Chapter 05: By Candlelight
Chapter 05 of the City of Gargoyles: Second Book of the Light-Father Trilogy.
Chapter 05: By Candlelight
“Saint Peter’s teeth,” Saul choked as his eyes widened and bile rose in his throat. He laid Fern gently upon the ground and turned his gaze away. “We must tell the Light-Father of this!”
Michael said nothing but drew on his robes, reset the bandages about his face and pulled forward the cowl. “As you wish,” he said finally, breaking the shocked silence in the room. “But the Wiccan and the rest of you needed to see me as Azrael has made me. Now do you understand why I wish to help you?”
“I can see why the Order wishes to kill you,” Saul said weakly as Bas went into a corner to retch noisily. “Gods, how can you bear to live like that? I would kill myself in a heartbeat.”
“Listen, Child of Exodus, I had my doubts about the Sign of Revelation but I was indoctrinated as a postulate and as a Brother until my faith was absolute. My skills in circuitry were revered so bestowed upon me were the Abbot’s privileges and finery over seven years ago. I was thus seduced by my new power and thus did not question the veracity of Schimrian and the Conclave. I am therefore accursed because I stood mute while the Virus was perfected and the Great Redemption unleashed.”
“Doubts?” Saul exclaimed. “You could have done something to stop the Plague. You could have raised the alarm!”
“Yet we did nothing even though Camus and I had argued about the planned atrocity for many days but, in the end, our courage failed us. We have since been visited by uncounted and vengeful shades every single night for six years and this,” Michael said, indicating his body. “This was supposed to be a form pleasing to Azrael but I know now that it was God punishing me for my sins: I dare not add to such an infernal tally with suicide.”
“Unh!” Fern groaned, sitting up and rubbing her forehead. “I deem thee punished,” she said, looking up at him. “I have no magic to undo what has been done but forgive me: the same countless dead haunt my dreams too so I cannot pity you.”
“I seek no pity nor deserve it yet you punish yourself for our sins,” Michael said quietly. He held out a gloved hand to help her to her feet. She shocked the children by accepting his hand. “What an extraordinarily rare thing to do. You should not take on such a burden when I see in you a pure and blameless soul.”
“Pure for a Harlot of Satan, you mean?” she said archly, placing a hand upon her heart. “Inside me reside generations of Mothers whom the Order had put to death for revealing the truth behind its dark works and its plans to betray mankind.”
Michael did not reply and instead he bent down to retrieve her staff from the flagstones. He studied the ornate and exquisite carving of the raven at the head: its diamond eyes shone an eerie blue in the candlelight and the wooden shaft felt alive in his hands. He hastily presented it to her. “Curious,” he murmured, flexing his fingers as if they pained him. “I thought these arcane rods were affectations; mere badges of rank amongst the Mothers.”
“You seem to have studied the craft so you should know they are more than that,” she smiled enigmatically, displaying the matching raven amulet set on the leather thong around her neck. A massive peal of thunder rattled the windows and crockery and puffs of dust descended from the ceiling. “I suspect we’re here for some time as we cannot leave this place while this storm lasts. I wish to learn more of what is happening to the Order…”
“I knew they were magic,” Ibrahim interrupted, approaching the staff to study it. He glanced at Shield who folded her arms. “Be wary, Saul, she might use hers to cast a spell on you!”
Saul wrapped his arms about Shield and held her close. “She already has, Ibrahim,” he laughed.
“As have you, dear heart,” Shield replied but Rabbit forced her way between them and pouted up at Shield. “Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten you, my little Rabbit. There’s room enough in my heart for all of you. Oh, dear heart,” she said tenderly, sweeping Rabbit up in her arms. “I thought I’d lost you with my poor Fierce!”
“I see you’ve found comfort enough with the Eldest,” Rabbit said, glaring over Shield’s shoulder at the bemused Saul. “You better not treat her badly, Eldest, or I’ll k-.”
“Enough!” Fern said sharply, raising a hand. “There will be no threats of death in this house, even in jest, when we have just found each other! I have had my fill of it! Shield and Peter, you will search every cupboard for tinned food. Saul, check that gas cylinder and you, Ibrahim, the cooker. Now, please!”
Rabbit and Pup approached Fern tugged at her white hemp belt. “What about us, Mother Fern?” Peter demanded.
Fern stooped to embrace them; they closed their eyes in rapture then burst into tears. “W-we were so afraid, Mother Fern!” Pup sobbed. “But suh-suh-Surl saved us over and over again in all the dark places of the Great Abbey. We…”
“Shh, dear hearts,” Fern said gently. “Now is not the time to tell your tale as the journey is not over yet and the Light-Father needs to work his magic upon you. So dry those tears and go and find those poor men some chairs before they fall down.”
“I’m not crying,” Peter sniffed, wiping his nose with a sleeve. “We don’t even know their names as they haven’t spoken much since we escaped. They’re all very ill.”
“Indeed they are after such cruel torture and three days in the rain, dear heart. See how they shiver! Find them blankets and if the tins of food are unspoilt, we shall make them some hot broth. Go on, children, please, take this torch and do as I ask of you.” As Rabbit and Pup hesitantly complied, she beckoned to Surl to come to her and put a hand on her shoulder as Michael leant against the door and folded his arms to watch intently.
“What of Abbot Michael? Can you see his path?”
“Yes, Mother Fern,” Surl said gravely. “Michael is still a monster – within and without – but I do see his salvation.”
“Ah, then I will live up to your vision, young seer,” Michael said, bowing deeply. “I have a destiny: I am content.”
“I hope so, Naked One,” Surl said pointedly then turned to Fern. “I am so tired, Mother Fern.”
“I understand, little one,” Fern said, embracing her. “Your power will grow and unless we train you, it will consume you.”
“As my research has indicated,” Michael added but Fern raised a hand to silence him.
“You would dissect her living brain,” she said icily.
“I am a man of science still,” he replied blandly. “So I am naturally curious as to how her gift works; how her brain creates such visions of the future – but I would not harm her now. Besides, I would hardly need to dissect myself now, would I?”
“Indeed not,” Fern sighed. “But keep quiet while I attend to the little ones. I need to see what injuries they have.”
“I have none of consequence, Mother Fern,” Surl murmured, lost in the warm embrace of the beautiful Wiccan. “Save for memories I will never forget and the endless fear of death.” She too burst into tears and buried her face in Fern’s bosom.
“Be at peace for you are safe, little one,” Fern crooned, holding her tight. “The Light-Father and I will never let anything happen to you again. Amos is waiting for you in Milverburg. He wanted to come but we could not let him as he is too rash in battle.”
“But I want to see my b-brother!”
“Shh, dear heart, all in good time. All four of you seem to be in good health but those ruined men are not. Go and help the others,” she ordered. “This storm has many hours left in it; we must rest and then move quickly as soon as it abates.”
“Yes, Mother,” came the muffled reply but it was almost five minutes before she freed herself of the embrace and by then the five men had sat down at the table with bowls set before them as a vegetable broth was heating up in a large pan on the stove.
Fern was conscious that Michael was studying the children. “They are remarkable,” he noted, meeting her gaze. “Their parents’ gifts have served them well. Surl bears no mark I can see so I suspect the Exodus scientists succeeded in replicating your craft in her.”
“Possibly,” Fern replied cautiously. “But our craft is not something you ‘men of science’ could possibly understand.”
“No, not yet anyway,” Michael conceded. “I have studied your history and your magic for many years. It may not be explainable now but, in the end, everything is just genetics and physics.”
“I dread that day when a man such as you reduces me to a mere formula,” Fern retorted. “But now with the ‘World of Man’ ended at your hands, such a day will never come.”
“Amen to that,” Michael said ironically. “The storm is getting worse. I see no need for the Light-Father to stand sentinel.” He indicated Surl. “She could decide whether or not he remains out there in this deluge. Well, young seer, what say you?”
Surl came up to Fern and again solicited comfort. “You know the visions cause me great pain, Michael, yet you keep asking me to use my power all the time. Why?”
“I am sorry but I need to speak to the Light-Father before we flee westwards again. We might not get another chance to talk.”
“I see,” Fern said icily. “You cannot share such information with a mere woman, is that it?”
“No, I am beyond the chauvinism of the Order, as you plainly saw just now. But you are a mother to these children as he is a father and you should both hear what I have to say.”
“It’s safe to call the Light-Father,” Surl said, grimacing in pain. “We need to leave at five bells to get to the boat. That’s the best time but it will be hard: we may have to fight again.”
“I shall call for him,” Michael said, turning to open the door.
“There is no need,” Fern replied and concentrated. Within seconds, Harold was in the cottage, the water pouring off him.
“Now that’s what I call rain,” he grinned ruefully. “The road is a river and the lightning is smashing down trees all over the place; sparks everywhere and I could feel a shock from a few of them. Ah, I see those men you rescued are getting some hot food. Good.” He turned to Michael and tapped a finger to his temple in emphasis. “Fern communicated to me what Azrael did to you,” he said. He patted his scabbard. “I think I can trust you but if you ever betray these children, I will end your misery.”
“If you can,” Michael shrugged. “I am immortal and unless my head is severed from my body, I will regenerate. Azrael arranged it thus to provide eternal sport for him in his New Jerusalem.”
“So what did you want to talk to us about?”
“Let us go into the parlour,” Michael insisted. “Let the children talk amongst themselves and tend to those poor souls.” He took a candle and led them into the musty front room. He set the candle on a dining table and drew the drapes. “This furniture is not too disgusting,” he noted, seating himself slowly in an arm-chair.
Fern and Harold sat next to each other on the sofa opposite him. “Well,” Harold said impatiently. “What news of Schimrian?”
“He was indeed dead but the machine repaired him. Thanks to you, he did not become a sport of Azrael as I was doomed to be. The machine continued to function despite the explosion.”
“He must be brain-damaged,” Harold said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I saw and heard his skull being crushed.”
“Not so,” Michael said. “He retains all his faculties but his skull is somewhat distorted. He has learnt little wisdom from the creation and destruction wrought by Azrael. He curses your warrior-maiden yet she saved everyone left alive from Hell being made manifest before our very eyes.”
“And what of you?” Harold said. “Why did they turn on you?”
“I was blamed for the loss of the Great Computer so they saw me as marked and punished by God. Schimrian’s first act when he emerged from the machine was to order the bloodied corpse of Azrael to be cut up and the fragments burnt in the furnaces. His second act was order the same for the surviving Tally-men who had attacked Fathers, Brothers and Sisters at Azrael’s command. They could never be trusted again and, as I later heard from the postulates, Tally-men had gone berserk everywhere.”
“What? All of them?” Harold demanded eagerly.
“No, not all of them,” Michael said after a pause. “Some were resting and not connected to the Great Computer but many Fathers and Brothers were killed. This is why a large-scale search for you could not be organised as the Order in Britannia was sorely depleted by Azrael’s treachery.”
“This is fantastic news,” Harold grinned, making a fist. “We do have a fighting chance after all!”
“Your victory was great but your joy is premature, Light-Father. Anyway, the Great-Abbot’s third act was to throw me into a Redemption Cell. The surviving Tally-men had to drag me there as the Brothers and Fathers who were left alive would not come near me and Camus, my oldest friend, vomited away that friendship in front of me and ran screaming from the cell.”
“So there is only one Abbot left in the whole of Britannia?” Fern asked pointedly. “Schimrian’s paranoia is indeed our ally. What of the Great Abbey and the Order now?”
“The other Abbots and Fathers all wanted to return to the Great Abbey immediately on hearing the news but Schimrian refused. He does not want to risk a challenge to his authority with the Great Computer destroyed and the Great Abbey near devoid of loyal Brothers and Fathers. However,” Michael added, raising one finger then two in emphasis: “There is not one Abbot but two at the Great Abbey. Pious is very much alive – if you can call that living death life. I am skilled in the arts of electrics and circuitry but what sustains him, I know not. The postulates that brought me food – and news – as punishment told me of the terror they have of him. They say his heart does not beat, his flesh is cold to the touch and he draws no breath except to speak and yet he moves.”
“So how are you declared an abomination and not him?”
“Simple, Light-Father, Pious is the only creature in this world that Schimrian trusts implicitly so he declared his resurrection as a miracle from God who wishes him to continue Inquisition until the world is cleansed of the Unworthy and the Ferals.”
Fern gasped in shock. “Have you not done enough to those poor children yet they are now to be hunted down and slain?”
“Yes, though they are now closer to beast than man, Azrael deemed they could become fertile and bear young; populating the world with chimerae and hybrids. I cannot see how – their genes were completely ravaged by the virus. They cannot breed.”
“Nature always finds a way,” Harold pointed out. “Radiation, mutation, anything could happen in such a huge pool of damaged genes covering the planet. There must be hundreds of thousands of them out there in the woods and ruins.”
“Possibly millions,” Michael conceded. “So, yes, the odds could yield mating pairs eventually but the offspring will not be viable. Cancer, hunger and deformity will eventually kill them off.”
“And at each innocent death another ghost shall stand at your shoulder and mine,” Fern said bitterly, her eyes glistening with tears. “I name this whole world Heofland: the Land of Lamentation.”
“As you wish,” Michael shrugged. “Thus nine Fathers, less than four hundred Brothers and one thousand Tally-men remain uninjured in Britannia. Only fifteen Angels and a handful of aircraft are airworthy and all are tasked with scouring these drowned isles for you. As you now see, Light-Father, the Order has been decimated and their New Jerusalem denied but they are vengeful and numerous enough: they will find you and destroy you.”
“Then we will make a stand in Milverburg,” Harold decided. “I have some ideas of how we can defend the place.”
“Ah, I see you are thinking like a true general,” Michael approved. “Surl has told me of Milverburg: a shrewd move for you can elude capture amongst that Gothic monstrosity for years. You intrigue me, Light-Father: you dress like a mechanic and not a soldier; that strange cap you wear and that shirt bear Romanic letters and not runes. I know that Azrael considered you to be of another world as was he in essence because that strange machine at his core was also alien to this planet.”
Harold glanced at Fern who nodded and held his hand. “I am from another plane, Michael. I come from the same Earth but in a different dimension where a different history has played out and my Great Britain, as it is called, has not drowned although it may do so in the next fifty years or so as the climate changes.”
“Ah, I am glad to learn that my belief in parallel worlds was correct. I wrote several papers on the subject. I guessed as much for Azrael stole from you some small devices unknown to our science that he used to create and power his emergent form.”
“Micro-chips: tiny computers small enough to connect to nerve tissue in the human body. He adapted them in a matter of hours. God know what would have happened to us if he’d been able to disconnect those umbilical cords from the Great Computer.”
“Indeed so, Light-Father,” Michael nodded, interlocking his fingers. “I know not how he wielded such arcane power to resurrect the dead and control so many Tally-Men but Schimrian refuses to believe Azrael meant him harm and mourns him as a son. He is completely obsessed and insane but none dare challenge him – all the Fathers and Brothers do his bidding without question. However, the slave computers and satellite links were also destroyed so global communication is no longer possible. I…”
“You still have the Angels,” Harold interrupted. “You said fifteen were left flying but more could return to Britannia.”
“None can be returned except by ship and aviation fuel is scarce. Ursaf and the others in Bede cannot repair the other aircrafts and rotorcrafts as the spare parts are all but gone and the ships take too long to carry supplies. Only three long-range jets remain in the air but only one of them is at Bede. There are about thirty small propeller-crafts but they bear no arms. Ursaf and his staff were too few and too unskilled to salvage and use military aircrafts.”
“That is good to know but basically, even if we kill every member of the Order in Britannia and destroy the Angels, more will come after us no matter what we do?”
“Yes, but do not despair completely. They still have some radio links but the atmosphere is too disturbed to make long-range communication reliable or even possible in Africa, Far Asia and the Americas. There you have it: you and your young warrior-maiden have brought the great and powerful Order to its knees but you cannot defeat the surviving Thousands if they all return. You will be hunted down even in the labyrinths of Milverburg.”
“Then we must ensure the deaths of Rosemary, Veneris and our Ferals shall not be in vain,” Fern declared, wiping her eyes. “I know they did not survive but what of their remains?”
“The postulates described how they were forced to desecrate their bodies and those of the Ferals then burn them in the furnaces but of brave Fierce, not a fragment remained. The Hexagon was vaporised and the Core of the Great Computer with it, taking down all the slave computers and erasing all the data. Everything was lost but for records committed to paper. The main generators were destroyed so the Great Abbey is still largely lit by candle-light and electric torches and, luckily for the little ones, there were no cameras working either. I have no more intelligence for you: this is all that I could glean of your great victory from my Redemption Cell before your younglings freed me.”
“How were they able to look at you?” Fern asked suddenly.
“Surl brought me robes and was able to bear my disfigurement – presumably she was warned through her visions – but she did not let the other three see my condition or tell them of it until we had escaped with the five prisoners that she insisted on liberating.”
“The rain is easing a little,” Fern noted then she winced as large hail clattered down upon the slates. “Ach, another false hope! Yes, Surl, what is it, dear heart? We still have much to learn from Michael. We need to know what the Order is planning.”
Pup, Rabbit and Peter joined her in the doorway. “No, you are done for now,” Surl announced gravely. “We have fed the men and the others are looking after them now we four have need of the magic of our Light-Father.” With that, all four of them leapt forward and wriggled around Harold and Fern on the sofa and snuggled up to them, with Surl seated on his lap and resting against his chest contentedly with her eyes closed.
Michael hauled himself to his feet and bowed. “I will leave you to weave your spells as these children have yet more harrowing tales to tell. We must talk at length, Light-Father, for I see a kindred spirit in you as a man of science.”
“No, I doubt it,” Harold frowned. “I cannot absolve you of your sins, Michael, but we will talk later. These children are the reason I am here and I love them as my own so if you could leave us alone for a moment, I would be grateful.”
“Then weave your magic well, Light-Father,” Michael said and bowed again before leaving the room.
Despite being soaked to the bone and with Surl half-asleep on his chest, Harold said: “Now, who wants to speak first?”