The Coven, Part XCVIII

Read from the beginning.

 

Traitor!” Pride said in tone so thunderous that the dragoons, and even some of Wisdom’s men, fell back a step.

Then Pride’s men drew their arms and charged, and I heard the clash of holy arms against holy shields. Above the clatter, a soft tune drifted in the air.

It was the Grand Litany.

I drew my sword and motioned for Hope to move behind me. We fell back, toward the whistle’s origin, as Pride’s soldiers advanced on their foe.

Wisdom’s men looked around, their expressions panicked. Pride’s men fought with more ferocity.

“Reinforcements must be near,” one of Pride’s young corporals called.

“This way,” Hope whispered to me, urging me toward the road.

I turned and saw Raven, who had paused near road’s entrance. She gestured toward a little knoll, which sloped down the road into a brook that ran through a tangle of brush. Then Raven winked and climbed down into the bank.

I fell back further, deflecting stray blows as I went, until Hope and I were able to break away and run toward the knoll.

We had almost reached our destination when Hope froze in his tracks and uttered a single word.

“Brother.”

I stopped and followed Hope’s gaze. On the road, just where it sloped downward, was a sea of scarlet capes quickly approaching. Brother Lux was at the fore, leading the inquisitors toward us.

“Hope- let’s go,” I urged.

Hope grunted, straining as though he were being held against his will. I reached out and shattered the spell that bound him.

Hope, now free, rushed at his Brother, fists raised to strike.

Brother Lux was unarmed, but he easily sidestepped Hope’s attack. While Hope stumbled past, Brother Lux raised his hand, seeming to focus his attention on the battlefield beyond.

All at once, the fighting ceased. Pride’s soldiers, the dragoons, and even Wisdom’s soldiers were held, suspended in mid action. Swords froze against shields, men held weapons over their heads, poised to strike, and one soldier hovered just over the ground in mid-fall. Hope, too, froze where he had stumbled.

Only the inquisitors continued to move. They followed Brother Lux, all unarmed and with their hands folded in prayer as Lux approached Pride.

“Do not interfere with my spell, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said.

“I won’t allow you to slaughter everyone while they are helpless,” I said.

Brother Lux paused to stare at me, his eyebrows raised as though in surprise.

“I intend to do nothing of the sort,” Brother Lux said. “I am here to prevent bloodshed.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated all of my hatred and mistrust on the spell that bound the men against their will. My feelings flooded the field, just as they had the night that I broke Wisdom’s spell. I could feel the spell shatter under my will.

Everyone remained frozen.

Lux smirked, and then turned to face Pride once more.

“I don’t harbor any ill-will toward you,” Lux said gently as he approached. “Pray, do not escalate this violence unnecessarily. Your men-”

“My men are ready to fight and die for their God,” Pride spat.

At that moment the spell broke, and once again arms clashed, men advanced and fell back; chaos erupted.

Brother Lux grappled Pride, even as Hope roused himself and ran for his brother. When Hope reached the place where Brother Lux and Pride had stood, they were gone, leaving nothing but a patch of trampled grass in their wake. Hope looked around in confusion, and then closed his eyes as though listening.

Pride’s men fell back, some of them staring at where Pride had stood, and others turning as though to flee.

“Has he abandoned us?”

“No- he would never-” Clarity began, but his voice was soon drowned out by the sounds of panic.

“We are defeated- their numbers are too great.”

“We cannot fight them without our angel.
Pride’s men stumbled back, some pushing each other, and others dropping their weapons in their rush to escape. Wisdom’s soldiers sheathed their weapons and clutched their talismans, and the dragoons clutched their weapons tighter as they watched Pride’s soldiers go back through the field, around the church, and out of sight.

I moved toward Hope, hoping we could make our escape in the chaos, but the dragoons surrounded me, blocking my path. A pair of dragoons stepped forward to flank Hope, as well. Hope, ignoring his new captors, opened his eyes.

“Miss Taris, did you cause that panic?” he said.

One of the inquisitors stepped forward, lowering their cowl to reveal long, golden hair.

“Lux isn’t the only one with power.” she said, winking at me. Then she turned toward the battlefield.

“Fear not,” Miss Taris said, a beatific smile on her face. “Wisdom is with us.”

The soldiers dropped their talismans, and the dragoons dropped their defensive stances. A collective sigh of relief seemed to settle over the battlefield.

Sir Beaumont stepped forward and knelt, taking Miss Taris’s pale hand gently in his own.

“My Lady, I am your humble servant,” he said. “Give your command, and I will obey.”

A very pretty blush painted Miss Taris’s cheeks. She lowered her eyes as though in embarrassment, but when she spoke her voice was strong.

“We have taken the tunnels, but we need a guide,” she said. “Please take us through, and be ready to fight. Once we are safely past the Cathedral Lux, you will have your promised reward.”

She raised her head and spoke to the other dragoons. “You have done well this day; you will all have your promised reward.”

The dragoons stood at attention and saluted Miss Taris.

An inquisitor stepped forward to stand beside Miss Taris and lowered his hood. He had long dark hair, and he wore a concerned expression in his black eyes.

“Are there any injured among you?” he called out to the battlefield.

A few men stepped forward, and then cried out in joy as their wounds glowed with a golden light and vanished.

Then the inquisitor spun to face me.

“You are the Ancient girl, are you not?”

“I am,” I said, sheathing my sword. I cast my gaze around, but could not see any avenue of escape.

“My apologies, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a low bow. “I cannot heal you as I have the others, but I will tend to your wounds if you will allow.”

“I am uninjured, but thank you,” I said.

“That is a great relief, my Lady,” he said. “I am Fortune, at your service.”

Hope stepped forward again, his guards moving with him in lockstep. “Where is my brother?”

“Lux isn’t far. He is distracting Pride,” Miss Taris said. “We can’t allow Pride to disrupt the peace we’ve so recently won, here.”

“The peace?” I said incredulously.

Miss Taris nodded. “Come and see.”

 

 

#

 

 

The inquisitors, Wisdom’s soldiers, and the dragoons all walked together up the road to Rogue Village. They went in no particular order, except that Hope and I were surrounded by a tightly-knot group of dragoons at all times.

As we walked, the winds swept the clouds aside, revealing patches of sky filled with twinkling stars. The quarter moon, high in the sky, peered out from between clouds before covering its face again, like a child playing a peeking game.

The inquisitors began to sing an unfamiliar, but cheerful song in the unmistakable cadence of a litany. After a verse, wisdom’s soldiers joined in with so much enthusiasm that even the dragoons began to sing tentatively, as though the words were unfamiliar.

One of Wisdom’s soldiers smiled at the dragoons, seeming to understand. He raised his voice, singing in diction clear and crisp enough to make the words clear. The soldiers all followed suit, and the song swelled loud enough to fill road and field.

 

Peace on Earth,

And Heaven’s song,

Echo winter- summer long.

 

Angel, God,

And human child,

Join in spring and autumn mild.

 

Peace on earth,

Eternal, sing!

Pray to Wisdom,

Let joy ring!

 

The soldier’s feet, though weighed down with armor, moved as though in a dance down the sloping road. Even the inquisitors, robed and dignified, walked with a spring in their steps.

Ahead of us, I could see the lights of the village, which seemed to twinkle in time with the music. The town was surrounded by a low wall, but the gates were flung wide open, despite the late hour. The guards gave us friendly nods and waves, and we walked into town unimpeded.

Pride’s prediction that the town would be shuttered proved to be incorrect. All of the shops had open doors and open windows that blazed with lamplight. The people walked from shop to shop, some singing, others bearing trays of fruit, nuts, and sweets, and still others handing garlands of spring flowers over the windows and doors.

Hope shot me a bewildered look, but I could only shrug in reply.

When we reached the square, we were met with a strange sight. In the center of the square stood a monument- a large wooden statue of the symbol of Order atop a platform. Men with tools and lumber stood around the statue, some measuring the monument and others taking notes as though they planned to alter it.

A carnival-like atmosphere filled the square around the monument. There were people all around with food, flower garlands, and musical instruments talking, singing, and dancing.

Wisdom’s inquisitors and dragoons dispersed into the crowd, seemingly unable to resist such delights. Hope took my hand, and we edged our way through the crowd toward a dark alleyway just off the square.

“This is a conquered people in the aftermath of a battle?” I whispered. “What happened to Order’s supporters?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t intend to stay long enough to find out,” Hope whispered back. “Come- now’s our chance.”

We both ducked into the narrow alley, but we did not get far before we found someone blocking our path.

Miss Taris, standing tall with folded arms, smiled serenely as we approached.

“Step aside,” I said, putting a hand to the hilt of my sword. “I don’t wish to hurt you.”

Miss Taris ignored me, turning instead toward Hope.

“If the chance to rule all of Aeterna isn’t enough to make you stay,” she said, “perhaps I have something else that will.”

She reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.

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The Coven, Part XCVII

Read from the beginning.

My breath was short, my heart raced, and beads of sweat dripped from my face. Still, I held my stance steady, refusing to show weakness.

I had run the gauntlet of dragoons, from the most experienced ones whom I’d beaten easily, to the highest-ranked, who had floored me. Now I faced the dragoon’s leader, Sir Beaumont, who had not been at all formidable until I saw him in combat.

Sir Beaumont was the most skilled fighter I’d ever faced, and possibly the most skilled I’d ever seen- except for Mercy. He did not dance and dodge about when he fought; his fighting was efficient. He stood, watched, anticipated, and then struck like lightning.

I refused to give up. I changed my approach, hoping that if I made a bold enough advance, my feint would be convincing. Sir Beaumont easily dodged the first strike, his delicate eyebrows raised in amusement.

Then the lights went out.

I could not react in time to stop my follow-up strike, and I felt it connect with its target.

When the lights returned, I saw Sir Beaumont holding his stomach where I’d hit. He wore a look of naked shock, and then he straightened and laughed.

“Even after fighting every dragoon, you managed to land a hit.”

I doubled over, bracing my hands against my knees as I gulped in the air. Then I stood to face my opponent once more.

“I got lucky,” I said, “or perhaps someone helped me cheat. Who turned out the lights?”

Several eyes turned toward Hope, who had been watching practice with a stony expression. He held up his hands as though to demonstrate his innocence, though his expression did not change.

“I don’t know how to operate the lights,” he said.

“I’m sure it was only an accident,” Sir Beaumont said quickly. “The lights sometimes flicker when there are disturbances in the power source. Our Archangel will fix the problem, if there is one.”

Sir Beaumont turned to me. “Well done; you have earned your rank among the company, Lady Frey. From now on, you will train with Lieutenants Wiltshire and Ingram.”

The two men he indicated stepped forward and bowed slightly. I turned and bowed to the men in turn, recognizing them as the two I’d seemed most evenly-matched with when we’d fought.

“Corporal Eddie,” Sir Beaumont said, turning to another soldier. “I would like for you to train Lord Frey. Begin with balance and light endurance- I need for him to be stronger before we encounter danger.”

Corporal Eddings stepped forward and saluted his commander, and then turned and tentatively approached Hope.

Hope gave the corporal a look so withering that the corporal stopped and took a step backward.

“Please do not eat my corporal alive,” Sir Beaumont laughed. Then he turned back to the company. “This is enough for one morning. You are dismissed.”

The men all saluted, and then the company broke up, some of them going to the baths, and others to the mess. Corporal Eddings made a hasty retreat, wearing a look of relief.

“You shouldn’t intimidate him so,” I scolded Hope in a low voice.

“He aimed for your injured shoulder while you were sparring- repeatedly,” Hope grumbled. “It’s a dishonorable way to fight.”

“There’s hardly a mark on my shoulder, anymore,” I said. “Besides, there is no such thing as dishonorable fighting. Mercy has done worse- when she wasn’t mesmerized. She taught me many hard lessons on a daily basis.”

“That is different,” Hope said through gritted teeth.

“Why- because she is a woman?” I said with a laugh as I sat next to Hope.

“Of course not; I am well acquainted with Mercy’s strength. It is simply that I know Mercy, and I trust her.”

Lieutenant Wiltshire, who had been speaking to Sir Beaumont nearby, smirked and stepped a little closer to us, speaking in a raised voice. “Sir Beaumont, you are one step closer to your goal, today.”

“His goal?” Hope said.

“To form an all-female company. He’s had the mad idea for some time. Pride has always said no, of course.”

“A woman’s light figure is superior for riding, and an enemy would not expect a woman soldier, giving the company an advantage,” Sir Beamont said. “I stand by my original assessment.”

“Perhaps some women could act as helpers to the company, but in general, the difference in size and strength between men and women gives men an unfair advantage in a fight,” Lieutenant Wiltshire said.

I was surprised that Lieutenant Wiltshire contradicted his superior so boldly. Sir Beaumont did not chide him, however, but merely smiled in reply.

“In general, woman’s strength is different than a man’s,” Sir Beaumont said. “But that strength, I believe, can be molded to use in a martial setting. You must admit that Lady Frey got the best of you, this morning.”

“She is an Ancient, which makes a great difference. Besides, I was tired from marching. It will not happen again.”

“I have been marching, the same as you,” I said.

Lieutenant Wiltshire looked ready to argue, but at that moment a commander of the foot soldiers walked past, and Lieutenant Wiltshire’s face went red. He bowed deeply to Sir Beaumont before making a hasty retreat. Sir Beaumont, also, bowed before making his way to the mess area.

I leaned closer to Hope as the others dispersed.

“You really don’t need to worry about me,” I said earnestly. “I am strong- stronger than when you were taken from me.”

“I know, but I had little else to do but worry about your wellbeing while I was in prison. Now that you are with me, I feel as though I must grip you tighter, or you might slip through my fingers like Prudence and Celeste.”

“We will get them back,” I whispered. “Trust Mercy to protect them, and trust me to protect you while we search for them.”

Hope closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, his face was relaxed and serene.

“You are right; I should trust you.” He leaned to whisper in my ear. “Keep a hand on your sword’s hilt, but be slow to draw it. Stay close to me, and keep watch.”

“Ahem.” I heard an exaggerated cough, and I turned to see Raven standing behind me. She stood with her hands on her hips, wearing an annoyed expression.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said. “We will have to go, soon. Are you ready?”

Raven stared into Hope’s eyes, and he gazed steadily back. It was a silent communication I could not join.

“We will be ready,” he said.

“Make sure you are,” she said, casting a significant glance in my direction.

The lights flickered again. Then, when the lights glowed steady and bright once more, Clarity called out.

“There’s no time to dawdle. Everyone, take a pack and fall in.”

Without question, the troops obeyed, taking up their rucksacks and satchels and filing out into the hall. Clarity called to the troops as they went, telling them to “look alive.”

Before I could think about what had passed between Raven and Hope, we were in the hallway, marching in double-time.

 

 

#

 

 

The party paused once at mid-morning. Pride held up his hand for attention, and then turned to Sir Beaumont.

“There is a utility room here,” he said, gesturing to a section of blank wall to his left. “Contact our allies at Rouge Village. I will test the power here.”

Sir Beaumont bowed and then went to the blank section of wall, which opened to admit him. Meanwhile, Pride gestured to another soldier, who stepped forward, bearing a folding box which he unfolded and placed on the ground.

Pride stepped onto the box and reached up to a section of cord that was attached to the ceiling near the lights. He made the sign of order with his free hand and then closed his eyes as though to pray, but instead of reciting a prayer or litany, he hummed a deep, guttural “ohm…”

A few moments later the lights flickered again, and Pride opened his eyes, though he continued to hum. Then he stopped humming, stepped down from the stool, and spoke to Clarity.

Hope leaned forward and narrowed his eyes as though he were struggling to hear what Pride said, but I could hear the entire conversation clearly.

Before I could say anything to Hope, the wall opened once more, and Sir Beaumont stepped out.

“We are victorious, just as you predicted, my Priest,” Sir Beaumont said with a deep bow toward Clarity. “Wisdom’s forces are in retreat, and are now behind the forest line.”

“Excellent,” Pride said. “I shall inform Reverence in my prayers.”

Clarity stepped forward and barked his orders. “Sir Beaumont, fall in. Troops- move out!.”

 

 

#

 

 

Energy lines are unbroken, I wrote on Hope’s palm later that night. Problem is with the portal.

Suspicious, Hope replied.

I agreed, and the reasons for my suspicions seemed too numerous to write on Hope’s palm. Why would the energy portal to this place experience disturbances if Reverence were awake, and in his full power? Is that why Pride had used a spell of silence to screen his conference with Clarity? Didn’t he know I would hear him, anyway?

Unable to articulate all of my worries in such a limited language, I simply wrote, what next?

Hope paused, and the silence seemed to stretch out around us, as boundless as the darkness. Then he wrote on my palm again.

Be ready. Raven will signal.

      What signal?

      The Grand Litany. Raven will whistle.

      This was so surprising I could not formulate another question, so I just signaled my understanding to Hope. I stayed up very late, however, thinking about the signal Raven had chosen.

The Grand Litany was the first litany every child learned to sing, the litany chosen to close most church services, and one sung at happy events, such as weddings. It was a litany which represented Order’s triumph, when he had finally overcome the demonic rebellion and cast the demons into the abyss. Why, I wondered, would a demon use that litany to signal our chance to escape Reverence’s angel?

As the night grew old and fatigue cast her heavy blanket over my anxiety, I realized that I was overthinking the signal’s meaning. It was a common and recognizable tune, so Hope and I would not easily mistake it. Raven could use her simple whistle to communicate meaning even if Hope could not look into Raven’s eyes to see her thoughts, and I would be able to easily follow.

Still, I thought the others would find it strange for Raven to whistle such a tune. She may have formed an alliance with Pride, but it was a tentative one born from convenience.

My mind formed such a strange loop over the puzzle that I could not discern the place where my thoughts morphed into dreams, and I drifted seamlessly into sleep.

 

 

#

 

 

Pride’s company set out even earlier than the day before. There was no time for drills and little time for breakfast. We assembled and marched, and as we did so the ground seemed to tilt under my feet. Soon, I found we were climbing up. Then the tunnel turned sharply to one side, and at the end I could see a ladder, which led to a hatch-door like the one Hope and I had descended through.

Sir Beaumont signaled for silence and stepped forward on quiet feet. He ascended the latter, opened the hatch, and then passed through to the outside.

Pride and Clarity waited with bored expressions, but the soldiers hardly seemed to breathe in anticipation of Sir Beaumont’s return. Finally, Sir Beaumont did return, wearing a smile of triumph.

“All is clear. We may emerge.”

The process of ascending was slow. Because the ladder was narrow, we were only able to emerge one at a time. The order of our emergence was reversed- instead of Pride and Clarity leading the way, the men parted, forming an aisle down the middle of the corridor for the lowest privates to pass. The lowest-ranking men climbed the ladder first, followed by their commanders, the low-ranking dragoons, and then the high-ranking dragoons. Finally, Clarity turned and gestured to Hope, Raven, and I.

“We will be just behind you,” he said.

The ground outside was wet, and a deliciously moist breeze blew across the open field by the forest line. Overhead, dark clouds shifted and sunlight broke through, indicating that a storm had just passed.

I stepped out of a pine box- a fake coffin much like the one I’d entered. This grave, however, was not a criminal or pauper’s tomb, but rather one neatly tended grave among others in a country churchyard.

The churchyard was not large, and it was now overcrowded with soldiers and dragoons, who pressed against the low picket fence and stepped over tidy beds of narcissus and cup-flowers. Climbing roses covered the church wall behind us, obscuring any windows.

Clarity and Pride emerged from the grave, and then Clarity folded back the coffin lid and covered it with a length of fake sod, which blended neatly with the mowed grass beside it.

“Oh!” Raven paused, her eyes wide as though in surprise. “That scent- is there a confectioner nearby?”

Clarity gave Raven a withering glance. “Of course not, stupid girl. All of the shops in the village will be shuttered now, anyway.”

“But- then what is that scent? It’s delicious.”

I took a deep breath, but all I could smell was the moist air and the rain-washed flowers.

“It’s just the cup flowers,” I said. “Haven’t you smelled them, before?”

“I traveled to the city underground, and the city wasn’t like this at all.” Raven paused and turned, taking everything in. Then she turned to me and muttered.

“You don’t know what you have, do you?”

Before I could respond to this strange comment, Clarity barked another order for the soldiers to fall in, and then we marched through the churchyard gate and into the field beyond.

The field was surrounded on two sides by forest, with the churchyard behind us and an open area to the west. Pride led the party west, toward a muddy road that wound out of sight. Before we reached the road, however, he stopped, putting his hand up for silence, and then looked around.

For a moment, I heard only silence. Then, there was a rustling sound in the trees around us. Sir Beaumont gestured toward the Dragoons, who moved to the outside of our group, their arms bared to the trees beyond.

“Show yourselves,” Sir Beaumont called to the trees.

That was when the enemy appeared, slipping from the shadows and from among the trees as though by magic. Their movements were so smooth they didn’t rustle a single leaf.

And there were scores of them.

The enemy soldiers were armed with swords and bows that shone as though they were brand new. Their uniforms were clean and tidy, and the symbol of Wisdom shone in silver on each strong, upright chest.

Sir Beaumont’s eyes narrowed. He drew himself to his full height, seeming to gather his courage.

“Dragoons, move now!” he called.

The Dragoons moved as one without hesitation, turning their backs toward Wisdom’s soldiers to point their arms at Pride and his men.

Part XCVIII

The Coven, Part XCVI

Read from the beginning.

 

I dried myself as quickly as I could, threw on the pilgrim’s robes, and bundled Hope’s clothes into my valise. Then I followed Raven, plaiting my damp hair as I went.

All of the men were gathered in the mess area, and Hope was with them. He sat a little bit apart from the men, wearing an expression of peaceful contemplation that, combined with his pilgrim’s robes and shorn head, gave him the look of an aesthetic.

Hope looked up at me and smiled a little, gesturing toward the seat beside him. I joined him, and trays very much like the ones we had eaten from the day before were passed down the row. Hope and I each took one, and inside were rubbery eggs, porridge, and grilled vegetables.

Hope took a few bites, and then he sighed. “I dreamed of such food while I was in prison, but now I don’t have much stomach.”

“Are you unwell?”

“No- I’ve just grown unaccustomed to rich food. You may well laugh,” he said, gesturing with his fork to the unflavored vegetables and unsweetened porridge, “but this is a feast compared to what I’ve eaten these last few months. I will adjust in time.

“It will be far more difficult for me to adjust to seeing you spar,” he added with a serious expression, though his eyes glittered playfully. “It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to rescue you from that young brute and his wooden sword.”

I pushed my own eggs around my tray, and then swallowed a mouthful. “I hope that my easy victory reassured you that I don’t need rescue.”

“Oh no,” Hope laughed. “I am far too impulsive to allow for such rational reflection upon the evidence of my own senses. I’m all anxiety for you. Still, I must admit that I am impressed by how far you’ve come in the span of a couple of months- if I really was in prison for only a couple of months.”

I leaned forward and whispered. “I must make a confession. I began learning to fight while I was still at St. Blanc. Mercy taught me each morning in secret.”

“So that is why you went missing each morning and came back covered in mysterious bruises. There is one source of my anxiety put to rest. I trust that, from now on, there will be no more secrets between us.”

Hope’s tone was still light- teasing- yet I felt a stab of guilt all the same. I could not discern the source of the guilt. The only secret I could think of that remained between us were the measures I’d taken to ensure my people’s freedom- the battle at the Ancient temple, and the promise I’d made to Wisdom never to bear children. I had not intentionally concealed these facts from Hope. Absolute secrecy was required to keep the Ancients safe, and I had only remained silent due to circumstance.

I resolved to tell Hope as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but guilt still lingered in that dark place in the back of my mind where I dared not look.

 

 

#

 

 

After breakfast the lower-ranked men cleaned the barracks, and then everyone filed outside. Brother St. Anise sealed the room behind us, and then we fell into rank and resumed our march through the tunnel.

The march was just as monotonous as it had been the day before, made worse because it continued the whole day. Any cheer or conversation among the ranks of soldiers was gone; there was little else but the rhythmic sound of footsteps that echoed through the endless grey tunnel.

Hope broke the silence from time to time, trying both flattery and humility in turn to coax information from Clarity St. Anise. For all of Hope’s efforts, Clarity responded best to frustration, saying very little unless Hope uttered a statement that he found to be particularly ignorant.

“This tunnel is a most remarkable feat of construction; it seems endless. Will it take many weeks for us to reach the first exit?”

“Weeks? Don’t be ridiculous,” Clarity snapped. “It is a mere three days until we reach Rouge Village. You would know this if you’d paid any attention to the map in the cathedral.”

“Rouge Village is one of the western villages,” Hope said slowly. “Won’t it be dangerous for us to disembark while Wisdom’s troops approach?”

“Wisdom’s army will not be a problem. We have soldiers and dragoons that can lend their strength to Order’s troops, but I’m sure it won’t be necessary. By the time we arrive, Wisdom will have been defeated.”

Without thinking, I put my hand to the hilt of my sword, which was tucked into the girdle of my pilgrim’s robes. I was not at all reassured by Clarity’s confidence.

“So soon?” Hope said. “Then Wisdom’s army must be very close to the villages already.”

“Of course they are close. Wisdom’s army had a head start, and they can march straight through the forest pass, while our tunnel must go around because of the poor soil. Now please- cease these ridiculous questions. I have much more important things to worry about than putting your ignorant mind at ease.”

We continued to march until I felt I could not go another step, and then we stumbled into another barracks. Though this barracks was designated “B2,” the room looked so exactly like the one we’d left that I thought we must have walked in a circle and returned to the same place.

There was a short and quiet repast in the mess hall, and then we fell into our cots and the lights were extinguished.

Without the glow of electric light, the room was so dark that I could not tell when my eyes were open or shut. Underground, with no window to let in moonlight or starlight, I could not even discern shadows.

I started when I heard a scraping sound beside me, but relaxed when I realized that Hope was moving his cot closer. Then I felt his hand in mine, and I felt complete- like something I’d lost was found.

We lay side by side in silence for a time. Then his hand moved, and he traced his finger across my palm, just as I had when I’d first seen him in prison.

He traced the letters E-S-C-A-P-E, and he traced them a second time, followed by a question mark.

He held his palm flat, and I put my finger against it to trace. Yes. When?

      I held my palm flat again and he answered. Rouge Village. Raven’s Plan.

      Trust her?  I replied.

Yes.

What plan?

Chaos. Wait for signal. He paused a moment, and then traced some more letters. Find Prudence and Celeste- then what?

      Ships at Del Sol.

      Going where?

      The wildlands.

      Hope paused, and then wrote. Whose ships?

      Friends.  I paused then, unsure of how to convey what had happened in such a disjointed and easily misinterpreted language. Ancients using ships to escape.

      Ancients?

      Yes. Wisdom marked for death.

      I took Hope’s hand and placed it against my chest, lightly tracing his fingers over the scar that lay underneath. Hope drew in a sharp breath, his hand trembled as he traced the shape once, twice, and three times.

Then I took his palm again and wrote. I made the scar. Disguise. Fought for freedom at Ancient temple.

      How?

      Help from friends. Ancients hide until escape. Secret.

      Hope took my hand, but did not trace any more letters. Instead he brought my palm to his lips and kissed it. Then he drew me to him in a fierce embrace, kissing my brow, my cheeks, my lips.

I allowed myself to bask in his tender kisses, but after a time, I heard the voice of guilt call from the back of my mind.

I was giving Hope my secrets, and yet the guilt remained.

I dismissed the feeling, but I suddenly became very aware of where we were, and that though the room was dark, there was still no privacy. The soldiers around us could hear everything.

I did not break the kiss, but I did slow it. I did not pull away from him, nor did I advance. My actions were sensible- proper- but they still separated us a little.

Though Hope did not complain, I was certain he could sense that something new stood between us.

Part XCVII

The Coven, Part XCV

Read from the beginning.

 

The room designated “B1,” was a military-style barracks, filling one large, open room that was divided into thirds. The section nearest the door was filled with rows of cots, the furthest section was a mess area filled with tables and benches, and the section between was a wide, flat area with prayer rugs lined up before the symbols of Order, Chastity, and Reverence, which were painted in scarlet and gold on the grey walls.

There was as little privacy in the barracks as there had been in the Cathedral St. Blanc’s infirmary, but in the barracks, at least, there were cots available for everyone. For the duration of Hope’s trial, I had either curled up beside Hope on the edge of his cot, or else had forgone sleep altogether. Here, I was able to stretch out on my own cot, and this luxury was enough to overcome the effects of the strong tea I’d had moments before.

The lights in the barrack were extinguished, and I soon fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

#

 

 

The electric light of morning burst suddenly in the barracks. I sat up, trying to blink away the dreams danced at the edge of my brain like the  spots that danced in my eyes.

When my vision cleared, I saw that groups of soldiers were assembling in the center of the barracks. They had rolled up all of the prayer rugs, and were using the open space for drills.

I turned to the cot beside me. Despite the sudden burst of light, Hope lay still- his breath even and unperturbed. I moved quietly, though none of my movements could be as loud as the soldier’s chatter, and gently touched Hope’s forehead. He was not feverish, and his breathing was even. He sighed and buried his head in his arm to block the light- exhausted.

I felt under my cot, where I’d stowed my belongings the night before, and retrieved my sword. Then I stood and joined the ranks of soldiers in the center of the room.

I imagined that I understood how Miss Taris felt the day she joined Mercy’s lessons at del sol. I knew that I was not welcome, but I was determined to learn to use my new weapon, so I stood behind the back ranks of swordsmen and followed the exercise, ready to be admonished for my intrusion at any time. The commander, however, ignored me as he led the exercise, and I was able to follow along in peace.

My left shoulder twinged in protest at the exercise, even though I hefted the sword with my right arm. As my muscles grew warmer, however, my shoulder felt looser, and soon I found I had regained the full range of motion. I had hoped for an opportunity to examine my injured shoulder, but there had been no privacy for me to remove my shirt, or even to loosen it for fear of exposing my scars. When I touched my shoulder, however, it seemed less tender and less swollen, so I contented myself with this knowledge and kept my attention on my sword arm as much as I could.

After the preliminary exercises were done, the commander arranged his men into sparring groups of two. I stepped away from the group to rejoin Hope, who had awakened and was watching the drills. The commander, however, stopped me.

“Private Harrison, try your strength against the girl,” he barked.

Many of the men laughed as a bulky, awkward youth stepped forward. He blushed slightly, but he obeyed his commander.

The commander handed me a wooden practice sword, and gestured for me to move to the center of the room.

“I expect you to go all-out, private,” the commander snapped. “Don’t let her sex fool you; she is a trained Ancient warrior.”

The young man nodded, but he slid into his fighting stance slowly- reluctantly. When the commander called for us to begin, he made a halfhearted swing, which I easily parried before delivering a slap with the broadside of the sword to his side.

The men roared with laughter. “Go on, Harrison. You swing like a girl!”

Private Harrison’s face grew even redder, but he set his jaw determinedly. I found myself growing hot, as well.

We began to fight in earnest, even as laughter and jeers echoed around us. Private Harrison managed one stinging hit to my arm before I noticed his fighting pattern. It was not difficult to see- it was the exact pattern we had moved in during floor exercises. I easily countered his next few moves, and then delivered two quick blows.

“Hey- that’s not how you’re supposed to do it,” he complained.

I ignored his complaints and continued, trying to ignore the taunts from the other soldiers as we fought. This was nothing like sparring before the Sisters at del Sol- I was beating the private easily, but I got no cheers of encouragement from the crowd. Each point I scored was not my triumph, but my opponent’s failure, to be mocked and derided.

Finally, I’d had enough. I swept my opponents legs and, when he fell, held the fake sword to his throat.

“You aren’t supposed to sweep the leg,” Private Harrison groaned.

“There aren’t any rules on the battlefield,” I said, repeating Mercy’s lessons. “There’s just alive and dead.”

Then I held out my hand to help him stand. He waved it away in disgust and stood on his own, turning his back to me.

“That’s not quite how things work in the infantry,” the commander said. “The soldiers here are not warriors. They are rigid, like swords the command wields against the enemy. They are taught simple forms their captains can predict, adapt, and direct against the enemy when they move.”

“I see,” I said. I handed the wooden sword back to the commander.

“Still- that was well done.” The commander put the sword aside and shook my hand earnestly. “I suggest you train with the dragoons. They use many different weapons, they fight from horseback or on foot, and are therefore more adaptable. You will get a greater challenge from them.”

“Thank you for your advice,” I said.

There was no time to approach the dragoons, however. The morning drills were over, and the men were dispersing through a door in the side of the room, their postures relaxed, chatting as they went. Even in the relaxed atmosphere, however, remnants of the rigid hierarchy remained. No one spoke to anyone outside their own rank, and men of lower rank stood aside for their superiors to pass through the doors first.

I returned to Hope, who was watching me with a strange, calculating expression. Before I could speak to him, however, Raven approached- her red hair still rumpled from sleep. She was carrying two white robes, which she shoved toward us.

“They are pilgrim’s robes. There are cupboards full of them here, and I thought you would want to change,” she gestured vaguely toward Hope’s thin, fraying prisoner’s clothes.

“Thank you,” Hope said. He looked around. “Where…”

“The baths are through there,” Raven said, pointing to the door where the soldiers were filing out. “You can freshen up and change there.”

Hope nodded and stood as Raven took my hand, pulling me to the opposite side of the room.

“Come on- the women’s bath is over here, and we will have it all to ourselves.”

I opened my mouth to object, but I could summon no reasonable excuse to refuse. It had been ages since I’d had a proper bath. I’d both slept and exercised in Hope’s shirt and breeches, and the broadcloth clung to my sweaty skin.

I allowed Raven to haul me into the women’s bath, hoping I would find some way to secure privacy once we’d arrived. My hopes, however, were dashed as soon as I saw the room. Three was no screen to change behind, no curtains to separate bathers, or any other luxury of that sort. There was a section of latrines with a series of stalls to afford privacy, but the bath itself was a wide, open pool of water. Pleasantly scented steam rose from the bathwater, though not enough to conceal anything in the bright electric light.

“Here- you’re supposed to wash before getting into the bath,” Raven said, indicating a series of stools nearby, each of which was supplied a wash-bucket and fresh bar of soap. Then she began to undress, unselfconsciously shedding her layers of skirts and crinolines and hanging them on a hook on the wall.

Then she paused and looked at me.

“You’ve never used a public bath, before?”

“The bath was shared at del Sol,” I said, “but there were curtains for privacy.”

“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Raven said cheerfully. “It’s just the two of us, and we’re both women.”

“There aren’t any- I believe you called them cameras?” I said, thinking of the ‘eyes’ Raven had been so careful of before.

“Oh no- I made sure of that the first time I used the bath. Don’t worry- we are perfectly alone.”

I sighed in resignation. “Raven, there are some scars on my body that- that may appear strange. Please do not ask about them, and please don’t tell anyone else.”

“I wouldn’t say anything about your scars. I promise.”

I nodded and slipped off Hope’s shirt.

Raven did not watch me as I undressed. I hung up my clothes, quickly removed the bandages from my shoulder, and we washed and rinsed in silence. As we slipped into the bath, however, Raven caught sight of the scar on my chest, and her eyes went wide.

“That isn’t-” she stopped and slapped her hand over her mouth.

“I really cannot talk about it,” I said. “Please-“

“I’m sorry. I promised not to ask, so I won’t. Am I allowed to ask about the bruise on your shoulder?”

“It’s not important,” I said.

Raven shrugged, and then cupped her hands, pouring the warm water over her neck and back. “So then- I’ll just change the subject, I guess. What do you think about Pride’s plan?”

“If you are referring to Pride’s battle plans, I have no idea. I haven’t learned anything about tactics, yet. If you are referring to his plan to ally with Sancti…”

I hesitated, unable to put my misgivings into words. Even so, Raven nodded as though in understanding.

“A lot of people in Aeterna think that Sancti is a beacon of enlightenment and liberality, but things in Sancti are really just as bad as they are in Aeterna,” Raven said quietly. “The slaves are free in name only. No support has been offered to them to help them start new lives, and no one wants to hire former slaves. Because of this, most former slaves have to work for their former masters for next to nothing, and their mistreatment continues just as before. Taxes in Sancti are generally low, and the higher classes hold to the old notion of noblesse oblige– giving pittances to she serfs and servants from time to time. But anyone who questions authority or steps outside of their rank are heavily punished.”

“How do you know all of this?” I asked. “Have you been to Sancti?”

“No but…” Raven bit her lip. “How do I explain this? You’ve seen the magic mirrors- how they allow you to see anything on the other side- right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, the mirrors can send all kind of information- not just images and sound. They can send books, for example, or pamphlets. You can send charts full of information, or scientific papers. On the moon, almost everyone has a magic mirror, and they use them to form a huge network of information.”

“Is information from Earth shared on this network?”

“Not on the near side of the moon- the side where demons live,” Raven said. “The church owns the magic mirrors on Earth, and they only send information to the angels. Luckily, we manage to break into the angelic network from time to time to see their information.

“There’s another way to get information from earth, but it’s less reliable. Magic can connect practitioners in an intimate way, creating a sort of network of minds. People who contract with demons, or sometimes even sing our chants, can share insights with us directly. Of course, the people who contact us are already unhappy, so the information we get from them may be biased, but even accounting for that, the picture of Sancti isn’t good.”

I opened my mouth to ask more questions about the networks, but Raven put her hand to her head.

“The steam is getting to me. I should get out.” Raven sighed deeply and poured a handful of water onto her face. “One thing before I go; I heard a commander suggest that you practice with the dragoons. When you do, keep an eye on Sir Beaumont. Don’t let him see your scars.”

Raven turned away and climbed out of the bath before I could ask any more questions. She swayed a little as she did so, as though she were dizzy from the steam, but she quickly steadied herself. I moved to follow her, and noticed that while my skin had grown red from the heat, hers was still like porcelain.

Part XCVI

The Coven, Part XCIV

Read from the beginning.

Tea did not come on a tray containing teapot, cups, and spoons. Instead, Sir Percival returned to the cathedral bearing a caddy filled with large covered mugs, which he unceremoniously placed on the floor over the map of the midlands.

Pride nodded in thanks before taking a cup, and gestured for Hope and me to take a cup before he continued speaking.

“We are here-” he gestured at the map, “barely outside of Verdant City, at the first of several cathedrals that were built to edify pilgrims on their way to del Sol.”

A yellow line appeared on the map under our feet, marked by a few bright yellow spots, the first of which was a little way outside the area marked Verdant City.

“The tunnel isn’t completely sealed,” Pride continued. “There are places a pilgrim may exit to gather supplies at Rouge Village, Crossroads Village, Bridon City, and Hill Country Village. The tunnel was never finished, unfortunately, so when we reach Hill Country Village it will be necessary to continue to del Sol on foot.”

Hope stepped forward, studying the end-point beside Hill Country Village with a frown. “It is two hours by carriage from Hill Country Village to Rowan Heights, and then another four hours by carriage del Sol- even longer by foot. The inquisition watches the road very carefully for convicts seeking sanctuary.”

“Yes, but there is no other way. My soldiers are ready to defend you from inquisitors on the road,” Pride said.

“If I may,” the man in brown said with a deferential bow to Pride. “Perhaps if we disembark from the tunnels before we reach the village, we may find a path around the inquisitors.”

“I don’t think you will find such a path,” I said, “unless we find a vessel and approach by sea.”

The man in brown did not answer me, but he knelt down and examined the map very closely, tracing the shoreline with his fingers in thought.

I stepped closer and examined the shore as well, absentmindedly taking a sip of tea as I went. I stopped abruptly, however, as soon as the tea touched my tongue.

I choked a little and forced the drink down. It was not like any tea I had ever tasted. It was thick, strong, and unbearably bitter. There was a slightly cloying aftertaste that suggested that the drink had been spiked with wakefulness potion, yet the drink was so strong the potion hardly seemed necessary.

The man in brown looked up at me as I coughed and, standing abruptly, walked back toward Pride.

“Is it really necessary to allow the prisoner and the-” he stopped and then turned to me with a sneer, “the other one to remain here?”

“We must protect Lady and Lord Frey. It is our mission,” Pride said.

“Of course we must protect them, but must we allow them to listen in on our plans?”

“Would you have them wander the halls alone?” Pride asked.

The man in brown remained silent for a time. Then he said, “they do not seem to know their place. They are insolent- especially the girl.”

Pride looked at me for a moment, his expression inscrutable. Then he looked back at the man in brown.

“I will grant that they are insolent, Clarity, but what is their place in our hierarchy? They have no rank as soldier and no clerical rank. Lord Frey has an old title, but it’s one that Reverence might not acknowledge when this is over. Lady Frey is descended from slaves and gentry alike. They are oddly shaped pieces of a puzzle.”

The man in brown, Clarity, turned again to face me. His plain, weather-worn face twisted in contempt.

“They are outcasts- hardly worth the sand under your shoes, Archangel.”

“Yet they are under Reverence’s protection- beloved of his Lady,” Pride said.

Clarity sighed, but bowed his head to Pride. “I will defer to your judgement. Where shall I place them?”

“Let them go where they will. It won’t be long before they are no longer our problem. Speaking of problems…”

At that moment the room was flooded with light once more. The door opened and then shut again, leaving the room in darkness as Raven entered.

“How dare you interrupt these proceedings, demon,” Clarity snapped.

“You told me to come here when I finished cleaning up,” Raven said, crossing her arms. “Anyway- I have new information, but if you aren’t interested, I’ll go.”

“Stay. What is your news?” Pride said.

Raven came forward and stood over the area of the map marked Verdant City. She knelt down and touched both it and the area marked St. Blanc. As she touched them, both areas of the map went red.

“Wisdom has secured Verdant City and St. Blanc. The Prince and three of the bishops have been secreted away, but the rest of the bishops are under arrest, and are being held under guard at the St. Blanc cathedral. All of the Prince’s supporters have either escaped or have been converted.”

Then Raven stood and walked, following the yellow line for a time before walking a little further north.

“Most of the prince’s guard have been converted, and have joined the inquisitor’s army. Wisdom’s troops are marching in this direction, toward the western villages.”

One of the dragoons stepped forward with a salute. “Excuse me, Archangel, but I have intelligence from that area. The western villages are faithful to Order, and there is a good militia stationed there. I suspect the bastard God will find the area difficult to conquer.”

Pride beckoned the dragoon forward. “Please come here, Sir Beaumont. If you were a general at Sancti, what would you advise your Queen?”

The dragoon, Sir Beaumont, stepped forward, holding his pike up as to not disturb the map. He was a well-formed man in his thirties with a round, comely face.

“I would advise my queen to seize Aeterna immediately. There is no hope for reconciliation now that her son is fleeing a greater power. It is best to stop the new power before it has a chance to flourish.”

“Where would you stage your attack?”

Sir Beaumont paced around the map, finally stopping in the north.

“I would send my warships to the eastern shore, where Wisdom is watching, and give as much noise and trouble as I could. While he was thus distracted, I would send my army here, through the northern mountain pass, to infiltrate to the true heart of Aeterna- Bridon City.”

“Would that be wise? The Cathedral Lux is well-fortified.” Clarity said.

“It was well-fortified, in days of old,” Sir Beaumont said. “Since St. Blanc was built, though, it has been neglected. I think that those who believe in Aeterna- who believe in its history- will seek the Cathedral’s protection in these troubled times. If Sancti can take the Cathedral Lux, she will snuff out the lingering spirit of Aeternan sovereignty.”

Pride strode forward and gazed at the mountain pass for some time. Then he looked toward Raven.

“Demon child, escort Sir Beaumont to the nearest mirror. He has my permission to use it.”

“Archangel!” Sir Beaumont said with another bow. “I am honored by this favor.”

“You are to act as my envoy,” Pride said to Sir Beaumont, ignoring his thanks. “Contact the Archbishop of Sancti, and offer him an alliance.”

 

 

#

 

 

There was no time to further discuss the plan, no time to consider its implications- no time even to rest our weary eyes. Everyone, from the Archangel to the lowest soldier, filed out of the cathedral and formed ranks in the tunnel. Pride and Clarity led the party at the front, followed by Hope and I flanked by our dragoon guards. The rest of the soldiers fell in according to rank behind us, and we all marched in formation toward del Sol.

Raven and Sir Beaumont separated from the party and went back to the magic mirror with a promise to catch up with us at “B1.” Hope and I watched them go, and then linked hands, unable to communicate any of our thoughts freely with each other.

After a time, however, Hope broke the silence and spoke to Pride.

“I beg your pardon, Archangel, but I am not sure I understand your motive for allying with Sancti.”

“You dare question our leader’s judgement?” Clarity snapped, at last provoked into speaking with Hope directly.

“Not at all; I’m sure he has good reason,” Hope said. “I only comment on my own ignorance. From the outside, it seems strange that a follower of Reverence would ally with the heretic Queen.”

“I am surprised that you consider Queen Benevolence a heretic,” Pride said, “though she did disobey some of Order’s more recent laws. Joy dislikes slavery, so Reverence asked his followers to abandon the practice. Queen Benevolence is dedicated to Reverence, so she banned slavery in her own kingdom. You will find, however, that in Sancti a proper hierarchy is still maintained.”

“The rulers of Sancti had shown themselves worthy of the peasants’ respect, through charitable institutions and the enforcement of just laws. Therefore, the peasants give all due obedience to their lords,” Clarity added.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw a country marching in formation like the soldiers who marched behind us.

“Lack of reverence brought our country to chaos,” Clarity continued, his voice dropping into a cadence reminiscent of a sermon, spoken in rhythm to the sound of marching footsteps. “The lords left their peasants and lands, and went to play the courtly game. The peasants were left without a guide, or help when struck with poverty. They heard tales of decadence, and watched St. Blanc with envious eyes.”

“How would you remedy the situation?” I asked.

Clarity continued as though I had not spoken, until Hope repeated my question.

“Aeterna is beyond saving; she must be subjugated by a stronger land. Queen Benevolence will make sure that Aeternan lords keep to their place instead of trying to usurp each other at court. Sancti’s laws, with a few punitive laws added to them, will keep the peasants bound to the land.”

“What putative measures do you anticipate Sancti will impose?” Hope asked.

“I can’t pretend to know. I’m sure at least taxes will be raised to provide tribute to Sancti. The peasants will be kept busy working to pay their tax, and will not have time to grumble amongst themselves against their betters. Peace will be maintained.”

“I dislike seeing anyone suffer under such burdens,” Pride added, “but there is no other way to save the souls of this nation.”

Hope’s palms were growing clammy and slick with sweat, but his countenance was serene as he murmured his acquiescence. We marched in silence the rest of the way to our next stop, the hidden room marked “B1.”

Part XCV

The Coven, Interlude

Read from the beginning.

A contract, Prudence thought, is not a clay bowl that may spring an occasional leak. It is a sieve, with no end of holes in it.

Prudence was sitting by a stream, far away from the road so that she could wash her face without being seen. She leaned closely over the stream, but still- when she cupped water in her hands, half of the water leaked out by the time her hands reached her face.

      It is just like the blood oath Pius made, Prudence thought. Pius, she was realizing, would not have killed her or Celeste, simply because there was no advantage to be gained by doing so. When the deal had been struck, however, she had been so frightened that she had only thought to bargain for safety. She hadn’t even attempted to consider Pius’s true interests.

      Now she was on her way back to del Sol, and any advantage the oath might have given had slipped away like water through her fingers. Pius had her in his grasp, and until she arrived at del Sol he could use her to trick, manipulate, or blackmail those she loved.  

      Prudence pulled the veil back over her face and stood, turning toward the road. There were carriages and carts backed up for a mile at least, full of people who had thought to flee Verdant City before violence erupted. As Grace had predicted, there were fewer available inquisitors, but the inquisition had not abandoned the checkpoints altogether. The result was at least a day’s delay for any traveler attempting to pass through.

      Is this part of Pius’s plan, too? Prudence wondered. Does he hope this chaos will delay my return to del Sol?

Prudence turned away from the road and toward a grassy field, where Mercy and Celeste laughed and played. Prudence watched their merriment with a heavy heart. She was no expert, but she had seen Grace’s training sessions often enough to realize that the “game” Mercy had proposed was not a game at all, but rather a martial exercise disguised as a game.

      The game was a variation of ‘tag’, in which Celeste must run and touch a tree at the end of the field before Mercy could catch her. Mercy started the game between Celeste and the tree, and performed a complex set of attacks that Celeste was forced to dodge as she ran.

      When Celeste had declared that the conditions of the game were unfair, Mercy had only replied, “that is the game.”

      Mercy was being gentle with Celeste, only impeding Celeste’s progress by blocking her path and tagging her with light touches. Still, Prudence felt a chill go down her spine as she watched, imagining a true assailant trying to catch her daughter.

      Still, Prudence could not stop the game. She could not deny its necessity.

      “You are very deep in thought,” Prudence heard Miss Taris call from behind.

Prudence turned to see the young lady, who was dressed all in white, with her blonde hair worn immodestly down to her waist and her face glowing with health and happiness.

Prudence turned away again, muttering, “I have much to occupy my thoughts.”

      Prudence moved to join her daughter, but Miss Taris took her arm.

      “Wait- I have some news for you.”

“Is it- the outcome of the trial?” Prudence asked hesitantly.

“The outcome doesn’t matter, anymore. Last evening, Wisdom’s followers stormed the dungeons and liberated all of the prisoners. They are, at this moment, being conveyed to safety. Lord Frey is on his way to del Sol.”

      Prudence spun sharply to face Miss Taris. “Can we wait for him to catch up with us?”

      Miss Taris shook her head. “He must go in secret; Order’s loyalists are still after him.”

      Prudence clenched her fists in frustration.

      “Have you heard anything about Lady Frey?” She asked slowly. “Is she still being kept in Verdant City?”

      “No, she travels with Lord Frey. Don’t worry- both are safe. Wisdom is in control.”

      Miss Taris smiled, emanating an aura of triumph and peace. Her magic was young, and so strong that Prudence could almost see it shimmer in the air around her- pink and blue and gold. Prudence could not help but be affected by the feeling, but knowing its source helped her examine her own thoughts more closely.

      “So- Lord and Lady Frey are in the same predicament as me. We are all at Wisdom’s mercy.”

      Miss Taris laughed, and a feeling of joy burst forth, flooding the field all around them.

      “Have faith, Miss Goode. Yes- I know your true name, but you needn’t worry. Wisdom harbors no malice toward you, and so neither do I.”

      Miss Taris stretched forth her hand, and the emanation of joy grew, until it was like a halo of gold all around her.

      “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I am Wisdom’s angel, now, and I bear his goodwill. All you have to do is reach out and take his gift, and all of your cares will be over.”

      Prudence took a step back from the offered hand. “What gift? What do you mean?”

      “Worship him- sing his litany with me. Make Wisdom your God, and you will be free from your family’s condemnation. Wisdom has made his own heaven, and there is a place for you there.”

      Prudence shuddered, but did not speak.

      Miss Taris stood for a time, as still as a statue, with her hand outstretched. Then she chuckled a little and lowered her hand.

      “You remember how it felt- the curse you suffered when you made your contract,” Miss Taris whispered. “That is only a taste of hell, Miss Goode. Would you really be willing to suffer that for eternity? Would you really allow your own daughter to suffer the same fate?”

      Miss Taris turned toward the field where Celeste and Mercy played their game, and Prudence followed suit. Celeste was running past Mercy toward the tree once more, and when Mercy attempted to block her, Celeste used one of the techniques Mercy had shown earlier to get past. Then, with a cheer of triumph, Celeste reached out to touch the tree.

      Before she could touch the tree, however, Mercy grabbed her from behind and tackled her to the ground, tickling Celeste until she shrieked with laughter.

      “I cannot decide for Celeste,” Prudence finally said. “But I have chosen for myself. I will not worship Wisdom.”

      “I don’t understand you at all,” Miss Taris said with a heavy sigh. The joy dissipated from the air around them, leaving only a quiet peace. “Is it pride that holds you back? Resentment? Wisdom offers you everything, and still you will not take it.”

      “Wisdom only offers me eternal happiness. Eternal happiness is not what I seek,” Prudence said.

      “Then- what do you seek?”

      Prudence thought for a moment, and then a secret smile blossomed behind her veil.

      “I seek myself.”

      In the field beyond, Celeste dragged herself away from Mercy, and moved her arm just enough to brush the bark of the tree.

The Coven, Part XCIII

Read from the beginning.

The seasoning that hunger provided overcame our trepidation about the strange food, and rendered it agreeable enough that Hope and I finished eating quickly. Then Raven handed us each a glass bottle filled with water, and while we drank she went to the magic mirror.

“Hadn’t we better sleep before we meet this angel?” I asked.

“That would be ideal, but we’ve taken too much time already.  Pride told me to contact him as soon as you were subdued.”

Raven touched the mirror, and the shifting colors disappeared, replaced by lines and lines of multicolored sigils. Raven’s fingers flew swiftly over the screen, touching the sigils, and dissonant music rang through the room in time with her fingers, as though she were playing upon an instrument.

After a few moments, I heard footsteps echoing down the hall. Then the door slid open, revealing a plain man in brown robes.

The man stood silently, staring at Hope and me across the threshold. After a time, Hope spoke.

“My wife and I-”

Dragoons, lead the way,” The man snapped before Hope could finish.

The man stepped away from the opening, and two men in colorful soldier’s regalia, bearing longarms, stepped into the room and flanked Hope and me.

“You have performed adequately,” the brown-robed man said to Raven. “Clean this room, and then meet up with the ranks in room C1.”

Raven made a face, but did not argue.

Hope and I left Raven behind as the man and his dragoons marched us out of the room and further down the tunnel. We walked and walked through the seemingly endless grey, and time seemed to stand still once more.

Hope made several attempts to speak to the men, but each time the brown-robed man would cut him off with a sharp order to the dragoons, telling them to “keep up” or “look sharp.”

Hope gave up trying to speak, and we fell into silence. Then, without warning, the brown-robed man stopped and stepped toward an unremarkable stretch of grey wall. He placed his palm against the wall and it slid open, revealing a dark opening.

“Oh!” Hope said as though in sudden understanding.

The man in brown robes ordered his dragoons back, and then gestured for me to enter the room first.

I stepped across the threshold, and entered the immensity of space.

 

 

#

 

 

I could feel solid ground beneath my feet, yet I could not see a floor. Above, below, and all around me was a black void filled with stars. Just ahead, I could see the gentle curve of the crescent moon.

I heard footsteps behind me, and then the door slid shut. The end of a dragoon’s longarm prodded me in the back, urging me forward.

I moved forward, but slowly. I felt as though I would soon fall off the edge of nothing, or else I would float off into the infinite night. The ground, however, remained solid underneath me. Little by little, my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I saw that there were shadowy figures all around me, blocking the light of the stars. Ahead, partly illuminated in the pink moonlight, another figure appeared to be perched on an outcropping of stone.

“I knew you had come,” I heard the figure say. “You have filled these tunnels with the stench of death.”

I stopped.

“Come come- do not dawdle,” the voice said again. “Approach. I am eager to see your face.”

The crescent moon swelled, passing through all its phases until it was full and bright. I could see my way forward easier, now. There was a slight glare beneath me, as though the floor were a pane of glass through which starlight could pass. I could also see the face of the man who sat upon the stone, harsh and angular in the red light. It was the haughty face of the angel who had battled with Wisdom and lost.

I stepped forward, and then stopped just before the stone.

The angel stared down at me, cocking his head as though he gazed at an interesting puzzled. Then he sighed heavily.

“This is the child Joy loved so well- loved well enough to fall? I see nothing remarkable. Harmony, at least, had some spirit- some determination that shone through her eyes.”

“You knew my mother?” I said.

“Obviously I did, if I remember her eyes,” Pride said, his voice dark with sarcasm. “Harmony fought death until her last breath. You, however, have embraced it. What a disappointment.”

“If you only knew what I’ve suffered to survive,” I said indignantly. “What I’ve suffered to help my loved ones survive-”

“Surviving is not the same as living,” Pride said with a toss of his head, “but it is pointless to explain. Your life last for a blink of an eye, and then poor Joy will have another person to mourn.”

He shrugged helplessly, and then looked behind me. “You- Lord Frey, I take it? Stop skulking behind your wife and let me look at you.”

Hope moved silently to my side and took my hand.

“I must disabuse you, Lord Frey, of any notion that you have a claim to the throne. Your ancestor, Uriel Frey, was as pathetic a man as ever lived. He was a mere goatherd with no accomplishments or honors in battle to distinguish him. He refused to fight in the Ancient war because he was afraid. After the Gods punished him, he returned to his hills and found some success selling wool and textiles. He saved enough money to buy land and title, and gave the hill-country where he dwelt the pretentious name Coteaux, which even now no one uses. He spent the rest of his life composing ridiculous stories about himself.”

“I will add your tale to my collection. I have quite a few, already,” Hope said.

“I saw your ancestor’s sins with my own eyes. I was present at his judgement. He was an insolent upstart, just like you.”

“I was under the impression that you wished to offer us your protection,” I said. “So far, all you’ve done is insult us. Are we your prisoners, or are we free to go?”

“Insult you?” Pride slipped down from the rock and stared at me. “When did I insult you? I’ve invited you into this sanctuary, I’ve answered your questions honestly- I even praised you mother. I am really astonished that you are so sensitive after being persecuted for so long.”

“We are sorry to appear ungrateful,” Hope said with a courtly bow. “But I am sure you understand our need for caution.”

“There is no need for caution. I will protect the Ancient girl for Joy’s sake, and I will protect you for the Ancient girl’s sake. What misgivings could you possibly have?”

Hope bit his lip. “I understand that the God who pursues us, Wisdom, has already defeated you once.”

A slow smile spread over Pride’s face. “That was before Reverence awakened.”

Pride raised his hand, and the moon rose sharply to its apex. Then it burst forth with white light, blinding me for a moment. When my vision cleared, I could not help but gasp aloud.

The dream I had dreamt my first day at del Sol had, impossibly, come true.

I was hovering over Rowan Heights, hand-in-hand with Hope. I could still feel ground beneath my feet, but when I looked down I saw hills far below me, rolling away toward the midlands in one direction, and to the valley in the other.

Clouds drifted in the air all around me, with patches of blue sky visible above. The scene shifted, and I was no longer hovering, but soaring. Even so, I could still feel my feet touch earth, and there was no wind on my face.

Remembering my dream, I clutched Hope’s hand tighter.

“I’ve never seen magic like this,” Hope whispered. “Is this heaven?”

Our movement slowed again, and we stopped above bluebell hill. I could see the cottage nestled like a doll’s house among the heath. Verity and her sheep wandered through the spring flowers, but I could hear no bells, nor Verity’s musical calls.

“It can’t be heaven or magic- I can see it, too,” I said. “Is this achieved using some forbidden technology?”

I could hear laughter, and then I saw Pride before me once more. He was hovering with us above bluebell hill, his head thrown back, laughing with abandon.

He raised his hand again, and the sun, the clouds, and the hills all vanished. We were left in a cavernous room, with a grey dome above our heads and a black granite floor beneath our feet. Foot-soldiers, archers, and dragoons stood in neat rows around the room’s periphery at silent attention.

“What a funny remark!” Pride said. “I wonder how much you really know, and how that knowledge is arranged in your mortal mind.”

Then, without further explanation, he raised his hand and gestured again.

The room did not change, this time. Instead, the brown-robed man stepped forward.

“Archangel,” the man said with a low bow to Pride. “Remember that time is of the essence.”

“Very well- I’m done showing off.” Pride waved his arm, and the floor beneath us changed, becoming a large, flat map of Aeterna.

“Bring us some very strong tea, Sir Percival,” Pride called to one of the Dragoons. “There is still much to discuss.”

The Coven, Interlude