Chapter 34: Convergence
Chapter 34 of The Light-Father – The Phoenix halts near the Great Abbey as Fern and the Mothers fend off Pious and the Angels with their illusion magic. Harold reluctantly plans their attack on the Stronghold of an Order that has wiped out humanity…
“Ow-uh! The sun is burning my face,” Fierce grumbled as the Phoenix rattled on through the deserted and dreaming spires of the university towns of Thaneton and Fosskeep. “But this is better than going through those creepy tunnels under Milverburg – they seemed to go on forever,” she shuddered.
“The tunnels were suffocating me too,” Bas agreed, leaning over the back of the cabin roof. “I thought we’d be attacked at any moment as there were things watching us from the shadows… yes, Light-Father; don’t glare at me like that! I know I have to stay alert,” she huffed, returning to watch the track ahead.
Saul was standing on the tender and using his field-glasses to scan the horizon. “There are still no Angels after us,” he reported. “The Mothers must’ve cast spells to protect us in Milverburg too.”
“Maybe but there’s something strange going on in that city,” Harold said thoughtfully. “Even though they think we’re heading south, I would have expected the Order to set an ambush but there was no sign of them. Fierce, I know you’re worried about Shield but you must keep a lookout as Bas might miss something.”
“I wish I had a cap like yours,” she said enviously as she complied. “Even in the shade, this sunlight is so bright it hurts my eyes. Saul is right – I think I prefer the rain.”
Harold leant out of his window to check the track ahead as they left behind the genteel and ancient buildings of Fosskeep. The bizarre railway tunnels and vast underground architecture of Milverburg had been largely unaffected by six years of neglect but here the countryside was quickly decaying with ivy reaching up to the eaves of farm buildings and the fields all vanishing beneath saplings, gorse, ferns and wild flowers.
“I can’t believe the countryside is so empty,” Harold said aloud. “Even these rural areas were wiped out by the plague.”
“Um, I think some of us need to go to the toilet,” Fierce said anxiously. “We’re not in one of those old tales, you know.”
“Ah, I see. Don’t worry, there’s a wood coming up with trees overhanging the line,” he said, gently applying the brakes. “Fern, tell the others we’re stopping for a call of Nature… ah, I forgot, she’s still in that damned illusion-trance.”
Fern was still cross-legged and motionless with her eyes closed and the staff resting across her thighs. She muttered incantations in various unknown tongues as Saul came down off the tender to encourage Shield to drink some water from a canteen.
“She and the others are still broadcasting that illusion to the rotor-craft crews and that devil, Pious,” Shield explained with a weary smile. “I’m feeling better, dear heart,” she said, gazing lovingly up into Saul’s eyes. “Thank you.”
“Dear heart? Huh, you’re already sounding like a Mother,” Ibrahim huffed, leaning on his shovel. He took the canteen and drank from it deeply. “I’m of the people of the desert,” he laughed wryly. “Yet here I am melting in a little sunshine.”
“It’s not much fun on the roof either,” Bas sniped. “The trees are forming a green tunnel ahead, Light-Father. It’s longer than the whole train so it should hide us from the rotor-craft. We can all do our toilet in the woods without being detected.”
“I think it will hide us,” Harold agreed, bringing the train to a halt. “And it’s so much cooler here,” he added gratefully.
Fern’s eyes snapped open and she got to her feet, struggling to catch her breath. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “That was the very best we could do. Our illusion just went through a barricade and reappeared on the other side. Pious and the others are full of a black fury at being deceived so easily but they are now many leagues south of Arthburg. It will take them over an hour to resume the chase.” She closed her eyes and concentrated again. “Light-Father, I sense that we’re exactly two miles from the Great Abbey – is that why we’ve stopped here?”
“No, we stopped for a toilet break. I didn’t realise we were that close with you in a trance like that. None of us know this countryside at all and that thing is nowhere near accurate,” he grunted, indicating the railway map taped to the cabin wall. “It’s out by miles. Had it not been for Fierce, we’d have been at the Abbey before we realised it.”
“Forget Surl,” Ibrahim teased. “To avoid danger in the future, all we need to do is consult Fierce’s bladder.”
Fierce made a face and stuck her tongue out at him as she climbed down onto the track and vanished into the woods.
Harold jumped down as most of the Ferals did – only some of them, he noted with concern, were still being wretchedly sick as well. “As quick as you can, everyone – we haven’t got a lot of time!” he shouted before seeing to his own needs. His heart almost stopped as two rotor-craft roared low overhead causing panic and many a soaked leg and shoe but the dense overhanging foliage camouflaged everyone perfectly.
He clambered back into the cabin to find Fern alone and waiting for him. “I can’t believe how lucky stopping here was,” he said thankfully, removing his cap to wipe his brow. “How do you know that we’re two miles from the Great Abbey through all these trees? What other strange powers do you Mothers possess?”
“Oh, just the power of observation,” Fern smiled sweetly. “There’s a sign by the track that warns drivers to slow down for the Great Abbey which it says is two miles ahead – and if you look through the end of this green tunnel, you can just about make out the spires and buttresses of the Great Cathedral.”
He almost laughed out loud as he leant out of the cab window to look at the sign. “You’re right. If it hadn’t been for Fierce, I’d have missed it.” His face fell as he saw the bulk of the Great Cathedral itself. “Jesus, that Cathedral is huge.”
“The greatest place of worship in the entire world,” Fern sighed, gazing fondly at the trees about them. “But it’s nothing compared to the true majesty of Gaia. I wish we could leave all this sorrow behind us and lose ourselves in her green embrace. I love these woods, Light-Father – all these ancient oaks, birches chestnuts, beeches and willows are all known to me,” she sighed, breathing in the cool, moist air. “I used to walk amongst them as a young Daughter with Moss, I was company for her when she was spying upon the Great Abbey. Ah,” she grinned ecstatically, closing her eyes. “I can feel the trees greeting the sun after living for so many years in the dank half-light of the rain.”
“So the Mothers kept watch on the Abbey?” he prompted.
“Always. Once we disguised ourselves and went on one of their guided tours of the Great Cathedral and their libraries.”
“These maniacs did guided tours?”
“They maintained the illusion of a benign Order with nothing to hide until the very first days of the plague. Beyond these woods lie the western orchards of the Abbey which will afford us cover. Are you nervous about the coming battle, General?”
“Please don’t tease me, Fern,” he grumbled, unsheathing his sword and studying its exquisite workmanship. “I want to do this thing right and not get a single one of these poor kids killed. I’m a technician not a general or a ninja.”
“What’s a nin-jah?” Fierce asked as she climbed aboard.
“A skilled warrior of the Japanese Empire,” he replied as he knelt to unfold Kai’s map upon the cabin floor. “Can you project an image of this into the minds of the Mothers, Fern?”
“It’s not a problem,” she assured him. “But they memorised the map back at the yard and they know their appointed tasks.”
Bas, Kai, Saul, Ibrahim and Shield joined them as he pondered the map. “Let’s go over it again before we make a move. The Great Manse where Schimrian lives is to the east of the Great Annex where the Great Computer is. We have to take them both down but we must destroy the surgery units as well if we get the chance – I don’t want them creating any more Tally-men.”
“We need to free the prisoners from the Redemption Cells on the lower floors as well,” Kai added. “I could not rest in good conscience if I knew that the twenty or more souls being tortured in there did not have a chance at freedom.”
“I agree with you, Kai,” Harold said reluctantly. “But they are not our first priority because if they do manage to escape they will simply be recaptured if Schimrian and the Great Computer survive. What about everyone back there? How many of the Ferals got motion sickness?”
“At least half – the carriages are badly fouled,” Kai shuddered. “When one lost his stomach contents, the others followed one after another – it was… an unpleasant thing to watch but they recover quickly. The other Children of Exodus are well – they enjoyed themselves despite the vomit and they were most… efficient in killing the Brothers who were trying to uncouple the carriages.” He blushed crimson and looked away. “They put me to shame as I failed to stab my opponent – I am no Brother-martial! They also helped me keep the Ferals calm when the Mothers went into that trance. Ivy told me how they hypnotised the Angel crews.”
“Angels!” Harold snorted in disgust. “I can’t believe they call those bloody killing-machines Angels.”
Kai pursed his lips and nodded. “They do but as I said, they don’t man the Angel compound towers. I agree – the south-west tower of the Abbey complex is the key,” he said, pointing to the map. “If we don’t kill the guards in the tower, we won’t be able to access the platform doors without a serious fight.”
“I’m dealing with the station-master, Brother Ignatius,” Ibrahim reminded them, testing the edges of his axe.
“That’s not decided yet, dear heart,” Fern said firmly.
“Kai, are you sure they won’t have firearms unless a Father is with them?” Harold said as Ibrahim glared at Fern.
“Yes, but their function is to raise the alarm.”
Harold rubbed at his eyes and his shoulders sagged. “I haven’t a clue how we’re going to take that tower,” he admitted gloomily.
“I can silence the guards with my craft,” Fern offered. “But we really need to make sure of them at close quarters.”
Saul had climbed on the cabin roof to join Bas and was using the field-glasses from his rucksack to study the Great Abbey. “Light-Father,” he said excitedly. “We’re in luck – the masonry of the south-west tower is covered with thick ivy! The Ferals could easily scale the tower and surprise the guards.”
“There haven’t been enough of us to hack it down,” Kai explained. “The plan is to abandon the Great Abbey to build New Jerusalem so it was never considered a priority. The south-west tower does have thick ivy all the way up to its roof.”
Fern closed her eyes. “Perfect,” she smiled. “Ivy says it was Gaia’s Will that she was the one chosen for this southern diversion. She holds the Quintessence – the spirit of all living things lies in her craft and the lifeblood of Gaia runs in her veins.”
“Yes, well, if you’re saying she and her Ferals can neutralise those guards before they can raise the alarm then that’s exactly what we need,” Harold said, trying his best not to sound sceptical. “That tunnel under the track is crucial to the southern diversion. What about the Angel compound, Kai? Is there any ivy on those walls that the Ferals could use?”
“Some on the southern and western walls,” Kai nodded. “None reaches the top as the compound was only built a decade ago.”
“Damn it!” Harold exclaimed. “That was too much to hope for, I suppose. That means we have to take this open space between the libraries and the Sisters’ Enclave to attack the rear of the Cathedral and allow Ivy and Nightshade to access the tunnel with their Ferals. They have to destroy the rotor-craft but they must also stop the Brothers and Fathers in the compound from attacking the rear of our main force in the Cathedral – they have to hold the platform and the tunnel at all costs otherwise we’ll be trapped.”
“Ivy says you can leave all those Angel crews to them,” Fern assured him, pressing her fingers to her temples. “It should not take long if they have no begiullers. Once the Angels are destroyed, she says they’ll defend the platform with their lives.”
“Good. Veneris and Rosemary will take their Ferals and skirt the North Gate to do their thing with the fuel dumps and the armoury. Those bombs have to go off before we access the area behind the platform in order to draw as many Brothers and Tally-men northwards away from the great Cathedral as possible.”
“Mother Veneris is worried that they may not make it to the Cathedral generators…”
“I was going to ask about that,” Harold said. “I forgot you can read my mind. It’s not a crucial target even though it would shut down the Great Computer. Besides, they’ll have all the Fathers, Abbots and Tally-men from the lodges east of the Cathedral to fight and they could be ambushed in any one of these avenues here. I wish they could retreat after blowing up the armoury but there are too many enemies that could rush in and defend the Annex against us. We have to spread them thinly across the complex.”
“Veneris and Rosemary know that they could die but they’re taking twenty of the strongest Ferals with them. Veneris says they will do their best to destroy the generators but the exploding fuel depots and armoury will cut off their retreat northwards anyway. They have to fight their way towards the platform and join up with Ivy and Nightshade south of the Great Cathedral.”
“She’s right,” Harold sighed, staring at the map. “They have no choice but they could so easily be wiped out.”
“There’s another problem, Light-Father,” Kai pointed out. “Bas and most of the Ferals can scale the wall behind the platform but we can’t. The doors are opened by a key-pad but I don’t have the access code,” he added sadly. “Only the Fathers do.”
“That’s where this comes in,” Harold grinned, extracting a small device from a pouch. “Lecturers and researchers at my university are always forgetting their pass-codes so I use this little baby to crack their door-codes. I can’t imagine this one being sophisticated but are the platform access doors alarmed?”
“No, the platform master opens it and he raises the alarm if there’s a problem but as I said, there hasn’t been a train for five years so Brother Ignatius just reads, drinks and sleeps in his little tower – he isn’t missed even at Mass.”
“I said I’ll take care of him,” Ibrahim said hungrily.
“Remember what I said, dear heart!” Fern warned him. “I could always force the doors, Light-Father – my element is earth after all. I could easily rip them off their hinges.”
“Then what would be the point of the Light-Father’s two diversions, Mother Fern?” Saul said bluntly. “We need to get into the Great Annex without fighting anyone.”
“We will have the advantage of surprise,” Kai agreed. “But there are many security cameras in and around the Great Cathedral and the Manse so the Great Computer or Abbot Michael’s Brothers will sound the alarm at that point whatever we do. The Brothers and Tally-men charged with defending the Great Cathedral itself have their lodgings to the west of it. There are three sets of doors that allow them to access the nave quickly so we will have a real fight on our hands in there.” He looked down at the knives strapped to his belt then he looked at Shield. “I will do my best or die trying to protect you all,” he pledged. “I will Redeem myself.”
“I don’t want anyone to die,” Harold said passionately. “Nightshade and Ivy will have their hands full with the Angel crews and guarding our rear while Veneris and Rosemary will be heavily out-numbered the north. Jesus, this is not good whatever I do,” he said grimly. “Do all generals feel as helpless as this?”
“Only a general who cares deeply for the troops he’s about to commit to battle,” Fern replied, placing a hand on his arm.
“Remember – with the woods and orchard trees growing right up to the walls,” Kai said brightly. “We have plenty of cover.”
“I can just about see the Brothers in the south-west tower,” Saul reported. “They are not alert but that’s not surprising – they think that there are no more threats left in Britannia.”
“I wish I could take the Phoenix into the Great Abbey but the old girl’s done us proud,” Harold said patting the brake lever and venting the stream from the pistons. “Hopefully, the fire will keep going for a while but we may have to find some other transport after all this is over – the other Order bases in Britannia might send all their rotor-craft after us when the alarm is raised.”
“That’s if we survive,” Shield said bluntly as she shouldered her crossbow and her quivers. “I’m sorry, Mother Fern, but I can’t carry Mother Moss’s staff and fight at the same time.”
“Then let one of the Ferals will carry it for you until you need it, dear heart,” Fern insisted. “That staff was a part of Moss and it is now a part of you, Daughter. You are of the Dyad; of the second degree; wielder of air; wearer of cat’s eye and rose-quartz and bearer of this,” she said formally and opened her right hand to reveal a small dolphin amulet upon a leather thong.
“It’s beautiful!” Shield cried joyfully as she tied it around her neck. “Thank you. Is it carved of crystal?”
“It belonged to Moss – she left it in my keeping for you during one of her rare visits to us,” Fern explained. “It becomes you as it did her and no, it isn’t crystal – it’s carved from a diamond.”
“What!” Fierce exclaimed, studying it closely. “A diamond?”
“We’ll talk about it later, Fierce. Let’s all get down on the track,” Harold ordered. “We need to organise everyone into their three groups and make sure everyone knows what to do.”
Five minutes later, Veneris and Rosemary set off with their forty Ferals after Harold insisted adamantly that twenty would not be enough. Nightshade and Ivy headed off next with their sixty eager Ferals then Harold and Fern, the Scatterlings and the remaining one hundred Ferals brought up the rear.
Harold remarked to Fern at how Bethwin was remaining loyally at Fria’s side as Ruff-ruff was at Surl’s – although he was now proudly carrying Shield’s staff. Both girls were holding the misshapen hands of their Ferals as though they were long-lost siblings. “There’s hope for this world,” he added.
“Indeed there is, bless them,” Fern agreed.
“There’d better be,” Ibrahim said gruffly to hide his concern and fear. “The young ones are going to be in mortal danger. Peter can’t fight and Mouse hasn’t recovered from those dog bites…”
“I’m better, Ibrahim,” Mouse said angrily. “I can use my spear. I killed a Brother on the train and Mother Veneris spent some time on the journey finishing my healing. Tell him I can fight, Light-Father,” she pouted. “I’m not staying behind!”
“You can fight, Mouse, but we must protect the young ones.”
“Surl can fight too, Light-Father,” Amos said proudly, placing an arm about her shoulders. “She took out a big Brother in Beorminghas with only one blow of her machete!”
“I have only one hand,” Peter said bravely. “I would have liked to have placed my old blade on my stump.”
“We didn’t have time, Peter,” Harold apologised. “Your forearm has to heal first – you can barely carry that shield I’ve strapped to it but that’s the best I can do for now.”
Rabbit rushed up and grabbed his hand tightly. “I’m scared too and so is Pup, Light-Father, but we want to fight as well. I have all my knives with me and my hand-axes are sharp and ready – can’t you see?” she said eagerly, displaying her array of weapons.
“They are magnificent weapons, Rabbit,” Harold assured her. “But Peter and Surl – I want you to keep Pup and Rabbit away from any of the serious fighting, understand? You’re the eldest, Peter – if it all goes wrong, I want you to get them back to the platform and into the safety of the woods. You’ll be their new leader.”
“Yes, Light-Father,” Peter nodded, wide-eyed. “But if you all die, how will we survive on our own?”
“He has a point,” Ibrahim said.
Bas grabbed Harold’s arm and squeezed it painfully hard. “We will not die, will we, Light-Father? Surl? Can you really see into the future? Can you tell if we succeed or not?”
Surl grimaced and looked away. “I can’t, Bas. I just get a feeling that some of us will die but I can’t tell who! I don’t have Mother Moss’s skill. Something dark and horrible is waiting for us in the Great Abbey but we have to face it or we’ll all die anyway – either in there or when we’re hunted down later.”
They approached the west wall and Harold was both amazed and relieved that Kai was telling the truth about how much cover there was in the rank and overgrown orchards. He caught up with Nightshade and Ivy close to the South-West Tower where he could clearly see and hear the two Brothers chatting with their backs to the west as they smoked their cigarettes.
“We’re ready,” Ivy whispered. “As soon as they attack from the north, we’ll take out those four up there. Four of our Ferals believe they can climb the western wall of the Angel compound and set bombs amongst the fuel stores there while you open the doors.”
“While I kill the station-master,” Ibrahim grinned.
“There should be no need to kill him!” Kai hissed. “Brother Ignatius is always dead drunk this time of day. Besides, his tower windows are not wide enough for you to squeeze through. You’ll have to wait until the platform doors are opened up.”
Harold separated them forcefully. “Be quiet! I’d rather not kill anyone if we don’t have to. We have to trust in Mother Moss and each other,” he whispered angrily, drawing his sword.
“You have to have faith in the craft,” Fern added resolutely. “Look at what’s upon the Light-Father’s left shoulder!”
Harold’s eyes widened as he beheld a death’s-head moth which fluttered off into the sun. “Maybe she is looking after us from beyond the grave after all,” he murmured in awe.
(c) Paul D E Mitchell 2012 – 2013 Copyright Protected