"Wake up, sleepyhead."
I couldn't hold back a small moan; I had been having the most pleasant dream. It was mostly a replay of the time Beatrice and I had spent out in the forest by the small stream – with a few embellishments that hadn't occurred to me at the time.
"I'm awake," I mumbled, as I forced my eyes open and looked up into the smiling face of Beatrice. The only annoying thing was that she was fully dressed and not naked.
Of course thoughts of seeing her naked again brought me fully awake. "Is it shower time?" I asked in a hopeful tone.
"Is that all you think about, Ms. Corrupter?" replied Beatrice with a small sound that was close to a chuckle.
"Hey, don't call me that. As I recall, you were the one who made the first move."
"But I wasn't trying to corrupt a nun, now was I?"
She must have seen the flicker of annoyance gathering in my eyes, as she dropped the whole corrupter title that Lilith had bestowed on me.
"And, unfortunately, the shower facilities here aren't quite as nice as back at Faremoutiers."
That forced me to glance around and remember where we were. I was sharing a small cell with Lilith, although she wasn't present at the moment. We were in the Convent of Santa Clara in Gandia about sixty kilometers south of Valencia.
It had been right at dawn when we had made our exit from the Valencia Cathedral. We had needed somewhere to spend the day since we couldn't wander around the city in our armor and certainly not with a winged Lilith in tow. Lilith had an old friend, Sister Maria, who lived at this convent, so it seemed a logical, nearby place to plan our next moves.
However, Lilith hadn't seen or talked to Sister Maria in the months since her new demonic nature had become undeniable. She could hardly walk up to the convent's front entrance in broad daylight with her impossible wings spread and pitch black eyes gleaming and ask to be admitted with a group of strangers.
In the end, Beatrice and I had been the ones to approach the convent's Mother Superior and used Lilith's connection to Sister Maria to get our foot in the door. Even then, it had been touch and go whether they were going to turn us away, even claiming to be on a mission directly for the Holy Father hadn't been enough. In the end, I had had to fire up the Halo before they would let the others in. Lilith's transformation had been a shock, I was just glad Father Francis was no longer a walking corpse.
"So, it's not shower time then," I said as I glanced at my watch. It was 2:00 PM. I had been asleep for almost five hours. It was the longest I had slept since Cardinal Somalo and Father Antonio had showed up back at Säben Abbey. I didn't feel completely rested, but better than I had.
"No, it's call Cardinal Somalo time," replied Beatrice.
I groaned. I didn't want to speak to the man, but he was going to have to do more damage control after we had, ah, borrowed the Holy Grail and also removed the staff, which he probably didn't even know about. Hmm, did we even have to tell him about the staff?
"Do you think we need to tell him about the staff?" I asked with a yawn. Obviously, I wasn't as awake as I thought.
"I think we should just play it by ear," replied Beatrice. "I would just as soon not, unless it is absolutely necessary, particularly since we have a lead back in France from Father Francis to someone who can hopefully help us translate what is written on it."
The woman lived in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. It was nine hundred kilometers from Gandia, which meant another long night on the road - or maybe two. At least it was in the general direction of Paris, if we had to return there to deal with the fallen angel Dumah.
"Speaking of Father Francis," I said. "We need to be sure to ask what the Cardinal has been able to find out about the bodies we left at Sainte-Chapelle. My gut tells me it is important to figure out why all the others collapsed back into death while only the Father didn't."
"I agree. And perhaps if we offer up how he was restored to full life, it will distract the Cardinal from the staff."
I thought about it some more, but I just couldn't make it work in my head. "We are going to have to tell the Cardinal about how you used the Seer Stone, which led us here. Which means we have to tell him about Dumah and that we came to get a weapon to use against him. Unless we claim the Chalice is the weapon, I don't see how we can avoid telling him about the Staff."
Beatrice sighed. "You are probably right. Of course, now that we have three angelic devices, he is going to insist that we return to Rome. We can just ignore him and go to see this woman Father Francis knows, but that brings up another problem. We are almost out of funds. We probably have enough for gas to get to Nice and one more day's worth of food, but that's it. We need more funds and I doubt the Cardinal is going to send it our way without some very strong strings attached."
The real world always had to intrude.
"So, do you think we should just return to Rome?" I asked. Then I had another thought. "You know, if we say we are going to drive back to Rome, our route would take us through Nice, or close to it. We wouldn't have to make a real commitment until after visiting Father Francis' contact."
Beatrice pondered my words for a moment. Finally, she said, "I guess." She didn't sound convinced.
"What's bothering you?"
"The idea of going to Rome," she said with a sigh. "I think if we come within arm's reach of the Holy Father, he is going to want to take personal control of the angelic devices."
Beatrice was certainly singing a different song than she had even a few days ago. Then, she would have at least given lip-service to doing what the Church, and by extension the Pope, told her. But that had been before she had talked to an angel – perhaps that was somehow making her see things in a new light.
"I know you are the religious one, not me," I said slowly. "But I think it is time we just have to have faith things will work out. Let's go see this woman. Perhaps if we, ah, you learn how to use the staff, maybe it can solve some of our problems. I mean, if it had the power to turn the whole Nile into blood, maybe it can turn some lead into gold to provide funds going forward."
"Lead into gold?" said Beatrice with an almost incredulous expression.
"Whatever. I think we just need to assume things will work out. I think it is important that we, the Order, maintain control of these items. I mean, we are the ones charged with protecting the world from the demonic realm. It might take all three of the angelic devices working together to do that." I tried to fill my voice with conviction.
Beatrice looked at me. Suddenly, I felt the overwhelming, unmistakable sense of presence I had last felt in full force shortly after she had used the Stone to communicate with Michaela. "You are right. I shouldn't have let my faith waver."
She straightened up and held out her hand. "Come, let's go call the Cardinal."
It took a moment for her words to register as I once again found myself basking in the glory of her presence. With an effort, I extended my hand and let her pull me up. I just hoped she could project this feeling of certainty over the phone as well as she could do it in person.
Then I took a single step and was distracted by the almost uncomfortably rough floor of the cell. The nuns of this convent were members of one of the more fanatical orders. Okay, they weren't fanatical in the sense of battling demons like the Order of the Cruciform Sword, but they took to the extreme the whole poverty, perpetual fasting, and going barefooted to demonstrate their piety thing. As always, we tried to respect the convictions of our hosts, but this time it seemed at odds with our needs. We didn't lead sedentary, contemplative lives - we fought demons, which meant we burned a lot of calories. Fasting was not in our best interests. And I wanted my combat boots, not bare feet when we might have to run and fight at a moment's notice.
Nevertheless, there was nothing I could do about it at the moment. Therefore, still maintaining the pleasurable grip on Beatrice's hand, I followed her out of the cell and into the corridor. I expected her to turn right and head towards either the Mother Superior's office or to the chapel where the angelic devices were being stored, but instead she turned left. We walked for about thirty meters until we reached a door leading to a small enclosed courtyard. Beatrice led the way over to a bench in a shady spot and then pulled her cellphone before settling on the bench. This convent was in the center of a city, not out in the boondocks like Faremoutiers, of course they had cell reception here.
It only took a moment to find the Cardinal's name in her contact list.
"You ready?" she asked with her finger hovering above the call icon.
I simply nodded. The sooner this call was over, the better.
She pressed the icon and then raised the phone so it was between us and we could both hear and talk.
The phone barely rang once.
"Where are you?" demanded Cardinal Somalo. Clearly, his call id was working.
"Good afternoon, Your Eminence," replied Beatrice using proper phone etiquette.
"Where are you?" he demanded again, his tone starting to sound seriously angry. "Why haven't you kept me informed of your movements? I tried calling you at Faremoutiers and the sisters there told me you had simply packed up and left without a hint as to where you were going. You've now been incommunicado for over forty-eight hours."
"We are on a mission, remember?" replied Beatrice. Sitting right next to her, I could still feel the power of her presence. I thought I could even hear it in her voice. I wondered if the Cardinal could. "We are about the Order's business. Since we know there is a leak at the Vatican, informing you of our movements at that time increased our risks without adding any value to the mission, it seemed best to leave communications until later."
The phone line was silent for nearly fifteen seconds. When the Cardinal next spoke, his voice was calmer and more in control. I wondered if it was a reaction to Beatrice's presence.
"So why contact me now?"
"This seemed like a more appropriate time for an update of the situation and, frankly, we need several things from you."
"Where are you?" he asked for the third time.
"We are in Spain, near Valencia."
"The break-in at the Cathedral - that was you?"
"Yes. The Angel Michaela said there was an angelic object we would need to send Dumah back to Hell hidden in the Cathedral. We hadn't intended to take the Holy Chalice, but it turns out it is more useful to us than just sitting there collecting dust."
"Wait a second, the Angel Michaela?" asked the Cardinal.
"I used the Seer Stone and she was the one who responded."
"You used the Stone?" some of the anger was crawling back into Cardinal Somalo's voice. "You were supposed to deliver it to me."
"Your Eminence, WE are the Order of the Cruciform Sword. It is OUR duty to protect the world from the demonic realm," a hard edge was creeping into Beatrice's voice, too. "We are the most appropriate ones to use and retain any angelic devices that come into the Church's possession. Your job is to support our needs within the Curia - unless you, personally, want to go up against a Fallen Angel."
"Fallen Angel?" the Cardinal echoed, his voice suddenly lost its sharp tone.
"The Angel Michaela told me only an angel or a fallen angel can reanimate the dead. She believes one of Satan's lieutenants, Dumah, was the one who animated the dead bodies we encountered at Sainte-Chapelle. And he is also responsible for the plague of wraiths we have seen over the last year, not Adriel. The only way to get things back to normal is to force Dumah back to Hell."
"How can we possibly send an angel to Hell?" asked the Cardinal. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him for the moment.
"That's why we came to Valencia. Michaela told us there was an angelic device in the Cathedral that is capable of forcing Dumah out."
"We weren't certain if it was the Chalice, which is why we borrowed it. It turns out the Chalice isn't that device, but the Chalice does have useful powers. Remember Father O'Mallory, the priest who was part of the attack at Sainte-Chapelle and who remained somewhere between alive and dead even after the wraith controlling him was forced out? Well, having him drink from that Holy Cup restored him to full life. In fact, it did more than that; he is now a youthful twenty-five rather than the upper seventies he had been when he died."
"What?" I was expecting him to break into his Sweet Jesus mantra from our previous phone conversation at any moment. I almost felt sorry for him. Things that had happened to us over the course of hours or days were getting thrown at him all at once. Yes, I was almost sorry for him. Almost.
"That's right," I interjected, although I'm not sure why, as Beatrice seemed to be handling the conversation perfectly fine on her own. "Father Francis is alive, young, and surprisingly hot.
"But that brings us to something we don't yet understand – why did all the other bodies collapse back into death while Father Francis didn't? Have you been able to learn anything about the people who attacked us at Sainte-Chapelle?"
"Yes, all the bodies came from the morgue at La Santé Prison, the central prison of Paris, which is located about six blocks from Sainte-Chapelle. All the bodies belonged to criminals who had died within the previous eight days. The morgue held three other bodies, all belonging to people who had been dead more than eight days, and they were still there."
Beatrice and I shared a glance.
"Father Francis was from the prison?"
"Ah, no. He was at the prison visiting an inmate when he suffered a fatal heart attack. They were just keeping his body in their morgue until things could be arranged to ship it back to Ireland."
Beatrice and I shared another glance, this one filled with relief. Neither of us relished the idea we might have been dealing with a criminal.
"So all the other bodies belonged to criminals?" asked Beatrice to clarify. "People who could be defined as evil and who were probably destined for Hell while Father Francis was a good man, probably destined for Heaven."
"I believe that is true," replied the Cardinal. "Is it significant?"
"I don't know," said Beatrice. "Perhaps an angelic device like the Seer Stone can keep someone destined for Heaven alive until they can be truly revived by the Holy Grail. It might be important if Dumah uses wraiths to reanimate more dead. Next time they might not be from someplace like a prison."
"So you said the Holy Chalice wasn't the device you had gone to the cathedral to acquire? What was?" asked the Cardinal. "The reports I've seen didn't mention any other missing relics. But truthfully, since I didn't realize you were involved, I haven't been giving those reports my full attention."
Beatrice glanced at me. I nodded for her to keep the ball.
"The reason the other item wasn't mentioned was because I don't think anyone at the Cathedral knew it was there. And it was sort of hidden in plain sight, so we didn't have to destroy any walls or floors to acquire it like back at Sainte-Chapelle."
"So what was it?" asked the Cardinal again.
"I believe it is the Staff of God. The staff Moses used in Ancient Egypt. To the best of my recollection, it was supposedly handed down through the generations and was in the possession of the Judean Kings. It was last heard of when Solomon's Temple was destroyed in 587 B.C. about a thousand years after the time of Moses. I have no idea how it ended up in the Valencia Cathedral, but I suspect it has been there for at least several hundred years. Most likely it was in Muslim hands for some period of time and was acquired by someone during the Crusades."
"The Staff of God," murmured the Cardinal so softly I almost wasn't certain I had heard him.
"If it really is the Staff of God, Your Eminence, you can see why it probably has the power to force a fallen angel from the mortal realm and back to the demonic one."
"Yes, yes, of course," replied the Cardinal quickly, almost too quickly. I could almost picture him salivating over the possibility of possessing such a relic. Even if he never used it himself, just being able to announce its existence and that it was in the possession of the Church would greatly elevate his position within the hierarchy.
"What can I do to help you, Sister Beatrice?"
"We have no idea where Dumah is currently located," replied Beatrice. "Lacking any better Intel, we are going to assume he is still in Paris and head for there. If you could put out some discrete feelers for any information of his location, that would help. You know - any stories or rumors of magical or mystical events or miracles that can't be explained by ordinary means."
"And discretion is most important, sir," I interjected. "Knowledge of the Staff can't go beyond us and you for the present. If Dumah learns we have it, he might have some means of countering it. He can't find out we have the device."
After ten seconds of silence, the Cardinal replied. "I understand. I'll tell no one at my end. And I can get members of my staff looking for anything unexplainable. That falls within the purview of my office without any need to mention the Staff. Anything else?"
"We could use some additional funds, Your Eminence," added Beatrice. "When we set out from Säben, we didn't anticipate driving two vans back and forth across Europe. And we can't always find a convenient abbey along the way to feed us."
"I'll attend to it. Where would it be convenient to get money to you?"
"We plan to hit the road as soon as it is dark. We should be somewhere in southern France in the morning."
"Okay, I'll call you back when I have somewhere arranged."
"Thank you, Your Eminence."
"Is there anything else?" asked the Cardinal.
Beatrice glanced at me. I shook my head.
"Not at the moment, sir."
"Good work, ladies. As always, you've given me a lot to think about. I'm sure I'll have more questions when we next talk. I think I'm starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel for all the things that have been happening in the last year. Stay strong and pass my best wishes and thanks to the others."
And just like that, the call was disconnected. I felt some of the tension flow out of my back and neck.
"That went about as well as we could have hoped," I said, standing up and stretching my arms above my head and twisting my body from side to side.
"Until he calls back with a whole bunch of questions," replied Beatrice as she also rose to her feet.
"We can worry about that later," I said as my stomach started to growl. "Let's go find something to eat."