have a protocol in place to deal with the Ancients in case of an emergency.”

“If there is, we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” Trusty said. “Dare told me that there hasn’t been any interference at the temple as long as she can remember, so she doesn’t know how the guards will react.”

Trusty poured the rest of the solvent onto my chest, and while my chest burned, the solvent was cold as it ran down my breasts. I was dressed only in a short grey tunic, which left my arms and my legs bare, and the night was growing colder. Slaves, it seemed, were not dressed to protect from the elements or provide comfort, but rather to differentiate them from everyone else.

The sky lit up again, and the wind rose. Trusty stood and looked around. Then, seeming satisfied, he began to climb into the basket.

“The wind is all from the east- we must hurry if we want to avoid losing the storm,” he said. “Sir Silas is gathering Order members from the pilgrim’s quarters, and he will be reinforcements in the trawler by morning; we need to clear the way for them.”

“Of course,” I said.

It was easier to climb into than I’d anticipated. The tunic, as cold as it was, did not restrict my movement nearly as much as pilgrim’s robes or crinolines.

As my feet his the basket floor thunder rumbled in the distance, and when Trusty cut the tether the wind gusted as though to rush us on. Trusty twisted a knob attached to the gas line and the flame rose in a great whoosh. Then the ground grew distant, and the balloon bore me up, away, into the storm.




For most of the journey, I floated in a sea of darkness.

We drifted without lantern, moon, or star to help guide our way. From time to time, the sky would glow with lightning, and I could see the froth of waves far below and the outline of dark cliffs in the distance. Each time, Trusty would mark the cliffs’ location and adjust our course slightly. With each flash of lightning, the cliffs loomed larger.

The wind was in our favor. Before I could have any second thoughts, we’d been swept to the island where battle awaited me.

Trusty helped me to tie the bundle of weapons to my back while we drifted low over the edge of the cliffs, and then he threw a rope ladder over the edge of the basket. He helped me onto the ladder, and then merely whispered, “good luck.”

I climbed down onto a steep, grassy slope. There was hardly a bush or tree to conceal me, but I could see down into the valley. The ruined temple below glowed with circles of firelight that danced off of uneven rock walls and crumbling columns. I could hear the rope scrape against the balloon’s basket as Trusty drew up the ladder, but I did not stop to watch him. I climbed down the slope, moving as slowly and quietly as I dared in the tall grass. I took a winding path, trying to stay as low as I could while I descended, and each moment fearing I would be spotted.

Everything remained silent below, and I reached the first crumbling temple wall unscathed. The light from the fires was brighter, so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through a gap in the first wall and toward a second that had been worn so low it seemed little more than a hedge. I looked ahead, and saw no other hiding place but a cluster of pillars that bore the skeletal remains of the temple backbone, beyond which were two circles of firelight. I removed my bundle and hid it behind the low wall, and then crept forward, crawling toward the pillars to get a closer view of the encampment.

I had reached the pillars and stood when I heard a loud voice cry out.

“Stop, girl!”

I froze. I could hear footsteps coming from beyond the circle of firelight, and before I could react someone grabbed me by the back of my tunic and yanked me backward.

“I found another one trying to sneak into the men’s camp,” the man who had grabbed me grunted into my ear.

Another man, dressed in black and bearing a spear, came into view. He leaned close to me and scanned me with glittering eyes, his gaze lingering on my newly-marred chest.

“Getting lonely, are you?” he said. “Maybe you’d like me to keep you company.”

But the first guard yanked on my cloak, pulling me away from the second. “You remember what the High Priest ordered. No touching- he doesn’t want any more of them to deal with.”

The second guard rolled his eyes and turned away, and the first dragged me away from the encampment, and toward another circle of firelight in the distance.

“Stay put- next time we won’t be so forgiving,” he said, tossing me to the ground. Then he walked away to the edge of the firelight, where two other guards were already posted. I pulled myself to my feet.

“What a fool,” I heard a girl behind me mutter. “Whoever he is, girl, he isn’t worth your neck.”

“Let her have her fun,” another scoffed. “We’re all going to die here, anyway.”

I turned around and saw a group of women gathered around the fire. The girl who had spoken walked closer to me. She had dark curly hair like many of the others who gathered around me, and her skin shone like copper in the firelight.

She narrowed her eyes as she approached. “Who are you?” she whispered. “I’ve never seen you before.”

I put a finger to my lips and then leaned in closer to whisper. “I’m a friend of Dare’s. Something is about to happen.”

“Wha-” she backed away, her eyes wide. “You aren’t one of us?”

Several more women turned to stare at me, and I moved closer to the crowd that had already formed to avoid a more visible commotion.

“Swift is right- she’s an outsider,” a tall, skinny woman whispered. “Her brand is still raw.”

“Harmony?” an elderly woman’s voice creaked like an old door in my ear. “You are alive?”

“No- Harmony was my mother,” I said gently. I could hear a sharp intake of breath on my other side. “There’s little time to explain, but Dare has sent me here. I have hidden weapons behind the low wall, and soon we will have allies to help.”

“Help?” the tall woman hissed.

“You mean it’s time to fight back,” the woman called Swift said. “We aren’t going to wait around to die.”

“There’s going to be a distraction soon,” I said. “As soon as the guards are out of the way, we will take the weapons and fight.”

“Where are the weapons?” asked another, drawing near.

“Behind the low wall,” I repeated “Don’t gather here- spread the word through camp.”

Some of the women broke away and started to whisper among the other groups, but the tall girl and Swift drew nearer.

“Who is Harmony? Where do you come from?” the tall girl pressed.

“Dare told me about Harmony,” Swift said. “This girl must be the free-born Ancient.”

“I am; my name is Grace,” I said.

How?” the tall girl said. Then she turned and looked over her shoulder, as though some quiet instinct had warned her about the guards who drew nearer to the circle.

“Go warn the others,” Swift said. “I will explain later.”

The tall girl nodded and drew back, and Swift took my arm as though we were bosom friends and drew me closer to the fire. “What will the distraction be?”

“It will be a clap of thunder- louder than any thunder the storm can produce.”

“Thunder? But-”

As though destiny were listening, a loud bang rang out through the camp, followed by another, and another, and then three more in rapid succession. The guards sprang into action, half of them running toward the sound, and the other half bearing their polearms toward the camp. My heart sank in despair- the guards were better organized than we’d anticipated.

Swift, however, took my arm firmly as she watched the guards disperse. Then she yelled, “Merrit! Lead the first company.”

At her words, the Ancients in the camp leapt to their feet and stormed the guards, fighting with fists against the guard’s spears.

“Show me to the wall,” Swift said urgently.

I looked back toward the path I’d come and saw a gap in the guard’s circle. I took the chance, ducked through the gap and ran at top speed all the way back to the wall. I could hear Swift’s feet pounding the earth behind me.

The bundle was waiting where I had left it, and all of the pre- loaded shooters remained untouched. A split second later Swift was by my side, her hands out ready to accept the weapon.

“Hold it this way,” I said, handing her one. “Pull the lever in the back to discharge it at your enemy. The charges are pre-loaded.”

“How many charges?” she said, holding the weapon securely as though she had held one all her life.


“That is enough,” she said. I tied the bundle with half of the weapons to her back, and took the rest in my arms as she ran toward the men’s encampment. I was halfway back to the women’s camp when I was met by the tall woman, who took shooters from my arms and passed them to several more Ancients she had led away from the fray. I demonstrated the correct way to use the shooter as quickly as I could, and then the others scattered, running back to the battle fully armed. Another, very short woman soon found me, and she tossed the weapons to a few struggling fighters until there was only a weapon left for me and her.

The guards seemed to catch on- they turned away from the Ancients who still fought melee and, as though by unspoken command, rushed east where me and the group of newly-armed fighters stood ready.

*pop* *pop* *pop*

Lightning flashed overhead as the first shots were fired, and guards fell to the ground, one by one. The shooter trembled in my hands- I raised the gun but hesitated. One guard looked at me, smirked at my hesitation, and ran toward me.


I couldn’t see who had shot, but the guard fell.

My fellow shooters advanced, and I walked with them through clouds of gunsmoke and the fresh smell of blood. I stepped over the bodies of the fallen as I advanced, almost stumbling, the sounds and smell turning my stomach.

I saw, among the bodies, a girl with curly hair in a grey tunic writhing on the ground as she tried to stem the blood flowing from her side. Then my hands moved on their own, raising the shooter and adding my fire to the cloud of bullets that sent the guards, one by one, to the earth.

Lightning flashed again, and the unnatural thunder boomed and cracked in the distance.

Suddenly, the guards broke rank and scattered. Some of them ran northeast toward the entrance, and some fell back, running toward the crumbling walls. Only a few remained with the melee fighters, and were quickly overwhelmed.

“Don’t let them reach the armory!” One of the melee fighters screamed as she plunged a spear into a guard’s back. I heard the sickening crunch before I saw the spear emerge from the guard’s chest.

I turned away from the sickening scene and ran with the others, pursuing the guards who fled toward the wall. We followed to the entrance of a squat, stone building, where we slowed our run, raised our weapons, and fired again.

Most of the guards fell, but more emerged from the building- some covered in black and some half-dressed, but all armed with swords and flintlocks.

Now it was our turn to fall back as the armed guards advanced. We traded fire, and then when we’d all run out of ammunition, the guards charged- swords raised.

*pop* *pop*

The guards fell, their swords clattering to the ground. I turned to the side and saw our reinforcements- the Ancient men, armed with shooters and led by Swift.

The fallen guards were already being stripped, and someone pressed a sword into my hand. The feel of heavy steel seemed to awaken my voice, and I called.

“To the entrance! Everyone- we must pursue the rest northeast.”

I ran toward the entrance, and with a queer feeling I realized that the others were following me- heeding my orders. I raised my sword and let loose a cry as I ran, and the others echoed with a scream of fury.

We ran down a wide path that narrowed slightly before we reached the beach. I was exposed- the path had bottlenecked and left my companions behind me, but the guards were all distracted. Some guards waded into the sea, and some knelt on the sand and shot arrows toward what appeared for all the world to be a great flaming beast, which drifted and flailed on the waves.

Trusty’s balloon had caught fire, and was crashing into the sea.

The Ancient’s swords sliced through the archers, and they shot their remaining charges into the backs on the guards who were wading into the water. I stabbed my own sword into the sand, and dove into the icy waves.

“Trusty” I called. “Please, please don’t die.”

For a time there was no reply, and then the balloon’s basket caught fire. There was a fizzling sound, and then a huge explosion. The whole sea seemed to boil, and the sky was on fire with sparks of red, gold, blue, and white. I could feel the explosion in my chest, hear it ring in my ears, and a wave of water rushed at me, hitting my open mouth and forcing me back into the sea.

I kicked desperately and hit the surface once more. I coughed and choked, and as soon as my lungs filled with air and my eyes blinked away the salt, only tears remained. The balloon was destroyed, and only a few crackling bits of basket drifted, aflame, on the surface.

“Trusty- no,” I whispered, and then coughed again.

“My balloon!” I heard someone behind me cry. I turned to see Trusty swimming toward me.


“I jumped before it hit the surface.” He swam to me and grabbed my shoulders. “What are you doing in the water? You’ll freeze. Come on- let’s get to shore.”

There was a final crack of thunder, and then the rain started to fall.



The Coven, Part LXV

Dare stoked the fire in silence as we waited for the kettle to boil. Colors from the flames danced in her dark eyes and set her grey hair aglow. She sang a mournful tune under her voice as she worked, and she hardly looked at me when she passed me a chipped mug of tea.

I had learned that it was not her way to rush her words, so I accepted the mug in silence. There seemed to be more meaning in the sad tune she hummed than words could express, so I listened closely.

Dare continued to hum as her tea cooled, and then she took a long sip and sighed.

“I have only had one visitor since you last came to this shrine,” she said. “A man dressed in robes as red as blood- an inquisitor named Brother Claudius- came bearing the body of a young girl. He didn’t even tell me her name- just told me to bury her.”

Dare took another long drink of tea and shook her head disapprovingly. “It is such a waste- a girl who has never seen battle, who has never known love, is dead before she’s lived.”

My blood ran cold- a sickening dread that the warmest blanket could not dampen- and I sat as though frozen. Dare drew nearer the flames and shivered as though she felt the very same chill.

“The inquisitor didn’t need to tell me how she died, but he did, anyway. It was his duty to tell me.

“When an ancient refuses an order from their masters, or raises their arms against anyone the church hasn’t ordered them to kill, it is an act of rebellion punishable by death. The ancients are all assembled in the temple, and then the rebel is lead in by Aeternan soldiers. The rebel is forced to kneel to confess their sins and beg forgiveness of the bishop. The bishop never grants forgiveness, of course; we have no soul to forgive. The rebel is then strangled to death with rope, and the bishop recites the litany of the damned-


Woe to the soulless, who suffer no fate,

Woe to the beings whose pleas are too late,

The only true death, the fate of the beasts,

The flesh rots, the eyes sink, and worms shall feast.


“I’ve seen more executions than I can count,” Dare said. She added another piece of driftwood to the fire, and then sat back as sparks shot up from the flames and into the sky. “Still- I was surprised they killed a girl so young- she couldn’t have been any older than fourteen.”

The poor girl. What could a child her age possibly have done to provoke such a punishment?” I asked.

“That is the strangest part of my tale. The High Priest has ordered that the Ancients all be branded with a mark- visible on the chest and the forearm. The girl refused to take the brand, and that is why she was killed.”

“That is strange,” I agreed. “Why would the High Priest mark a secret race with a visible brand?”

“I don’t know, but the order was absolute. This is why I was surprised you were still free.”

“Then-” I hesitated, and then drew nearer. “Dare- have you been branded, as well?”

“Yes, the inquisitor completed the task when he was here.” Dare lifted her sleeve and raised her forearm into the circle of firelight. There was a scar that shone with an odd sheen in the firelight- the sign of wisdom intersected with an x.

I stood. “Does Abbess Joy know what was done to you? It is her right to protect everyone at del Sol-”

“No girl- sit down. She rebelled against the church once and was punished by the gods. I will not have her do something foolish on account of a little tattoo.”

“This is not just a little tattoo,” I said. “Something is happening, Dare, and I fear that  it’s something that puts everyone in danger.”

Dare only nodded grimly to my revelation. “That much is clear to me, How are we supposed to act as spies and assassins if we can be so easily spotted? But this tattoo is not the only ill sign.

“When the High Priest ordered all of the young ones back to the temple, I’d hoped that it was a sign of peace. Our people are used for one thing- we are weapons, so I’d thought this meant that Aeterna and Sancti would soon reconcile. But the inquisitor let slip that he anticipated a coming war, and when I consider the warning you gave me about the new High Priest, the signs are clear. This is the end of our people. We have been branded so they might find anyone who escapes. I remain because they need me to bury the others, and when they are done, I will join the rest.”

She looked away from the flames, and the light faded from her dark eyes. “You will be the last of our race. You must escape before the High Priest gets to you, so that the ancient line will survive.”

“I can’t be our last hope,” I protested. “How many of us remain? Can’t we fight back?”

Dare chuckled darkly. “You sound like your mother. She often asked me why we don’t rebel together and fight to free ourselves. But we are so few- less than 200, and we would stand against an army of thousands. We are trained to fight with our hands, polearms, and the innocuous tools of the assassin, but the army has rapiers, flintlocks, and cannons. Our one advantage is our resistance to magic, but now there is a high priest who can use magic against us. What do we have to fight with that our enemy lacks?

“I will tell you what I told Harmony- we’ve already  fought for the most important freedom of all, and our physical bondage is nothing in comparison.”

I turned away from Dare and closed my eyes, but the fire was so bright I could still see the shifting colors behind my eyelids.

I had been foolish to think that Pius would wait for me to catch up with him. While I’d tried to unravel his plans, he’d still been acting. Now, because of my hesitation, a young girl was dead.

You have assets, I told myself. The longer you hesitate to use them, the more will die.

“If you had allies and weapons, would you fight? Would the others?”

“I am sure the others see the signs as well as I. We will do whatever it takes to survive.”

I nodded and stood, resolute. “I know where we can find allies- and weapons the army has never even dreamed of.”




The sun had already risen by the time I returned to the south dunes.

I scanned the horizon as I walked, but not a creature stirred on the shore, and hardly a blade of grass stirred in the dunes beyond.

If there had been anyone to witness, my party would not have seemed out of place. A man who wore a grey tunic that marked him as a slave was flanked on either side by cowled pilgrims who might have been his overseers or his masters. No ordinary observer would think the party out of place on the path to the southern shrine, but it was not the eyes of ordinary observers that I feared.

Trusty, whose vision was not hampered by a cowl, scanned the horizon thoroughly as we walked. After a short time he took a deep breath, and his posture relaxed.

“We haven’t been followed,” he said firmly. “No one else was present when you came to us in the field, and we have come across no-one since.”

“How certain are you?” Sir Silas asked, pausing to knock some sand from his boot. “Considering the risk we are taking, your certainty must be very high.”

“I am reasonably certain that Lady Frey was careful when she came to us, and I’ve been watching our surroundings since we left,” Trusty replied. “As to the risk- I must admit that I feel emboldened by Lady Frey’s plan. I’m tired of running and hiding from the inquisitors. We fight to gain knowledge- let us fight to protect it, as well.”

“I hope her plan gives us an advantage, rather than making us targets,” Sir Silas grumbled.

“We are already targets,” Trusty rebutted.

Sir Silas, seeming satisfied with the state of his boot, quickened his pace. “I was surprised to hear you propose such a scheme, Lady Frey- almost as surprised as I was to hear you spin such an outrageous tale. If Trusty had not told me his reasons to believe your story, I might have suspected you’d lost your mind.”

“If you have any other reason to suspect I’ve lost my mind, please tell me,” I said.

Sir Silas chuckled. “Oh no- I will leave that task to Miss Prudence. She is remarkably adept at such things, so I’m sure she has you well at hand. Still, I will verify your evidence as soon as possible.”

We had come to the narrow path into the dunes as we talked. I pointed out the narrow opening, and then led the way into the dunes. A hush fell over the party as we crept through the dunes, which wasn’t broken until we rounded the large dune and saw the ruins.

“Here is your first piece of evidence,” Trusty said, and then he walked ahead, turning to see the columns, the church, and then the gravestones beyond. “My grandfather told stories about this place- a cemetery built on the ruins of an ancient city. I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes.”

“This evidence isn’t so strong,” Mr. Silas countered, taking a closer look at one of the columns. “These are old, but the existence of old ruins is no reason to believe every folk tale. Still, it doesn’t matter whether those buried here are descendents of a mythical race or not. Wherever there is slavery, no matter who is bound, it is our ethical duty to fight.”

“This is where your mother is buried?” Trusty asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I can show you her grave, after we speak to Dare.”

I led the way past the driftwood pit to the church door. Before I had a chance to knock, the door opened and Dare peeked out.

“You were not followed?” she asked.

“No, we weren’t” I said.

She opened the door a little wider, and gestured for us to enter.

Inside, Dare closed the door firmy behind and bade us sit on some of the old wooden pews that stood at the back of the church. She did not sit, but paced up and down the short aisle that ended abruptly at the edge of a wooden table.

“I have fought all my life,” she said as she paced. “I have fought to survive, but the battles were never my own. Now it seems that survival and freedom are the same.”

“We both have a good deal to lose and a great deal to gain,” Sir Silas said. He stood and approached Dare, ducking under a low- hanging beam as he went. “I won’t pretend that the stakes are the same- the guild members freely chose to defy the church, but you are bound by circumstance. If we cannot win, we will flee to preserve our knowledge. Would you be willing to flee to preserve your race?”

“Where would we go?” she asked.

“We will go to the wildlands- we are building ships that can take us there,” Trusty said. He stood as well, but his shorter stature enabled him to walk easily under the beam to stand before her. “The ships are nowhere near ready, though- the first one is only halfway built, and I must know it will work before beginning the others.”

Dare nodded. “I see. What do we do in the meantime? The church has control of everything- weapons and arms and wealth. We only have 200 trained fighters, no money, and no weapons but sticks and arrows.”

“I have weapons that you may use- that we can all use to defend ourselves,” Sir Silas said. “I have made explosives far more powerful than gunpowder, and if we combine that with the gatling gun and the airship-”

“I have no idea how to use such things,” Dare said.

“I will teach you,” Sir Silas said.  “I will put the word out among the guild to gather men and resources. We have known for some time that we may need to fight, soon, and we have the collected wealth of many tradesmen backing the mad experiments of people like me. We will be glad to have allies who are knowledgeable in the fighting arts, to add to our resources.”

“I have no doubt that the guild can prepare,” I interrupted, standing, “but how will we get weapons to the ancients who have been called back to the temple? I assume the temple is guarded, and it must be remote.”

“I can tell you where the temple lies, but it is forbidden for me to speak of it. What guarantee can you give me that you will not tell the authorities about the plan – that you won’t betray my people?”

Sir silas reached into his robes and removed a card that bore the symbol of an eye. Then he took out a pen and wrote the name Sir Earnest Silas on the back.

Can you read, Miss Dare?”

“I can, a little,” she said.

“In secrets, there is trust,” Sir Silas said with a lopsided grin. “I will not betray the other members of the guild, but I can tell you that I have committed crimes against the church. I have written my crimes here- let Trusty and Lady Frey write their crimes beside mine. If we betray you, you can give this card to the authorities and they will arrest us.”

Trusty wrote his name beneath Sir Silas’s, and wrote- literacy, forbidden technology, and sedition against my masters.  Then he moved to pass the pen to me, but Dare stopped him.

“There is no need for Lady Frey to sign- I know she would not betray us.” She tucked the card into her tunic and then knelt on the ground, sketching a rough map of the shoreline into the dirt floor.

“The temple is not far from here,” Dare said. “It is on an island just off the shore that you can reach by trawler. But the temple is surrounded on the east and the south by cliffs, and on the west by a high wall. The only entrance is in the northwest, on the far side of the island, through a narrow and well-guarded path.”

“There may be another way,” Trusty said, rubbing his chin in thought. “I have the prototype for my airship-the small balloon, which is packed in Sir Silas’s cart. Tonight it will be moonless- we could creep in over the cliffs and reach the ancients as soon as the sun sets.”

Dare’s cheeks went scarlet, and she sat down on the nearest pew with a thump.

“So soon- then this is really happening.”

“It must happen soon,” I said, kneeling beside her. “Remember that one has already died, and others will soon follow. We must act.”

Dare nodded mutely, and then looked up at Trusty. “Then we will act tonight.”


The Coven, Part LXVI


The Coven, Part LXIV

I spent the rest of the advent to Chaos night working tirelessly. Sometimes, Prudence worked by my side. We spent our early evenings in the calefactory conducting research into theurgy, though we only found references to the art in short paragraphs and footnotes in the oldest theological tomes. After the sisters returned from confession, Prudence and I adjourned  to the dormitory to prepare our gift for Celeste. When Prudence went to bed I continued to work alone, and then in the early mornings I slipped away to help Honest build the mechanism we would use to view stellar spectra.

If I had not obtained the wakefulness potion from Brother Lux, I would not have had the ability to keep up with my private affairs or research.

I spent the first half of each night  working on my treatise- plotting the planets on their orbits. I used Sir Boromir’s observations as my guide, which, once I’d verified some of the planetary positions using the large telescope, I realized were stunningly accurate. The planet’s motions unfolded – astounding in their elegance. The sun proved to be at one center of each planet’s ellipse, and the speed with which the planets moved was proportional to their distance from that center. How easy it was to see, now that I examined the clockwork of our worlds!

Around two o’clock I would put my treatise aside and write to Mr. Sutton or Mr. St Roch. Then, when my business was done, I would slide a stack of white paper toward myself.

I had drawn, smudged, and re-drawn the scene I’d started sketching in the calefactory- Prudence looking up at the airship. I’d gotten a little better each time I’d sketched her face. Sometimes, as we worked alone together on Celestes’s gift, I would study her face by firelight. Her face was not really round; it was shaped like a heart, with a narrow chin, a wide brow, and a widow’s peak in her scarlet hair. Her eyes were round but not protruding- they were deep-set under finely curved lids and framed by elegantly arched brows. Her age was only just beginning to show just in the soft brackets around her mouth, which disappeared when she smiled.

I sketched and sketched it again until I was able to bring each newly-discovered feature into the fore. In each iteration her aspect grew larger and took up more of the frame, and the airship was nudged aside. As I finished each sketch I longed to begin the next, because my memory had added another detail which must be added- she had a freckle under her ear, and a dimple near her chin. I allowed myself to become enrapt by the image of her beauty to the extent that I hoped never to complete the work.




I went over a week without sleeping, and the days blurred together. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, it was Celeste’s birthday.

Mercy did not give a lesson on Celeste’s birthday. Instead, all of the sisters awoke before sunrise and assembled in the refectory to decorate, bake honey cakes, and arrange her gifts in the place where she usually sat. When Celeste was brought in, she gave a start of surprise, and then her eyes filled with tears.

“Is this all for me?” She faltered. Then, when she saw her seat filled with presents, she laughed a little and wiped the tears away. “Oh! How perfectly wonderful!”

For the rest of the morning, Celeste was all smiles. She opened her simple gifts slowly- almost reverently, folding the colored paper wrappings and placing them carefully aside to save for later. Prudence had carefully hidden our gift to Celeste underneath the others, so that it would be the last she opened.

“Look! Here’s one more. There are so many!”

“Don’t be too excited,” Prudence said, an edge of laughter in her voice. “This one is from Lady Grace and myself, and I’m afraid it is only more schoolwork for you to complete.”

“Don’t tease-” she began as she pulled away the paper, and then her breath caught as she looked at the gift.

Prudence and I had known nothing of the art of bookbinding, but with some instruction from Abbess Joy, we’d contrived to create something sturdy. Prudence had seen to the construction of the book, the folding and sewing of the pages, and had contrived to find thin but sturdy boards to reinforce the canvas cover. I had stitched together the cover and embroidered it with the words, The Research of Miss Celeste Goode.

Celeste ran her hand over the stitching in her name, and then flipped through the book, revealing a great deal of clean, blank paper.

“I don’t know what to say,” she breathed.

“Don’t worry what to say,” I said. “Just think of what you will write.”

“Thank you.” Celeste slipped down from the bench and, still holding her book with one arm, tried to hug Prudence and I at once with the other. Then she turned and beamed at the sisters. “Thank you, everyone.”

“Enough of that, child,” Sister Love said, wiping away a tear. “We are glad to do it. It has been too long since we’ve celebrated a child’s birthday, here. Now, let’s hurry before the honey-cakes get cold.”

It was not the Sister’s custom to eat breakfast, but everyone ate together that morning, and they even chatted together during the meal, allowing Celeste to rhapsodize to her heart’s content.




True to my word, I did not leave until Celeste’s birthday was over. I accompanied Celeste and Prudence to the Cathedral to view the day’s services, where I contrived to blend in with the other pilgrims. There was a short period of prayer and meditation, and then Sister Blessing ascended to the pipe organ to play a fugue. It was an unfamiliar fugue- I had never heard it played at the Cathedral Lux- but it was played with as much skill as the famous organist who played at the city’s Cathedral. I closed my eyes, and I could almost see the notes weave together into a rich tapestry of color, touched by the sunlight that filtered through the high windows.

After the long service there was refreshment in the vestibule, followed by the pilgrim’s pageant. I’d been dreading the pageant, but the amateurish enthusiasm in the acting and design was diverting. I laughed along with the audience at all the wrong moments, and in the end the players bowed and laughed along with us good humoredly.

Then the sisters retired to the calefactory for tea, and Celeste insisted that she would stay awake with the rest of us. Within a few minutes, however, she had slumped over in her armchair and was snoring loudly. We let Celeste sleep until we were ready to return to the dormitory, and then we shook her awake.

“Come, Celeste- you are too big to carry,” Prudence said gently.

Celeste groaned, rubbed her eyes, and then stood to walk. She plodded to the dormitory in silence, and then fell into bed without another word.

“I believe her fatigue is the best commendation we can receive,” I said.

“Yes- I’m glad we could give her a satisfactory birthday, at least. She won’t be a child much longer.” Prudence sighed and shut Celeste’s door behind her. “But what a world for her to grow up in!”

“She’s resilient, and she’s brilliant,” I said. “If we manage to prevent the world from being destroyed, she will make it a better place.”

Prudence nodded solemnly, and then stood a little straighter. “Let’s give her something worth improving.

“By the way, do you still plan on leaving tonight, or will you wait until morning?”

“I will leave tonight. Come with me- we may talk while I get ready.”

Prudence followed me to my room, and as I gathered my things she leaned against the doorframe as though she were barring the way from intruders.

“I have a gift for you,” I said. “Since I won’t be here for Chaosmas, and since it isn’t quite ready, may I give it to you when I return?”

“You always make me anticipate your return,” Prudence replied. “But I like your plan- I have a gift for you, as well. Sine my gift is already finished, I will be able to spend tomorrow more profitably- spying on the pilgrims whose tongues have been loosened by wine. In addition to the cult, I have a new mystery to solve.”

“Oh?” I dropped a fresh change of robes into my bundle and looked up. “What sort of mystery?”

“It isn’t unusual for us to receive donations around Chaosmas,” Prudence said, “but the size of our recent donation, along with the fact that it was given anonymously, is suspicious. Pius has expressed an unusual interest in del Sol, so I thought-”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said quickly. “A donation is a good thing, no matter who it’s from. I imagine it was given anonymously so that there would be no strings attached.”

Prudence threw back her veil and narrowed her eyes.

You!”  she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you sign your name, or at least tell Abbess Joy? I know she would want to thank you.”

“She doesn’t owe me thanks- not after everything she’s given me and has suffered for me. I did not want to make her feel obligated,” I said. “Besides- it’s not just for her. All of the sisters have shown me kindness. Like me, most of the pilgrims come here at times of great need. If I can help them, I should.”

“I won’t tell the others, but thank you – on their behalf, as well as my own,” Prudence said.

Then she looked down the hall, sighed, and put her veil down again. “Here comes another person I will watch while you are gone,” she muttered.

A few moments later, Miss Taris appeared at the doorway, scowling.

“I’d heard you were leaving again,” she stated. “Are you going alone, this time?”

“Abbess Joy is too busy with the celebrations to go with me,” I replied.

“Does Mercy go with you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing behind the gold frames of her glasses as though in suspicion.

“No- she must stay behind to ensure Celeste’s safety. I am only going to the south dunes; there is no reason to expect I will need protection.”

“And the guardian of the southern shrine is even stronger than Mercy,” Prudence added.

Miss Taris entered the room, ignoring Prudence as she walked past as though Prudence were only a shadow.

“Brother Lux will not like this- nor will Father Pius.”

“I don’t see why they would object. I will technically still be on the abbey grounds-”

“Be careful- Lady Frey. Father Pius isn’t happy with your behavior. You are too independent- too wild. You fight, you travel unescorted, and you disappear into the northern cliffs every morning- doing Gods know what-”

Prudence signaled to me from behind Miss Taris, and I managed to control my expression.

“I am only stargazing. Brother Lux and Father Pius are both aware that my hobby is astronomy.”

Astronomy? Do you really expect me to believe you are doing something so innocent? And why must you climb all the way to the northern cliffs to stargaze?”

“You may believe what you like,” I said. “Higher altitudes are better suited to stargazing- the atmosphere is thinner, so the viewing is better.”

“You can’t have much of a difference on so low a cliff,” Miss Taris said. “And you are distracting me from the point. I am sure that Father Pius and Brother Lux would not allow you to travel unescorted, and so I must forbid it.”

“I have heard enough,” Prudence said. She moved beside me and placed her hands on her hips, taking a posture suggestive of the one she wore when she scolded Celeste. “Miss Taris, you shall not interfere. You may have forgotten that Lady Frey’s mother is buried at the southern dunes, and so I will overlook your callous disregard of her grief this once. Never let me hear of you behaving in such a way again.”

Miss Taris faltered and took a step back, and then she seemed to remember herself. She stood a little taller, and gave Prudence a severe glare.

“I’m not afraid of you, Sister Jubilee. But you are afraid of me a little, aren’t you, underneath all of your bravado?”

Prudence stood remarkably still in her pose, but I could hear her breath catch, and feel her stiffen beside me.

“Stop it,” I said firmly to Miss Taris, taking Prudence’s arm. As soon as I touched Prudence, she sighed and slid into a more relaxed posture.

“Miss Taris, why must you attack my friends? Why must we be enemies?” I asked.

“We are not enemies,” she said, the sides of her mouth curling into a grin. “You aren’t worth my enmity. As Father Pius said, you are a mere object – an imitation of life. Why should I respect your so-called grief, when we both know you have no feelings? Why should I respect the friendship of a mere automaton?”

I could feel my face flush with heat, and my hand flew up. Thankfully, before I could deliver the slap, my mind reacted. I clenched my open hand into a fist as though I were throttling my own anger, and let it fall to my side.

“If you think so little of me, then I shall return the favor,” I said. “You aren’t worth striking. I am going to to southern dunes tonight, and you can object all you like. Give Father Pius my regards in your letter to him.”

“Don’t worry- I will tell him everything,” she said, and then she turned to leave. On her way out of the room, she almost ran into Abbess Joy, who was entering the room with sister Blessing.

“Oh! I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said kindly before she turned to me. “I am glad I found you before you left. I have some things I would like Dare to have. If it isn’t too much trouble-”

“Oh no-” I said.

Miss Taris was forced to step aside and allow Sister Blessing entrance into the room. Sister Blessing was bearing a basket almost twice as large as the ones we’d given to the abbey’s beneficiaries, which she handed to me.

“There are a few more things that Dare needed, in addition to the gifts,” Abbess Joy explained. “Some warm socks and extra worsted, fishing line, and of course some fresh herbs and vegetables from our greenhouse, because she can grow nothing in that sand except wild onions. Please give her my love, as well.”

“I am happy to take it to her,” I said. Then I turned to Sister Blessing, who had taken the basket back and started to rearrange the contents in order to make it seem lighter.

“Oh no- don’t worry- it is already as balanced as it can be. It’s not too heavy to carry such a short way.”

Abbess Joy took the opportunity, however, to step forward and embrace me tightly.

“I am so proud of you, my daughter. Have a safe journey.”




I was happy to leave behind the chaos of the abbey and step out into the still, silent night. There was little wind, but there was a sharp chill in the air as I walked. The stars were haloed in silver light, a sure sign that we had not yet seen the year’s last frost. Even so, Abbess Joy’s parting words seemed to warm me like a fleece blanket.

“… my daughter.”

Yet, as I drew near the southern shrine, I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of cold guilt penetrate the warm feeling. I longed to call Abbess Joy ‘Mother’ in return, but how could I, when my mother was buried here?

In addition, I had a fresh source of anxiety in Miss Taris’s threats. She knew that I went to the northern cliffs- did she know about the tower, as well? If Father Pius knew learned about the secrets that were hidden in del Sol, I was certain he would not respect Abbess Joy’s rights to keep them, no matter what rights she had been granted by the Gods.

When I arrived at the shrine, I was relieved to find that Dare was not asleep despite the late hour. She sat alone- a dark shadow huddled beside the dancing sparks of a driftwood fire.

“Hello-” I called. “Good morning! it is almost dawn.”

Dare looked up from the fire sharply, and then paused with her hand halfway to her spear.

“Is it really you? Grace!”

“Yes, it is only me, though I come bearing Abbess Joy’s gifts and her love,” I said.

Dare, however, stood and put the offered basked aside, instead wrapping me in a fierce embrace.

“I am so glad- so glad to see you are still well and free,” she said. As she spoke into my ear, I could feel Dare’s tears drip onto my shoulder.“I wish I had glad tidings for you, my dear, but I’m afraid our worst fears are coming to pass.

Part LXV

Obligatory Novelization Info

Light novels based on my web serial, The Coven, are available on Amazon for both kindle and paperback. These light novels include content not available on this website, including interludes, epilogues, and other vignettes.

As you might imagine, the serials and light novels take a great deal of time and effort to produce, so any support is greatly appreciated.



Click here or above to purchase. 

Aeterna is a kingdom ruled by order, where everyone knows their place. The shy Miss Grace Ainsworth never expected to find herself to flung into a world of chaos, but after her marriage to Lord Frey, everything changes. Soon, Grace is torn between her love for the cosmic order of the stars, and a coven that seeks to take power for themselves and destroy the hierarchy of the entire world. Stellar Visions is the novelization of the first twenty-one chapters of The Coven.


Click here or above to purchase. 

On the surface, Aeterna is a kingdom ruled by order, but when one looks closer, it’s apparent that chaos reigns.
Lady Grace Frey, a shy astronomer and newly-married wife to the dangerous Lord Hope Frey, finds herself flung from one world of intrigue to another when the Prince orders her presence at the palace at St. Blanc. There, Grace must navigate a web of secrets and lies woven by those who would use her for their own political ends. As Grace uncovers one unsettling truth after another, she finds herself lost in a plot more sinister than she’d ever imagined. Somnium is the novelization of chapters twenty-two through forty-four.

Humility is not a Virtue, But Caution Can Be

I don’t have a breakthrough ethical system to present. I cut my teeth on Kant and Mills, and I haven’t come much further since. I prefer utilitarianism when working out difficult moral quandaries, and I try to make sound ethical choices in my everyday life. In one respect, however, I have been neglectful, and that has been in my behavior toward myself.

I am a sentient being who feels pleasure and pain; my happiness should carry as much moral weight as anyone else’s. Unfortunately, my moral intuition tells me something very different- that it is virtuous to treat myself badly.

It is altruistic to deprive yourself of pleasure to ease the pain of others, or to suffer pain in someone else’s stead. However, my moral intuitions do not seem capable of honestly judging when my pain or lack of pleasure will really help others. It feels as though, by always putting myself last, everyone around me should benefit, but that is far from the case.

Imagine living your whole life like this.

To show where my intuition is failing, consider the following scenario- Bridgett decides to go on a drive through her happy town one sunny day. She stops at a four-way stop, and there is a truck that rolls to a stop there as well. Bridgett knows she has the right-of-way, but she is feeling humble and deferential, and decides the nice thing to do would be to wave the truck on. She doesn’t lose much time that way, and the driver of the truck may be in a hurry.

Unfortunately, Bridgett failed to check her rear-view mirror, and misses the car that has stopped behind her. This car will also be inconvenienced by her act. In addition, the rules of the road have been muddied a little, and the more Bridgett adopts this behavior- the more everyone adopts this behavior- the more awkward pause-and-wave exchanges will happen at four-way stops.

Bridgett and the car behind her were mildly inconvenienced in this scenario, but let us move her off of the sleepy exurban street and onto a freeway. Bridgett usually avoids freeways, especially in cities, because she does terribly on them. In the dark corners of her mind, she has acted in a deferential manner so often that the state of Texas handbook might as well state “Bridgett never gets the right-of-way.” Bridgett knows that she has to get onto the ramp, speed up, and merge with freeway traffic, but her ingrained instincts are screaming at her to slow down and let everyone else go ahead.

Today there is a lot of traffic, and a zipper merge is required. Bridgett wants to let everyone ahead, but it seems there is a wall of cars without end. Bridgett hesitates on the gas- the merge lane will soon end, and she isn’t up to speed. Cars are whizzing past. The situation has become dangerous, and traffic is piling up behind her. This can result in a traffic jam in the best case, and an accident in the worst case.

There are unending situations in everyday life in which deferential habits can cause more harm than good. It’s a popular fact that depriving oneself may make one unable to help others at all- “put on your own oxygen mask first.” But in addition to this, when you lower yourself on the social hierarchy, you create a greater disparity that the unscrupulous are tempted to exploit. In a sense, you unbalance a social order that requires a good deal of fairness to operate. Zipper merges prevent accidents and traffic jams only if you are willing to go ahead when it is your turn.




Truth is something that exists outside of our notions of social hierarchy. Fire burns, and it will burn the hand of king and peasant alike, even if the king decrees that he alone is allowed to touch the flame.

Unfortunately, my intuition is unwilling to consider this in its reckonings. I have an unfortunate habit of apologizing for being right when I am shown to be correct in a factual disagreement, and sometimes I will even stay silent when I have knowledge that I should share.

My spouse is an uncommonly intelligent person who has the ability to notice and remember far more details than I can. I space out, and my memory is inconsistent. However, after a lot of introspection I’ve finally concluded that, though my brain may be quirky, I’m not actually stupid. I can keep up with my spouse on an intellectual level at least enough to carry on very interesting conversations, to banter point and counterpoint with him on complex topics, and to be an interesting and entertaining companion to him.

Even so, I still have a hard time stepping out of my self-appointed deferential role. To give a fairly mundane example- not too long ago my spouse was returning a product to the manufacturer, and we went to the UPS store to get a box and label for shipping. The manufacturer requested that the product code be written on the box, so my spouse wrote it on the side in sharpie. He was filling out the label when I noticed a missing digit on the product code he had written.

It took me a few moments to work up the courage to point it out, and even then, I did so in a little faltering voice- “um, I think the five is missing?” I had no reason to add the question mark- I knew the five was missing- but I added the question mark to the end of my sentence anyway.

My spouse, being the reasonable human he is, checked the number and corrected it. I apologized for correcting him as we left the UPS store, but he insisted that he was of glad I had pointed out the error, and thanked me for my help.

Had he not been so understanding- if instead of being a nice person he’d been an arrogant jerk- he might have sneered at my correction. He might have insisted he was right, and pointed out both my astigmatism and my short attention span as evidence that I must be wrong. In fact- he might have just insisted he was smarter than me, and therefore I should shut my mouth. After all, why would a smart person deign to check the number on the box per the mere word of a bespectacled goofball?

If he had acted so, would his arrogance have been the opposite of the mistake I almost made when I hesitated to point out the product code error? In other words, if the jerk version of my spouse had felt less sure of himself, would be have been more willing to check the number? Or would he have fought to maintain the status differential between us, and been less willing to check? From what I’ve seen in arguments between people who view themselves that differently, I believe the latter- a person of very high status, and who finds their high status to be important, is less willing to check an error pointed out by someone of a very low social status.

Conversely, if I had been the one to write the number on the box, and someone else had pointed out an error to me, I would have instantly re-written the number without checking what I’d written. I assume I am wrong, and do not seek to justify myself before altering my behavior to suit others.

I propose that the evil version of my spouse and the current version of me are two sides of the same coin- that we are actually making two versions of the same mistake instead of different mistakes altogether. We are using our sense of relative status as the standard to determine the reliability of information instead of making an analysis of the information itself.

You might argue that relative status can be used as a heuristic to analyze the source of information, but such a heuristic can actually blind one to making an honest examination of the information source- and an excuse to ignore it altogether. If the evil version of my spouse cared more about knowledge than status, he might have considered the fact that, while I do have an astigmatism, my glasses were clean and my prescription up-to-date. He might have considered that, while I usually walk around in a fog, the very fact that I pointed out the error was an indication that I was paying more attention than usual. If the evil version of my spouse had thought about the matter further, he might have realized that product codes are generally long and confusing strings of characters, and that it would be helpful to have a general policy of double-checking them, just in case.

In other words, status hierarchies can be somewhat useful, but are inadequate and outdated technology for analyzing anything truly complicated. It is more useful to ulitise caution instead of humility- to check for mistakes in one’s self regularly not because you think that you are stupid, but because you know that you are a buggy system who deals with complex information.

If I am a buggy system, does that necessarily make me a bad system? If I am, does thinking I am ‘bad’ tell me where I am going wrong? Will calling myself a fool fix my errors? No, it won’t. In fact, this kind of self-flagellation tends to increase my errors. Feeling humble and deferential has held me back, kept me quiet, and made me hesitate to contribute to a society I could otherwise help. At the very least, it has caused me to neglect my own moral worth. Reminding myself that automatic deference will not help anyone is an effective way of countering it. I imagine that thinking overconfidence will not help one’s self may be similarly helpful in overcoming that error.

The Coven, Part LXIII

Discussions on parallax had so inspired Prudence that when we returned to the calefactory, she found a stack of paper left over from the cathedral decorations, a lump of charcoal, and immediately sat to give Celeste a drawing lesson.

“Draw what you see,” she explained to Celeste, gesturing to a small block of wood on the table. “Don’t draw what you expect to see. What angle do the lines on the side of the block appear to make as they go into the distance?”

Celeste adjusted her spectacles and leaned forward as she examined the wood block. Prudence demonstrated by slowly and deliberately sketching the block on her own paper, making lines with long, elegant strokes, and then deftly filling in the shadows.

I had drawn the cube on my own paper- it was a passable representation, as most of my drawings were, but it possessed none of the subtle depth Prudence had demonstrated in her simple still life.

I pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began another sketch.

“If I get very good at drawing, I will make some nice ones and give them as Chaosmas presents for everyone,” Celeste said. “Grandmaman had presents and dinner on Chaos night, so it all blended together with my birthday. Will we do my birthday and Chaosmas separately, again?”

“It will be difficult to separate them entirely,” Prudence said. “There is a long service on Chaos night at the cathedral, and the Pilgrims will perform a pageant to mark the final battle of the Ancient War. Then, on Chaosmas, there is a feast in the pilgrim’s quarters. Even so, I promise we will do something special for your birthday.”

I had been sketching the airship from memory. As stark as it had appeared over the horizon, it was almost as simple an object as the block I’d drawn before. I drew the ropes and the ship’s frame, adding complexity to evoke the surprise I’d felt on first viewing the alien object.  But within my drawing the airship seemed to have a natural home on the plain- like a ship on the sea. When I placed Prudence in the foreground, looking up at the ship, she took prominence in the scene.

I sat back to examine her likeness, and let out a sigh of frustration. I had drawn a woman with a round face and wide smile, who otherwise bore very little resemblance to Prudence. I was not able to properly convey the merry crinkles about her eyes, instead creating an effect that made her look fatigued. I was completely unable to express the brilliance of her complexion in the sunlight using nothing but charcoal. I took out another sheet and began again.

“Are you sure that we will be able to celebrate my birthday if the sisters are all so busy?” Celeste was saying in a skeptical voice.

“I’m quite certain,” Prudence said with a knowing smile. “But on Chaosmas day, you will have double lessons to make up for the day of study you missed.”

“Oh! You wouldn’t,” Prudence looked at me, distraught.

“Of course not, Celeste- your mother is teasing, but I do have some bad news. I promise that I will be here to celebrate your birthday, but I will be away on Chaosmas day.”

Prudence put down her charcoal and looked up in surprise.

“Lady Grace- why? Everyone says it will be such fun,” Celeste said.

“There is a very kind woman named Dare who guards the shrine where my mother is buried,” I explained. “Because she is a slave she cannot leave- even to come to the cathedral. She will be alone on Chaosmas unless I go to visit.”

“How sad!” Celeste said. She put down her charcoal and came to put her arms around my neck. “In that case, I’m glad that you are going. Please give Dare and your mother my love.”

“I will,” I promised, glad I needn’t explain further. In truth, I could no longer bear to celebrate the end of the Ancient War, which heralded the slaughter and enslavement of my mother’s people.

“Why must some people be slaves?” Celeste asked as she returned to her seat.

Prudence and I sat in silence for some time, stunned by the sudden question. Then Prudence spoke.

“It is the will of Order,” she said.

“But- why does he will it? It doesn’t seem fair,” Celeste said.

“I don’t know,” Prudence said softly.

“I’m going to pray to Order,” Celeste said resolutely. “I will tell him how nice Trusty and Dare are. If he knows, he might decide to free them.”

“I hope-” I hesitated and took a deep breath. “I hope he hears your prayers.”

Celeste put a finger to her face in thought, smudging her cheek with charcoal. “It makes me wonder- if Order doesn’t listen to my prayer, and if Reverence and Chastity don’t help, should I still pray to them? I stopped talking to Uncle- to Brother Lux because he isn’t helping Uncle Hope.  But Brother Lux is working for Order, just like the people who took Mother away. It makes more sense that Order is really at fault.”

Celeste sighed. “Abbess Joy works for Order, though, and she helps people. She told me that the people who arrest and enslave others aren’t listening to Order properly- that Order just wants everyone to work together for everyone’s happiness. Am I being terribly wicked when I ask questions about the Gods?”

“Never stop asking questions- no matter the subject,” Prudence said. “Sometimes it’s best to ask quietly, because bad people will imprison others just for thinking. If you stop asking questions, though, these same people may take advantage of you and tell you lies.”

“I see,” Celeste said. She turned to me, “what do you think, Lady Grace?”

“I do not know the Gods, like Abbess Joy,” I said. “But I know it’s better for people to cooperate than to be forced to work. I will never condone slavery.”

The calefactory doors opened, and I hid Prudence’s portrait under some other papers.

“I am sick of morning prayers,” Innocence said as she entered the room, followed closely by Miss Taris. “I think I shall skip it with you from now on.”

Miss Taris sat down without a word and picked up a basket of needlework, and the rest of us followed suit- working or drawing quietly until the door opened again. Sister Love burst in on the quiet scene with a merry laugh, bearing a very large crate in her arms. Mercy followed soon after with a smaller crate, which she placed on the floor next to the first.

“What’s all this?” Prudence asked.

“We have an anonymous benefactor,” Sister Love said. “Someone left us a very large donation. Not only did it cover the Abbey’s end -of-year expenses, but there was enough leftover to provide for some of the poor families who live nearby and for the pilgrims who are most in need. We are arranging baskets for them now with medicine, preserves, and small pouches of money.”

“There’s some yellow paper left over from the decorations. May I make terra flowers to put in the baskets?”

“Of course,” Sister Love replied. “Thank you, Miss Celeste.”

“I wonder who the benefactor was,” Prudence said, peeking into the largest crate. “They must have been quite wealthy, to have given so much. Why wouldn’t they say who they are, and gain credit to their name?”

“There was a note with the donation,” Sister Love said. She leaned over and began to unload the largest crate. “But all it said was ‘thank you for everything,’ and there was no signature. Sister Blessing is convinced that the hand is feminine.”

“There was a gentlewoman who came here a few months ago,” Prudence said. “The doctors in Verdant city could do nothing for her infant, but Abbess Joy was able to cure him. Perhaps the gentlewoman is the one who made the donation.”

“That seems likely,” Sister Love agreed. Then she opened the smaller crate, doled out baskets, and we all set to work.




I spent the rest of the day assisting Sister Love as usual, and retired soon after dinner. Miss Taris followed me, and sat reading in her room with the door open once more. I poured the potion Brother Lux had given me into a cup of tea, and then settled in to work on my treatise.

Brother Lux had been correct about the effects of the potion; I remained awake and alert the whole night. In fact, I felt even more focused than usual, and I easily finished plotting the movements of both Lystra and Miriam. The night grew old, but my eyes remained fresh and clear enough to check my fork for errors.

At four o’clock I put my treatise away and extinguished my lamp. I peeked out into the hallway, where it was dark and silent. Miss Taris’s door was still open, but her lamp was extinguished, and when I leaned close enough I could hear her steady, rhythmic breathing. I crept past her door and made my way through the hall and out the dormitory doors.

Outside, the night was still a clear, velvety black. Lystra, which had seemed merely theoretical moments before, shone clear and bright as it hung low in the east, heralding the coming dawn. I took just a moment to admire the stars, and then turned away and rushed to the tower.

The tower was unlit when I arrived, and  I was certain that I would be alone. However, when I entered and the lights turned on, I could hear voices above. A few moments later, Honest appeared on the spiral staircase.

“You’ve escaped!” he said eagerly when he saw me. “Come upstairs quickly- I wish to show you my experiment.”

He beckoned me to follow, and I ran upstairs to keep up. When I arrived in the laboratory, I saw that the table where Prudence usually worked was covered in new equipment. Various glass tubes were lined up on one side of the table, and at the head of the table was another box, where a glass tube had been placed in the center. Across from the box with the glass tube, at the foot of the table, there was a metal box with a slit on one end and a round opening on the other end. Prudence sat on a stool at the back of the room, balancing a notebook on her knees.

“This,” Honest said, proudly gesturing to the metal box, “is my spectroscope. There is a slit here, for the light to enter, and a prism , which splits the light into its component colors.”

“A rainbow-maker,” I said.

“Exactly. It’s my third spectroscope- I’ve had to refine the model several times to get the fine detail my work requires. My first one was built two years ago, and this is what I saw when I viewed sunlight through it.”

He rifled through some papers that sat next to the spectroscope and retrieved a drawing, which he handed to me. I examined the drawing, which showed a strip of watercolors arranged in the familiar pattern of a rainbow, scratched through here and there with dark pencil lines.

“I had never examined the solar spectrum in such detail before, and wondered what in the world the dark lines could be. When I mentioned the phenomena to Mr Filius, I remarked that it seemed a mystery forever beyond my ken.”

“I’d wager that remark irritated him,” Prudence remarked.

“It did. He gave me a dressing down worse than any he’d given me before. I hadn’t even made an attempt to examine the phenomena, not even for ten minutes, and I’d already decided it was impossible.”

“Mr. Filius never went so far as to dress me down, I’ve said much more foolish things,” Prudence laughed. “He’s a gentleman at heart- much kinder to his female apprentices.”

“I would never seek to make the comparison,” Honest protested. “As far as I know, neither of you have made this particular error.”

“My errors are worse,” I said, “because I can’t see them. My mind simply ignores what it considers impossible, and I never mention it- even in passing. By calling the question infinitely beyond your ken, you at least imagined reaching for it.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Honest said, ducking his head. “In any case, I had no idea how to begin exploring the phenomenon, so I simply tried everything. I observed the solar spectrum at different times of day, with and without diffusion, in autumn, spring, summer, and winter. When I found no clues in observing only sunlight, I observed firelight and lamplight, and I burned different substances to see if anything would alter.

“I still had no clues, only more confusing observations. In desperation, I tried viewing light filtered through different mediums- plain glass, colored filters, and finally, containers of various gases. Here I got my first clue- the lines appeared once more, in different, extremely subtle patterns. Then, when studying with Sir Silas one day, he showed me a remarkable contraption- a beautiful colored light created by heating gas with electricity- like the lights above. When I viewed the spectrum of the gas discharge light, here is what I saw.”

He took a glass tube and exchanged it for the one that had been in the box. Then Prudence slipped from her stool and went to extinguish the lights. For a moment we sat in darkness, and then there was a buzz followed by a low hum, and the glass tube started to glow, emitting a soft, yellow light.

“Here- look through the spectroscope.”

I bent to look through the eyepiece on the box, expecting to see the usual gradient of color in a rainbow. What I saw instead were a few bright bands of color against a background of black.

Honest switched off the box, and the yellow light vanished, replaced by the overhead lights. I blinked a few times, readjusting to the brightness as Honest flipped excitedly through a stack of papers beside the apparatus. Then he handed me a paper with a series of colored bars scribbled on the front.

“Here- these are the lines you saw just now- the colors emitted by heated helium.”

“That is the gas Trusty is using to inflate his airship,” Prudence explained.

“And here-” Honest thrust another paper in my hand, “are the dark lines that cross the continuous spectrum when you view light filtered through helium. You see? They correspond.”

I sat down heavily, examining the papers. “So light itself is altered by the substances through which it filters- not just bent or shaped.”

“Exactly,” Honest’s wide lips stretched into a generous smile. “I’ve been compiling as much data as I can-  recording the patterns of as many different gases as I can obtain. I already have my answer with regards to sunlight, though.” He handed me a sheet of paper with the prominent title The Solar Spectrum. Underneath he had intricately recorded the entire rainbow of color, with every subtle shift in color shaded with care. He had drawn brackets on top and bottom, labeling the patterns of black lines that broke through.

“You see- here is helium,” he said, pointing.

“Incredible,” I breathed. I continued to stare, recalling the time I had jokingly wondered what secrets the rainbow might hold as I bathed in a brook. I had laughed, then, considering it nothing more than a happy dream, but now I held one of the secrets in my very hands.

“This is incredible,” I repeated. “You’ve passed your test twice over; not only did you uncover a secret of light, but you’ve found a way to examine what gases surround our sun.”

“Your discovery was just as impressive,” Honest said quickly. “Mr. Filius told me that your current treatise is more complete than Sir Boromir’s was by far- that you have placed the planets on elliptical courses, and are beginning to describe their motion.”

“I am only building on Sir Boromir’s work,” I said. “Everyone in the guild already knew our earth is a planet that goes around the sun.”

Honest sat on a stool across from me, leaning forward as seriously as if we were engaged in a debate. “Everyone already knows the secret I’ve uncovered, as well. I’m certain that Mr. Filius has given me clues along the way.”

“Still- consider the further implications of your work,” I countered. “For instance- how much light does your instrument require? Might we view the spectrum of a very bright star, perhaps when viewed through a telescope with a large aperture?”

“I don’t know- I’ve never tried it on something so dim,” he leaned back again and placed his finder on his chin in thought.

“If you could- we might see if the stars are like our own Sun, or something different. We might even be able to see if the other planets- Lystra and Tigris are the brightest- have air surrounding them like our earth- I mean Terra.”

“Do you think we may find a stable way to mount my spectroscope?” Honest wondered. “We will need to hold it very steady to get a clear view of something so dim.”

“Perhaps we can mount it to an unwanted eyepiece- though it is so heavy that we might need a way to brace it. I’m sure we can contrive something.”

Honest and I stood to climb the observatory steps and Prudence sighed.

“Yes- go do something useful . I’m sick of listening to you two sit around and praise each other.”

“You must come with us,” I said, unable to suppress my grin as I turned back to Prudence. “Abbess Joy will never forgive you if you let us go unsupervised and we damage her instrument.”





Whole, diffuse- not golden, but white.

Enough to illuminate the world. Enough to illuminate many worlds.

My whole body still tingled with energy as I emerged from the tower into the morning light. I was so filled with energy I could not concentrate on my morning forms. But Terra continued to turn, and soon Mercy’s lesson was over and it was time to begin Celeste’s lessons.Time did not pause for me to wonder at the new discovery; instead it forced me to press forward with my duties.

“I had forgotten how good discovery could feel,” I admitted to Prudence as we walked to the calefactory together with Celeste. “I had resigned myself to unpleasant truth.”

“Discovery is wonderful,” Celeste called over her shoulder as she skipped ahead. “Did I tell you- the sea and the Red Moon are working together, just as you said. I’m glad I can see it for myself.”

“I hope you continue to observe such wonderful things,” Prudence called. Then she turned her veiled face to me and spoke in a lower voice.

“I’m glad you’ve found fresh inspiration, Grace. I’d rather see you run toward adventure than flee danger.”

“I wish you would run with me,” I said.

Prudence paused for a moment and turned away from me. She took a deep breath and threw her head back as though she longed to toss the veil from her face.

“I’ve decided- I will run with you,” she said. “Perhaps it’s the longer days and the abundance of sunlight, or maybe it’s the early scent of green, growing things in the air, but I can feel spring creeping into my veins, and I long to stretch my limbs. It occurs to me that you and I will do much better if, instead of trying to keep up with our enemies, we strive to surpass them. Do you think the stars will be far enough?”