Inez Ponce de Leon - Artist, Writer, Scholar, Educator

Inez's Diary: The Towers on the Plains

The call came at 5 in the afternoon, as Agnes was seated at her desk. She had taught dance for the last four hours, and every joint in her body fought between rest and springing up, ready to respond to the slightest beat. Typical of all her dance days, she thought, fingers typing out a message on her phone, foot tapping to a song still playing in her head, and eyes drooping slowly as the adrenaline of the last few hours slowly slipped away.

Agnes felt the creeping, tingling beats playing in the nerves of her feet. She stopped tapping her foot and leaned back to breathe. If not for the call, she would have closed her eyes, or stretched in her chair, or sprawled herself across her desk the way the cats were doing on the grass under her window.

She stopped typing as the call came in. It was an unknown number. She waited for the call to drop, thinking of sending the caller a text message instead. Agnes laid the phone on the table, stretched her arms out, heard the secretaries of her department talking about a student who had left her bag hours ago and run away, yawned, scratched an imaginary itch in her eyes, leaned her cheek against her hand, laid her elbow upon her desk... Good God....

"Good God," she allowed the thought to slip out, past her now tingling legs, all the way up to her mouth. The ringing would not stop. Agnes gave up and picked up the call, yawning as she did so.

"Ma'am?"

Agnes didn't even have time to say hello when the sounds ploughed through the static. It was a young female voice, familiar, carrying half a shout, half a groan, prickled with the noise of faraway laughter and sobbing. Agnes sat up straight, blinking another yawn away.

"Hello?" Agnes spoke, voice grating into a cough.

"Ma'am!" The half-scream groaned into the static again, this time mingling with weeping, even giggling. Agnes' cough disappeared in the wake of a new surge of adrenalin in her skull.

"Who is -?"

"Ma'am!" It was her student, she knew, but Agnes could not place name and voice together. "Ma'am! Help me! Please help me!"

Who had she given her number to? Thesis students? They had passed their manuscripts long ago and didn't need her help. Dance students? She had just met them and nothing had seemed out of the ordinary. Graduate students? They would be too busy at work to talk to her. But the voice... She had heard it before....

" Ma'am! Ma'am are you there? I didn't know who else to call!"

And all her students would call her Ma'am Agnes, and would at least have enough common decency to introduce themselves! "Who is this?" Agnes finally broke through the screams and static of the background.

"Ma'am please help me!"

Agnes sprang up, adrenalin now coursing through her limbs, hair standing on end.

"Please help me!"

Agnes spun toward the window, shielded her eyes from the burst of afternoon sunlight bouncing off the roofs of cars. She squinted, backed away from the light, stepped slowly out of her cubicle. "Who is this?" She persisted, head throbbing from the onslaught of adrenalin and warmth.

"I'm downstairs! They can't get me!"

"What?" Agnes' legs froze. Downstairs - the counseling office. Students with all sorts of problems were there, she knew, at the end of the schoolyear. But who?

"They're trying to get me! Ma'am please help me!"

The call dropped, and the screen went dark.

Agnes stared at her phone for a moment, still hearing the static, the screams, the sobbing, the heckling and laughter and the one voice that broke out of the melee. In another moment, she tucked her phone into her bag. In the next moment, she was running.

She wove her way through cubicles, slid slightly on the linoleum tiles beneath her heels, ignored the pain in her knees as the adrenalin soothed it into nothingness. The light changed as she burst out of the department, and as the afternoon banged against her eyes in a storm of humidity and light. Agnes ignored everything. She ran down the stairs, raced across the floor, opened the door to the counseling office, burst in...

... Into silence.

Agnes breathed the cool air in, of muted light and quiet. Her ears searched for the screams and sobs, the laughter and shouting... But there were only rows of closed or half-open doors, nearly inaudible murmurs of students sharing their stories, bass notes where the counselors were giving advice. There was hardly any noise, save the receptionist, who stood up and stared at Agnes with wide eyes.

"Yes - ma'am?" The receptionist spoke slowly, as though unsure whether Agnes would suddenly lash out at her, "How can I help you?"

Agnes was about to answer, but she took a breath first, trying to calm the pounding in her chest, the throbbing in her ears.

"There was a call," she began, trying to talk above the sound of her veins threatening to burst forth from her skin, "A student called me for help. She said she was here."

The receptionist nodded once, then reached for a folder next to her. It was the list of students who were currently in the office, Agnes knew, as she tried to catch her breath. The throbbing in her head had pulsed into a high-pitched whine, running through her jaw, until she went deaf in one ear.

"I'm sorry," Agnes stepped closer to the receptionist's table, slowing her words down as she heard them echoing back in her skull, "Good afternoon. I just got a call from one of my students. She said she was here and she was asking for my help. I ran from upstairs. I wanted to help her."

"It's all right, ma'am, don't worry," the receptionist opened the folder and looked down the list, "What is your student's name?"

"Oh," was all that Agnes could manage, as she tried to match the voice with a face, among the over two hundred students she had ever met, handled, and spoken with, "I - I don't - she didn't give her name. But she said she needed help -"

"Yes ma'am, I understand," the receptionist gave another tiny nod, eyes now on Agnes, "Did you recognize her voice?"

"No," Agnes winced as the throbbing bit into her jaw, "I'm so sorry - I don't - can't - I just had to run and help her."

"What about her major, ma'am?"

Agnes felt another throb, this time in her legs. It was the adrenaline slipping away again, she knew, so that she could fully feel all the pain in her knees, her legs, her feet... And now, her head. Her blood pressure was sinking, and she needed water, or at least somewhere to sit. But the student -

"She didn't say," Agnes fought against the urge to sit down and sleep, "But her voice sounded familiar. She just said she needed help because they were trying to get her-"

"What?" The receptionist nearly dropped the folder.

"Or that they couldn't get her?" Agnes finished, "I don't remember. She just kept calling for me and the line went dead. And she sounded like she was in pain and I just need to help her -"

"Ma'am?"

It was the voice on the phone, minus the sobs and laughter that stormed into the groan, without the crackles that ground into the scream - and it came from a half-open door close to where Agnes stood. From it peered out a fair, round face, with eyes glassy beneath tears, and cheeks pale. It was the same voice, but not quite; the same student, but seemingly...Agnes searched for the word, even as she searched in her head for the student's name, and her story.

"Tai!" Agnes remembered the girl at last, the confident Tai who wrote well and thought things through with brows furrowed and mouth crumpled up, the student Tai who had passed a thesis on how people in her home province called on elves and dwarves to change the weather and how these beliefs made them consume the news in specific ways, the thesis advisee Tai who worked hard and well and who was so tired but still smiled her widest and brightest, the girl Tai who now looked as though she had wept for hours but was fighting to appear strong.

"Tai!" Agnes said again, "I came as soon as I can!"

A figure rose behind Tai and opened the door wider. Agnes recognized Peter, the psychiatrist who headed the office. Agnes felt herself grow cold within. What was wrong with Tai that she had to be placed under the care of the head counselor, the one who specialized in the most extreme cases, the one who had handled students who threatened to kill their classmates and bomb the school? Agnes had met Peter only once, at the meeting called by the Holy Father. He had been quiet, but Agnes sensed the burden that had been placed upon him, as though all the stories of students that had gone before had long since been imprinted upon his breath.

"I didn't think you'd come," Tai said, but without the groan or scream, or even alarm on the phone. She seemed to change, to brighten, as though in relief; then darken, as though in anger. The change came, went, dissolved beneath the white lights that cast the counseling office in a glow both green and glaring. Agnes had no time to mark the change, much less ask about it.

"Excuse me," Peter finally spoke up, as he stepped out into the hallway and walked past Tai, "I don't mean to be rude, but - Agnes?"

"Yes – I'm really sorry, Peter," Agnes watched Tai, as the girl slowly made her way out of the room, eyes on the office door, toes restless and tapping, "I didn't mean to interrupt."

Peter glanced quickly at Tai, then back at Agnes, "It's all right - but Tai is here on an official checkup, and I need to have her back in the room again, in the interest of time."

Agnes felt her other ear go deaf. She had to take a breath, "I know, Peter. It's just.... Tai called me and said she was here, and she said she needed help, and she sounded like she really needed it so I ran -"

"Oh my gosh, Sir Peter!" suddenly sprang out, and brightly, and from Tai, "That reminds me: I left my bag and phone upstairs at the department! They might close soon! Can I go get them? I won't be a minute!"

Neither Peter nor Agnes had the chance to say anything. Tai simply opened the door, ran out, and disappeared.

Peter's brows knot themselves together, "Tai has been in my office since three PM," he stepped closer to Agnes, eyes still questioning, "Are you sure she called you?"

Agnes felt herself redden, then lose color. She knew it was Tai, or - was it? The voice had been frantic, and scream-laced, and drawn with static. The Tai of a few seconds ago was happy, light, and - something. Something was there that - shouldn't be.

"I'm not sure," Agnes admitted, as a fresh spate of throbbing ran over her head, and into her lungs, "May I sit for a moment?"

Peter nodded at the receptionist, "Just tell Tai to step back in when she gets back," he led Agnes into his office, and to a sofa against one wall, "I don't want to scare you, but as you heard, Tai didn't even have her phone."

Try as she might, Agnes could not help feeling frightened. She sank into the chair, leaned back, and felt her muscles deaden. Her hearing had not returned; she could feel her nerves tingling, in her palms and in the soles of her feet; and her head... She had to talk above the beating, the thrumming that seemed to pump her heart up, and into her brain.

"I don't know if it was Tai," she admitted, trying to bring back the memories of the voice on the phone. It matched Tai's. It was Tai. "But she was screaming and groaning, and she said they were trying to get her, and they couldn't."

Peter took a chair before her, "They?" He reached for his desk, where the blood pressure monitor was. He spoke as he unrolled the cuff, "Did she give her name?"

Agnes shook her head, then raised her arm as Peter wrapped the cuff around it, "I kept asking who it was, but I never got an answer," she breathed slowly as Peter pressed buttons on the machine, and as the pressure on her arm grew, "She just kept calling me 'ma'am'."

”That's strange.”

”Not as strange as the meeting with the Holy Father, if you remember,” Agnes retorted, trying to smile, “I will never look at black books the same way again.”

Peter shrugged, letting out a light laugh, “Let's hope none of the students are in trouble.”

”Let's hope not,” Agnes agreed, feeling the pressure in her arm build to its highest point, “It didn't sound right – the call. I heard her screaming – and I heard people sobbing and laughing in the background.”

Peter's eyes widened, but he said nothing. He seemed to pale, Agnes saw. Either that, or she was giving way to sleep, and everything was changing color. The machine beeped a few seconds later. Peter looked at the reading abruptly, as though he did not want to be caught staring at Agnes, and he simply shook his head.

"70/55," he removed the cuff, then laid a hand on her forehead, "But you're warm. Did you drink anything? Eat anything?"

There was concern in Peter's voice, but Agnes missed it in favor of the implication that she had been lying, or worse, hallucinating, "I came from dance class, but I ate a good lunch and I drank water. I didn't dream all this," she tried to put it as sharply as she could, but she felt her voice drown out her tongue, and weigh on her throat, "All I heard was - Tai. She just said she needed help and that she was downstairs, so I came. And here I am. And I don't know what's going on."

Peter took her by one shoulder and one arm, and tried to ease her into lying down. Agnes would have objected, but everything in her bones felt light, metallic, as though she were being melted into a molten mass of trembling muscle. Her dance training was threatening to break through, but she made no protest as Peter laid her head on a pillow, and propped her feet up with several cushions.

"Your blood pressure is too low," he sat before her, "Don't stand up."

"But I need to help her," Agnes could only mumble. The blood was slowly coming back up, from her legs, to her head, but she did not even have the strength to swallow the lump in her throat, "I'm sorry I'm taking up your space and time -"

"No, no, don't worry," she heard Peter say, as though from another room. Agnes could see only darkness, and moving shadows; but she could hear Peter's voice, soothing, smooth, above the silence, "I know you want to help her. You want to help all your students. But you can't help her if you're all worn out."

"But it's normal," Agnes breathed out, trying to form words that once seemed to flow from her in a steady stream of laughter and thought, "My blood pressure really is that low - sometimes. This has happened before. I know I can help."

"I know, but you need to rest now," Peter replied, voice still clear. The next words, however, were muffled, as though they had been spoken behind a screen of blustering smoke and snow, "I know you. Your students talk about you all the time. They say you're their mother and sister and naughty aunt. But now, you have to stop. Only for a while. Stop. Let me handle this."

Agnes nodded, feeling her body succumb to the exhaustion. There were whispers all around her, she thought, from - a room below, where a group was gathering and watching. She had no strength left to even open her eyes.

And then Peter's muffled voice again, from far away.

"But how could Tai call you? If she had told you that she was downstairs, then she would have known you were waiting upstairs."

Agnes tried to brush the fear away, even as it made her feet cold, even as it crept higher, shaking her bones, pressing her muscles, deafening her ears further. And again, Peter's voice - this time even farther away, as though he were talking to her from another building altogether.

"And how could she even call you? She's been quiet since she came to my office. All she did was cry. The first time she said anything sensible was when she opened the door, saw you, greeted you. Before that, she didn't even greet me. She just cried."

This time, the fear was trying to shake Agnes awake. Her blood was now flowing better. She knew she could stand up at any time, but something - something nagged at her, something made her stop, look back, and think. She could hear Peter say something about Tai taking too long. She heard him step outside his office. But her thoughts... Told her ... That it wasn't Tai. The girl on the phone was. But what if the girl who greeted her - wasn't?

Agnes snapped her eyes open, felt herself get up, and saw a window looking out onto a grassy plain. There were towers out on a grassy plain. Dark towers, tall and small and thin and thick and old and new and thousands upon thousands, millions upon millions... All across the plains beneath a sky whose color her human tongue could not describe. She felt as though she had been here before, and had seen the towers, felt the cold rocks and stones of the floor beneath her feet, felt the silky fabric of the white dress that she now wore, felt the winds that swept into the room and smelled of grass, and water, and battles soaked with sweat and blood. She knew she had been here before, but kept on forgetting.

She knew she had been here before, but had been made to forget.

The throbbing in her head was no more. Agnes rushed out of the room, felt no weight upon her, saw only gray rocks in the hallway that formed before her eyes. She knew she had to go downstairs, where they were, whoever they were. She knew she had always found them there, in their white robes stained with black blood, with their broadswords gleaming and eyes silver and gold. She remembered, as she forgot the world that she had left behind.

The steps formed beneath her feet, as though the world around her were building itself with her every step. And at the bottom of the steps was a door; upon it went her hands; and with barely any force, she pushed the doors outward and stepped out, breath rising into clouds out of her mouth.

Agnes gasped white mist as she beheld the scene before her. There, amongst thousands of towers, were thousands more beings, some of them shining like silver silk, others bent and crooked like dying, rotting tree branches - all of them locked in a battle that clanged and banged with metal and fire. On the grounds before her were her own friends, her Guard, whom she recognized as easily as she could pick out faces from a crowd. But try as she might, she could not commit the faces to memory; she knew only who they were, and knew that they protected her.

By her side stood a being taller than the rest of her Guard, with robes spun from starlight. He smiled as she came up to him, smiled as she ran into his open arms, smiled as she wrapped her own arms around him and buried her face in his chest. Agnes' fingers remembered the silk of his clothes, the strange leather of his belt, the air behind him that coalesced into warm, unburning fire on her fingers - but that spread out into gentle billows of pure, white wings.

"Please let me help you," she said, as she pushed him away. She knew she had spoken the same words before, for the words warmed her, made her reach for her belt, where her fingers closed on the hilt of a small blade.

The being before her smiled again. Behind him, his wings moved as fluid flames, enclosing Agnes, "This is too great a battle," he whispered, in a voice that soothed away the deafness in her ears, calmed the pounding in her chest, "Perhaps next time, but not now. Now, I must protect you. We must protect you."

”But I've always fought,” Agnes insisted, whisper high, fingers tighter on her blade, “And we've always won.”

”And so we have,” the being's eyes were gentle, and the shake of his head slight, as though he, too, had reprimanded her once upon a time, “But – this is not something we expected, dear Agnes. It came too fast, and we have been fighting for days now. We are tired, but it is a battle that cannot be won in hours. It cannot be won by small blades.”

Agnes dared to look back at the plain, where the battle raged, and where swords and black blood met freely, mingled with the grass, stained silver robes and wrinkled skins alike. Sometimes, one of the silver-robed beings would step away, fall to his knees, and fold his hands in prayer. At other times, one of the wrinkled ones would dare to approach Agnes, eyes smoldering with darkness, fangs bared in threat. Her Guard would simply fold Agnes in his wings, hide her, and send forth a spray of black blood with the sweep of his broadsword across the creature's neck.

"This battle is too close to you," her companion spoke, "We do not know why they are so many all at once, but we will protect you. You must let us, and you must not stop praying, dear child."

"I know I've helped you before, Sherwood," she spoke his name, her hand lifting the blade out of its scabbard, "I can help you end this now. Let me be strong, too."

Agnes sensed his frustration. She knew him well, the head of her Guard, and her Guardian Angel whom she had named in her childhood. Even in this world, she felt small, and silly, and impulsive. He spoke not a word; she loosened her grip on her blade in apology.

"I did not mean to be proud, Sherwood," she looked up at him, "But I am afraid. Something is wrong. I can't say what. I don't know what. But something's wrong, and I'm afraid that I will not be able to help you, when I want to so much."

Sherwood had a face that glowed with common light, so that no specific part of him would easily be picked out as his defining characteristic. All that Agnes could see were his silver eyes, flecked with gold, gentle as they looked down at her; and all she felt was the warmth of his wing, and his fingers, as he took both her hands in his.

"Do not be afraid, dear child. Call to Him, and do not cease, for He will not leave us," Sherwood replied, firm, voice deep, "I need you to look around you now, because this time, Agnes, you will be called again. There will be another meeting soon, and you must know what to do. And this time - this time you need to be brave and see all this, because this time, you will not forget. After this, you will keep on coming back, and you will never forget."

Agnes felt the mist grow colder in her mouth, felt her fingers tremble, felt a warm wing gently push her to step away and look forward. When Agnes did, she saw the battle again, and the demons and the angels locking swords and fire, the way the priest at the meeting had told her. She saw the fiery wings of her angelic guard, amongst the other angels with their own make and beauty, all of them strong and stalwart and unafraid... And exhausted and punished and wounded on the battlefield.

But beyond... The towers... The thousand towers, where she could see figures in white pacing at windows, or gazing down at the battle, or laying rocks where there were holes and gaps. Agnes was surprised at how easily she could see everything, and how there seemed to be so many towers near her, but how they still seemed far away.

Above the din and clanging, there was a scream. Agnes breathed deep, as she recognized the sounds in their true context. The sobs. The laughter. The shouts. The groans. And the voice... The true voice of one soul ringing out in a tower close by. The true voice of one soul screaming, as one demon chased it from room to room in the tower, as that demon laughed and cackled, as that soul begged for help while an angel tried to pursue them with both a sword and sobs.

”How did she call me?” Agnes barely formed the words, as her knees trembled, “How did she know how to call me?”

”We do not know, dear one,” Sherwood answered, from behind her, “But perhaps He has given her a chance to call for help. We only hoped that – that she would call upon the right person.”

”That is not me, Sherwood.”

”Perhaps it is – for now.”

Agnes did not even sense that she had stepped forward, her eyes still on the tower, her body now outside the range of Sherwood's wings. She stared, as the demon caught up with the girl, and as they wrestled - arms and hands locked, legs flailing or kicking, shouts ringing into Agnes' ears above and beyond the battle and the ever so many shouts still thundering through the gray plain.

"Leave me!" The soul screamed, as her legs dangled over the edge of the window, flailing, until she twisted her body and gave her feet enough purchase to push the demon back, "Leave me alone!"

"But you called me!" Was the laugh, and the growl, echoing against the crumbling rock of the tower, "I only answered your call, little pretty girl!"

"Leave me alone!"

And on the lower floor, locked out by the soul's leave, Agnes saw, was the guardian angel, sobbing.

"Ask for his help," Agnes murmured, stepping back, closer to the doors of her tower, "Ask for his help now."

And across the plains, from the window of the tower, from the blazing eyes of the demon came a stare that brought fire into Agnes' legs. From its mouth, from between its many fangs came a hiss, a growl, and words that carried across the battle and made Agnes run, through her doors, up the stairs, into her chamber, onto her bed.

"Too late."

Agnes' eyes sprang open again. She was back in Peter's office, but her body had recovered, and she remembered everything. She sprang off the sofa, opened his door, and bumped straight into him.

"Agnes!" He exclaimed, holding her at arms' length, "You haven't even rested a minute! Please -"

"Where's Tai?" Agnes breathed out, still feeling Sherwood's warm wings around her, "We have to find her now."

”You need to rest.”

”It will kill her.”

There were screams outside; inside, the phone started to ring. Agnes stepped back once, made the Sign of the Cross, and ran for the door. She murmured prayers under her breath, as she heard Peter race after her, as he sped forward and opened the door for her, and as the receptionist shouted out to Peter from across the hall.

"Sir! She's on the roof!"

Peter had a two-way radio, and it buzzed static and calls from security. He picked up one alert, but kept one hand free to take Agnes by the waist and stop her from taking another step.

"I need security on the third floor and on the ground please. Get all students indoors. No cellphones, no videos, no Internet, no media. We are on lockdown," he looked at Agnes, lowering his voice, "What happened? What did you see?"

"Towers," she swallowed, watching the crowd of students below. There were guards pushing them away, and into nearby buildings. Other guards were bringing in what looked like a mattress or trampoline. "There were thousands of towers, and I saw hers. I saw the angelic guard that Fr. Matteo saw. And my guardian angel told me that I would remember everything. I do. I saw her. I saw Tai. She was in battle with a demon. She needs help."

"Help," Peter echoed, one eyebrow raised slightly.

There was something else that Agnes remembered about Peter. He was skeptical, and took no pains to hide it. Every student that he spoke with was dealt with as a case of chemistry or biology or even upbringing. Before him was a case that demanded explanation, but he had none - none logical at least, and to his mind.

"Peter," Agnes spoke, slower this time, unafraid to look him in the eye, "She needs help. Not just this."

Peter hesitated, one hand on her waist, the other hand still enclosed around the radio, breath held as the static bleated, "All units in place, sir."

"Watch her closely," Peter replied, "I'm coming up in a minute."

Agnes waited, not speaking, and murmuring prayers as she looked back at him.

Peter shook his head once, then spoke again, "Call the seminary and ask for Fr. Matteo. We need - we need an exorcist now."

"Sir?" It took a while for the static to crackle back.

"We need an exorcist," Peter repeated, "Get Fr. Matteo."

Again, a few more seconds. "Yes, sir."

"Thank you, Peter," Agnes wiped her eyes, as she felt the tears gather there. Peter simply shrugged, then stepped away.

"I'm going upstairs," he gestured with the radio, "I need to talk her down."

Agnes nodded, "I'll watch from downstairs. I'll pray."

Again, another shrug from Peter, as he made for the stairs; half-turned to Agnes, as though to say something; and then, changing his mind, ran up without looking back. Agnes renewed her prayers then, all the way to the security-crowded world below. When she finally found a free spot, she looked up, and saw Tai's shadow against white afternoon clouds. It was nothing like the specter of white in the tower, and it had none of the screams cloaked by battles and groans of the wounded. But there, upon Tai's young face, was the same desperation, and even the same leering darkness, both of them playing and interchanging upon a countenance cast almost hopelessly to the sky.

"Pray for help, Tai," Agnes held one hand to her mouth, whispering into her fingers, "I can only do so much. You have to pray."

Agnes saw Peter on the roof. He was next to Tai now, talking, but loud enough for only the girl to hear. She never turned to him. Her hands hung limp at her sides, and her hair fell in sad locks over her shoulders. She seemed to see nothing, feel nothing, perhaps even hear nothing. But Agnes knew the battle still raged, and could imagine the screams still threatening to tear down the tower on the plains. She simply watched, as Peter continued to talk; as Tai continued to look into worlds beyond her own; and as a new figure emerged on the roof.

It was Fr. Matteo. He had taken but minutes to respond to the call. Agnes guessed that he had seen the battle, and had been close by. She began to thank God in her head, and to resume her prayers.

At that moment, Tai turned sharply to Peter, and screeched something out between her teeth. No one on the ground understood it, but whatever it was, it made Peter pale, and then search the grounds below until he found Agnes. And whatever it was, it made Fr. Matteo reach into his cassock, pull out a book, open it, and read from it. Agnes recognized it as the Roman Ritual.

Whatever Tai had said mattered not to Agnes. She simply prayed, calling on angels, and saints, and prophets, and martyrs, and all those who reigned in Heaven. She prayed, hearing the words echo in her head, clear, round, as though she were in her tower and watching the true battle below.

What happened next was too fast for words to describe. Tai spoke again, this time with a growl that was more wolf than human. The words drew Peter's eyes to her, and just in time for Tai to let out a cry of what seemed like pain, then a howl of what seemed like pleasure, and then an eerie combination of both that chilled the thick afternoon air. The howls took no more than a few seconds, for Tai had bolted and nearly flown off the building, only to be pulled back screaming by Peter, and then one security officer, then another, and another. It took at least four or five men to control her, and still everyone on the ground could hear the men struggling to pin her down. Everyone could hear Tai's curses, in a mixture of an unknown language and English ground to syllables with howls. The people on the ground crossed themselves, or sobbed; others were simply shaking their heads, staring at the roof, waiting for someone to tell them what was going on.

Father Matteo had disappeared from the ledge; Agnes guessed that he was continuing the ritual out of sight, and closer to the victim. There was no explicit clearance from the Archbishop, but Agnes knew the expediency of the case, and knew the ritual had to be carried out.

"You have no clearance from the Archbishop! " Tai screamed, voice deeper, sharper, "You have no power over me!"

Agnes shivered, prayed, prayed through the clamp on her throat, prayed for her guardian angels to come to Tai's aid. She could see Peter up on the roof, on his two-way radio, looking down at her. She heard crackling somewhere on her left, as one of the security officers made his way toward her.

"Ma'am," the officer began, ear angled toward the radio, "Sir Peter asked me to take you inside."

"That's all right," Agnes said, shaking her head even at Peter, "She's my student. I'm praying for her."

Peter looked like he was about to say something, until Tai's shout cut into the afternoon once again.

"I told you to make that bitch stop praying, Peter!" came out, loud, clear, down into the grounds, deep into Agnes' chest, "Make her stop, or she gets it!"

On the ledge, Peter disappeared; and down below, Agnes called out in her heart for Sherwood. She saw him, against the gray before her, in a burst of light and warmth, as though she were on both earth and the plain of towers at the same time. And there, beyond his barely formed wings, was a crowd ... A shadow .... A storm of darkness mixed with her own guard. The swords were raised just in time to keep the attack from going forward, but the force was too great, and the shield was not enough.

Agnes took the hit, but only physically: an invisible fist hit her across the face, and a second blow sent her to the ground.

Agnes felt the throbbing in her head again, but this time, she saw only Sherwood, and his wings, and then a storm of metal and fire and silver robes, before it all disappeared.

Then, she saw Peter, felt him carry her, heard him praying, too, above the gush of blood from her nose and ears, across a crowd that called for a stretcher and a doctor, and beyond the howls from the roof that continued to shatter the late afternoon.