Chapter 03: The Naked One
Chapter 03 of the City of Gargoyles – Second Book in the Light-Father Trilogy
The Naked One
Abbot Michael was feeling a little faint from heat exhaustion as he stood at one of the east-facing windows of a farmhouse kitchen, meticulously wiping the dirt from the panes using a sleeve of his heavy Order field robes. The farmer had obviously been wealthy as the fitted kitchen behind him was spacious, well-furnished and the dressers were full of expensive Austro-Hungarian china but the once pristine fields were bramble-strewn and quickly reverting to woodland. Ivy was already smothering the exterior walls and in the thirty years time, he reflected, it would be as if this prosperous but isolated farmstead had never existed.
When they’d emerged from amongst the moss-covered trees of the Forest of Weal, they’d had no choice but to take the risk and hare across the overgrown fields and meadows to search for food and water in the only buildings for miles around. It was a desperate gamble but they’d been lucky: no Angels were in the air and they’d found some unspoilt tins of vegetable broth in one of the cupboards and a gas cooker on which to heat it up. It was barely enough to take the edge off their hunger but after a minute or so of hard work, the water from the old-fashioned pump over the main sink ran clear so at least they could drink their fill.
He drew his cowl about his head to keep his bandaged face in shadow as Surl, a girl of ten years of age, stood next to him. She came up his shoulder for she was tall and well-built for her age but she was completely bald with no eyebrows above her keen green eyes reminding him of a Tibetan monk he’d once met – only her powers exceeded that of any Panchen Lama he’d ever read about.
She wore khaki leggings tucked into her leather boots and a padded jacket fastened with two silver buttons over a plain green vest but all her clothes were filthy and reeking of mud and worse. She had a crucifix upon a golden chain about her neck but she was no novice monk: her favourite weapon, a machete with a thirty-inch razor-sharp blade, was in a sheath strapped to her back. She also had four long knives in sheaths attached to her belt or sown into her jacket. He’d seen her use them and had quickly realised that he’d never seen anyone as fast and as deadly as these Scatterlings.
“This sunshine is the Devil’s work,” he grumbled after checking that the fields and meadows to the east were free of pursuers. “This sunlight will make it easier for the Fathers and Brothers to pick up our trail. Well? What did your visions say? Can we rest here for a few hours? Will they find this place?”
“We’ll be safe here until the storms come, Naked One,” Surl replied, rubbing at her temples. She raised the crucifix and pressed it to her lips. “I swear this on my mother’s death.”
“I’m glad you haven’t told the others why I’m called that. I’d rather they didn’t know – for their sanity and mine.”
Surl turned her face away as she suppressed a gag reflex: “It’s up to you to tell the others.”
He placed a gloved hand upon her head. “I pray to God that you aren’t paying a similar price for your prescience.”
“I don’t believe in your God: the God of child-slayers,” she said angrily, brushing his hand away. “Mother Moss saved us all at our Keep in Crawcester yet she paid this price you speak of for her prescience, didn’t she? All we had left of her after Schimrian had tortured her was a severed head in a tin! This is all I have left of my birth mother so I kiss her memory not your precious Jesus!”
Michael bowed his head in shame: “You’ve every reason to hate me, child, though I had nothing to do with her death.”
“My name is Surl not child and you had everything to do with the death of my family!” she retorted vehemently. “Without my gift, we wouldn’t have made it this far, now would we?”
He glanced at the other three Scatterlings sat at the oaken kitchen table who were staring at him with undisguised loathing and hatred in their eyes, their weapons upon the table before them. He had to admit that the renegade scientists at Exodus Industries had done a remarkable job: any one of these genetically-enhanced children could kill a Tally-man in a heartbeat and for two weeks they’d wreaked absolute havoc at the Great Abbey before freeing him and five young men from the Redemptions Cells.
“I’ll grant you that, Surl,” he conceded slowly. “We avoided the ambushes in Thaneton and Fosskeep thanks to your craft but your nosebleeds and migraines are getting worse. There’s a large wood to the west and then we have to pass a village called Wealthorpe to get to the causeway. This is where they would set an ambush. I’m almost afraid to ask you to use your gift to find us safe passage: you could haemorrhage or suffer a stroke.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” she sighed wearily, suppressing a yawn. “I need to rest and so do the others. We’ve been running and hiding in woods and barns and ditches for seven days now and those men we rescued are still weak from being tortured by Pious and all the other devils at the Great Manse.”
“Then I hope you’re right about the storms: they’ll help us slip past Wealthorpe and get across the viaduct. If the Light-Father and the Wiccans are there as you’ve foreseen, will they be able to aid us if the Brothers are guarding the causeway?”
“I’ve foreseen something happening at Wealthorpe to help us but it’s too fuzzy: I don’t know how my craft works but I think there are too many different futures for me to see clearly.”
“Maybe a future you can’t influence directly will always be difficult to foresee,” he suggested.
“Possibly,” she said after a moment’s thought. “I have too few years to make sense of it. Anyway,” she yawned, stretching her arms above her head. “I’m going into the dining room to sleep in one of the armchairs. The only thing I do know for sure is that we won’t have to worry about the Angels above us.”
“What?” he exclaimed, reaching out for her. “Wait! Come back! What you mean by that? We’re vulnerable here!”
Surl didn’t answer and left the kitchen but a boy of the same age got off his chair and came over to him and tried to peer up under the cowl but Michael averted his face.
“What do you want, Peter?” Michael asked, resisting the urge to hold his nose. Because of the constant rains and mud they’d endured on the road he knew he was none too fragrant but the stench of the Great Abbey sewers still clung to the children.
Peter had a wide and open face smeared with oil and grime; his black hair matted and lice-infested. He was dressed in dark grey trousers, brown walking-boots, a long-sleeved green T-shirt and a grey jerkin with sheaths sown into it so that his five knives could be reached easily. Two of these could be screwed into the mount strapped to the stump of his right wrist which currently had a well-constructed metal claw attached to it.
“It’s about those men: when I gave them their broth one of them asked me to tell you said he’d rather die here than be made into one of your stinking Tally-men while the others just want to kill you.”
“I don’t blame them,” Michael laughed wryly, placing a hand on Peter’s shoulder. Unlike the others, Peter could bear his touch without flinching. “You’ve looked after them well, my son. You have a gift. They’re recovering but they must rest before we make a run for Milverburg when Surl’s storms break”.
Peter placed his left hand on his gurgling stomach. “I hope that broth wasn’t poisoned,” he said anxiously. “I’ve had the squits three times already this past week.”
“It’s a miracle none of us have food poisoning,” Michael sympathised, removing his hand. He handed Peter a jug. “Get them some water and make sure they drink as much as they can.”
“Aye, for them not because you asked me to.”
Michael made no response and turned to a girl with wild auburn hair who had about nine years by his reckoning and whose brown doe eyes belied a speed and ferocity that fascinated him. She wore a vest patterned with Celtic knot motifs, a filthy knitted jacket and a leather skirt over leggings and leather boots. She had two ancient war-axes in slings on her back and held another two in her hands almost perpetually. Unlike the others, she’d made an effort to wash the filth off her face and hands.
“What of you, Rabbit?” he asked as Peter filled the jug, the mechanism screeching thinly as he pumped. “How are you bearing up?” He knew he was just making conversation: she was exhausted, lice-ridden and brimming with a relentless hatred for the Order.
“Well enough, God’s butcher,” she said coldly. She picked up a whetstone and began honing one of her axes. “You asked me yesterday why most of us never use our birth-names. It’s because we cannot bear the loss of our families. We’ve had to make a new family for ourselves. Mother Moss called me Rabbit because nothing could catch me yet all we did for six years is fight off dogs and Tally-men at our Keep until the Light-Father came to us in a blinding flash of light and worked his magic.”
“All this reflects the divine madness that consumed us,” he sighed heavily, sitting at the table. He lowered his head as he vividly recalled the ruling Conclave parading the seven-headed lamb that the Vatican laboratories had created after vying with the Order in genetic research. The Order had been founded upon the Book of Revelation comprising Twelve Tribes each with twelve thousand Abbots, Fathers and Brothers to complete the Blessed Number so this monstrosity was hailed as a sign from God. It created a tsunami of holy rapture that had swept aside all doubt in the Order as it unleashed its Virus of Revelation. Yet here he was six years later: a worm sitting at a table in an abandoned farmhouse seeking forgiveness from children he’d helped to orphan. Him! A willing agent of the Apocalypse!
“We actually thought we were carrying out God’s works!” he said aloud, his voice dripping with self-loathing. “I have to save as many as I can before Satan drags my wretched soul to Hell.”
“Hell would probably spit you back out,” she sneered, going over to the window he’d cleaned to keep watch.
“Then why did you rescue me?”
“We heard that Schimrian’s thing, Pious, was going to kill you and we were asked to save you and the others. 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,” he said, bowing deeply with hand on heart. “But I beg you: who asked you to save me?”
Rabbit curled her lip in disgust but kept silent and returned to her vigil as the youngest Scatterling looked at him and smiled sleepily: “Pup can’t remember his real mother,” he said, yawning hugely. “Bas is my mother now… and Mother Moss before she was killed by Schimrian.” He laid his head upon his arms and closed his eyes. “Pup tired now.”
Michael regarded this seven-year old boy who always referred to himself in the third person as the most remarkable of the four. His dark brown hair was tied back into a ponytail and he wore a greasy leather jerkin over a T-shirt with Runic slogans, corduroy breeches and leather shoes. His main weapon, apart from two small knives in leather sheaths strapped to his belt, was an industrial-strength catapult that was almost impossible for an adult to draw back yet he’d seen this child kill a Brother with one of the ball-bearings he kept in the two leather pouches on his belt.
“Perhaps you should join Surl and sleep in one of the armchairs in the dining room,” he suggested and Pup blearily complied, humming a lullaby.
A few seconds later Surl entered the kitchen and reseated herself at the table whilst glaring at him. “Did you know I had beautiful red hair once?” she said suddenly.
“I’m sorry, Surl, you had red hair?” he asked, perplexed. “I thought you were going to get some sleep.”
“I would only keep Pup awake. I tried but all I could think about was when one of your Tally-men tried to smother me with a pillow. I had but four years then but I was an Unworthy brat only worthy of murdering. 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 electrics of the Guides in his head.” She shuddered and stared into the distance. “My hair fell out and I could not speak more than one word at a time until the Light-Father gave me back my voice.”
“Did you start having visions after that trauma?”
“I think Mother Moss foresaw the craft in me but she couldn’t find the Wiccan mark but I do have it. It was just hard to find.”
“The five dark spots that Wiccans once claimed to represent the five holes of the Crucifixion?”
“Yes. She still tried to explain the craft to me and train me but I was too young to understand what she was saying. Besides, we were all too busy staying alive for her to do any more for me.” She looked at him quizzically. “Now I know I’m a Wiccan, tell me why the Order hates us so much!”
He adjusted his cowl to make sure she could not see his bandaged face. “The Order has regarded them as blasphemous for centuries. I see this now as nothing more than jealousy and hatred of women who were blessed with such power.”
“So if I’m caught they’ll beat me and burn me at the stake?” Surl exploded, making Rabbit jump. “What God gave you men the right to kill women and girls just because we’re different?”
“I won’t lie to you,” he said, raising his hands in a gesture of admission. “Even I, for all my scientific knowledge, regarded Wiccans as unholy abominations. I was indoctrinated…” he paused as he realised she could not possibly know what that meant: “It’s when you are taken from your family as a child and told the same thing over and over again until you believe it but now I realise that we were the abominations not the Wiccans. I cannot undo such great wickedness but I will try to do some good before I die.”
Surl indicated a spider spinning a web between some desiccated flowers in a vase in the centre of the table. “That spider has more chance of swinging my machete than you atoning for the death and suffering you’ve inflicted upon the world.”
“Nevertheless, this insect will try to save you all if he can.” He interlocked his fingers and took a deep breath: “I’m sorry to ask this of you but can you consult your visions… by the Holy Ghost!” he exclaimed fearfully. “I hear Angels! Did you foresee this?”
“Yes,” she nodded, her eyes unfocussing. “Ah! I can see the Light-Father and Mother Fern! They’re fighting Brothers and Tally-men in Wealthorpe but the Angels can’t attack them as they’re above us.” She gasped and placed her head on her arms. “No more! No more! I’m tired of seeing so much blood!”
“They’re circling above us, Surl,” Rabbit reported, the fear making her voice crack. “They must know we’re here!”
“I tried to make them think we were heading for Nuncernig or Epstall,” Michael said despairingly, making a fist. “It didn’t work! Those chain guns can rip through brick walls.”
Surl groaned and raised her head. “They won’t open fire: I see this! At sixteen bells I know they’ll leave then we must wait until the storm starts then we can get everyone into the woods to meet up with the Light-Father and the others.”
“If they land and attack us, my handguns will make a difference,” he reassured them, patting one of the holsters on his belt. “Fortunately for us, Schimrian decreed that Brothers and Tally-men cannot bear such weapons in Britannia.”
Surl drew her machete and laid it on the table then checked her knives. “You’ll use those toys soon enough but not just yet,” she said dismissively and pointed at the ceiling. “Can you not hear? They’re already moving away from us.”
He cocked an ear. “You’re right but they could be heading back to Wealthorpe,” he suggested anxiously. “They could be going back to attack your Light-Father!”
“I think they’ll be alright,” Surl cried out, clutching at her head and screwing her eyes shut in agony. “Ow! All I see is red.”
“Stop scrying!” he insisted urgently. “Your nose is bleeding and you’ll pass out at this rate. We’ll just have to pray that God will bless us all and protect us.”
“Like He protected the billions who died?” Rabbit snapped. “If you ever ask your God of Slaughter to bless me again, deófolscín, I will end you!”
Michael looked at the murderous intent in the eyes of such a young girl and flinched visibly. “God blesses whomsoever He wishes,” he said quietly, wrapping his robes about himself again. He knew he stank and his skin itched horribly but he was nearly immortal thanks to the effect of the Revelation Virus upon his Order-nurtured genes and the infernal device Azrael had thrust him into to give the bloodiest of epiphanies. He put a hand across his eyes and trembled violently at the memory. “You cannot kill me, Rabbit,” he told her, his voice shaking. “My body regenerates from any wound. I can’t die even if you stabbed me in the heart.”
Surl tried to peer under his cowl to no avail. “All you can see in your mind are the knives and scalpels in that demon-machine that made you into the Naked One,” she said 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. Four Tally-men in long black hooded coats and armed with spears were 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 approach from behind 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 the cottage doorways opposite, twelve Brothers with spears emerged wearing black field 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 of the Order on his robes joined them along with fifteen Tally-men wearing their long, black, hooded coats. They too were clutching the long spears favoured by the Order. As there was no rain, their hoods were drawn back and the metallic Guides driven into their bald skulls glinted in the last glimmers of sunlight.
“Well, well, what we have here, my sons?” the Father declared, drawing his sidearm. “This is not the Naked One and his Unworthy rabble but the very desecrators of our Great Cathedral! We…” He gagged on seeing Fern’s attire and his face blanched with terror: “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 twenty yards into the air and 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 hoped that his death would persuade the Brothers to abandon the Tally-men and flee but the sheer unreasoning hatred on their faces was plain to see: they would kill them for attacking the Great Abbey or die trying. Brother Clegwyn suddenly bolted for the open door at the rear of the nearest half-track but he never made it: he collapsed gurgling to the ground, clawing at the shaft of the crossbow 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, use your spears! Attack!” he screamed into the microphone, the spittle flying from his lips. The Tally-men jerked to life as if seeing their attackers for the first time. “Brothers, use your dart guns! Do not fear the witch! We outnumber them four to one!”
Bas threw her bow and quiver to the ground and darted forward with incredible speed. Harold watched spell-bound as she leapt over a spear thrust at her and landed nimbly upon the Tally-man’s shoulders. 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 attached to the base of his neck. She rolled clear as sparks flew from the device and the Guides; the Tally-man convulsing violently until bloody sputum erupted from his mouth and he toppled backwards lifeless.
She retrieved her bow and in one fluid motion, let fly an arrow into the heart of another Tally-Man. Harold had a moment to study this thirteen-year old girl and recalled how he’d tried to yank the cat ears from her head only to find they were real. She was as tall as he was only she was slim and her face had feline qualities as did her elongated teeth and fingernails.
She retrieved her bow and in one fluid motion, let fly an arrow into the heart of another Tally-Man. Harold had a moment to study this dark-skinned thirteen-year old girl and recalled how he’d tried to yank the cat ears from her head only to find they were real. She was as tall as he was only she was slim and her face had feline qualities as did her elongated teeth and fingernails.
In memory of her Egyptian mother, she wore a white polo-neck shirt with a band of Egyptian hieroglyphs about the shoulders. She had a leather belt with two sheaths for her knives, a short white skirt with Eyes of Ra all round the hem over white breeches and had leather gladiator sandals on her feet. A Brother who’d worked for Exodus pointed at her and screamed: “The Harlot’s brought one of Farzad’s vile chimeras with her! Kill it!”
Harold held his katana at the ready but he felt like a helpless bystander as Bas hissed, discarded her bow and quiver again and launched herself at the hapless Brother with her claws outstretched. He screamed in mortal terror before she sank her teeth repeatedly into his throat and ripped through his jugular.
Her older brother, Ibrahim, similarly dressed in shirt and leather trousers decorated with stylised hieroglyphs, blocked a Tally-man’s spear thrust and grasped the shaft of the long spear with his left hand, planted his feet firmly on the cobbles then heaved, pulling the Tally-man off balance. He swung the battle-axe in his right hand to catch his sprawling enemy full in the back of the neck almost cleaving the head from the body. “That’s for Fierce!” he snarled, gripping his battle-axe in both hands and swinging at another Tally-man whose spear tip had just missed his face by a hair’s breadth. Despite the darts flying past him, 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 plasma-grenades and it would be but seconds before they recovered their wits enough to try and use them. He’d been hurled twenty metres by plasma-grenade explosions in the Great Annex and did not want to repeat that experience again.
As if reading his mind, Bas grabbed her weapons and sprang onto the roof of a 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 the Brothers but two more Tally-men charged at him and he was nicked by spear tips several times as he was slicing into the abdomen of the first one but he felt nothing. A roaring was growing louder in his ears but he couldn’t decide if it was him or some wild animal making the infernal racket.
Saul and Ibrahim fought in utter silence now; utterly focussed on their foes. Harold thought everyone was moving in slow-motion compared to these two remarkable Children of Exodus. He noticed that Shield was free to use her cross-bow which she did with deadly accuracy felling three more Tally-men in as many seconds.
He swung his sword about wildly but it was of such exquisite workmanship that he felt it had a will of its own, slicing off a Tally-man’s hand then thrusting through boat coat and ribs as if through gossamer. A Brother sought him out and he was hard-pressed to avoid the thrusts and jabs of this more agile opponent.
“Unworthy filth!” the Brother snarled but then his eyes widened in fear: “Ware!” he cried. “The Wiccan is about to cast a hex!” He retreated to join the remaining six Brothers who were standing back to back in a defensive circle. Then the staff fell.
Harold felt a seismic wave ripple beneath his feet. The remaining seven Brothers lost their footing and their spears as the street beneath them erupted sending earth and cobble stones high into the air. “How the hell does she do that?” he muttered incredulously as he blocked a spear thrust. He stepped forward and drove his blade deep into the belly of his attacker 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 sentience flicker in his eyes for one brief moment: “Finish me,” he begged hoarsely, bowing his head. “Please!”
Fighting down a wave of nausea, Harold delivered the coup de grace; the head tumbling away from him. The Tally-men were all dead and Shield, Bas, Saul and Ibrahim were at work upon the helpless Brothers. He watched in 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 beside him, her face pale and grim. “They know they have no choice but to kill or be killed, dear heart, but I… Ah! Diana, save us! The Angels return too soon!” she cried out.
Rising above the trees at the eastern end of the little hamlet were the two black rotorcraft of the Order. Harold could see the barrels of their chain-guns begin to spin and he ground his teeth in helpless rage: “Oh, come on! You have got to be kidding me!”
CREDITS: many thanks to allets for her detailed and deeply constructive comments!