Chapter 05: By Candlelight
Chapter 05 of the City of Gargoyles: Second Book of the Light-Father Trilogy.
“Saint Peter’s teeth,” Saul choked as his eyes widened and bile rose in his throat. He laid Fern gently upon the floor and turned his gaze away. “Ugh! We must tell the Light-Father of this!”
Michael said nothing but drew on his clothing and gloves, reset the bandages about his face and raised his cowl. “Do as you wish,” he said dismissively as the others continued to stare at him apart from Bas who was being wretchedly sick in one of the sinks. “But the Wiccan and the rest of you needed to see me as Azrael made me. Now do you understand why I wish to help you?”
“I can see why the Order wants to kill you,” Saul replied, his voice shaking. “Gods, how can you bear to live like that? I would kill myself rather than be… be that!”
“I deserve no less. When the Conclave showed us the Vatican’s seven-headed lamb, I harboured doubts about it truly being a Sign of Revelation but after spending my whole life bathed in doctrine, my faith in their belief was absolute.”
“You had doubts?” Saul exclaimed in disbelief. “You could’ve warned people! You could’ve raised the alarm!”
“I was overwhelmed by a holy rapture that affected everyone at the Great Abbey so that all I could focus on was New Jerusalem. Before that, Exodus scientists at the Great Abbey had told me of the Virus of Revelation and how dissidents in the company had tried to warn politicians of the danger but nobody listened. Besides, I was so afraid of Schimrian that I wouldn’t even try to tell anyone. This,” he said, indicating his body: “Was supposed to be a form pleasing to Azrael but it’s God who punished 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 do indeed deem thee punished,” she said formally, glaring up at him. “I have no craft to undo this but forgive me: so many murdered souls haunt my dreams that I will never pity you!”
“I seek no pity nor deserve it yet I see that you punish yourself for our sins,” Michael noted with some surprise. He held out a gloved hand to help her to her feet. She shocked the children by accepting that hand. “What an extraordinary thing to do. Why take on such a burden when I see in you a pure soul?”
“Pure for a Harlot of Satan, you mean?” she said archly, placing a hand upon her heart. “Inside me reside countless generations of Mothers your Order put to death for revealing the cruel truth behind its virtuous façade.” She frowned as she studied him: “Oh? Who is this Father Bucheort I see in your mind? Oh? He was crucified? Is there no end to the Order’s cruelty?”
Michael did not reply: Bucheort had been a brutal disciple of Pious who had been rumoured to have snapped the neck of at least one postulant so his death in Crawcester, allegedly crucified by the Wiccans, was not mourned by many at the Great Abbey. He bent down to retrieve her staff from the flagstones and examined the ornate and exquisite carving of the raven at the head. Its diamond eyes shone eerily blue in the candlelight and the black mahogany wood of the staff felt somehow 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 Wiccans.”
“You claim to have studied our craft so you should know they are more than ‘mere badges’,” she smiled enigmatically, displaying the matching raven amulet set on the leather thong around her neck. A massive peal of thunder rattled all the windows. “We can’t leave here while this storm lasts so you can tell us what’s happening to the Order. Was Azrael’s body destroyed and…?”
“I knew they were magic,” Ibrahim interrupted, approaching the staff to study it. He turned and wiggled his fingers at Shield who bridled at the gesture. “Be wary, Eldest,” he said in sepulchral tones. “She might use her staff to put a spell on you!”
Saul wrapped his arms about Shield’s waist and held her close. “She already has,” he laughed. “I’m completely bewitched!”
“As you have me, dear heart,” Shield replied fondly but Rabbit forced her way between them and pouted up at Shield making her smile: “I’ve not forgotten you, little Rabbit. Oh, dear heart,” she said tenderly, sweeping her up in her arms. “I thought I’d lost you along with my poor sister!”
“Pah! I see you find comfort enough with him” Rabbit huffed, glaring over Shield’s shoulder at the bemused Saul. “You’d better not treat her badly, Eldest, or I will ki-.”
“Stop that!” Fern snapped, raising a hand. “There’ll be no threats to kill, even in jest, when we’ve just found each other! I’ve had my fill of death so let us look to life. Shield. Peter, Bas, obey the Light-Father: search every cupboard for food. Saul, check that gas cylinder and you, Ibrahim, the cooker. Now, please!”
Rabbit and Pup approached Fern and tugged at her white hemp belt as the others set to their tasks. “We’re not that hungry, Mother Fern,” Rabbit said with Pup nodding in agreement. “We found some broth in the farmhouse earlier,” she explained, pointing at the five men in the corner as they talked quietly amongst themselves. “It wasn’t much so we want you to make sure they eat first. Peter’s been looking after them but they’re still weak. I… ” She stopped, wiping at copious tears with a filthy sleeve. “I’m sorry, Mother Fern. I have so few years for this… I…”
“Pup needs a hug too!”
Fern knelt and comforted them as intense thunderclaps rattled the crockery upon the shelves. They closed their eyes in rapture then Pup burst into tears as well: “W-we were so afraid, Mother Fern!” he sobbed. “But suh-Surl saved us over and over again in the dark places beneath the Great Abbey. We…”
“Shh, dear hearts,” Fern said gently. “Don’t tell your tale just yet – the Light-Father needs to listen and work his magic upon all four of you. Dry those eyes then take a candle and go and check the bedrooms to see if those poor men can use the beds.”
“I’m not crying,” Rabbit sniffed, blowing her nose into her hand and wiping it on her trousers. “They had some rest at the farmhouse earlier so they may not want to sleep again. We don’t even know their names – they’ve not spoken to us much.”
“They won’t want to talk to anyone else after weeks of cruel torture but they’ll heal in time. It’s getting cold – see how they shiver! Find them blankets if they won’t use the beds. Go, dear hearts, please do as I ask of you.” As Rabbit and Pup hesitantly obeyed, she beckoned Surl to come to her and put a hand on her shoulder. Michael leant against the door to watch them intently.
“What of Abbot Michael? Can you see his path?”
“Yes, Mother Fern,” Surl said gravely, dabbing at her nosebleed with a cloth. “The visions hurt but I can see he is a monster still though salvation does lie before him.”
“Then I will strive to live up to your augury, young seer,” Michael vowed, bowing deeply.
“I hope so, Naked One,” Surl said pointedly then turned back to Fern: “I’m so tired. I feel so thin inside.”
“I understand, Daughter,” Fern said, embracing her. “Unless we train you, this power will consume you.”
“As my research indicates,” Michael added smugly.
Fern raised a hand to silence him. “You’d dissect her living brain like a Tally-man’s, wouldn’t you?”
“Despite my sins and Azrael’s curse, I’m a man of science still,” he replied blandly. “I’m curious as to how her gift works; how her brain perceives visions of the future but I’d never harm her. I’d hardly need to dissect myself, now would I?”
“Indeed not. But keep your counsel while I attend to the little ones. I forgot to check them for injuries.”
“We’ve none of consequence, Mother Fern,” Surl murmured happily, enfolded in the arms and scent of the beautiful Wiccan. “Save for memories we’ll never forget and a constant fear of death.” She trembled and buried her face in Fern’s bosom.
“Be at peace, little one,” Fern crooned, feeling a new and powerful a maternal instinct stir within her. “The universe has been so cruel to you Scatterlings but the Light-Father and I will do our best to change that. If he can bring back the sunshine like he did today, he can do anything. Amos is waiting for you in Milverburg, don’t forget. He wanted to come but we denied him: he’s far too rash in battle and puts other in mortal peril.”
“I know but I want to see my b-brother!”
“All in good time but first things first: if the four of you are uninjured then go and help see to the needs of those men.”
“Yes, Mother,” came the muffled reply. Fern was deeply moved at the omission of her name but it was almost five minutes before Surl let go of her and by then the five men had been seated at the table as pans of broth and rice simmered on the cooker.
Fern was conscious that Michael was intently studying the Scatterlings. “Their parents’ gifts have served them well, Mother Fern,” he observed on meeting her gaze. “Surl bears no visible mark of the craft so the Exodus scientists must’ve succeeded in replicating the craft in her through genetic manipulation.”
“I doubt it,” Fern replied cautiously. “Our craft is not something you ‘men of science’ could possibly understand.”
“Not yet,” Michael conceded. “I’ve studied your history and your ‘craft’ for decades and much lies beyond current rationality, I’ll admit, but in the end, everything is just physics.”
“I dread that day when a man such as you reduces me to a mere formula,” Fern retorted.
“Amen to that,” Michael said ironically. “Hark to that thunder! Each bolt sounds a Dolorous Stroke upon the thighs of Cernunnos. I see no need for the Light-Father to stand sentinel.” He indicated Surl: “She could scry whether or not he should remain out there in this deluge. Well, young oracle, what say you?”
Surl came up to Fern and again solicited comfort: “You say you worry about the visions making me ill yet you keep asking me to use my power all the time. Why?”
“Forgive me: 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 bitterly. “You cannot share such information with a mere woman, is that it?”
“No, I am now far beyond the chauvinism of the Order, as you saw, but you are indeed a natural 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, wincing in pain. “We must leave at eight bells to get to the boat. That’s the best time but it will be hard: we’ll have to fight again.”
“I’ll go and get him,” Michael offered, reaching for the latch.
“There’s no need,” Fern replied and placed her fingertips to her temples. Within seconds, Harold was inside the kitchen with the rainwater cascading off him.
“Now that’s what I call rain,” he grinned ruefully. “The road’s a river and lightning is smashing down tree limbs all over the place; sparks everywhere. I felt a shock from a few of them. Ah, I see those men are getting some hot food. Good.” He turned to Michael and touched his forehead in emphasis: “Fern communicated to me what Azrael did to you,” he said. He grasped the hilt of his katana meaningfully. “I think we can trust you but if you ever betray these children, I will terminate you.”
“If you can,” Michael shrugged. “I’m immortal: unless you sever my head from my body, I will regenerate. Azrael arranged it thus to provide eternal sport for him in his hellish Jerusalem.”
“So what did you want to talk to us about?”
“Let’s go somewhere private,” Michael insisted. He led them into the front room and set two candlesticks on a dining table. He carefully checked the drapes and applied a match to the candle wicks. He sat down carefully in one of the musty armchairs. “May I just say how glad I am to have finally met you, Light-Father?”
Fern and Harold sat next to each other on the sofa opposite him. “Skip the pleasantries!” Harold prompted impatiently. “What about Schimrian? How the hell is that bastard still alive?”
“That machine resurrected him as it continued to function after the explosion. Thanks to you, he was merely killed by Azrael and not mutilated as I was.”
“He has to be brain-damaged,” Harold said, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. “We heard his skull being crushed.”
“Not so. He’s recovered most if not all of his faculties though his skull remains somewhat misshapen and he did fall into a temporary dementia from the trauma. It’s as though his precious Azrael never turned on him and he curses your young Scatterling for killing his ‘beautiful son’ yet she saved the rest of us from Hell being made manifest by that Satan.”
“And you?” Harold said. “Why did they turn on you?”
“I was blamed for the loss of the Great Computer as they saw me cursed by God. As I later heard from the postulants, Tally-men who were connected to the Great Computer through their barracks computers went berserk all across the globe.”
“What? All of them?” Harold demanded eagerly.
“No, not all,” Michael said after a pause. “Some Tally-men were in rest mode and were not connected to their barracks computers. The Order in Britannia is depleted and in disarray because of this massacre and the fact that you attacked at the perfect moment when most of the Fathers and Brothers were away on routine Inquisitions in the Middle Cities. I presume this Mother Moss you speak of foresaw Azrael’s ascension.”
“She never told us; only Fierce knew,” Harold said with a heavy heart. “She kept that secret from us until she pulled those fuses.”
“Fierce is the Scatterling who destroyed Azrael?”
“Yes. Kai told us there were only forty or so Brothers there so I knew we had a chance, you see,” Harold grinned, making a fist. “Only there must’ve been a hundred at least but it didn’t matter in the end because we were guided there not to destroy the Great Abbey but to fulfil a prophecy of Mother Moss.”
“So I understand but Kai didn’t mislead you,” Michael pointed out. “Some eighty Inquisitors returned that very morning and he wouldn’t have known how many were in the laboratories or the garages and smithies. Anyway, to finish my tale, I was thrown into a Redemption Cell and Camus, my oldest friend, vomited away that friendship in front of me. I never saw him again.”
“So there is only one Abbot left at the great Abbey?” Fern asked shrewdly. “What of the rest of the Order, Michael?”
“The Twelve Tribes have been decimated and the surviving Fathers and Abbots scattered across the globe want to return to the Great Abbey but Schimrian refuses them as he doesn’t want to face a challenge to his authority. However,” he 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’m well versed in the arts of electrics and circuitry but what sustains him, I cannot say. The postulants who brought me food as punishment told me of the terror they have of him: his heart doesn’t beat, his flesh is cold and he draws no breath except to speak.”
“So how are you declared the abomination and not him?”
“Simple, Light-Father, Pious was the only creature in this world that Schimrian trusted implicitly so he declared his resurrection to be 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: “What? Have you not done enough to those poor children yet they’re now to be hunted down and slain?”
“Yes, though they’re now much closer to beast than man, Azrael deemed that they could become fertile and bear young; populating the world with strange chimerae and hybrids.”
“Nature will find a way,” Harold agreed. “Radiation, mutation; anything could happen in such a huge pool of damaged genes. There must be hundreds of thousands of them out there.”
“Possibly millions,” Michael conceded. “The odds could yield mating pairs but most if not all of the offspring will be unviable. Cancer, hunger and deformity will eventually kill them off.”
“And at each innocent death another ghost shall stand at your shoulder and at mine,” Fern said bitterly, her eyes glistening with tears. “I name the whole world Heofland: a world of ghosts and death created by nothing more than misogyny and exegesis.”
“Call it what you will,” Michael shrugged. “But thanks to you and Azrael, only five Abbots, forty Fathers, six hundred Brothers and less than a thousand Tally-men remain in Britannia.”
“What about the Angels,” Harold demanded anxiously.
“Father Ursaf had six at Bede and there nine others were flown there from Norton and Wyehold making fifteen in all and two more may be salvaged at the Great Abbey.”
“God, that’s more than enough,” Harold groaned, lifting his cap to run a hand through his hair. “Does the Order have any other aircraft in Britannia?”
“I heard that Ursaf struggles to keep all the aircraft and rotor-craft in working order as the spare parts are all but gone. The three propeller-craft and the long-range jet-craft at Bede bear no armaments and luckily for you, they were too unskilled to salvage military aircraft even before half of them were slain.”
“Now there’s a small mercy,” Harold said bleakly. “What about the rest of the Order?”
“Across the globe, less than twelve thousand survived Azrael’s pogrom but be warned: with their New Jerusalem denied, they’re still vengeful and numerous enough to hunt you down. In time, they’ll eventually disobey Schimrian’s orders and make their way to these Hallowed Isles to challenge him. They won’t all come at once however as these storms keep getting more violent and there are few ships that can withstand such maelstroms.”
“I see. We can make a stand in Milverburg then,” Harold decided, still unwilling to trust Michael. “I think we can defend the place even if all six hundred attack us at the same time. We could fight a guerrilla war in there for months.”
“Ah, good, you’re thinking like a general,” Michael approved. “Surl’s visions decreed that you were at Milverburg but this would have been our destination in any case. You intrigue me, Light-Father: you dress like a car mechanic and that strange cap bears Romanic letters in a language I can’t read. Azrael considered you to be of another world as was he in essence; forged from that alien device at the heart of the Great Computer.”
Harold glanced at Fern who nodded approval and held his hand. “I come from another plane, Michael. It’s the same Earth but in a different dimension where a different history has played out and my Great Britain, as it is called there, has not drowned though it may do soon as the climate’s heating up.”
“Ah, I’m glad to learn that my belief in parallel worlds was well founded! I’d guessed as much for Azrael stole from you small but complex items of circuitry unknown to our science which he used to create and power his emergent form.”
“We call them microchips,” Harold explained, extracting one from a pocket in his overalls. “See? These are tiny computers with connections small enough to link to nerve endings. What I don’t understand is how quickly he adapted and replicated them. God knows what would have happened to us if he’d disconnected those umbilical cords.”
“I imagine what happened to me would have seemed like paradise to the rest of his victims,” Michael agreed sombrely, interlocking his fingers. “As I said, it may be weeks or months before survivors arrive in Britannia but the resulting power struggle could delay or disrupt any siege of Milverburg.”
“Schimrian and Pious still have six hundred and forty men here,” Harold reminded him. “You said fifteen Angels were left flying but could more Angels return to Britannia?”
“In time but most must return by ship as aviation fuel is scarce and the survivors are wary of setting sail in these storms.”
“That’s good to know but, basically, even if we kill every member of the Order in Britannia and destroy all fifteen Angels thousands more will come after us no matter what we do?”
“Yes, in time, but don’t despair completely. As I said, they have radio links but the atmosphere is too disturbed to make long-range communication reliable. Many survivors can’t be contacted and the abbeys and outposts in Scotia and Eirann have fallen silent. The equatorial storm systems are so intense that I suspect those in the Southern Hemisphere are stranded there.”
“So a lot less than twelve thousand?” Harold prompted.
“There will be enough. You may be able to resist six hundred in the labyrinths of Milverburg for some time but not when thousands lay siege to the city and all its levels.”
“We’ll defend ourselves!” Fern declared hotly grasping her staff. “We must ensure that the deaths of Rosemary, Veneris and our Ferals were not in vain.” She turned to Michael as a bleak thought struck her: “What happened to their bodies?”
“Ah, I regret Pious forced the postulants to desecrate and dismember their corpses then burn them in the furnaces of the smithies but of your brave young warrior-maiden, not one scrap of flesh remained. The Great Computer was vaporised and the alien device with it, taking down all the slave computers and erasing all the data. The main generators were destroyed by Surl and the others so the Great Abbey is still lit by candlelight. There you have it: this is all that I could glean from my Redemption Cell before your brave Scatterings freed me.”
“How were they able to look at you?” Fern asked. “I’m curious as the very sight of your face made me faint.”
“Surl brought me these robes and bandages and was able to bear my disfigurement as she was no doubt prepared by her visions. She wisely did not let the other three see my condition or tell them of it as we fled with the five prisoners they insisted on saving.”
“The rain is easing a little,” Fern noted then she flinched as more large hail clattered down upon the slates. “Ach! Another false hope! Yes, Surl, what is it? We still have much to discuss with Michael. We need to know what Schimrian is planning.”
Surl was stood in the doorway and was joined by Pup, Rabbit and then Peter. “No, you’re done with him for now,” she announced gravely. “We’ve fed the men and the others are looking after them so now we four have need of our Light-Father and Mother.” With that, all four of them wriggled around Harold and Fern on the sofa and snuggled up to them, with Surl eventually seated on his lap and resting against his chest contentedly with her eyes closed and his arms wrapped around her.
Michael hauled himself to his feet and bowed: “I leave you to weave your magic as I suspect these brave children have yet more harrowing tales to tell. We must talk at length, Light-Father, for I see a kindred spirit in you.”
“I doubt that,” Harold frowned. “I can never absolve you of your sins, Michael, but we will talk later. These children are the reason I’m here and I love them as my own so if you could leave us alone for a while, 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 briskly: “Right, who wants to go first?”
Edited 24/07/2019 – Copyright protected. No copying or transmission of this text is allowed without written permission. (c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell