The Coven, Part XCI

Read from the beginning.

Wisdom’s eyes flashed white, and one by one, the bishops fell to their knees.

As though signaled by the bishops’ fall, the inquisitors drew their weapons and turned against each other, half of them now displaying Wisdom’s symbol over their crimson robes. The men who had been calling for wisdom from the gallery jumped down into the main courtroom, and the crowd pushed through the courtroom doors, overwhelming the Prince’s guard.

All around me were sounds of violence and the desperate cries of those in retreat, but it all coalesced into a roar in my ears. My attention was focused on the prisoner’s box, where Hope and the others stood chained and vulnerable.

Two inquisitors, each now wearing Wisdom’s symbol, stood on each side of the box, but the Prince’s guard rushed the side door to escape the courtroom, and they quickly overwhelmed the inquisitors. Three plain-robed monks emerged from the side door as though summoned by the guard, and with startling efficiency they took chemical-soaked rags and placed them over the prisoners’ faces before the prisoners could struggle. Then the monks and guard dragged the prisoners by their chains through the side-door and out of sight.

Hope!”

I ran for the door, but something held me back. I struggled mindlessly for a time, and then I stopped and turned to see that the inquisitor who was guarding me had caught hold of my arm.

“Lady Frey, you must come with me. It isn’t safe-“

I twisted my arm out of the inquisitor’s grip, ignoring the sharp pain that gripped my shoulder, and knocked the inquisitor off-balance. Then I sprinted across the courtroom and opened the side-door where the prisoners had been taken.

I ran down a narrow stone stairwell and through a rough wooden door, then though the double-doors that led to the hallway by the infirmary. The infirmary was empty- of course the condemned prisoners would not have been returned- but I ran inside anyway. My feet seemed to know the plan before my brain did; I ran to my valise, stripped off my dress and put on Hope’s shirt and breeches. Then I strapped the valise to my back to keep my arms free to fight, and hung the symbol of Wisdom Miss Taris had given me around my neck.

I opened the front door and ran up the steps to the courtyard. Outside I saw a crowd of men, all of them openly wearing the symbol of wisdom. They craned their necks to gaze at the main Cathedral door, but seemed unable to approach. Restless and ready to fight- this was the army I had wished for so long ago.

I climbed onto a stone bench and raised my voice.

“They have taken the prisoners,” I called. “They have taken my husband and friends back into the dungeons. We must liberate them!”

The men turned to stare with shocked expressions at the woman in breeches who stood so brazen before them. Then the crowd parted, and a familiar man emerged- one I had once met at del Sol.

“I’ve been awaiting your orders, my Lady,” Mr. Wilcox said with a low bow. “Show us the way.”

 

 

#

 

 

The courage that had been my ally in daylight seemed to flee before torchlight.

They may already be dead. The thought invaded my mind as I tried to concentrate- to count my steps and remember the way to Hope’s cell.

I was not blindfolded this time through the dungeons, which should have been to my advantage. The corridors, however, were no longer silent- the sounds of my own footsteps were muffled by the crowd that followed. My footsteps were interrupted every time we passed a guard or a cell. The men dispatched each guard and searched them for keys, and then opened each cell to liberate the prisoners within.

Mr. Wilcox had a steadily growing collection of keyrings and chains, but we could not find a match for every cell. The men, however, proved willing and able to combine their strength and ingenuity to pull the cell doors off their rusty hinges. The going was slow, but I could not bring myself to stop the cries of joy that followed each liberation.

All I could do was close my eyes and repeat to myself the number of steps I had taken, ignoring all of the doubts that presented themselves.

Maybe they didn’t take Hope back into the dungeon, but killed him outside.

      Maybe this was not the plan; maybe I misread Lux’s clues.

      Maybe Lux was wrong.

      Why would I trust him, anyway?

      The light grew dimmer as we descended deeper into the dungeons, with fewer and fewer torches lining the walls. The way was interrupted less often, too, with fewer cells to open. Somehow, the dim light helped me find my footing- I could remember how the slope of the stone had felt against my feet the first time I’d descended. Soon, I stood near the last set of stone steps.

I heard hushed voices below, and my feet froze.

Mr. Wilcox put his finger to his lips and raised his hand in a gesture to halt. Then he crept forward on silent feet and I followed, doing my best to remain as silent.

As we drew near, the voices echoed clearer.

“If the public doesn’t see his death,” a dry voice wheezed, “then they won’t believe he is gone. They will continue to fight.”

“It doesn’t matter- we cannot risk taking them with us,” A stronger voice replied. “Execute them now.”

Mr. Wilcox raised his hand again, still looking down the stairwell, and he held up his fingers, three, two, one. Then he brought his hand down sharply.

With a thunderous cry, Wisdom’s followers stormed down the stairwell.

When we reached the landing, I saw the white robed-prisoners, still chained, kneeling before a row of guards. The guards were armed with swords, all raised to strike down the prisoners, but they froze and looked up in surprise at the attack.

Then the guards switched targets, charging instead at their assailants.

Mr. Wilcox rushed forward through the fray, his considerable bulk forging a path for him. I heard a clatter at my side, and without stopping to think, picked up the dropped sword and rushed to Mr. Wilcox’s side, deflecting any blows the guards aimed at him while he fumbled through the keys.

I had never fought with a sword before, and my arms quickly grew fatigued from hefting its weight. My work was made easy, however, because Wisdom’s ill-armed forces overwhelmed the guard by sheer numbers. Soon I heard the *click* of a lock, and then the chains fell away from each prisoner in turn- Lady Willoughby, Chastity, Lord Willoughby, Captain Goode…

And then, finally, Hope was free.

I tucked the sword through my belt and reached for Hope, but something pulled me away from him. Before I realized what had happened, I was pulled through a dark tunnel, held in arms as strong as iron bands. My captor was swift, and soon we were alone in a dimly- lit corridor while the sounds of the battle echoed against the stone walls far behind us.

Captain Goode turned me to face him, pressing my body against the wall.

“Where is Prudence?” he said.

“Pius sent her back. She is on the road to del Sol-“

Before I could draw another breath, Captain Goode’s hand wrapped around my throat and pressed hard.

I sent my knee toward his stomach, but he blocked my blow with his own knee while holding me fast to the wall with his other arm. Then he pressed against me harder, holding me down with all of his weight.

Captain Goode’s weight pressed against my injured shoulder, but I could not cry out in pain. A red miasma crept around the edges of my vision, and all I could see was Captain Goode’s sadistic grin.

“You won’t live to regret serving the bastard God,” he growled. “You won’t live to regret betraying my sister.”

I struggled in vain, but could not draw another breath. The room around us went from red to black and I was falling…

Falling…

Then my body hit the ground, and air rushed into my lungs.

When my vision cleared, I saw two shadows struggling with each other. One figure was larger, and clearly had the upper hand. It was able to force the smaller figure face-down to the ground.

Captain Goode had wrestled my rescuer into submission.

Then Captain Goode pulled back his opponent’s robes and pressed his hand to the bare flesh underneath. The white flesh went red, and I heard a scream of agony.

The sound of the scream- Hope’s scream- roused me from my stupor. I stood and drew my sword, and every instinct within me reached out to break through Captain Goode’s spell. Captain Goode stumbled back as though in surprise, and I pulled him away from Hope by the back of his robes, pulling my sword around to touch the front of his throat.

“Your wife has betrayed you,” Captain Goode spat as Hope stumbled to is feet. “After she slits my throat, she will come for you next.”

“I wouldn’t kill Prudence’s brother,” I said, lowering my sword. I dropped the back of Captain Goode’s robes, and he stumbled away.

“The bastard God has Prudence,” Captain Goode said to Hope. “Your wife admitted this, herself. For all we know, Prudence and Celeste are already dead.”

Hope turned to me, his eyes wide with panic.

“Pius sent Prudence and Celeste back to del Sol,” I said. “For now, they are protected, but we must find them as soon as we can.”

Captain Goode spun to face me. “Why would you possibly believe they are safe?”

“Pius swore a blood oath to protect them. He cannot harm them, or allow them to come to harm. Prudence made him swear before she agreed to come here.”

Captain Goode turned back to Hope. “If you believe such lies, you are a bigger fool than I thought.”

Hope came to me, his new eyes almost burning with intensity.

“I’ve felt Pius’s power, Grace. He does not exaggerate when he calls himself a God. If anyone could defy a blood oath…”

“He did not swear the oath to me or to Prudence- he swore it to Abbess Joy. She knew he had ascended, and she still knew that the oath was binding.”

Hope sighed and clutched my hands in relief.

“Still,” I urged. “We cannot wait.”

Hope nodded. “Then we will go to them.”

“I’m warning you Frey; if you follow this girl, you will doom yourself, your child, and-“

Captain Goode was unable to finish his sentence. Hope spun to him, his eyes flashing red, and Captain Goode froze in place like a deer caught in lantern light.

“Rejoin the battle,” Hope said. “Fight the guards, defend the others, and defend yourself, but do not interfere with my wife or me in any way. Go!.”

      Captain Goode turned and walked like a marionette back through the corridor.

Hope turned back to me. “Are you alright? How much did he hurt you? Here- the light is stronger this way. Let me look at you.”

Hope led me to a patch of russet light under a staircase. He looked at me briefly, and then he motioned for me to follow him toward the light’s origin. We ascended the steep stairwell together until we found ourselves in a tiny cell on the cathedral’s ground level. There was a rusty, iron grate, through which we could see a small patch of grass that led to a tangled wood. The whole scene was painted orange and red by the setting sun.

Hope turned his newly-healed eyes toward me and gazed hungrily at my face. Then he ran his hands over my throat, looking intently at the flesh.

“There is a bruise showing, already,” Hope said. “Does it hurt?”

“Only a little,” I said.

Hope pulled me to him in a tight embrace.

“I would have killed him,” Hope whispered fiercely. “If not for your act of mercy, I would have killed him for touching you.”

“He thought he was protecting Prudence,” I said.

“He wasn’t thinking clearly,” Hope said. “He’d been growing more and more paranoid in his cell. He blamed you for our situation- he thought you’d conspired with Pius against us. Still, I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t think he’d go so far as to attempt murder.”

“I might have done the same, if I’d thought he’d betrayed Prudence and Celeste to a monster,” I said. “As it is- I was too careless. Prudence and Celeste were supposed to be here when you were freed. We were supposed to have a plan for escape, but everything has gone wrong, somehow. I’d pinned my hopes on ephemeral things- like Pius’s blood oath, the assistance of a rogue demon, and rumors of a secret path to del Sol. I was desperate.”

“Don’t blame yourself- it is a miracle we’re even alive.” Hope released me from his embrace and turned to stare out of the grate at the woods beyond.

“Are you well enough to flee?” I asked. “You have been through hell, and your eyes have only just been restored. Do they give you any pain?”

Hope laughed, his warm, rich voice filling the barren cell with life. “I am perfectly well- I’ve been made new.”

Hope pulled his robes apart at the chest, showing the bare, pristine flesh underneath. Then he turned around, further lowering the robes, and his back was the same- I could not even see a mark where Captain Goode had touched him.

“Not a single scar remains to remind me of my time in Hell. Pius was right- his and Lux’s sins were washed away.”

Then Hope turned around again, and a dark look clouded his face. “Still, when I face him again, I will make sure Lux fully atones for his sins.”

He drew up his robes once more. “I may find that task difficult. My brother shares a God’s power now, and that power seems limitless. Wisdom healed my eyes, regenerated Just’s hands- he even brought Prudence back from the dead.”

“Wisdom didn’t resurrect Prudence,” I said quickly. “He intended for you to believe he had, but Prudence has been alive these two years. Lux contrived some way to fake her death in prison and spirited her away to del Sol.”

Hope drew back in surprise. “So it’s true- you did meet Prudence at del Sol.”

“I did. Abbess Joy knew who she was, but at del Sol Prudence had been hiding underneath a veil, and going by the name Sister Jubilee. When Pius brought me here to deliver testimony, he also insisted that Prudence come. We did not know why he insisted, but Prudence longed to see you, and so with the help of Abbess Joy, we convinced Pius to swear she and Celeste would remain protected.

“I didn’t realize why Pius brought her until two nights ago. Pius separated Prudence from me, and hypnotized her into believing that Wisdom had resurrected her, and that Pius and Lux were still your friends. Pius promised her that you would live, and that you would be king.”

“I see- so Pius planned to use my greatest grief against me, and make me his puppet on the throne.” Hope eyes flashed with anger once more, and he put his hands on the grate, as though he meant to tear it off its hinges.

“Prudence wasn’t able to resist Wisdom’s hypnosis, but she has an ability to see through magic, and I think that ability did assist her. Wisdom wasn’t able to stop Prudence from loving me,” the thought seemed to fill my heart with light, “and she sent for me against Lux’s orders. When I went to her last night, I saw what had happened, and I was able to break the spell. That’s why Pius sent her back to del Sol. I had thought he might hypnotize her again, and Prudence was confident she could see past the spell if he did, but It seems Pius has given up that plan.”

Hope turned back to me. “Why do you think so?”

“Because Lux counted on me to liberate you. I’m sure he knew that I’d memorized the path to your cell. Miss Taris gave me this,” I said, holding up the symbol of wisdom I wore. “Earlier today, Lux watched me while I was examining the courtroom and when I noticed how vulnerable the prisoner’s box was, he gestured to the symbol he was wearing and nodded. It was a clue- He meant for me to free you if you were captured.”

“And that meant we might be alone together, as we are now, and that you would tell me everything,” Hope said. “He must believe he can manipulate me, regardless.”

“All of Wisdom’s enemies want you dead; I can see why he would be confident,” I sighed. “We must escape. We must find a way to get to del Sol, undetected. If only I hadn’t been so distracted. I could have found a way-“

Hope came closer and put his hands on my face. He stared at me intently, as though memorizing every curve and shadow of my face.

“You found Prudence, you contrived to make a God swear to protect her, you broke the curse that had plagued my mind for over a decade, you spoke before the bishops and all of Aeterna on my behalf, and you stormed the dungeons carrying a sword, leading an army to free me. You somehow- somehow – found the power inside of yourself to break a God’s spell, and yet you still think you’ve failed?

“You amaze me.”

He pressed his lips against mine, and for a precious moment we were lost in each other.

“You make is all sound so easy,” I sighed when he broke the kiss. “It wasn’t, though. I’ve barely held on.”

Hope pulled me to his chest, and then he lifted his head, as though distracted.

“Look, Grace- outside.”

I pulled away from him and looked out of the grate. Outside, I could see four figures, dressed in white, running alongside Wisdom’s followers toward the Cathedral annex.

“They are safe. They’ve escaped the guards,” I sighed in relief.

“Now we must do the same,” Hope said. “The first step is to open this grate. Do you still have your sword? We might use it to break these rusty hinges.”

“The sword is here on my belt- your belt, I should say. Sorry I’ve borrowed your clothes without asking.”

“They look better on you, anyway,” Hope said absently. “Let’s break free from the dungeon here, instead leaving by the main exit. Then we can make our way into the woods. We can decide where to flee from there.”

“I wonder how Lux spirited Prudence away,” I said, drawing the sword once more. “She was unconscious for most of the journey, so she couldn’t remember, but it seems that there must be some secret exit or tunnel where we can leave unseen.”

“Oh!” Hope said suddenly. He paused, blinking as though in surprise, and then broke out in a huge, lopsided grin.

“I know how Prudence escaped.”

 

 

#

 

 

By the time I broke through the rusted grate, the sun had set. Hope and I slipped into the moonless night, moving through the blackest of shadows into the tangled woods beyond.

Hope took my hand and guided me with certainty through the terrain as the dim lights and muffled sounds from the cathedral vanished behind us. Soon we were alone in almost utter darkness, but his footsteps were still smooth and steady ahead.

“This wood serves as the cemetery for the condemned,” Hope explained. “I was lost in grief the first time I saw it. I’d dismissed my confusion as the product of a troubled mind, but now I realize- the answer was right there in Prudence’s grave.”

We stopped, and Hope guided me forward and placed our entwined hands against the rough bark of a tree.

“This oak was supposed to guard Prudence’s final resting place,” Hope said. “I remember the day I came here so clearly. It was the day after I made my near-fatal error- the day after I’d called on the powers of hell to bring about Father Sauris’s death. I’d thought that vengeance would satisfy something inside of me, but afterward I just felt-”

“-empty,” I whispered. “I know; I’ve felt it, too.”

“So I came to visit Prudence’s grave, and pray for her forgiveness.”

Hope brought my hand down to the base of the tree, and then to the ground. I felt loose sod and a tangle of vines underneath, barely concealing the rough outline of a coffin.

“I thought they’d buried her very badly, but it isn’t unusual for the priests to treat a criminal’s remains with disrespect. However, I suppose you can’t feel it, but there is something strange here- the faintest trace of magic in the air.”

Hope dropped my hand, and without another word we both began digging- tearing away the loose sod and vines until the coffin’s lid was fully exposed. Then I heard a *creak* as Hope pulled the coffin’s lid open, and a *thunk* as he stepped inside.

“The coffin is empty,” he said. “The magic is concentrated here, at the bottom. I’m certain it must be a magic seal, similar to the one that conceals the tunnel at bluebell hill. Do you think you can undo the spell?”

I stepped into the coffin and felt along the bottom, where I found another hinge and a rough handle. I pulled the trapdoor open, and on the other side I saw a ladder, leading into a stone tunnel filled with electric light.

Hope stood behind me, waiting with bated breath as though nothing had happened. I closed my eyes and concentrated, willing the seal to release itself, and then I pushed through. Hope gasped, and then laughed.

“You see? It wasn’t so difficult to find the hidden path, after all,” he said.

He turned to me, and held out his hand. “Will you be afraid?”

I took Hope’s hand without hesitation, and together we descended into the unknown.

Part XCII

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