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.”
“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.”