Chapter 33: Angels and Illusions
Chapter 33 of the Light-Father: Pious and his Angels close in for the kill as the Phoenix reaches the centre of sprawling Beorminghas; the City of Towers. Shield finally releases her full power and fears losing the love that Saul reveals for her.
“Bede Angel Two, this is Bede Angel Six: we’ve sighted the train on the main line heading south towards Milverburg.”
Pious leaned over the pilot’s shoulder to look down at the Phoenix. “Ah, she’s magnificent,” he grinned appreciatively. “A Cambrensis Class locomotive if I’m not mistaken.”
The co-pilot took off his head-set and turned to Pious. “A boarding party attempted to take the train on the outskirts of Beorminghas but more than a dozen Brothers and Tally-men died in the attempt. They’re recovering the bodies – or what’s left of them. Are we dealing with Wiccans down there, Eminence?”
“When I want you to ask me a question, my son,” Pious said icily. “I will solicit it from you. Order the Abbey Angels to attack the train from the rear. As much as I regret destroying such a sublime piece of engineering, I do not wish to see a single wheel left rolling on that track because what we have before us, my son, is a remnant of Babylon bearing the Unworthy.”
The co-pilot nodded and quickly donned his head-set again. “Bede Angel Two to all Abbey Angels: his Eminence wishes you to attack the train from the rear. Ensure that every single Unworthy aboard that train is suitably Redeemed.”
“Bede Angel Two? Abbey Angel Ten here: the train is passing through tall office buildings. We can only attack them one at a time. Can’t we wait until they are out in the open and fire upon them from all sides before they reach Nuncernig? Perhaps we could go ahead of them and destroy the track – a derailment would be the most efficient way to stop them.”
Pious had been listening on the intercom and snatched the co-pilot’s headset. “Abbot Pious here: where is the drama in that, Angel Ten?” he snarled, clenching a fist and making the co-pilot flinch. “Why wait when we can destroy those carriages right now. I want to see those Wiccans despair as we tear them and their Unworthy underlings apart. How dare they waste our precious time in Crawcester attacking empty sheds! Form up and attack!”
“Abbey Angel Ten here: understood. At least we know what happened to Angels One and Seven in Crawcester. If you would indulge me before we close in, Eminence – how did you know that we had to search for a train? I would never have expected them to escape the yard using a locomotive.”
“It’s no mystery, my son – Bucheort’s surviving Tally-man scouted them out. The Great Computer was able to deduce from his Guides that a locomotive was being repaired by an Unworthy adult. The Great-Abbot deems him to be exceptionally dangerous so enough of your idle chatter, my son,” he added menacingly. “Please commence your attack now. Don’t you wish to see what our magnificent chain-guns can do to a moving target?”
“Angel Ten here: we have Angels One and Seven to avenge, Eminence – we need no other motivation. Abbey Angel Two, follow me in then Nine and then Thirteen in line. Climb after your runs, loop to the west while you reload your chain-guns then rejoin the rear of the formation. Enjoy the show, Eminence!”
“Take us as low and as close to them as you can,” Pious ordered his pilot hungrily. “I want to see their faces.”
“They’re coming at us in a line formation!” Harold cried out in despair. “They can’t risk a flanking assault with all these tower blocks around us and those two running parallel will also attack us once we reach the suburbs. Unless you and the other Mothers can bring them down soon, Fern, we’re dead!”
“They are powerful machines,” Fern agreed, leaning on her staff. “And those chain-guns have no place in this world. However, rotor-craft are unusually vulnerable, aren’t they, Shield?”
“I don’t know if I can get a bolt through a windscreen from this distance,” Shield shrugged. “What else can I do?”
“What did Moss teach you, child?”
“What do you mean by teach?” Saul demanded. “You mean she was teaching her the craft? Why didn’t you tell us, Shield?”
“I suspected it!” Ibrahim declared exultantly, pointing a finger. “You’re a Wiccan. All this time, you were lying to us!”
“Moss detected the craft in her so be quiet, both of you,” Fern said firmly. She made a gesture with her right hand and the two youths were struck mute. “Now is not the time for this.”
“How could you tell them?” Shield said bitterly. “I asked you not to, Mother Fern! I don’t want to be a Wiccan!”
“Whatever you’re planning, Fern, do it now!” Harold urged as Saul and Ibrahim struggled in vain to speak. “I can’t make her go any faster.” The Phoenix rocked alarmingly on the tracks as it barrelled along at its top speed. “They’ll be within range any second – we can’t outrun them!”
“Shield, there is a lot of rubble and debris alongside the track,” Fern suggested, studying the rotor-craft. “If a wind should raise it all up into the air I expect it would force the pilots to veer off because of the risk to their engines and rotor blades.”
“Shield has magic?” Bas cried in disbelief as she clung with all her might to the roof of the cabin. “Mother Shield,” she grinned. “Ah, how wonderful that sounds.”
“Fern!” Harold begged. “Do something!”
Fierce was staring at her sister with a sceptical look upon her face. “After all this time and everything that happened, I suppose it all makes sense: the bolts; the mooring rope…”
Shield directed a look of pure hatred at Fern who had retrieved the swan-headed staff of Mother Moss from the corner of the cabin. “You have passed all tests of Motherhood,” she said formally, presenting the staff. “Now unleash your power – let your craft sing through your body, heart, mind, voice and soul as one.”
“We don’t have time for this!” Harold yelled as both Saul and Ibrahim pointed frantically at the leading rotor-craft.
Shield shouldered her crossbow and climbed up onto the tender with her staff in hand. She saw the chain-guns of the rotor-craft starting to spin as she uttered the words so patiently taught to her over the years by Mother Moss. She felt a strange white fire course along every nerve from her toes to the top of her head as she raised her right palm towards the rotor-craft. She gasped as something dark in her heart stirred: a visceral hatred for the men who had arrogantly destroyed an entire world because they’d felt themselves to be morally and genetically superior.
Her parents were now dead and she had lived for years in a world of perpetual rain and terror and now that the sun was shining, they were despoiling the very sky. Something tore forth from her, rippling the air, as Saul and Ibrahim regained their voices to utter cries of wonder.
Abbey Angel Ten stopped dead as if it had struck an invisible wall, slamming the gunner into the nose-cone and breaking his neck. The startled pilot of Abbey Angel Two could not avoid the stricken rotor-craft in time. The spectacular explosion forced the other two rotor-craft to veer away but the rotors of Angel Thirteen sliced into the glass windows of an office building and it spiralled down, disintegrating into fragments as it fell.
Fern turned to Harold who was staring open-mouthed at the receding carnage. “By Diana’s breath, that was a surprise to me as well,” she grinned triumphantly. “Saul, get up there and help her. She’s exhausted but she just proved that she is the true Daughter of Mother Moss!”
Saul hesitated but his love for Shield overcame his fear and amazement so he leapt up and caught her just in time. He cradled her as she sagged to her knees but could not find any words to say. She reached up to tenderly touch his cheek. “I wanted to tell you this for so long, Saul, but I was afraid you would reject me or stop treating me as a Scatterling – I could not bear that.”
Ibrahim joined them and took her crossbow and staff. “He can’t find the words either, Shield,” he said dismissively. “But the idiot would still love you if you sprouted horns, wings and five tails. Come on, let’s get you down from here – it’s not safe.”
“He’s right, Shield,” Saul croaked. “I would die if I lost you… this longing and fear I have for you has to be love!”
“As I feel for you, my love… ah, I’m so tired,” she smiled. Her eyelids fluttered then she fainted in his arms.
“She took out three of those damn things,” Harold exclaimed in wonder as Saul and Ibrahim struggled to get her back down into the cabin. “Three in one shot! That was incredible telekinesis but we still have three more of the bloody things after us and we’re about to hit the suburbs. We’ll be vulnerable out in the open.”
“They’ll attack us all at once rather than risk attacking in sequence again,” Saul agreed as Abbey Angel Nine began to run parallel to them to their right but the pilot was carefully keeping the buildings between them. The two Bede machines were doing the same to their left. “Shield is almost unconscious, Mother Fern. Why couldn’t you take them out instead of her?” he said bitterly. “Look at her – she may have the craft but she doesn’t know how to use it properly without killing herself.”
“Ibrahim, shovel on more coal!” Harold shouted as he wrestled with the controls. “The steam pressure is dropping fast.”
Fern drew Saul to one side of the cabin as Fierce and Bas fussed over the prostrate Shield and Ibrahim flung coal into the firebox. “Shield is more powerful than I could ever have imagined,” she told him frankly. “When she released her power, I felt everything she’d endured because from our lives and from our experiences, good and bad, comes our strength. Listen to me, Saul, I have never met a craft-user with such a heart and that includes Moss – one of the strongest Wiccans of the Motherhood. Can’t you feel the magic of the Light-Father at work amongst us?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt your confessional but what about the other rotor-craft?” Ibrahim grunted sourly as he hurled yet more coal into the maw of the firebox. “They’re still stalking us and we’re nearly out of this forest of towers.”
“Perception is a terrible thing, Ibrahim,” Fern smiled, pointing her staff at the rotor-craft to their right. “The eye is so easily deceived when the pilot is flying low amongst all these tall buildings. If he mistakenly thinks that a building is to one side, for example, when it’s actually in front of him then….”
Abbey Angel Nine did not appear in the next gap between the tower-blocks but as they emerged into the suburbs, another pall of black smoke rose up into the sky behind them.
“The other two are dropping back,” Fierce noted as she shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. “We can’t let them shadow us -they’ll send more rotor-craft after us or set ambushes.”
Bas jumped down to join them in the cabin. She notched an arrow and drew her bow. “Could you get my arrow up there, Mother Fern? I’m sure we could hit them.”
“No, dear heart, that’s too far even for me. That man up there has one of the most evil souls I have ever touched,” she shuddered violently with revulsion. “Ugh! Abbot Pious is his name – the worst of all their wretched Inquisitors!”
“Pious!” Fierce hissed, drawing one of her knives. “I had only seven years when I slashed his face open for torturing our parents. He kicked me all over the place but when they were taking us to the Great Abbey, Mum and Dad killed two of the Fathers who had tortured them and we all escaped. Pious was one of those who gave us our names,” she added grimly. “A Brother Theo said I was a fierce one so Fierce I am – I want to kill Pious!”
“Be at peace, dear heart,” Fern said, placing a calming arm about her shoulder. “We will meet him and the others at the Abbey no doubt so you must be patient and strong.” She glared up at the pursuing black specks. “You’re right though – he knows he’s out of range of the craft so he’s radioing ahead to the Brothers and Fathers who patrol Nuncernig and around Milverburg to set ambushes for us. I can see Schimrian and this Great Computer in his mind – so he must be communicating with them as well.”
“We need a tunnel to hide in but this is flat countryside,” Harold said in frustration. “Is there a tunnel ahead where we can stop the train and somehow lure them into striking distance?”
“Not that I know of ,” Fern said anxiously. “We need to combine our powers to reach them at that distance and we can’t do that from a moving train… wait!” she said brightly. “If we can make it to Milverburg, the railway passes under the entire city. It was raised on huge man-made mounds when the land drowned so they built long rail tunnels through which all its transport systems ran.”
“But the city will be crawling with Tally-men…” Saul began but he was cut off by a huge bang. The Phoenix shuddered briefly then gruesome bloody fragments flew through the air on either side of the cabin. “What in Hades was that, Light-Father?”
“That was a herd of deer on the line,” Harold said pointedly. “The shield on the front did its job and they never knew what hit them. Pity we can’t stop to pick up some venison.”
“They’re coming in low again, Light-Father,” Bas warned.
“Pious is indeed planning to attack simultaneously,” Fern noted, placing a hand to her temple. “That monster will keep out of range until then… ah, Surl is agitated – she wants us to stop!”
“Nuncernig is coming up – ah, hell and damnation!” Harold cursed, slamming on the brakes. “It’s an ambush – they’ve blocked the track with at least two trucks!” The Phoenix and the carriages rocked violently as the brakes bit and all aboard were thrown about as sparks flew from the screeching brake blocks. “Brace yourselves – we’re about to hit them!”
The sound of the impact was horrendous and the Phoenix bucked and rocked alarmingly as it slammed into the trucks parked across the line. The shield held as one truck was thrown sideways and up into the air while the other disintegrated completely. “Get down!” Harold screamed as debris clattered all around them. “We’re through but there are men with guns ahead!” He threw the throttle over and the Phoenix accelerated once again. “Fern! Warn everyone in the carriages to get under the seats!”
They cowered as Six Fathers with automatic weapons opened fire and sprayed the cabin, tender and then the carriages as they sped past them. It was all over in seconds but it had seemed like a lifetime of sparks and ricochets as they huddled behind the metal of the cabin walls. They were all uninjured by the ambush and the town soon dwindled behind them as the Phoenix reached its top speed again but the rotor-craft were still shadowing them.
“Damn it!” Harold seethed. “They pulled back a little to allow the ambush but they could still attack us at any moment.”
“No, dear heart,” Fern grinned savagely. “I now sense doubt and fear in the Abbot’s heart. Oh, how he hates us! He plans to guide ten more rotor-craft here and attack us en masse.”
Harold checked the rail map as another station and its platforms flashed by. “Thank God, we’re still on the track for Milverburg. We’ve been lucky with the points so far, Fern, but it can’t last. If we hit anything at this speed or jump a set of points, we’ll all be killed. We have to lose Pious otherwise he’ll set more ambushes in Milverburg – they could even blow the tunnels – and if we survive that, they’ll work out what we’re planning to do. Can’t you think of anything that could hide us?”
“There is one thing we could try.” Fern said thoughtfully. “But it is difficult. When is the next set of points due?”
“A line splits off from this track on this side of Milverburg. We need to take the left track because the right track crosses a bridge and heads towards Cairhold and the city of Brigstowe.”
“Then we need to make them think that we’re fleeing to the Southern Cities,” Fern said, studying the map. “This is the only thing we can do at this distance. The others will work through me as I’m the only one who can reach into their minds simultaneously. We will create an illusion but unfortunately all five of us will be in a trance for over an hour so we won’t be able to deal with any more ambushes or attacks in that time. You need Shield but she will take a while to recover. Get her to take some food and water – that will help her to regain her strength quickly.”
“I think I can see Milverburg,” Harold exclaimed, peering ahead and applying the brakes gently. “We’re getting close to the junction. I have to slow us right down otherwise we really could be going to Cairhold if the points are damaged or set that way – we need to check them. We’re almost there, Fern, I hope your illusion is ready,” he said, craning his neck to anxiously scan the tracks ahead. “As far as I can tell, I think they’re set to the left. Ah, they are – thank God for small mercies!”
Fern sat down cross-legged with her back against the left cabin wall and closed her eyes. She began an incantation in a strange guttural language as the Phoenix once more picked up speed then to Harold’s surprise and relief, the pursuing rotor-craft veered off to the right and were soon mere specks in the distance.
Ibrahim rested on his shovel to mop his brow to gaze in wonder at the fantastical towers and spires of Milverburg. “I’ll never understand their craft,” he declared, shaking his head. “It’s as unbelievable as this city.”
“The architects must’ve all been on drugs,” Harold laughed. “Those buildings all remind me of someone called Gaudi in my world who designed this incredible but weird cathedral.”
“I know not this Gaudi,” Ibrahim said as the train crossed a huge expanse of open water on a raised embankment. “Milverburg is indeed the most eccentric city in the world. The architecture is completely unique, almost insane, according to my mother – it’s a pity we’ll get to see so little of it.”
“Even if the lamps up front survived the impacts, it’s going to be pitch-black in the tunnels so we need to be on our guard. Fierce? Can you use your sister’s crossbow?”
“Yes, Light-Father,” Fierce said, laying Shield’s head on a folded tunic. She stood up and loaded the weapon even though she struggled to do so. “Bas and I can handle any ambushes and Saul and Ibrahim can fight anyone who boards us. What’s that?” she said nervously. They were approaching the entrance into the rail tunnels of Milverburg but the mouth of the entrance was also the mouth of a vast carved skull-like face with cruel eyes and horns. The faceted crystal eyes glittered and the whole sculpture somehow seemed to be alive and glaring down at them.
“That’s pretty…. strange,” Harold observed, his jaw dropping. “But just look at all those crazy buildings and there must be hundreds of statues on the walls.”
“That tunnel entrance is part of the city’s decadent art and culture,” Ibrahim explained. “It’s supposed to represent the face of Loki but for us, that’s Schimrian’s face.”
Moments later, hearts pounding, they were engulfed by the foetid darkness beneath Milverburg: the City of Gargoyles.
(c) Paul D E Mitchell 2012 -2013 Copyright Protected