“You’re being unreasonable. We can save the abbey.”
As Prudence, Raven, Sister Love, Lux and I drew nearer to the sounds of battle, I could see a sort of makeshift armory near the cathedral’s rear entrance, where a number of roughly carved quarterstaffs were propped up against the wall. Next to the wall, Honest, Trusty, and another young oculist I knew as Fervor stood with their arms full of shooters, facing off against Sister Happiness.
“You heard what Abbess Joy said,” Sister Happiness said firmly. “We will act in defense only. Take a quarterstaff and use the defensive maneuvers that Mercy showed us.”
“Go with Celeste to the Pilgrim’s quarters. Keep her safe,” Prudence whispered aside to Raven.
I looked at Prudence in surprise, wondering what had happened to inspire such trust in a girl she’d previously despised. Raven nodded in understanding and broke off from the party, returning to the abbey.
“I just need a weapon. I will join you soon,” I said to Prudence, Sister Love, and Lux. I watched until they were out of sight by the front of the Cathedral. Then I turned back to the argument by the wall.
“These won’t be enough; the enemy is already using cannons,” Honest was saying. “And consider the size of the army! Even with the trained sisters, the Ancients, and us, it still won’t be enough.”
“We need every advantage we can get,” Fervor added.
“Those are machines of death,” Sister Happiness said, “and this is still del Sol.”
“Hold on,” I said, stepping forward to take a staff. I hefted it in my hand, testing its weight. “Reinforcements are on the way. Do you think you can wait another half-hour before resorting to the shooters?”
“Lady Frey!” the four turned to regard me, as though they had only just noticed my presence.
“We have my counter-magic, Sister Jubilee’s whistle, Lux’s healing magic, and Mercy to lead those fighting on the ground,” I said. “Will this be enough to hold for another half-hour?”
Trusty and Honest looked at each other.
“You are sure reinforcements are on the way?” Honest finally said.
“Yes,” I urged.
“Ok, fine.” Trusty dropped the shooters on the ground and picked up a staff. “We will give them a half-hour before we resort to other means.”
Sister Happiness gave me a grateful smile, and then I left to join the others at the front.
Abbess Joy stood at the end of the road that led to the Cathedral door, flanked by Mercy and Dare. There was a long line of staff-bearing sisters next to Mercy, and another line of Ancients and Oculists beside Dare.
Abbess Joy’s arms were raised, and her face twisted in concentration as she hummed a litany.
An army stood, facing Abbess Joy, on the other side of the border.
I could not see the barrier that Abbess Joy was maintaining, but I could see its effects. Soldiers were lashing out with swords and glaives, their weapons seeming to glance against thin air. Cannon shot flew through the air, and then suddenly stopped and fell to the ground.
Pride stood at the front of his troops, his eyes glowing bright white. His hair was blowing back, though there was no wind. He chanted some strange words, and Abbess Joy winced.
Two soldiers broke through the barrier and ran toward Abbess Joy.
Mercy and Dare stepped forward and quickly dispatched the two men. Then Lux ran forward and pulled the two fallen men away; their bodies already glowed with healing light.
Joy sang a little louder, and the breach seemed to heal itself. More men rushed the spot where the breach had occurred, but were unable to come through.
At that moment, there was an odd crackling noise, and I saw Pride step through, slowly, his hair standing on end.
Prudence stepped forward and blew three blasts on her whistle, and Pride fell back. I sighed in relief, but then immediately saw the drawback to using such a weapon, for all of the sisters and oculists had also fallen. Abbess Joy, however, did not, though she did wince. I looked closer, and saw small bits of cotton were stuffed in both of her ears. The cotton, I realized, could not block the effects of the magic, but it could allow her to concentrate much better than otherwise.
Mercy turned to help the sisters next to her, and then locked eyes with me as I approached.
“Good to see you, Lady Frey,” Mercy said. She nodded to my staff. “You know how to use that thing?”
“Yes- you strike the opponent with it. Aim for the stomach, head, or legs.”
Mercy laughed. “Good. Get to the end of the Ancient line, soldier.”
I saluted, and then ran to join the Ancient line.
“Dare- Wisdom’s forces are on the way,” I warned as I ran.
“I will not abandon Joy,” Dare said. “The others may flee, if they wish.”
Not a single Ancient, however, broke ranks.
Pride’s men continued to strike against the barrier, but it held. Prudence stepped forward, took Abbess Joy’s hand in her right, and the nearest sister’s hand in her left, and began to sing the litany of peace.
Abbess Joy, though her ears were blocked, seemed to know what was happening. She smiled encouragingly at Prudence, and stood a little taller, raising her own voice as she sang. The sisters all joined in the song, and some of the oculists began to sing, as well.
Dare caught my eye, and I nodded in understanding. “Step back,” Dare and I called to the Ancients, and we all stepped back out of the magic’s way.
The enemy soldiers all fell back, as well, as though the barrier had swelled in size.
For a long time, the barrier seemed indestructible. The sisters’ voices rang out, strong and true, and the soldiers of Order and Reverence paced in front of the barrier like caged animals. Pride stood before all of them, eyes glowing, staring at Abbess Joy.
“They say that is really Reverence,” Dare whispered to me, pointing at Pride. “He looks strange, but that must be Pride. I would know him anywhere.”
“I have seen Wisdom possess the body of his Angel,” I whispered back. “Perhaps Reverence has learned to do the same thing.”
“It is grotesque,” Mars said. “And they call us unnatural.”
The enemy soldiers started to strike at the barrier again. At first, they only lashed out in frustration, but over time, their strikes took on a strange rhythm. The rhythm grew stronger and stronger, and soon I could hear the soldiers’ voices joined together in time with the strikes, chanting the litany of Reverence.
Pride’s eyes glowed brighter. He lifted his arms and rose into the air.
Abbess Joy cried out, as though in pain. Then the soldiers broke through the barrier, and the battle began.
“Down!” Prudence called.
The oculists and sisters all knelt down, bracing themselves against their staffs, and Prudence rushed forward, blowing blast after blast on her whistle. The first wave of soldiers fell, but more came through the barrier to take their place.
“Fall in!” Dare called, and then she ran forward to guard Abbess Joy with Mercy once more.
The sisters stood again, forming a barrier with their staves held horizontally, forming a chain, and the Ancients and oculists rushed forward to join the barrier. We pushed back against the fresh wave of soldiers, forcing them back toward the border.
We were only able to deflect the soldier’s blows, but the soldiers were out for blood. They raised their weapons and struck at us until the chain had broken. Their numbers were overwhelming; I found myself facing three soldiers alone, each of them larger and stronger than me. Fortunately, I knew the soldiers, had seen them practice, and was familiar with their rigid, inflexible forms. I dodged their swords, swung my staff in a chaotic pattern, and then wove between them, causing them to clash with each other.
I fell back to assist the others. I could hear some of the sisters crying out as they were struck, and then saw patches of white light appear on their skin as Lux healed them. Beside me, Sister Peace fell. I beat back her attacker, and then reached out to help her to her feet once more.
“I will help the sisters,” Lux called out to me. “Help Joy.”
I turned and saw that Clarity St. Anise had crossed the barrier, and he strode toward Abbess Joy, hand raised as though to cast a spell. I breathed in a quick counter-rhythm, and then lashed out, aiming all of my fear and anger toward him.
“You will not touch her!” I screamed.
Clarity dropped his hand and turned to me, but before he could make another move Mercy struck him hard, knocking him back across the boundary.
At that moment, Abbess Joy collapsed to the ground.
Pride swept past the boundary, into del Sol.
The Sisters, oculists, and Ancients all fell back, surrounding Abbess Joy as the troops closed in. At that moment I heard a trumpet-call, and the enemy paused in their advance. Behind them, a multitude of black-clad soldiers descended, as thick as a murder of crows.
“Do not yield to the fear,” Pride called out in a strange, booming voice to his soldiers. “It is an illusion, cast by a heretic witch who calls herself an angel.”
“I can heal the wounded,” a scarlet-clad man called, running toward Lux from the direction of the pilgrim’s quarters. “The Pilgrims are safe, Lux. Summon him. Fight Reverence.”
Lux nodded to Brother Amicus. Then his eyes glowed bright white, and he rose into the air to meet Reverence.
I could not follow the Gods’ movements, nor could I attempt to break Reverence’s spells, for fear of interfering with Wisdom’s, as well. Instead, I turned my Ancient powers against the few mages who fought on the ground, all the while deflecting physical attacks with my staff.
The sound of cannon fire rang out again, but it seemed to be aimed not at del Sol, but into the ranks of Wisdom’s troops. Soon, however, the sound stopped once more as Wisdom’s men broke through Reverence’s ranks, and the two sides of the conflict blurred together.
The fight was easier, now. There were few soldiers inside del Sol’s barrier, now that they were distracted. I fell back to guard Prudence, who held her whistle tightly as she watched the battle unfold.
“I would help,” she said weakly, “but it can’t discriminate friend from foe.”
“I know,” I said. “Listen- move toward Abbess Joy. I need you to check if she’s alright, and Mercy and Dare have their hands full protecting her. I can help if we’re all together.”
Prudence nodded, and we fell back toward the road. When we reached Abbess Joy, however, Mercy let loose a sudden scream of fury and broke away from formation, running toward an enemy dragoon.
The dragoon was a haughty-looking man, who bore the symbol of order embroidered in silver thread on his cloak. He sneered at Mercy as she charged, and deflected the first of her blows with his glaive.
“Sweet little Mercy, is this how you greet your master?” he asked, aiming the glaive at her throat.
Mercy dodged the attack, and aimed blows at his groin, his knee, and his stomach in rapid succession. The blow to his stomach was the only one to connect, but it was enough to make him fall back.
“How dare you show your face here, you scum,” Mercy shouted.
“Joy can’t protect you,” the dragoon countered, stumbling back to his feet. He swung his glaive and hit Mercy’s shoulder, drawing scarlet blood. “I will drag you out of del Sol in chains, back where you belong.”
Mercy let loose a guttural cry, and her staff spun so rapidly I could not follow its movements. I heard a crack of breaking bones, and the dragoon fell to his knees, holding his chest.
Mercy swung her staff again, hitting the dragoon in the back, and he collapsed to the ground as Brother Amicus ran forward.
“Mercy, please stop,” Brother Amicus said.
“I haven’t finished. I won’t stop until I’ve destroyed him.”
Mercy swung her staff up for a finishing blow, but Brother Amicus stepped between them, shielding the dragoon with his body.
“Remember where you are,” Brother Amicus said gently. “Remember the law of del Sol.”
Mercy twitched as though she meant to strike Brother Amicus, but then she took a deep, shuddering breath and lowered her staff.
“Take the garbage away,” Mercy said to him. “Never let me see this filth again.”
Brother Amicus bowed, and then reached out to heal the dragoon. After a few moments the dragoon was on his feet again, being led away by Brother Amicus.
While Mercy was fighting, Prudence had reached Abbess Joy, and was now cradling her in her arms, speaking gently to her. Abbess Joy, however, remained limp and unresponsive. Two more dragoons came through and ran straight for the unconscious angel.
The dragoons, unlike the soldiers, were well trained, their movements were fluid and adaptive, and they were armed with far more effective weapons than we were. Dare and I, however, countered all of their blows, fighting side by side not as a single unit, but in syncopation- alternating offence and defense like a dance. We beat back both dragoons. The first one fell, and then the other.
As the second dragoon fell, however, his glaive whipped out, and Dare let out a startled sound as it sank into her flesh.
“Dare?” I said.
Dare did not answer. She smiled at me, and then sank to her knees.
“It was like fighting by your mother’s side,” she said. She reached out to touch my face, and then she coughed, blood pouring from her lips.
She fell over, her eyes open but unseeing, and said no more.
Over the sounds of battle, I could hear an unexpected voice calling her name.
The clash of swords, the clatter of quarterstaffs, and even the sound of cannon fire seemed to subside in response. I tore my eyes away from Dare’s face and looked up to the source of the sound.
Pride’s eyes no longer glowed with divine light. His hair no longer blew back from his face. He dropped out of the sky, his proud features twisted in grief.
Pride raced toward Dare, and his men dropped back in confusion. I stood up, ready to defend my fallen friend.
“No- let him through,” I heard Abbess Joy say in a weak voice behind me.
I stepped aside, and Pride passed, falling to his hands and knees at Dare’s side.
“I’m in control, again,” Pride said, kneeling beside Abbess Joy. “I’m sorry- I’m so sorry, sister. I didn’t know what Reverence would do. I didn’t think he would attack del Sol. He said that we were coming here to protect you. By the time I let him possess me, it was too late.”
But Abbess Joy didn’t seem to hear Pride’s apology. She reached out and cradled Dare’s lifeless body in her arms, closed her eyes, and kissed her forehead tenderly.
“I wouldn’t have allowed this. Dare- she was a friend.” Pride said in a weaker voice.
I did not feel as though I wept, but still, tears dripped off of my hot cheeks.
“Dare,” I whispered.
“What is wrong?” Brother Amicus rushed toward Brother Lux, who had descended to earth, and now stared at the scene with a stony expression.
“What is wrong?” Brother Amicus repeated. He took Lux’s shoulders and shook them. “Why don’t you heal her?”
“I can’t” Brother Lux said weakly.
“But you can do anything- you are one with Wisdom.”
Brother Fortune stepped forward from the crowd and took Brother Amicus’s arm. “Hush- no one can help her. The woman has Ancient blood.”
But Brother Amicus pulled away from Brother Fortune and knelt down. He reached his hands out, and chanted, “heal- heal… come on. No one was supposed to die.”
Abbess Joy bowed her head over Dare’s, her long hair falling over both of them like a golden cloak, and a low wail escaped from her throat.
Victoria and Neiro swept past Brother Amicus and knelt beside Dare.
“She died a warrior’s death,” Victoria said firmly. “She died with honor, defending her friends.”
“Who- who will bury her,” Neiro asked through her tears.
“We will- all of the Ancients together,” Victoria said. “We will care for her, as she’s cared for us.”
All of the Ancients fell in behind Victoria and Neiro, bowing to their fellow warrior. I leaned forward and pressed a final kiss on Dare’s cheek, and then held Abbess Joy as she wept.
“Why, Dare- why did you have to die,” Pride whispered. “Why didn’t you take the soul that was offered you?”
Abbess Joy looked up through her tears. “You- you offered her a soul?”
“Order allowed me to offer one- to Dare and Harmony both,” Pride said. “I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to raise your hopes in case… But Dare said no.”
“And Harmony- she said no, too?” Abbess Joy said.
Pride shook his head. “I’m so sorry, sister. Harmony’s death was my fault.
The armies of Wisdom and Reverence, together, began to gather around, staring at the woman whose fall had caused Reverence to flee and Pride to weep.
“When Harmony was at Willowbrook, I visited her. I- I offered her a soul then, and she said yes. She said that even if she couldn’t be with you in this life, she might be with you in the next.”
“What happened?” Abbess Joy asked.
“I don’t know. I thought her will was pure, but when I began the process, something went wrong. Her body seemed to reject the divine cells. She became ill, and I tried to help her but-” Pride wiped away some tears, and then continued. “That was when she came back to del Sol, to see you one last time.”
“But- I still can’t figure out why it didn’t work. She wanted a soul- she really did. And now I’ve caused another death- another eternal death. I – I can’t…”
“Shhh, brother,” Abbess Joy said gently.
Lux knelt down next to us, and waited for the storm of weeping to subside before he spoke.
“Pride, are you still in contact with Reverence?” Lux asked.
“Y- yes,” Pride replied.
“Tell him there has been enough violence today. We will give the Ancients and Joy time to bury the dead, and to grieve, and then we will parlay. Come to the pavilion in the midlands at sunrise next.”
I looked up, and saw that as he spoke, today’s sunrise already shone off the top of the Cathedral spire.
“Wisdom will come here in person and bring Uriel with him. Abbess Joy, I believe, should also be present. Does Reverence accept?”
Pride closed his eyes for a time, and then he nodded.
“Good. Until then.”
Then Lux rose and gestured to his men, and they dispersed into the west. Meanwhile, Joy and I rose, lifting Dare’s body between us to carry her to the southern shrine.