Author's Note: I make no claims to ownership of these characters.
Warrior Nun - Daniel 12:1-3
One year, two months, twenty-two days after Ava acquires the Halo
As we filed into the abbey's refectory, the good humor, smiles, and quiet laughter I had been sharing with the sisters was abruptly dampened when we spotted the two men standing with Mother Superion.
One I immediately recognized - Cardinal Jorge Somalo, Duretti's chosen successor as sponsor for the Order of the Cruciform Sword within the Curia. He was a serious, no nonsense sort of person. He reminded me a lot of a slightly younger version of Duretti or rather Pope Callixtus IV as he was now called since his ascension.
The second man I didn't recognize. He wore a simple priest's collar, so it seemed likely he was a lackey or sidekick to the Cardinal. Perhaps he was going to be to Cardinal Somalo what Father Vincent had been to Duretti. I wasn't sure I was happy about that. We had been functioning fine for the last year with just Mother Superion in charge. Why did we need a full-time man overseeing us? How had that turned out last time?
And that thought almost sent my mind off on a diatribe against men and the Church. Why could only men be priests or cardinals or pope? It was the twenty-first century and that whole mindset was so Middle Ages. But I bit my tongue; going off on a rant wouldn't change anything. I mean, even with a fucking halo in my back that made me effectively a damn superhero, it was like I and the sisters were almost too unimportant for them to notice except in some crisis.
Beatrice must have been watching me, as I suddenly felt her fingers lightly clasp mine. With that reminder, I forced my temper down before the halo reacted and did something destructive like in the early days. I was calm in-control Ava these days, not some out-of-control freak.
Taking a deep breath and after a quick nod of thanks in Beatrice's direction, I turned my attention back to the second man. He was relatively young, probably thirty-five to Cardinal Somalo's fifty. And he just had this bookish look about him. Maybe it was the slightly stooped shoulders paired with an ungainly pair of glasses. My first impression was that this man was no leader like Father Vincent, even if Father Vincent had ultimately been working for the other side.
"If you'll have a seat, sisters," said Mother Superion with a gesture towards the nearest communal table. It was clear Mary and I were included in the sisters even if neither of us had technically taken the vows.
It wasn't until this moment that the second man appeared to notice Lilith, as he let out a sudden, sharp gasp as he stared in her direction.
My eyes were quickly drawn to Lilith, too. Even if the man had been briefed, meeting her for the first time was still a startling experience.
Lilith had been impaled upon a claw of a Tarask and dragged to Hell while trying to protect me only days after I first met her. When she had miraculously reappeared, she had, at first, seemed mostly unchanged except for a haunted look in her eyes. But as time passed, she began to manifest more and more aspects of the demonic plane. In the beginning it was simple things like impossibly long, strong fingernails that almost qualified as talons. And she had had some control over when they appeared. But by the time the large black wings made their appearance, the changes seemed to have become permanent. Four meter wide, leathery black wings like something from a giant bat, fifteen centimeter talons, an elongated, feral face which could no longer quite pass for human, silver hair that looked like it could glow in the dark, and inhuman, completely black eyes – all attributes which definitely limited her ability to move around in public.
Sister Camila had been injured in a battle with another Tarask three months ago. Her injuries hadn't been as severe and the progression to a demonic state much slower, but there was no doubt of her fate at this point either.
Being a sister in the Order of the Cruciform Sword wasn't an easy life in the best of circumstances and the last year had been far from the best.
"You all know Cardinal Somalo," said Mother Superion once we were all settled. Happily, Beatrice had chosen to sit beside me. "This is Father Antonio Caprio," she continued with a gesture towards the second man.
Then she nodded to the Cardinal before taking a seat slightly off to one side.
"Sisters," began Cardinal Somalo after taking a step forward. "I have a new assignment for you straight from the Supreme Pontiff." He must have seen the expressions on the assembled faces as he quickly added. "This is not a situation involving battling demons like you are normally called upon to handle, or at least, hopefully not, if you are able to move quickly."
Originally, most of the sisters had thought Duretti had been behind the incident leading to the death of Sister Shannon, the previous Halo bearer, and hated him for it. It wasn't until after he had been elected Pope that we had discovered it had been Father Vincent, our supposed friend and ally, who had been the instigator. Still, Duretti had been the one who had set Sister Crimson and the others of her ilk against us in an attempt to kill me and acquire direct control of the Halo. None of us had much love for the man.
But, regardless of our history, with Adriel on the loose we had ultimately been forced to join forces with Pope Callixtus for the greater good of the Church and the world, but that didn't mean any of us had to like it or the Pope's attitude towards us.
"I'm sure you are all aware of the situation, since you were directly involved. For hundreds of years, everyone thought Adriel was an Angel who had gifted his Halo to Adreala to fight the denizen of the demonic planes and that, as a result, he had become a mortal man whose bones were entombed in the catacombs under the Vatican after his death. It wasn't until Ava managed to reach his prison that we learned the lost story of what had actually transpired back in the time of Adreala and that he is really just another demon of a different order than the Wraiths and Tarasks who more frequently are able to reach this plane.
"Now, with Adriel's ability to infect people with Wraiths almost at will and with how the Tarasks also seem to be more easily able to cross over to our world with Adriel out and about, the situation appears to be becoming untenable."
Cardinal Somalo was definitely right on that point. I and the sisters had managed to find and destroy six Tarasks in the last year, but countless others had come and gone causing untold damage and spreading a palpable fear to the general public. And the number of Wraiths inhabiting humans now had to be in the hundreds, if not thousands. The initial epicenter had been the Vatican, but like a disease they were spreading across Europe with a few popping up in the Americas and the Far East. Even if we recruited like mad, the Order could never exorcise them all.
"If the demonic plane exists, as it clearly does, then it only seems reasonable an angelic plane is also out there, even if we don't have any recent direct evidence," continued the Cardinal. "The Holy Father has had everyone who could be spared looking through the Vatican's vast records for anything that could help us reach the angelic plane and ask for help. Father Caprio, here, has uncovered the best clue to date."
The Cardinal gestured for the other man to take over.
Father Caprio took a hesitant step forward. He tugged at his tight collar for a moment while glancing again in Lilith's direction. Then he turned slightly and appeared to fix his gaze on me sitting at the other end of the row, probably assuming I was a more normal audience. Little did he know.
Jumping straight in, he began, "Joan of Arc was known to be able to communicate with the Archangel Michael and possibly others. My scholarly work has long focused on her, but only with the Holy Father's recent edict have some of the most deeply hidden details become accessible to me.
"What I found were the secret, unofficial records from the trial that led to her being burned at the stake. These indicate she had a special Seer Stone which allowed her to make contact with Michael. Based on these and other clues, I think I have found where the relic has been hidden for the last six hundred years."
Well, that was a pronouncement I hadn't seen coming. Joan of Arc. THE Joan of Arc from the old stories. Being a quadriplegic for most of my life, reading books had never been one of my strong suits. But I had watched a lot of TV with Diego. We had seen the Milla Jovovich movie more than once.
Of course, thinking of those years spent watching TV with Diego reminded me I hadn't seen him in over a year and really needed to make an effort to see him again soon. He didn't have regular access to the internet in that poor, dilapidated orphanage, but then neither did I. Ever since the night we, ah, I, unintentionally released Adriel, we had been trying to maintain a low profile. Since Father Vincent was intimately familiar with Cat's Cradle, we hadn't been able to return there. Instead, except for venturing forth to hunt demons, we had been holed up in Säben Abbey in the mountains of northern Italy a bare twenty kilometers from the Austrian border. And northern Italy was a long, long way from the Saint Michael Orphanage in Spain. I should at least make an effort to write him another letter. Sadly, I couldn't give him my current address, so our conversations were all one-sided. A freaking superhero and I felt more like a prisoner in a cage.
With a shake of my head, I forced my thoughts away from my old friend and back to the current topic – Joan of Arc. I had always thought her visions were a delusion. But since I had been battling real demons for over a year, imagining Joan of Arc actually seeing and talking to angels didn't seem as far-fetched now.
And if we could somehow contact angels and get their help with the current situation, it could make a huge difference. Suddenly, I felt myself sitting up straighter and paying closer attention. I could sense the same reaction in my fellow sisters.
"So where is it?" someone blurted out. It took me a few seconds to realize it had been me.
Father Antonio smiled at me like I was his favorite pupil. Of course, since I had never been to a regular school, I'm only guessing.
"It is in a secret vault in the Sainte-Chapelle chapel in the old Royal Palace on Île de la Cité in the Seine River in Paris."
Paris? I'd never been to the City of Lights except in my dreams. Well, perhaps I had been there when I had been a small child before the accident that had left me paralyzed, but, if so, I don't have any memories.
"Old Royal Palace?" I echoed. "You mean the Louvre?"
"No, before that. The Palais de la Cité was the residence of the Kings of France from the sixth century to the fourteenth century, after which the royal residence was moved to the Louvre, which is about a half kilometer away on the Right Bank of the Seine. While the Palais de la Cité is old, the Sainte-Chapelle chapel is relatively recent having been completed in 1248."
"Since Joan of Arc didn't die until 1431, why would her Seer Stone be hidden in Palais de la Cité when the official residence had been moved to the Louvre Palace almost fifty years earlier by Charles V?" asked Beatrice. Damn, how was it she was so knowledgeable on seemingly every topic?
Father Antonio nodded in appreciation at what he assumed was a fellow scholar. I wondered what the slightly paunchy man would think if he ever witnessed Beatrice's combat skills.
"Charles VII, who became the King of France as a result of Joan's actions at the siege of Orleans, was crowned in 1429 in Reims and Joan was present. At the coronation ceremony, Joan gifted him with her Seer Stone after she had a vision from Michael indicating she would be captured within the year and she didn't want the stone falling into the hands of the dreaded English. When the French regained control of Paris, five years after Joan's death and after the English had controlled it for sixteen years, Charles stated the interior of Sainte-Chapelle with its glorious stained glass windows reminded him of the descriptions Joan had told him of her visions. That's why he had a special vault added to the chapel."
"So when are we going?" I asked, unable to keep the enthusiasm from my voice. Paris! Perhaps I had been going more stir-crazy in this old Abbey than I had realized, judging by my sudden excitement.
"Tonight," replied Cardinal Somalo. "Father Caprio didn't bring the information directly to me. By the time it worked its way up to the Holy Father and then back down to me, at least a dozen others were told. We know Adriel has followers within the Holy See. We have to assume they are now aware of the Seer Stone and will make every effort to acquire it before us, even if it is just to prevent us from using it."
My jubilation at the thought of going to Paris suddenly crashed. I could read between the lines as well as the next person.
"You mean, we need to be in Paris to acquire it tonight?"
The Cardinal nodded. "The chapel is open to the public; therefore we can't retrieve it during the day. And tomorrow night will probably be too late."
Paris was at least six or seven hundred kilometers from Säben Abbey. And it was already after eight in the evening. The only way we could get all the way to Paris and do this mission tonight was if I used the Halo to get us there. And no way did I want to do that.
Sister Beatrice understood what the Cardinal was implying. Probably everyone in the room did. She once again reached over and squeezed my hand.
"In this life, or the next," she whispered. She said it so quietly only I should have heard it, but it was quickly taken up by the other sisters.
I had learned two things from my encounter with Adriel. Okay, three things if you include the fact he was a demon, not an angel.
The first thing was that the special metal divinium came from the corpses of dead Tarasks. Previously, the only known source of divinium was Adriel's armor. Therefore the supply had always been extremely limited and each small weapon and blade reformed from the armor for use by the sisters was carefully recorded and registered.
Knowledge of the true source in a large part led to the understanding between us and the Pope. We needed his help to acquire the body of the Tarask I had discovered in the walls of Adriel's prison. In exchange for the knowledge of the true source, Pope Callixtus had agreed to give us half of the Tarask's body to augment our limited number of weapons.
The bodies of the six Tarasks we had killed over the last year we had mostly kept for our own uses. Now, all the sisters were fully equipped with divinium armor, swords, knives, and other weapons that best suited each individual. And we still had enough left to start equipping the next cadre of sisters in training here at the Abbey.
After a Tarask attack within the Abbey itself, everyone had taken to wearing their armor and weapons all the time except when they were sleeping. And I always wore my cloaking vest to dampen the demons ability to sense the Halo unless we were heading into battle. I was wearing the vest now, but the Halo still leaked enough power that as I looked down the row passed Beatrice, all the sisters were encompassed in a pale blue glow from all the divinium around their bodies. It was like something from a medieval painting of Jesus' followers after he returned from the dead and revealed his true nature and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. And, no, just because I also returned from the dead, I am definitely not trying to compare myself to Jesus!
The second thing I had learned was about the Halo. Since Adriel wasn't an angel then the device in my back wasn't really an Angel's Halo. It was a device created by someone, most likely someone on the demonic plane. I have no idea who created it, but it doesn't seem like something created by the Wraiths or the Tarasks or even Adriel, but by someone even more powerful. And its true purpose wasn't destroying demons like the way it had been used by the sisters for a thousand years. No, its true purpose was to be a transportation device that could open portals between two different places. The strength, the phasing ability, the accelerated healing, and all the other gifts it bestowed on the Halo bearer were all just side effects of its true purpose.
Jillian Salvius, the head of ARQ-Tech, had tried to use me and the Halo to power her device to open a portal to other realms, not knowing that the Halo could do that without needing her cumbersome machine.
Unfortunately, there was one HUGE downside of using the Halo as a transportation device – one end of the portal had to be in the demon realm. I couldn't use the Halo to open a doorway straight from the Abbey to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. No, I had to open a doorway from the Abbey to the demon realm. Then anyone who went through the doorway was trapped in the demon realm for at least seven minutes while the Halo recharged before I could open another portal from the demon realm to Paris. And seven minutes in the demon realm could be a very, very long time.
Suddenly, it felt like the Cardinal had been reading my thoughts.
"I have spoken with Michel Aupetit, the Archbishop of Paris. He will have transportation waiting for you in the plaza in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, which is only a little over a block from the old chapel. Once you have acquired the Seer Stone and have gotten clear of any opposition, you will be taken to the Abbey of Faremoutiers about fifty kilometers east of Paris. The nuns there will play host until I can arrange transportation back here, which might take a day or two. No need to use the infernal route twice tonight unless it is absolutely necessary."
Why did just a single trip through the demon realm suddenly make this sound almost like a pleasure trip? It wasn't. Some of us or all of us could be dead, or worse, before we even reached Paris - hence Beatrice's In this life, or the next comment.