Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

[Not a lot happening in this one, except for the last couple of paragraphs, but it's overdue to get posted. The ending of this thing is drawing near, although there are still at least three chapters to go.]


Chapter Sixty-five: Family matters

Sister Rose may have been fast asleep by the time the encounters in Saus happened (no small trick, considering how far west she was, and how recently the sun had gone down in Kiyoka), but she didn’t stay that way.

Maybe it had been the life within her, now in its second trimester, pressing on her bladder; she thought not, there was no way he or she could be large enough to do that effectively yet. Maybe it was the revelers coming back from town; the soon-to-be newlyweds and some of their close friends had gone into Kiyoka for one last party. (A bachelor party wasn’t in either Brother Farley’s or Brother Miguel’s style, and nobody at the mission could have figured out how to host one.) No, that wasn’t it either; none of them were staying at the vineyard except Sister Marilyn’s mother, and Rose could hear deep, even breathing from her room. Nerves about tomorrow (or later today, based on the hour, she wasn’t sure)? She’d certainly faced more stressful situations lately.

She would never know that she’d awakened at almost exactly the same time as something singularly unfortunate was starting to happen in Saus.

Whatever the reason, she arose to do her business and cast a quick Hygiene spell, managing not to awaken Argus in the process. However, on the way back to their room in the tidy little house at the vineyard, she realized that she wasn’t the only one who was having trouble sleeping.

“Hi, Brad,” she almost whispered to the man on the couch with his eyes half open. “Can’t sleep?”

Her cousin was awake enough to flash her a sheepish grin. “Well, there’s – there’s barely enough room in bed for me.” There was truth to this statement. Lillith was starting her third trimester, and between her small-but-bosomy build and the twins she was carrying, she was already assuming decidedly matronly proportions.

Rose wasn’t buying it, though. She debated internally for a moment as to whether to probe further, decided that she could; Brad was her cousin, after all. “That’s all?”

Brad shifted postures slightly. “I – well, I didn’t want to keep her awake. But why are you up?’

“The same thing,” Rose smiled. This was at least partially true, even if she didn’t know exactly why she’d had to get up. “Everything okay?” she pressed on.

Brad fessed up. “I – I guess I’m nervous. I love Lillith, and our son and daughter, so much, and I’m not sure I’m going to be a good dad.”

“Said every parent who’s ever been worthy of the name,” Rose chuckled. “Including me, if I’m going to be worthy of it. But relax. You’re going to be a great father.” She was sure of that.

Not many people would blush when trying to get to sleep at that hour of the night, but Brad managed. “Th—thank you. And you’ll be a fantastic mom too, just like you’re fantastic at everything.”

It was Rose’s turn to blush, although hers was not as theatric as her cousin’s. “It’s kind of you to say so, but there are lots of things I’m not fantastic at.” She yawned; the conversation was starting to have the desired effect of putting her back to sleep. “Including staying awake. Do you think you can go back to your wife now and not be fantastic at that, either?”

Yawns, of course, are contagious, and Brad followed suit; but he wasn’t done quite yet. “One more thing, Rose. Do you think – well – would it be okay –“

Out with it, thought Rose; she was definitely ready for some sleep now. She was not, however, ready for what Brad said next.

“—If we named the twins for you and Argus when they’re born?”

She blinked several times and her mouth worked, before it formed into a wide, and completely genuine, smile. “I – we’d be delighted, Brad. Delighted and honored tremendously. But have you talked to Lillith about this?”

A wry grin. “It was her idea, actually.”

“Well, then, do it with our blessing. I’m absolutely certain that Argus will feel the same way. Now go and get some sleep.”

The two cousins shared a warm hug, being careful not to press too hard on the child in utero, and returned to their respective mates. Both were asleep in seconds …

… Just as that very bad thing was coming to its conclusion in Saus.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-six: Gustaf and Lester; or, predator and prey

“How much longer do I have to wear this ridiculous getup?” Father Lester grumped; he was much less a fan of pomp and pageantry than the man he was mimicking.

“Only another two or three hours,” a satrap soothed him. “You just need to be seen entering the temple, waving to the crowds and such, and then you’ll be able to change back into your robes and exit unnoticed via the back door.”

“I certainly hope so,” Lester harrumphed again as another minion fussed over his hair to get it to look like Patriarch Jeramel’s. Lester was a minor functionary in the great temple at Emerylon who had never been exactly a people person. The upper echelon of the Orthodox Church had noticed this fact – and his resemblance to the Patriarch -- some years earlier, and had moved him from the small-town temple where he’d been the senior priest into an office job, where he would deal with ledgers and accounting records, for which he was much better suited than interacting with parishioners. (Or with other priests, for that matter.) He’d served as a body double for the Patriarch before, but not in situations requiring this much external show and resemblance.

“Now, now, you should get into character – Your Eminence,” the satrap said, twisting the knife a little. He didn’t find the man in his charge to be very likeable, but one had to do what one had to do. They began the process of getting Lester into the ceremonial robes that Jeramel favored.

Meanwhile, in another building a mile or so from the main temple in Saus where Lester was being prepared for his role, another man was also making preparations of a very different kind.

-*-*-

A rigorous investigation – well, relatively rigorous, the Church being unwilling to look too closely into what had happened to Lester, who would be missed by no one – would come up oddly empty in figuring out who this man was, which Farrelian guild (if any) he was a member of, why he was preparing to do what he would do. Even his name would never be known. (Call him “Gustaf.”) It would be clearer who he was not; not an agent of the sort-of-government of Farrel (the diplomatic incident would die down quickly), not a member of the Gewehr (certain factions within the Church were already eyeing them with interest, although they wouldn’t be put to use until much later), indeed not a Farrelite at all, based on the tone of his skin, what remained of it.

Of course, somebody knew, the “somebodies” in this case being a small cadre of Albigensians who retained a grudge against the Church. However, nobody thought to ask them.

No matter who had hired him, Gustaf had found a good sniper’s nest. A nondescript two-story building along the route of travel between temples had a “For Sale” sign in front of it, and a bit of scouting the previous day had revealed that the building was currently unoccupied. Better still, its roof had a small canopy on top, for Luminosita knew what reason. This had afforded him enough shelter from the soft, dripping rain known as Luminosita’s Tears that he got a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

When he awoke, the rain had stopped. He knew that it would resume in the afternoon; he was counting on it, in fact, to help remove any traces of his presence … like, say, magically-silenced casings of a rifle round or two. In this, Gustaf was a pioneer of sorts, anticipating the silenced ammunition that a certain Gewehr assassin would use a couple of years later. They were expensive, and he only had three, to go along with his more plentiful regular ammunition. That would be more than enough. He tidied up his improvised campsite, loaded his weapon with the silenced rounds, and settled down for the hardest part of an assassin’s job: waiting.

-*-*-

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Lester said.

He truly did resemble Patriarch Jeramel, after his entourage was done with him; more than did the man at the Reformed temple, despite similar ministrations (and Sister Margaret’s and Father Stefan’s counsel). They’d taken the precaution of tampering with one of his shoes, just enough that he would limp slightly and be convincing in his use of a cane. He hobbled out to the waiting carriage, wearing a most insincere smile and making the Sign of Luminosita at the adoring(?) crowd that had assembled – or rather, been assembled – to watch him. The carriage pulled away as two other vehicles bearing a ceremonial guard fell in ahead of and behind him.

-*-*-

Meanwhile, a much less ostentatious, but much more crucial, caravan was leaving the Mechanist temple, and another was preparing to leave the Reformed one; the latter was closer to the destination, and there would be no need for it to depart yet.

-*-*-

Any time now, Gustaf thought. Then: “Aha,” he said softly to himself, softly enough that no one would hear (he hoped). A single wagon full of soldiers and priests was coming down the road; evidence, he thought, that his quarry was on its way. He was no spellcaster, but like many others in his trade, he had a visceral awareness of magic. This told him that there were spells being cast by the priests, presumably some kind of detection magic. He had to hope that the amulet he’d picked up in Albigenish – ironically, what might be called “military surplus” left over from the military action there years before (a leftover that would have mortified Sister Rose, among others, if she'd known of it) – would defeat whatever scrying was going on.

Apparently, it did; the wagon passed the building where he was hiding and continued on toward the temple.

It wouldn’t be long now …
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-seven: Flight

“So what am I going to do with you?” Bauti grumbled, more to herself than to Kassia Karvial, the nominal target of the question.

Cassie was scared, needless to say; who wouldn’t be after an interrogation by an elf? The question, at least, gave her hope that she wasn’t just going to be killed outright. Of course, she had no answer to the question, but clearly none was expected.

Bauti grumbled to herself again. “Where’s that Anilis-damned Sarine when you need her? She’s better at this kind of thing than I am.” Magic began to rally in the small room where the grilling had taken place.

“Better at what?” Cassie dared to venture.

“This.” She reached out to the girl’s forehead. There was a flare of magic, and a soft FZZZT. She didn’t bother to vocalize the “Forget!” and “Sleep!” commands; she didn’t need to, and the recipient of the spells wouldn’t remember them anyway. As Cassie crumpled in her seat, the Binding was dispelled, but Bauti didn’t think that would be important. In fact, it seemed like a good idea. When the janitor or priest of that ridiculous light-show god or whoever found her, it would just look like some girl had wandered in from the street and fallen asleep; there would be nothing to connect her to the passage of an elf. This consideration was what had led Bauti to spare her life in the first place.

The small chapel that had been pressed into service as an interrogation room was near the side door, the one that Cassie had mistakenly thought was secret. Bauti could have told her otherwise. After tidying the place up, to remove any evidence of her passage (other than the sleeping girl, of course), she slipped out the door of the chapel and headed for the exit, thinking as she went.

She hadn’t learned much from the interrogation; not much that her minders back in the Hell Hole would find interesting, she thought. Not only did the girl know nothing of airships inbound from Phidelphiel; she’d barely heard of the place, and certainly didn’t know anything about air traffic between here and there, and didn’t know anyone who did, and oh I’m scared. (That last part was reasonable enough.) About the only thing she’d had to say that Bauti found interesting at all was that this temple was going to be used shortly for some kind of ceremony for the Veracians’ ridiculous god-construct, and some Very Important People would be attending.

As Bauti thought about it, though, that last item was not so insignificant. Important people, both elves and humans, tended to have minions who weren’t particularly important themselves, but knew some important things. Picking out the right minion who knew something about air traffic might take a little work, and some mind magic (not to mention coercion, but that really didn’t need to be mentioned), but it should be doable. She just had to remain inconspicuous until the ceremony, whatever it was, began, and then a little adroit one-on-one questioning should do the trick.

The first part of the plan would be the more difficult. Elves stood out in human society, particularly female ones, who tended to be much taller than their human counterparts. Well, that was what Illusion spells were for. She’d picked one up from Bauti, ironically unavailable for this mission, that should be just right. Without a glance back toward Cassie, she cast. There; now she should be able to move in human space long enough to find a source. She stepped cautiously outside the temple, blinking in the light of day –

”HEY! THAT’S AN ELF!”

The (decoy) advance security team was arriving at the temple, and they were heading straight for the concealed entrance, since after all, their real function was to secure the scene so that the real Patriarch Jeramel, now inbound from the Mechanist temple, could enter unobtrusively and swap appearances with the decoy. Peregin Bauti was hardly the first elf to underestimate the magical capabilities of Veracian clergy; she would not be the last. One member of that team apparently had enough detection magic to penetrate the Illusion. Others would have more .,. offensive capabilities.

This wasn’t the time to pick a fight. She dropped the Illusion in favor of a quick Teleportation to get a hundred yards or so off toward the rear of the building, hoping that that surprise move would confuse the stupid humans long enough for her to escape (for now). Anilis smiled; she gained a few precious seconds, and as importantly, distance from the spellcasters. Without looking back, she ran.

=*=*=

In which she had company.

Bauti, as has been noted, was not necessarily the brightest light globe in the ceiling of Praenubilus Astu. It didn’t occur to her that so much casting and dropping of spells might cause some unintended magic to also get dispelled … like, say, the Sleep part of the magical forgetfulness she'd inflicted on Kassia Karvial.

Cassie had two advantages over her recent tormenter. First, she knew the lay of the land, and of the temple. As soon as she awoke, she knew both how to get to that hidden entrance, now nearly unobserved as the advance guard searched for the elf whom they perceived as their main object of interest (read: threat), and then back to the novitiate, where she would present herself, tail between her legs, and ask for forgiveness and sanctuary -- she wasn't quite sure why she needed to flee this place, but she was quite sure that she did. And then came the second advantage: she didn’t have to rely on an Illusion spell for disguise (she didn’t know that magic anyway), but could actually shift the flesh – still not nearly as proficiently as her recent mentor, but hopefully, enough that whoever had been abusing her (that much of her memory remained intact) wouldn’t recognize her. Certainly no elf would ever believe her capable of such magic. (Well, Drusia would, but she was half a continent away, at her Snamish home with her half-elven lover.)

Time to put theory into practice, she thought, and made herself look a bit older, her hair shorter and darker. She did not change her height or physique; now wasn’t the time to do something that might make her less coordinated. She also blinked briefly as she emerged into the sun … and then she too ran.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Post by Graybeard »

[Not happy with the writing here, but it's overdue to get posted, and the next chapter is the key one, so ...]

Chapter Sixty-eight: Ears

It would be fair to say that a good many things known and practiced by the upper echelons of the Veracian Church would be, at the minimum, profoundly disillusioning to the populace of Veracia if they became widely known, and not just things pertaining to Luminosita himself (itself?). Prominent on any such list of uncomfortable realities would be the Veracian military’s embrace of magic. A detached observer would shrug at such a thing; Tsuiraku had won the Mage/Priest War, of course, and it has always been sound practice for the loser of a war to study the winner and incorporate what was learned into the reborn military where appropriate. But there were no detached observers in Veracia.

It was such a Tsuirakuan advantage, reverse engineered (thaumatically) to fit Veracian needs, that now came into play among the Veracian forces approaching the temple. The security team that had arrived at the temple, and found – horrors! – an elf fleeing at high speed, carried certain equipment for a communications network more or less equivalent to the Tsuirakuan crystal balls. Of course, such sacrilegious hardware couldn’t be allowed out into the general public; who knows what horrors might result, such as questioning the authority of the Church? But for a small, highly trained – and secretive – cadre of military people, being able to communicate threats to other members of the cadre was easy enough to justify as part of Luminosita’s divine Wisdom revealed to the higher-ups.

Rationalization or no rationalization, the leader of the advance party pulled out his non-crystal ball and spoke a single word into it: ”Ears.” This, anyone with the clearances and briefings to be on the non-Crystal-net system would know, was a simple code meaning “there is an elf here” – elves had long ears, after all. He knew, but did not advertise yet, that said elf had decamped – by the time this alarm was given, Peregin Bauti was over a quarter of a mile away. This didn’t bother the leader of the team at all; an absent elf was no threat, and the prospect of fighting a present elf was scary enough that he was having to work hard at bladder control just thinking about it. The team spread out and started doing the security work that they had come to do.

Some of the listeners, however, were stirred into considerably more – forceful action as their communications devices spoke.

=*=*=

The caravan bearing the well-disguised Patriarch Jeramel from the Mechanist temple had the easiest task: they simply turned around and returned, post haste, whence they had come. They’d get on the road again once an all-clear signal was given. If that meant the dedication ceremony was a bit late in starting, well, he was the Patriarch, after all, and he could come and go as he damn well pleased. The whole citizenry of Saus knew that.

His entourage, however, had some work to do. The Mechanist temple was small, as one might expect of a minor (if curiously important) sect that did not go out of its way to recruit new members. That was both good and bad. The small size meant that only the main entrance and a secondary gate at the rear of the building would have to be guarded. The bad part was that there was no defense in depth; if an elf was coming for the Patriarch, it would only have to breach the outer defenses, and His Eminence would be within easy reach. Well, nothing to do about that except prepare. As soon as the caravan was back, the captain of the guard set about stationing defenders where he could, to the quiet puzzlement of the passers-by.

-*-*-

The group now half way to the temple from the Reformed compound had the most complex job.

“Change in plans,” the dour captain of this security force, a man from Phidelphiel, told Father Stefan and Sister Margaret. “Don’t ask why.” He was the only one of the group with a communications device.

Margaret knew better than to ask. “What do you want us to do?”

“You three –“ the captain motioned to Margaret and two reluctant-looking soldiers – “are to ride on ahead to the temple, keeping your eye out for – threats.” He wasn’t sure whether he was authorized to say just what the threat was, but being from Phidelphiel, he wasn’t communicative in the best of times. “You” – to Stefan this time – “will stay with me and brief the patriarch.” The lower-case “p” in “patriarch” was audible in his voice.

“On what?” Stefan dared to ask.

If looks could kill, the caravan would have been light one Stefan. “On his speech,” the captain growled. “Now shut up and keep your eyes open. I have work to do.” He ducked back into the coach without further explanation.

Margaret and her escorts advanced in silence, but no discussion was necessary. She’d figured out that something had happened, she wasn’t sure exactly what, that might keep the real Patriarch from making it to the temple. The ringer they were escorting might have to fill in at the actual dedication ceremony. Whatever. In the event, there were no threats …

… But there was a scared teenaged nun-in-training, a bit out of her normal shape, waving frantically at this group as they got to about a quarter of a mile from the temple.

-*-*

As for the group that had departed the main temple with the carefully disguised Father Lester, they just had to keep on doing what they were doing; that was what decoys were for.

-*-*-

Right on time, Gustaf smirked to himself as this procession came into view. He’d have plenty of time to get his weapon ready to use, and to improve his cover. So he did; and as the ornate coach drew abreast of the building with his sniper’s crotch, he sighted carefully and fired.

With only the barest whsshh, the silenced bullet sped toward its target.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Chapter Sixty-nine: The streets of Saus

What happened next would have turned out very differently if the government had been more diligent about maintaining the streets of Saus. Of course, the true believers in the Veracian church would have said that it was all simply Luminosita’s Hand at work, and who could say they were wrong?

Whatever the cause, just as Gustaf fired, the coach bearing the decoy “Patriarch” hit a large pothole. A front wheel dropped into the crater so that the coach dipped by perhaps three or four inches just as the bullet arrived. Gustaf’s aim had been true; that was just enough that the bullet hit the frame of the door and missed the head that had been its target.

That was bad enough, from an assassin’s point of view, but there was worse, much worse. The bullet itself was silenced; whatever it hit was not. There was a loud kraak! as the wood and metal gave way, showering Father Lester with fragments. Some of these still had enough of the bullet’s energy to draw blood when they hit; but none could do fatal damage. The combination of blood and noise was enough to get the attention of the guards, in plenty of time for them to look around while Gustaf was loading his second silenced bullet, not that he thought it would do him any good.

=*=*=

Something is wrong here, very wrong, Elgin Bindiel thought. He’d just finished assembling the fertilizer/fuel-oil bomb that was supposed to bring down the front of the temple on Patriarch Jeramel when he finally showed up. The final touch was a time-delayed, magical fuze to give him ample time to flee the scene before the bomb went off. This last was almost an indulgence; he’d reconciled himself to figuratively going down with the ship if necessary – since there wasn’t anything to go home to in Provatiel anyway.

Little did he know.

He’d set the timer and started back through the subterranean passages when he heard the commotion of the advance party above and outside. That was very strange. The tunnels had always been almost eerily quiet when he was bringing in the explosive ingredients. Street noise had been completely muffled. A few times in the last day or two, he’d thought he heard faint noises of some Orthodox ceremony going on in the main sanctuary as he traversed the tunnels, and he’d frozen in place until they stopped. (He had no idea that Kassia Carvial had been responsible for almost all of those.) But that had been all.

This noise was different. His cousin’s unexpected, and expertly done, intelligence gathering had revealed that there would be an advance team at the temple before either the bogus Patriarchs or the real one appeared. According to Ardie, these people would be more or less perfunctory, just making sure arrangements were in place and then welcoming the ersatz Jeramel into a side door – so that he could change into the outfit of the normal priest that he was, while the real thing appeared without hoopla. But this was not the noise of a “perfunctory” security team. Something was going on up there.

Frowning, he hastened back to the tunnel entrance at the safe house and climbed up to the surface – and immediately became suspicious. Somehow, someone had got through the outside door; he could hear noises in the house. Whoever it was, at least they hadn’t cracked the inner security system. This gave him three choices on how to proceed. He could ignore them until the inner system showed signs of giving way – but it would, so that option wasn’t appealing. He could emerge fully armed with every bit of magic at his disposal and simply pre-empt against the intruder. That would normally mean big trouble for him, but he wasn’t expecting to be around to face a trial, either by the Apostates or by what remained of the Faithful. That left the third option: quick, quiet reconnaissance as soon as there were no noises outside the concealed entrance to the tunnel. Yes, that was really the only choice.

After a quick prayer to Luminosita, he cast a Damping spell, and then he gathered more magic for the offensive spellcraft that he was sure would follow. Cracking the “door,” he saw nothing at first …

… But then, in a dark corner, he saw a young woman holding a small child and staring at the opening picture in horror.

”CARLY!!??”

His third wife couldn’t hear his shout, due to the Damping spell, but she could see who was coming through the door, and that was enough.

=*=*=

“What’s this about an elf?” Sister Margaret asked Cassie as she pulled her up onto the small coach with the two grim-looking guards. Grim, and annoyed; there was nothing in their orders about picking up hitchhikers. But for the moment, they were reporting to the senior nun. Probably.

“She was at the temple,” Cassie panted. Her memory was coming back despite Bauti’s command to Forget, although there were still gaps. “She – questioned me, she wanted – to know about the Patriarch.”

Margaret produced a most un-nun-like oath. Then she produced something else not part of a nun’s usual equipment: a small handgun that had been secreted in her robe.

=*=*=

Gustaf’s aim was better with his second shot, but again, foiled by circumstances. This time it was that the procession had moved to nearly a full gallop, and the coach bearing his target was pulling away. He was able to get only a quick view of “Jeramel” …

… But Jeramel’s guards also got a quick view of Gustaf. The magical silencing did not preclude a muzzle flash, nor did it keep sun from glinting off the barrel of the rifle.

“THERE HE IS!” shouted several voices as the assassin fired.

The bullet whistled soundlessly down and smashed into Father Lester’s shoulder …

… Just as the two spellcasters in the entourage hurled Force Bolts up at their enemy.

Their aim, or at least their luck, was better than the gunman’s. What remained of his body toppled lifelessly into the street as the carriage pulled away at its top speed, this time bearing a gravely wounded Patriarch stand-in back to the Orthodox temple from which the procession had come.
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