Chapter 03: The Naked One
Chapter 03 of the City of Gargoyles – Second Book in the Light-Father Trilogy
Chapter 03: The Naked One
“Shhh! Children, be quiet!” Abbot Michael warned, peering through a window of the ruined farmhouse. “Tally-men have sharp ears and I should know: I augmented their hearing.”
“Everyone is exhausted,” Surl protested wearily at his side. “We have run non-stop for three days with little food or water.”
“Yet we must run again,” he said, his voice muffled by the cowl of his heavy Order field robes. He never showed his face to them as it was always swathed in bandages and his hands were gloved. “Are you sure your friends and the Mothers are in Milverburg? Even if they are not, we need to get there: that place is a labyrinth. We could hide for months in there.”
“My visions say they are,” Surl sighed. She drew out a crucifix and pressed it to her lips. “On my mother’s life.”
Michael placed a gloved hand upon her bald head. “You are an extraordinary child but I know prescience comes at a price beyond the reach of our Lord whose comfort you seek.”
“I don’t believe in your God,” she said angrily, brushing his hand away. “He allowed you and your Order to kill billions of us so He cannot be real. This is all I have left of my mother so I kiss her memory not your religion or your precious God!”
“Nevertheless, I’ve researched many Mothers with the gift you possess. Do not rely on that power too much, child, for it will drain your life force and lead you astray.”
“My name is Surl not child,” she said defiantly and pushed his outstretched hand away again. “And I am not astray!”
“Yes you are, Surl, as am I. There are woods to the west of us but Brothers and Tally-men will be setting traps for us as they did in Thaneton and Fosskeep. Above us we have the noisy toys of my old friend, Camus. If we break cover now they will see us and kill us. I regret bringing us in here to search for tinned food and water. Alas, circuitry is my specialism not strategy.”
A boy who had ten or so years came up to him and tried to peer up under the cowl but Michael drew away. The boy was dressed in filthy breeches with a wide and open face smeared with soot and grime; his black hair matted and lice-infested. He wore a simple grey shirt and a grey sleeveless jerkin with sheaths sown into it so that his five knives could be reached easily; two of which could be screwed into the mount strapped to the stump of his right wrist. He even had two sheaths sewn into his breeches with a blade in one of them but his right wrist bore a metal claw.
“The five prisoners have eaten as much as they could, Michael,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It wasn’t much: they retch and gag if we try to put any more food in front of them.”
“Thank you, Peter,” Michael replied, marvelling at the energy and will to live of these remarkable children. “I know they are exhausted but they will need to move again soon or they will die where they are. The torture and lack of food has weakened them so just give them all the water that they can drink for now. Thank the Lord this house had a water pump indoors!”
“They are resting in the bedrooms but they told me to thank you. You’ve helped to give them a chance to die as free men not as soulless monsters. They say they would rather die here than be made into one of your stinking Tally-men.”
“I understand,” Michael nodded, peering through the window again. He turned to a child with wild auburn hair who had about nine years by his reckoning. She wore a filthy knitted jacket and a leather skirt over leggings and leather boots. Her brown doe eyes regarded him steadily but what had impressed him most was her speed and ferocity. She had two razor-sharp hand-axes in slings on her back and held another two in her hands almost permanently.
“And what of you, Anna Olafson?” he asked formally as Peter left to tend to the injured men. “How are you bearing up?”
“Well enough, butcher,” she said coldly. “Our families are dead because of you and Schimrian. Even though you saved us at the Great Abbey, I want to kill you. My name is Rabbit because ever since the Year of the Rats I’ve had no sweet childhood deserving of a Christian name or even a human name.”
“Then I see reflected in you the divine madness that consumed us,” he sighed. “We were blinded by the seven-headed lamb as foretold in the Book of Revelation. I do not care if you believe my intention to atone or not but I will save as many of you as I can before Satan drags my wretched soul down to Hell.”
“We shall see,” she sniffed, turning to keep watch out of the window. “In the end, our Light-Father will be the one who decides whether you live or die.”
“I would like to meet this Light-Father of yours but you, Rabbit, have already decided that I should live for it was you who opened both my prison door and my heart back at the Great Abbey. You have given me my only chance of salvation just as you gave that same chance to young Brother Kai.”
“We thought you were a victim,” Rabbit said sharply. “We heard that Schimrian’s thing, Pious, was going to kill you so we thought you were one of us. I may have but a few years but Mother Moss taught me well the meaning of irony.”
“Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the chance to save my immortal soul,” Michael said and bowed deeply. “Thank you.”
Rabbit grimaced and returned to her vigil as Surl seated herself at the dining-table and spooned some of the tinned soup into her mouth. By a miracle, much of the food in the tins had not spoiled but she knew what a risk they were all taking as the tins were over six years old and many were covered in rust and mildew. “I had beautiful red hair once,” she sighed.
“I’m sorry, Surl, you had red hair?” he asked, perplexed.
“Yes, one of your Tally-men tried to smother me with a pillow. I had but three years then yet I was Unworthy in your eyes. Fria and Amos saved me. Fria stabbed him in the neck and Amos smashed his skull in with a sledgehammer until there was just this red… mess… full of sparks from the Guides.” She shuddered and stared into the bowl. “My hair fell out and I could not speak until the Light-Father cured me. Mother Moss tried to explain what was happening to me with all these visions but I have too few years to understand what my craft truly is.”
“The Order regarded such powers as blasphemy for centuries. I see this now as arrogance now and probably a hatred of women as only they could sport such gifts.”
“You would have me beaten and burnt at the stake!” Surl exploded, hurling the empty bowl at him. It missed and shattered against the wall. “What gave you the right to torture and kill women and girls just because they were different?”
“I will not lie to you: I regarded Mothers as witches; unholy abominations; foul harpies before God but now I realise that we were the true abominations in this world. I cannot undo such great evil but I will do some good before I die.”
“Whatever you do, it will be a flea-bite compared to the death and suffering you’ve inflicted upon the world.”
“Yes, Surl, but nevertheless this insect will try to save you all if he can.” He turned to her: “I’m sorry to ask this of you but can you consult your visions again? Where is the Light-Father now?”
“I’ll try but it is so painful to do this,” she grimaced, her eyes unfocussing. “I see him: he and the others are fighting Brothers in a village nearby but your Angels cannot attack them as they’re above us.” She gasped and placed her head on her arms. “That’s all I can see: Ah! I’m tired of seeing so much blood.”
“At last the Angels are moving westwards as you predicted,” he noted after risking a peek through another window. “Maybe they think we’re heading for Nuncernig or Epstall rather than risk being exposed on the Milverburg viaducts.”
Surl groaned and raised her head. “As I told you when we got here; at fifteen bells I knew they would leave us. We must wait for thirty minutes then get everyone into the woods to the west and meet up with the Light-Father and Mother Fern.”
He drew aside his robes to reveal two holsters with black guns in them. “These will make a difference if we get caught,” he said reassuringly. “The Brothers and Tally-men are not allowed to carry such weapons in the Holy Isles of Britannia.”
Surl strapped her main weapon, a vicious and ultra-sharp machete, onto her back and adjusted her knives. “You cannot use those toys just yet,” she said. “The noise will bring all the other Brothers down upon us and we will die.”
“As you wish,” he said impatiently. “We have half an hour before we make our move. May God protect us and bless us.”
“Like He protected the billions who died?” Rabbit snapped. “If you bless me again, butcher, I will kill you!”
Michael looked at the murderous intent in the eyes of such a young girl and shook his head sadly. “God blesses whomsoever He wishes,” he shrugged, wrapping his robes about himself again. He knew he stank and his skin itched horribly but he was immortal thanks to effect of the Revelation Virus upon his Order-nurtured genes and the infernal device Azrael had thrust him into. He put his hands across his eyes and shuddered violently.
“All you can see in your mind are the knives and scalpels in that demon-machine,” Surl noted with little sympathy. “The Devil was thus turned loose upon His own.”
“You have no idea,” he said bleakly.
Saul leapt over the garden wall with his katana drawn. The four black-coated Tally-men guarding the half-track had their backs to him as they impassively watched the destructive searches of the cottages opposite. The nearest Tally-man never saw or heard the tall, slim youth and looked down at the blade protruding from his chest for several seconds before his ruined brain registered that he was now dead. He let out a sound uncannily like a sigh of relief and crumpled to the cobbles.
By the time Harold reached Saul with his own katana at the ready, the other three Tally-men had been slain by crossbow bolt, arrow and axe by Shield, Bas and Ibrahim respectively. “Great plan, Saul, next time let’s give a little more thought, shall we?”
Saul grinned without reply and flicked the blood off his sword as from four cottage doorways opposite, more Tally-men and Brothers appeared wearing black hooded robes that ended at the knee, black scapulas of the same length, black trousers and boots. Finally, a large bearded man with the gold pectoral cross of the Fathers on his robes emerged from the end cottage.
“Well, well, look what we have here,” he laughed, drawing his side-arm. “Abominations, desecrators of our Great Cathedral and the killers of our brethren! We…” He gagged on seeing Fern’s attire and his face blanched with terror. “A Mother! A Harlot of Satan!” he shrieked. “Brother Clegwyn! Get the begiuller from the half-track before she bewitches us!”
He aimed his gun at Fern but she brought her staff down hard upon the cobbled street and from beneath the raving Father, the ground erupted sending him ten metres into the air spinning like a rag doll. “I am Mother Fern of the First Degree!” she shouted up at him: “I am a Servant of Gaia and a Wielder of Earth! Thou wilt be one with the ghosts that scream for your soul. By the Triple Goddess, thou shalt defile this world no more!”
He slammed into the ground head-first and they clearly heard his neck and many other bones snap. He did not move again.
Harold vainly hoped that this would persuade the Brothers to run away and abandon the Tally-men but the sheer unreasoning hatred on their faces was plain to see: they would kill them for daring to desecrate their Great Cathedral or die trying. Brother Clegwyn suddenly bolted for the open door at the rear of the half-track but he never made it: he collapsed gurgling to the ground, clawing at the shaft of the bolt embedded in his throat.
A quick-witted Brother used the distraction and pressed a button on the control device strapped to the dead Father’s arm. “Tally-men, attack them!” he screamed, the spittle flying from his lips. “Brothers, use your dart guns! Do not fear the witch! We still outnumber them four to one!”
Bas darted forward with incredible speed to leap over the spear lunging at her and landed upon the Tally-man’s shoulders. She yanked his hood back as he tried to shake her off but her knife slashed through the wires connecting the metal guides in his skull to the power and guidance unit below the base of his neck. She leapt clear as sparks flew from the unit and the guides; the Tally-man convulsing violently until bloody sputum erupted from his mouth and he toppled backwards lifeless.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim had blocked a spear thrust and clamped the spear under his left armpit. He grasped the shaft of the long spear with his left hand, planted his feet firmly on the cobbles then heaved, lifting the Tally-man clean off his feet with just one arm. He released the spear and swung the axe in his right hand to catch the sprawling Tally-man full in the back of the neck almost cleaving the head from the body.
“For Fierce!” he yelled, grasping his battle-axe in both hands and swinging at another Tally-man whose spear thrust had missed his face by a hair’s breadth. He was aware of the whip of darts flying past him yet he continued carving a bloody path through the ranks of the expressionless Tally-men.
Harold saw that Shield was concentrating and using her craft to deflect the darts the Brothers were frantically firing at them. Some hit the Tally-men but their toxins hardly affected these lobotomised warriors of the Order. Harold knew each Brother also carried two plasma-grenades and it would be but seconds before they recovered their wits enough to use them. He’d been hurled twenty metres by the plasma-grenade explosions in the Great Annexe and did not want to repeat that experience again.
As if reading his mind, Bas sprang onto the roof of the half-track and fired arrows relentlessly down at the Brothers, many of whom had cast aside their dart-guns in disgust and were fumbling for the grenades in their robe pockets. He wanted to engage them but two more Tally-men charged at him and he was nicked by spear tips several times before he could take one of them out and engage the second one. A roaring was growing louder in his ears but he could not decide if he was the one howling or whether some other creature was making this infernal racket.
Next to him, Saul and Ibrahim were silent; utterly focussed on their foes that seemed to him to move in slow-motion compared to these two remarkable Children of Exodus. He swung his sword like an axe but it was of such exquisite workmanship that he felt it had a will of its own, slicing off the Tally-man’s hand then thrusting through his ribs as if through gossamer.
Another wave rippled beneath his feet and the remaining seven Brothers were thrown to the ground. “How the hell does she do that?” he muttered as he blocked yet another spear thrust. He stepped forward and drove his blade easily through the coat and into the belly of the Tally-man then twisted it savagely. The Tally-man sank to his knees desperately trying to shovel his innards back into his torn abdomen. He looked up at Harold who saw a glimmer of sentience flicker in those eyes for one brief moment: “Finish me,” he begged, bowing his head. “Please!”
Fighting down a wave of nausea, Harold delivered the coup de grace; the head rolling away from him. Then he realised that all the Tally-men were dead and Shield, Bas, Saul and Ibrahim were already upon the remaining Brothers, five of whom were struggling to get to their feet. He watched in speechless horror, as knife, sword and axe rose and fell without hesitation; without mercy.
He started at a hand being laid upon his shoulder and turned to find Fern, her eyes brimming with tears. “They know they have no choice but to kill or be killed, dear heart, but how I weep for them. Ah! Diana, save us! The Angels return!” she cried out.
Rising above the trees at the eastern end of the little hamlet were the black rotor-crafts of the Order. Harold could see the barrels of their chain-guns start to spin and he ground his teeth in helpless rage: “Oh, come on! You have got to be kidding me!”
PS: thanks to allets for her constructive comemnts: