My footsteps clicked a steady rhythm on the stone floor, yet time did not seem to pass.
Hope and I walked through the tunnel we’d found hidden under Prudence’s false grave. The tunnel was almost featureless. The floors and walls were grey, there were no branches or doorways as far as the eye could see, and the electric lights hung in such a uniform manner that I passed underneath another one every eleventh step. There were no stars overhead to rise and set, and no fall of darkness or light of rising sun to mark the passage of time. There was only the sound of footsteps that echoed through the endless grey.
I had left my pocket tied to my waist when I’d changed into Hope’s clothes, so I still possessed my watch, but it had wound down and was stuck at 6:30. My injured shoulder ached, and my stomach rumbled with hunger, but I was determined to walk as long as Hope could. Hope walked straight and tall, his new eyes fixed on the path ahead.
Just a little more before we rest, I thought. It is too dangerous to dawdle.
We’d left the first battle of the fledgling war behind us. After Hope was found guilty of witchcraft by the council of bishops, Pius had revealed himself as a new God and had signaled his followers to overthrow the old order. Some soldiers loyal to the old Gods had escaped, and had attempted to execute the prisoners before they fled, but I had arrived with a group of Wisdom’s followers to rescue the condemned.
Even after rescuing Hope, I knew we were not safe. Many soldiers remained who were loyal to the Aeternan church, and they would pursue us.
The new God, Wisdom, would pursue us, as well. He had chosen Hope to be his sovereign- his puppet upon he Aeternan throne. Wisdom had set up the trial to reveal Hope’s claim to the throne before all of Aeterna, and had planned to manipulate Prudence to secure Hope’s loyalty. Even now, Prudence was under Wisdom’s control, so Hope and I had fled in order to find her.
Wisdom had healed Hope’s injuries and restored Hope’s mutilated eyes. Even so, Hope had experienced starvation and torture in prison, so as we walked, I watched him closely for any signs of fatigue. He stood straight and tall, but his figure was still skeletal and malnourished under his white robes. His skin was perfect and unmarked, but so pale it seemed translucent in the electric light. He looked straight ahead, and his jaw clenched as though determination was all that kept him upright.
After a few more steps, my fears were confirmed. Hope’s strength seemed to crumble away all at once and he swayed, bracing himself against the wall.
“It is nothing,” he said quickly. “Give me a moment to catch my breath, and then we can continue.”
I peered more closely at Hope’s face. There were shadows under his new eyes, and beads of sweat appeared on his brow.
“We’ve been walking for hours,” I said. “We should rest.”
“Not here,” he said. “Lux knows of this tunnel, so even though we are alone, I cannot be easy. I feel exposed, here. Let us try to find some place where we can rest unseen.”
I turned and looked backward, and then forward, but there was nothing but empty tunnel as far as I could see. Hope straightened, however, and fixed me with a gaze so determined I could not refuse.
“Ok, we will go a little further- but slowly.”
Hope nodded, and then reached for my arm to steady himself. He pulled slightly on my left shoulder as he did so, causing a sharp pain. I walked around him, offering him my right arm instead, and he raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“For now, we are alone,” I said, forcing cheerfulness into my voice. “You must have a hundred questions about everything that has happened- everything that I could not tell you in front of your guards.”
“I do,” he said, “though I hardly know where to begin. Tell me- how were Celeste and Prudence when you last saw them? Were they well?”
“Celeste has felt a bit confined in the city, but that is only natural for a girl who is growing so quickly. She is restless, and I must admit that she has suffered from some anxiety, but she is healthy, and she is happy to be with her mother once more.
“When I left Prudence, she was more than well. She was confident- unafraid. She has an unusual strength of mind, and I’m certain that strength will assist her.”
“I’m very glad to hear it,” Hope said. “Prudence’s mind was… fragile, when she left me. But that was over a decade past, and I did not know if she had improved.”
“Her mental strength, and the fragility you perceived, were really one in the same,” I said. “Prudence’s intellect rejects illusions and naturally seeks the core of truth, and she had trained her mind in methods to see past bias and artifice. For this reason, she struggled with the art of magic. She has mastered her abilities, now. She can see the concrete world I see and the illusions magic creates side by side. She can sense the boundary between the magic and mundane, and so the dissonance between the two no longer causes her discomfort.”
“I didn’t know such an ability was possible,” Hope said. “If anyone could discover something like that inside of them, though, that person is Prudence. She was always a spirited woman.”
I slowed my pace a little, and placed my hand over Hope’s where it rested on my arm. “She is still spirited- and brilliant. I’ve come to rely on her intellect. Oh! How I wish she were here to tell me what a fool I am.”
Hope laughed. “Yes- that was always a particular talent of hers. I often received the lash of her tongue, and each time I deserved it.”
Hope fell silent a moment, his smile fading. Then he said, “there was something other than magic that caused her pain- the outcome of her particular curse. I may be asking too much, but-”
“Prudence’s curse was the first I broke,” I said. “It was difficult because I had never seen her cursed face; to me, she was always beautiful. I was well aware of the pain the curse caused her, however, so I was able to focus on that- to clear my mind and steel my will. Prudence helped me find this ability, and she helped me test it, so you have her to thank for breaking your curse just as much as me.”
Hope turned to me, his brown eyes filled with warmth.
“I do thank you, though, for Prudence’s sake as well as my own.”
Our pace slowed even more, and Hope’s arm grew heavier on mine, but we continued to walk.
“You do not mind speaking of Prudence,” Hope remarked. “I am glad you are friends. I am glad there is no shade of jealousy or mistrust between you.”
Jealous of Prudence! I thought in surprise. The idea seemed almost like blasphemy, now. I could not explain this to Hope, however. The feelings that burned in my heart were like lead on my tongue.
“I have so many other questions. What has happened to Mercy? She was not arrested, but I know she would not betray me to work with Pius.”
“Mercy came to del Sol as my protector,” I said. “She taught me to fight while we were in seclusion. Now she is with Prudence and Celeste.”
“Good. Though they cannot match a God, Prudence’s magic and Mercy’s staff should provide some protection from other malevolent forces. But I wish you were not so unprotected.”
“I have Mercy’s training and I have a sword,” I said. “I have the ability to resist magic, and I have you by my side. What else could I possibly need?”
“I had forgotten; you are my soldier, aren’t you? I am truly blessed above all men.” Hope stopped and turned to embrace me.
Hope squeezed my sore shoulder, and I could not stop myself from wincing. He drew back and looked at me, concern in his warm eyes.
“What is the matter? You’ve been-”
Before he could finish his sentence, I heard a sharp hiss from the tunnel ahead. I turned and saw a section of the wall had slid open, revealing a hidden passage. A girl with bright red hair stepped out of the passage and pointed a flintlock at Hope and me.
“Raven!” I said.
“It’s no match for a flintlock, but you should draw your sword, anyway,” Raven said, her voice calm, though she wore a harsh expression.
“Raven?” Hope stepped forward. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I can explain later. For now, strike a defensive pose. The walls have eyes, but not ears, so you only need to look frightened. And Lady Frey- really- it will look odd if you take this long to draw your sword.”
“If it’s my sword you want-” I said, drawing the sword with a brandish, “then you shall have it.”
“Now- don’t get carried away. I’m not going to shoot you, and you are in absolutely no mortal danger. I’m working for the cult of Reverence, and they forbid that anyone hurt you.”
Raven raised her flintlock higher, pointing it straight at Hope’s head. “Lord Frey is too valuable of a hostage to injure, too, so don’t worry about him. By the way, now would be a good time to hand me your sword and hold up your hands in surrender. Then you should step reluctantly into that room.”
Raven narrowed her eyes menacingly and took another step forward. Hope looked at me with an expression of confusion.
I sighed and held my sword hilt-first toward Raven.
Raven took the sword, and then motioned with the flintlock for us to step into the room.
Inside, I found a space very similar to the room in the tunnel under bluebell hill. On the far wall there was a magic mirror, painted with dancing streaks of colored light. On one side of the room was a metal chest of drawers, and on the other side two chairs.
Raven closed the door behind her, put the flintlock in her waistband, and handed me my sword. Then she flung her arms around Hope’s neck.
“It’s so good to finally meet you in person,” she sighed happily, “and you are alive! Let me look at you. You are well, aren’t you?”
“Perfectly,” he said. “What is happening, Raven? When did you enter our realm? Why did you capture us, and then embrace me as a friend?”
“I’ve formed an alliance with the cult of Reverence; I’m acting as a spy. Didn’t Lady Frey tell you? It was her idea.”
“It was certainly not my idea,” I said. “You decided to join Reverence all on your own, and you left before Prudence and I could dissuade you.”
“I would have argued with Prudence all night if I hadn’t left. By the way, where is Prudence?”
I hung my sword back on my belt, but did not answer.
“You can speak freely- I’ve cast silence on this room so no one can hear us, and the cameras- the eyes- in this room have all been disabled.”
I remained silent.
“You don’t trust me?” Raven said. “Lord Frey- tell her I’m trustworthy. Tell her we share a bond- that we’re like family.”
Hope paced a placating hand on Raven’s shoulder. “Well, perhaps it would be best not to discuss anything of a … delicate nature just yet.”
“You don’t trust me, either?” Raven said, looking up in disappointment. “Can’t you feel the resonance between us? Look into my eyes; you can see into my mind.”
Hope cocked his head curiously, and then he leaned down, staring intently into Raven’s eyes. Raven blushed, but she did not move. The two stood staring, face to face, for a long time. I grew weary as I waited, so I unstrapped the valise from my back and sat down in one of the chairs, rubbing my sore shoulder.
Finally Hope blinked and stood straight. “We can trust her, Grace.”
I reached out with my feelings, steeling my will, but I felt no magic resistance.
“You didn’t hypnotize him,” I said.
“Of course I didn’t,” Raven sniffed. “I’m a little insulted that you still don’t trust me after everything I’ve been through. I came here in a ship that almost broke up, I’ve had to hide from inquisitors in the city, and now I have to deal with the cult of Reverence- and they are just awful. It’s been miserable.”
“I’m sorry- I knew so little of you when you came, and we’ve only spoken twice. You were a very suspicious figure in Verdant City.”
“I’ve worked really hard since I got here. I learned a lot about Reverence, and how to exploit his cult. I’ll tell you everything now; we might not get another chance.”
Hope crumpled into the chair beside me. “I’m beginning to appreciate how much I missed while I was imprisoned. Perhaps it would be best if I heard the whole tale from the beginning. How did the two of you meet?”
Raven and I exchanged glances, and she nodded to me.
I closed my eyes and wound backward through the circles of time in my mind.
“Well,” I began, “the first time I met Raven was through the magic mirror, under the tunnel at bluebell hill.”
I told my tale in its entirety, from the time Hope had been arrested, uninterrupted. I told Hope of my first confrontation with Pius and the power he had used against me. I told Hope of the deal I had struck with Lux and the journey we’d made to bluebell hill, where I’d ventured alone into the tunnel through the magic seal. I told him of my attempt to destroy the magic mirror, and how this had accidentally led to my first meeting with Raven.
I continued to speak, telling Hope about everything that had happened at del Sol- how I had met Prudence and discovered her identity, how we had worked out Pius’s plan, and how we had, with Abbess Joy’s help, plotted to meet with Raven. I left out the secrets I could not tell- the help I’d received from the Oculist Guild, my initiation into the guild, and the most secret thing I dared not mention before Raven – the battle at the Ancient temple.
I was able to pass over the details of Pius’s vow easily, for Hope already knew that secret, and my tale progressed easily to Verdant City, where I’d spotted Raven in her ill-fated attempts to follow me unseen. I told of the night she’d stolen into my room and attempted to use magic against me, and how, in that moment, I’d learned to overcome magic with my will.
I had hoped that Raven would speak- to tell her side of the tale when she’d decided to ally with the cult of Reverence, or the role she had played when the cult had attacked Brother Lux’s carriage, but she did not speak. Instead, she got up and rummaged through the metal drawers, as though looking for something.
Hope did not make a sound as I spoke. He barely moved except to close his eyes as though trying to see the story through his inner eye. I continued until I’d reached the end of his trial, and Hope’s liberation. Then Hope opened his eyes and leaned back in the chair.
“I hardly know what to say, Grace. You’ve faced far more danger than I’d dreamed. You’ve been targeted by many factions- and not just for my sake. The world is on a precipice.
“Raven, you know Pius’s true nature better than either of us; how great of a danger does his reign pose to the world?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that question,” Raven said. “First- you must be hungry.” She removed three covered, metal trays from the drawers, and handed one to Hope and to me before she sat on the floor with her own.
“These are emergency ready-meals; they should be filling, if nothing else. Pop the lid off like this, and it will heat automatically.”
Raven demonstrated, pulling a tab on the side of the tray and removing the cover. A billow of steam rose from a thick stew underneath, which she stirred with a white spoon from the side of the tray.
I followed suit, and I felt the whole tray, which had been cool in my lap, suddenly grow warm.
“How wonderful! This tray is made from forbidden technology- like the lights- is it not?” I said.
“It is,” Raven said. She put a spoonful of stew in her mouth and made a face. “It’s chicken and rice- I think. It is bland, but it can keep for a long time.”
Raven nodded encouragingly, and after we each took a bite, she smiled and continued.
“You were right about the carriage attack, Lady Frey; I was there. I had told Pride- the angel you saw- that Lux worked for Wisdom, and Pride ran off to attack without thinking. I followed to make sure Pride didn’t hurt any innocent bystanders. That wasn’t necessary, though. Lux is powerful; I’ve never seen an angel who could become their God’s avatar at will.”
Hope put his spoon down and raised his eyebrows. “My brother- an angel?”
“Oh yes- I’m sure he’s an angel. Wisdom will have made all of his favorites immortal, by now. Pride had no chance to win against such a young angel, whose God is at his full power. Reverence has been asleep for years.”
“When he revealed himself, Wisdom claimed that the Gods have abandoned the world. Is that true?” Hope asked.
“I know that Order sleeps,” I said. “Abbess Joy has confirmed that, herself.”
Raven nodded solemnly. “Gods cannot remain in the mortal realm for long. I don’t know why, but they become more alien over time, until they drift away from humanity altogether. It happened to Chastity long ago, and fifteen years ago, it happened to Reverence. Then, finally, Order became dormant and left his church to fend for itself. That is why holy magic has become so rare.
“The cult of Reverence has been desperately trying to awaken their God, especially since Pride’s defeat. They are terrified of Wisdom, and have retreated to these tunnels, licking their wounds and trying to rally forces to defeat him.”
“How does the cult know of these tunnels?” I asked. “I’d have thought that the church would destroy them, if they knew of their existence.”
“This technology is all forbidden to the laity, but important members of the clergy can use it whenever it’s convenient for them,” Raven said, rolling her eyes. “Reverence himself built and furnished these tunnels. They were originally supposed to be a gift for Abbess Joy.”
“Why would Reverence give Abbess Joy such a gift?” I asked.
“I don’t know the whole story, but from what I understand, Reverence has been in love with Joy for ages. He wanted her to ascend to godhood and become his consort, but she preferred to stay and help people on Earth.
“Reverence hated the idea of Abbess Joy wandering the earth unprotected, even though she is really powerful in her own right. He built these tunnels so that pilgrims could reach del Sol easily, and Abbess Joy would be able to stay safe in del Sol. Before the tunnels were complete, the High Priest assigned an Ancient guard to protect Joy, and the Ancient guard and Abbess Joy fell in love. The Ancient was later sold in marriage, and then died, but before she did, she gave birth to a child, whom Abbess Joy swore to protect.”
Raven looked up, her eyes wide. “They say that you were that child. That’s why Reverence has forbidden his followers from harming you. Abbess Joy swore to protect you, so the cult of Reverence must protect you, too.”
Hope turned to me. “This is your connection with Abbess Joy- why she protected you?”
I nodded. “Abbess Joy would protect me, regardless, but yes- that is our connection. It is my fault Abbess Joy fell. She refused to give me up to my father- to allow him to use me for his own ends- but the High Priest was in on the plan, and for some reason I can’t understand, Order allowed their scheme. I was taken away, and Abbess Joy was bound to del Sol.”
“Clarity St. Anise- the priest of this cult- says that Reverence went to sleep just after Abbess Joy’s fall. It was clear that Joy would never love Reverence, and she was finally safe- bound to del Sol- so Reverence didn’t have anything left to keep him here.”
“But still, the cult is trying to awaken Reverence,” Hope said.
“They are stuck without Reverence,” Raven said, shrugging. “They don’t have any purpose of their own, so they pointlessly follow Reverence’s final orders indefinitely. They try to ‘protect’ Joy by watching the roads to del Sol, and they maintain these tunnels, even though Reverence never had the chance to give them to Joy.”
Raven took another bite of stew, and then put her tray aside, looking at me intently. “Pride sent me to fetch you, Lady Frey. He wants to protect you from Wisdom, and he is willing to help Lord Frey, too, as long as Lord Frey denounces the Aeternan throne. I’m not supposed to give you a choice, but if you don’t want to negotiate with him, you can pretend to overpower me and run away.”
I looked up to Hope. “What do you think?”
Hope sighed. “I don’t support Reverence any more than I did Order, but if the cult inhabits these tunnels, I don’t think we will get far without meeting them.”
Raven smirked. “You don’t have to support Reverence; you can always help me create chaos”
“All that I require is that we reach del Sol as quickly as possible, so we can find Celeste and Prudence,” I said.
Raven nodded and stood. “In that case, I’ll call Pride and tell him where we are.”