Fra Angelico hurried down the hallway toward the Abbott’s quarters. His vision from the night before pressed on his mind, and filled him with excitement. But first, before anything else could happen, he needed something important.
Around him, his brother monks in the corridor stepped aside to give him room, gently dousing the lamps ensconced in the walls as daylight eased through the windows.
The air was always chilly in the early morning, and Fra Angelico gathered his heavy cloak of black wool about him. He had just shaved the stubble clear of his tonsure. The crown of his head, damp from the water, felt like a piece of ice. He pressed his palm to it for warmth. Next time, he’d remember his cap.
Outside, the purple night faded into a grey morning sky, the sun a slow, golden haze growing behind a bank of pink clouds. The smell of Fra Lapo’s hot oat, rye and fennel loaves wafted from the kitchens, stirring growls in everyone’s stomachs.
He reached the Abbott’s rooms and knocked on the door. Fra Christoforo answered, the abbott’s aged secretary and right hand man. He was stooped, and bearded with a grey fuzz that refused to obey a brush. His eyes crinkled as he smiled up at Fra Angelico.
“Good morning, Fra, what can I do for you?”
“Morning, Fra ‘Foro,” Fra Angelico bobbed his head. “Is Father Abbott in? I need to talk to him immediately.”
“He is at morning prayers right now, but I will let you know—”
A voice burst from the inner room. “Is that my brother?”
Fra Christoforo paused. “I guess he’s done.” He turned and called back into the room.”Yes, Father Abbott. He’s here to see you.” He opened the door and ushered Fra Angelico inside.
This room was the abbott’s office and antechamber where he received visitors, worked on letters with Fra ‘Foro and met with the friars to oversee the running of the grounds and monastery. The recently stoked embers of a fire fed hungrily on a stack of fresh twigs and wood chips, the appetizer for a main meal of pine logs.
A single tapestry of a dog clutching a burning brand hung by the window, and finely carved furniture made it a pleasant room for meetings. A bowl of apples and peaches sat on the table near a sheaf of fragrant violets, cornflowers and honesty flowers.
The next room was a simple cell with a bed, a window, and a wall-mounted cross, with a single door. Fra Benedetto pulled the door open, tying his cord belt about his waist as he finished getting ready for the day. “Thank you Fra ‘Foro,” he was saying. “Please go summon the brothers to the chapel for Dawn Prayer.”
“Of course. Excuse me.” Fra ‘Foro bowed and shuffled out, glancing at the bowl of fruit appreciatively.
“My brother,” Fra Benedetto smiled, resting his hands on his belt. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
Fra Angelico blinked. “What do you mean?”
“What can I help you with this morning?”
Fra Angelico folded his arms inside his sleeves and composed himself. He’d been thinking throughout the night about how to ask this question, and still hadn’t found a way that felt right. He decide there was no perfect way, so it burst out.
“Last night, just after you left, I was visited by an angel.”
Fra Benedetto didn’t move. He watched Fra Angelico carefully. “Go on.”
“It led me to the chapel, where I was presented with two crowns, a crown of sacrifice and of joy.”
“Which one did you pick?”
Fra Angelico glanced up. “Both?”
Fra Benedetto’s grin was huge. “I knew you would. Sounds just like you.”
“The thing is, the angel, my guardian angel, told me that we had much work to do, that God and His Blessed Mother had much they wished to accomplish. They wanted me to help.”
Fra Benedetto nodded. “Go on.”
Fra Angelico bowed. “As a friar, I am bound in complete obedience to you, Father Abbott. I need your permission and approval before starting anything.”
Fra Benedetto was silent for a long time. Fra Angelico kept his eyes down, studying the hem of his brother’s robe, and then finally looked up. His brother was smiling at him.
“This morning, as I knelt at prayer,” Fra Benedetto said, “My angel visited me too. I was told that you’d been granted a special grace. He assured me that you would still have time to finish your illumination.”
Fra Angelico nodded vigorously. “It seems that the angels themselves are helping me do my work.”
“If the angels are stirring up things in this monastery, who am I to stand in their way?” his brother said.
Outside, the great bell hanging in the chapel tower began booming, deep sonorous tones calling all the friars from their corners to come to Dawn Prayer.
Fra Angelico kept his posture of reverence, and bowed his head. “So I have your permission to go with them?”
“When an angel visits to beg me on your behalf, you have double my permission,” Fra Benedetto replied, and wrapped him in a great hug. “The angel made it clear that if you came to ask, that was your test for my approval. If you had tried to go on your own, without my permission, everything would have disappeared.”
Fra Benedetto pulled back, resting his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “The angels would have hidden themselves again. They have no heart to work with a friar who thinks himself above the obedience of his vows.” He grinned. “Heaven runs on obedience, the sacred oil of the hierarchies.”
Fra Angelico took a deep breath. “To tell the truth, I almost didn’t ask. It seemed that there was no need for permission if they came directly to me.”
“There was a greater need, and they have been watching you in every moment. I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you,” Fra Angelico said with a smile. “Please pray for me; I have no idea what I’m doing yet.”
“Come, let’s go to Dawn Prayer. I recommend that all this remains a discussion between us. I doubt some of our fellow friars, not to mention the novices, aren’t ready for this.”
Fra Angelico nodded. “I had no intention of discussing it with anyone.”
Fra Benedetto turned to lead the way to the door. “Isn’t it strange,” he mused, “how the will of Heaven is so rigorous with its love of obedience. My tiny will stood between you and the great will of God and the choirs.”
“Then I’m glad you woke up in a good mood this morning,” Fra Angelico unfolded his arms, and grinned.
Fra Benedetto landed him a playful buffet on his shoulder. “Have some respect. I’m still your abbott, baby brother. Come, let’s to prayer. And let me know what it is you have been called to do.”
They hurried out of the room into the cooler corridor, where the rest of the friars were trooping by on their way to the chapel, soft conversations hushing to silence as they saw the abbott.
In the second that Fra Angelico turned to glance at the door and pull the latch closed, the sounds of the monastery faded away.
The sound of birdsong remained, and if he focused, thought he could even hear the soft rush of the sunlight through the window, like a waterfall.
He jerked up and looked around.
The monks had completely vanished. Fifty feet away, Eändelion stood at one of the windows in the corridor, a handsome, young man in red robes, the layers stitched with bronze thread. He had no wings.
He pushed off the windowsill, watching Fra Angelico, a great grin on his face.
“Heaven is glad that honored your vows,” he said. “Come, now it is time for me to ask permission of my superior. We need to find another friend to help us on our work.”
Fra Angelico bowed, and hurried over. “I am at your command,” he said. And paused. “Were you watching me all night?”
Eändelion chuckled. “I’ve been watching you every second of your life since your conception, my friend. There isn’t much I don’t know about you. Suffice it to say, I was slightly worried that you’d make the right choice.”
Fra Angelico ducked his head. “Obviously that’s something I need to work on.”
Eändelion patted the friar’s shoulder. “Come, we shouldn’t keep the ordinaries of Heaven waiting. They have much to do.” He turned and headed down the hallway toward the dormitories.
“Who are we going to meet?”
Eändelion paused before the last window, standing in a pool of sunlight. “First, the Principality of this monastery. I need his permission to take you to find our new friend.”
Fra Angelico hurried to catch up. “Principality? I don’t understand.”
“I’ll tell you as we go,” Eändelion said.
“Are we going to have breakfast first?” Fra Angelico started asking. “What about Dawn Prayer?”
Eändelion stepped up and out the window.
Fra Angelico gasped and rushed to the window. Instead of the usual view of the valley rich with wheat and olive trees, an enclosed stairwell curved up and away. Every panel and beam glowed with a lovely light, pooling in the corridor around Fra Angelico like sunlight. An angelic staircase?
“You’ll be back in time for prayers and breakfast,” Eändelion’s voice filtered down. “Are you coming?”
“Yes, yes of course,” Fra Angelico said, scratching the shaved crown of his head. “I just never knew there was a staircase outside this window.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Eändelion said, his voice further away, “so don’t let that stop you.”
Fra Angelico grabbed the edge of the window sill and one of the hand rails and hauled himself up and into the stairwell. Then he gathered his robes tight against himself and hurried up. The wood seemed slightly fragrant, perhaps of pine and roses.
They curved around like a spiral and then opened out on the roof, where Eändelion stood on a terrace made of the same glowing wood, bound by silver and bronze railings.
“How long has all this been here?” Fra Angelico asked.
“The hierarchies governing this monastery have overlaid all sorts of things around you.” Eändelion turned and headed up the side of the roof, a broad slanting expanse of slate slabs gummed together by moss and an occasional forget-me-not. “They built them in the instant the grounds were consecrated as holy ground. Right now you are seeing some of the simple things from my choir. Eight other degrees above me have overlaid it with more.”
Fra Angelico tried to catch up. He’d never been up on the roof of the monastery before, and around him the entire valley swept away into hills and forests. The air was open and free in a way he’d never felt before. He was sure that a misstep would send him slipping over the edge and straight down into the central courtyard’s herb gardens.
“There are eight types of angels? I know of… three, perhaps.”
“Yes, each Choir must work with the others to keep this world in order. Come, we’re almost there.”
They had reached the apex of the roof, a simple walkway flattened with plaster and slate sheets for repairs. Eändelion kept the pace up, heading for the farthest edge of the dormitory building.
“Who are we meeting?” Fra Angelico puffed, trying to keep up.
Eändelion paused and pulled a vial from a pocket hidden near his heart. The light that burst from it instantly teared up Fra Angelico’s eyes and he had to look away. “What is that?” he gasped.
“The mysteries you are being shown are too great for your human eyes. You need extra help to see these things and live. Here,” he held out the vial. “Drink this.”
Fra Angelico’s eyes were rammed shut, and still the vial was blinding him. He fumbled around in the air for it, grasped it, and put it to his lips. The vial was warm. He tipped it up and took everything in a single swallow.
He tasted nothing. It felt like a faint rush of warm wind going down his throat. Then the light faded away. He blinked and opened his eyes.
The vial seemed made of glass, twisted with polished bronze and capped with the curling tendrils of a pumpkin patch. He looked up, and then stood stunned.
At the edge of the dormitory building, and looking down over the grounds of the monastery, a giant angel stood. He was surrounded by items, his garments trailing about him as if caught in slow winds, or perhaps underwater. His wings created two gigantic arches behind him, barred with brilliant yellow and blue-grey feathers. His head was turned toward the chapel, his arms loose at his sides. He wore multi-layered robes of the same yellow and blue-grey, every edge decorated with bronze inscriptions like a riot of ornate oranges, incense and letters.
To his left floated a great sword, its blade a solid, static sheet of flame, white in the center, ruddy at the edges. The handle was huge. Fra Angelico guessed the sword was easy three times his size. To the angel’s right, a long-chained censer swung in a slow arc, clouds of rich, vaguely colored incense pouring out and spiraling in great rings about him. Before the angel stood a bold, copper crosier, a staff of religious authority, dense with detail and chased with calligraphic letters. At his back, between the great wings, floated a chalice of some glassy material, filled with something red, like wine.
Fra Angelico looked away to Eändelion, who’s wings had reappeared. “Who is that?”
“The Principality who coordinates the Archangels, Guardians, Powers and Virtues for this place. He also oversees the security and running of this monastery.”
Fra Angelico shook his head in wonder. “I thought Father Abbott did that.”
“Father Abbott couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if the angels weren’t keeping this place safe for you.” He gestured out at the edges of the monastery.
Fra Angelico could dimly see a vast ring surrounding the grounds, a ring of light filled with slowly rotating words and symbols, like a giant detailed drawing from one the gospels he’d illuminated. Then he realized that a soft bronze light emanated from the ring, curving up overhead into a great dome. A couple of wrens nesting in the chapel eaves flew in and out of the dome as if it didn’t exist.
“And this Principality is here all the time?”
“Yes. Always. As long as the friars keep their vows, this dome holds strong, and greater evil can’t assail you.”
“Wait, greater evil? What does that mean?”
“Later, now we must talk to him.”
Eändelion led the way, his wings tucked in close to not trip up Fra Angelico. When they reached the angel, Fra Angelico could see a broad terrace with multiple stations around the angel, each station like a dock where an angel could stand to talk to the Principality.
Eändelion took one of the stands, bowed, and covered his feet with his wings. That was when Fra Angelico realized that he wore boots of something like dark, red leather, stamped with strong designs and shod with bronze.
“Great lord, I bring a request,” Eändelion asked.
The Principality turned to look at them. This close, Fra Angelico’s heart fluttered from fear. The angel was easily as large as a pine tree, massive as a hillside, with eyes so bright he had to look away.
“Speak, Angel Guardian.” The Principality’s tone was soft, but vast and deep like a thunderstorm.
“We require your permission to seek out a Virtue. Heaven has required this friar join me on a series of tasks, and we need this Virtue’s cooperation to continue.”
The Principality smiled, and nodded. “Go, with my blessing.”
Eändelion bowed low, keeping his feet covered. Fra Angelico bowed too, hoping the Principality wouldn’t look too closely at him. He felt dirty and low compared to all this glowing greatness. As soon as he was done, he wanted to get in a good confession…
The Principality turned back to his post, and took hold of his crosier. He held it out toward Eändelion. With the tip, he drew a symbol on his brow. A collection of circles, lines and letters glowed for an instant on the skin, and then faded, as if being drawn into his soul.
Then reaching between them, the Principality drew a circle in the air. A line of light split the air like a knife shearing parchment, sparks shattering from the edges in a cascade of colored light. The sparks aligned themselves into ordered words. Fra Angelico couldn’t understand anything he read.
A sudden fluttering near his ear made him jerk his head. A moth?
No, the letterheart. It bobbed in place, glowing, the colored wings keeping it steady in the air. It pushed against him a couple of times and then backed away. It was like a puppy, happy to see him. He grinned back.
It signed, l.e.t.s…g.o.
The circle of light revealed an open doorway. Fra Angelico stared through, trying to make sense of what he saw. At first, he felt dazed, like a baby trying to make sense of blurred shapes and strange ideas. After a moment, details became clearer. It seemed like his mind was interpreting what he saw into figures he could understand.
He thought he could see a long road, like a hallway, framed with gigantic walls reaching up toward a slit of sky. The more he stared, the more his eyes adjusted, and he could see the walls made of slabs of some green stone, inset with words as large as the monastery itself, carvings of scenes filled with angels.
Eändelion hastened through the doorway, the letterheart rushing after him. Holding his breath, Fra Angelico stepped through.
Bronzed lanterns hung high in the air above the streets, as large as apple trees. Each one housed a single red-gold feather, every barb in every vane a splinter of rosy fire. It was like a sunset in a bottle, bursting from a bold feather as colorful as a peacocks.
“Those are made to look like Seraphite feathers,” Eändelion was saying.
“What are they?”
“Seraphim surround the throne of the Godhead, their sole duty and love to adore Him in every second. They burn with the greatest fire in the cosmos.”
“Greater than the stars?”
Eändelion chuckled. “The stars are a cold, material fire. The Seraphim know nothing but the vast intensity of God. They have the greatest minds in Heaven, the most glorious of all the choirs, and yet they still cannot approach the infinity of our glorious God.”
Fra Angelico blinked. This was a lot to learn. “Where are we going?”
“My friend, A Virtue. He will be joining us.”
“He lives here?”
“Yes.” Eändelion brought up the pace again, causing Fra Angelico to run to catch up.
“Where is ‘here’?”
“This is Angelium,” Eändelion replied. “One of the outermost rings of Heaven. It is where we angels can meet each other, and learn our duties from the Dominions and Principalities.”
“Is this where you come when I’m asleep?”
“Sometimes,” Eändelion grinned. “But I usually have to watch you quite closely. You’re a handful sometimes.”
“I am? …I’m sorry.”
“That’s fine. I’ll keep helping you do better. We’re almost there.”
Fra Angelico stared into the canyon-like streets between the vast stone buildings, as if someone had created a city made only of cathedrals built back to back. It felt abandoned, silent, with a faint, faint chanting humming in the air. And it felt incredibly ancient. Some buildings looked far older than others, their sides massive slabs of granite flecked with crystal, pressed with letters from a simple alphabet.
“It’s very quiet, isn’t it?” the friar said.
“Quiet?” Eändelion laughed. “No, no. It’s extremely busy.”
“Then, is this night time, and they’re all sleeping?”
“Angels don’t sleep.”
The letterheart bobbed in agreement. It flew over and signed y.o.u.r…e.y.e.s.
Fra Angelico touched his eyes. “What’s wrong with my eyes?” he asked.
“This city is packed with all the angels and choirs it takes to run the world,” Eändelion was saying. “You just can’t see them yet.”
Fra Angelico glanced around in apprehension. “You mean this street is full right now?”
“The air is thick with angels of all choirs,” Eändelion replied. “In time, you may be inducted into greater mysteries. Right now, you don’t have glorified eyes, so these things of Heaven are hidden from you.”
Fra Angelico blinked, trying take it all in. “You can see all this?”
“Of course I can.”
“Are all these angels only here, or also in the world?”
“They fill every crevice of this cosmos. There is no place without an angel,” Eändelion said. “They either direct or protect the world. Ah, here we are.”
They had reached a tiny church, perhaps something like a chapel, set into an alcove in a greater building. A small street with windows like shops arced around behind it and led away into the distance. Angels had shops?
“So what’s a Virtue?” Fra Angelico asked.
Eändelion reached for the heavy door knocker and tapped the bronze plate, creating a resonating chime. The door flew open instantly.
“I’ve been waiting for you!” came a voice from inside.