Chapter 06: Duct Rats
The young Children of Exodus begin their weeks of hiding in the Great Abbey as Surl’s prescience grows – from the City of Gargoyles – second book in the Light Father trilogy
Chapter 06: Duct Rats
Surl halted as a death’s-head moth fluttered frantically in front of her face. She turned to follow it and beheld in time the knife thrust that would have killed her instantly. The eight prisoners they had freed from the Redemption Cells were naked but for soiled and bloody loin-cloths and were far too weak to help them.
Without thought and honed by years of training by Mother Moss, she leapt back and drew her machete. She held the razor-sharp weapon at the ready as the two Tally-men with hideous leers distorting their faces advanced upon the four children who retreated down the corridor only to stare in helpless horror as the two Tally-men paused to casually stab two of the prisoners.
Pup immediately fired his catapult and the heavy ball-bearing struck the Guide on the right temple of the nearest Tally-man causing him to go into spasms and arch his back. The two prisoners slumped to the floor bleeding from their mortal wounds as the second Tally-man received another ball-bearing upon the Guide set into his forehead. As the two Tally-men twitched and shuddered, the children launched themselves forward as one.
She swung her machete at the first Tally-man as he held his head in his hands and sliced into the back of his left knee. He collapsed to the floor, flailing about with his knife. “Praise Jesus, he’s blinded!” she shouted with relief. “Well done, Pup!”
Peter was flung the length of the corridor by the second Tally-man as Rabbit had moved in and attacked him from behind but one of her axes had become stuck in his back. Pup kept firing his ball-bearings at the Tally-man’s head as Surl screamed to Rabbit: “Leave that axe and use the other to chop through the wires!”
Rabbit had but eight years but she didn’t hesitate and leapt to rake her axe though the wires at the back of his skull. The results were spectacular as the huge Tally-man went into a fit and crashed to the ground. He writhed and gurgled then bloody foam sprayed from his mouth splattering Rabbit who shrieked in dismay.
Surl did the same with her machete so both Tally-men writhed and convulsed in pools of their own blood before dying. She looked up at the remaining horror-struck prisoners who saw their grisly fate laid out before them. “Help us,” one gasped, leaning against the wall. “We cannot fight. You all have but few years but we beg you: use those weapons and put us out of our misery. They will take us; they will make us monsters.”
Surl knew that these young men had been teenagers when the Plague had struck yet they possessed a natural immunity. Mother Moss had told them at the Keep how female survivors were killed yet the male survivors were tortured into submission so that the lobotomies could be progressed and guides installed while they were still conscious. “I cannot do this,” she groaned. “We have to help the others. If we win the fight, we will free everyone but if we lose, we will come back, I promise you.”
The man sagged to floor in despair. “So be it, child, but promise me this: kill as many of them as you can – that will bring us some solace if we are returned to these Cells and tortured again.”
“Try and fight your way out if you can,” Surl said, pointing. “Through that door is a room with spare robes and weapons.”
“Aye, we shall,” the man said, forcing himself back to his feet. “We are weakened by torture but we will die as free men. Get up, all of you,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “We will do what we can, lass, to avenge our families. Thank you,” he added as he led the other five down the corridor. “I hope we meet again. My name is Ken Glascae of Scotia. What is yours?”
“Surl!” she said proudly, drawing herself up to her full height. “I am a warrior-maid of Crawcester.”
“Fare thee well then, Surl of Crawcester,” he replied with a faint smile and with that the men were gone through the end door and into the armoury. “I know we shall meet again.”
“I’m fine, thank you for asking,” Peter grunted, retrieving his knife and getting to his feet. “Ouch. That hurt a lot.”
“You’ll live,” Surl said coldly. She winced as a blinding pain lanced across her skull and bright, vivid images flooded into her mind. She looked around in panic and saw the moth fluttering at the far door leading from corridor of the Redemption Cells. As she reached it and held out her hand to touch it, it dissolved into a puff of dust and her heart ached: “Oh, Mother Moss, I see what we must do but we are only children after all.” She started at the sound of something smashing above her head.
“I missed that camera earlier,” Pup explained, smiling. “We were being watched as we fought the Tally-men.”
“Thank you, Pup,” Surl nodded, rubbing at her forehead. “Destroy every one you see when we go through that door.”
“Yes, Surl,” Pup grinned, patting the large bags of ball-bearings on his belt. “Pup likes breaking things!”
“Get ready,” Surl said as she slowly turned the handle. “I can’t see what to expect in there. What is that noise?”
“Sounded like explosions and gunshots outside,” Peter said. “I can hear screaming and shouting.”
“We have to get into the power room or the Light-Father will die. They are facing something terrible in the Great Annexe and…” she shuddered and went blank until Peter shook her hard by the shoulders. “… and monsters,” she gasped. “We have to stop the begiullers in the walls and if we stop the power then the Tally-men can’t get the orders from the computers.”
“How do you know all this?” Peter demanded.
“I see it, I see it!” Surl hissed, tapping her right temple. “It hurts to use my craft but I see it! Mother Moss will guide me.”
“Ummm, yes, Mother Moss,” Peter said dubiously. “But it does make sense to take out the power generators. I’ll go first.” He pushed open the door carefully and peeked into the room which was filled with twenty computer terminals set upon four rows of desks. “It’s deserted,” he reported. “The Brothers must have gone outside to join the fighting.”
“Quickly, then!” Surl whispered urgently. “Let’s get to that far door before we’re discovered. It leads into the power room.”
As soon as they entered the computer room, Pup took out the two wall-mounted cameras with his catapult. They had almost reached the door when Surl shushed them to be quiet and pulled them behind the last row of desks and told them to hide beneath them. A second later, the door crashed open and two flustered Brothers pushed past each other into the room. One of them actually sat on the desk Pup was hiding under. “Brother Edward,” he panted; the fear plain in his voice. “What in God’s holy name has possessed the Tally-men? They’re running Brothers through with spears and slaying Sisters all across the Great Abbey.”
“I have no idea what possesses them, Theo,” the other replied in a deep bass voice. “The Wiccans and their beast-children must be responsible somehow! Most of the fighting is in the Great Cathedral but both the Angel compound and the Armoury are aflame. The Wiccans have brought bombs with them!”
“Schimrian and Pious will hold them to account in the Great Cathedral. The Brothers-Martial are there with them. Wiccans are few in number: they cannot win.”
“Yes, yes, Theo, but what about the rest of the Great Abbey? We are being overrun by these Ferals and the Unworthy and now the Tally-men have turned on us! See the blank monitor screens over there? The Wiccans are organised enough to be taking out all the cameras. Look, even the Redemption Cell cameras have failed. This is a major attack and we too are few in number!”
“There are only eight prisoners in the Redemption Cells and even if they manage to escape, they would not get far once we Redeem the Unworthy. so shall we join the fight, Brother Edward? The generator room can be left untended for a short while. Why are you hesitating? Remember, a coward dies a thousand deaths; a hero only one!”
“Tfui! You’re quoting Thomas Tythe at me!” Edward grumbled. “Come, we can get into the Great Annexe faster through the communications room.”
There was a rack of spears, one of many in the Great Abbey, by the door and, taking one each, the two Brothers left the room leaving the four children to breathe a huge collective sigh of relief as they warily emerged from under their desks.
“So the Tally-men are killing the Brothers?” Peter said. “Why are they turning on them? Are they remembering the torture?”
“No,” Surl said, shaking her head. “The Great Computer has taken control of them. Azrael commands them.”
“What? Who is this Azrael? I thought Schimrian was the evil one,” Rabbit said, checking her spare axes and knives. “Why is this Azrael killing the Fathers and Brothers?”
“Because he’s insane!” Surl said urgently. “We have to shut down the generators or the Light-Father and Mother Fern will die – Azrael will kill them both if we fail and Fierce….”
“And Fierce?” Peter demanded. “What about Fierce?”
“Oh, nothing,” Surl said, shaking her head. “Let’s go!”
Inside the power room were two massive diesel-powered generators with a bank of equipment to their left and large fuel tanks to their right. The air thrummed as the generators span, powering the whole complex. “Peter! See those engines? Fern is in my head telling me how they drive the electric generators!”
“What can we do, Surl?” Rabbit demanded, gazing around the huge room in awe. “Those Brothers will be back soon!”
Peter had climbed on some crates to peer out of the windows set high in the eastern wall, “I see Mother Veneris and Rosemary down there in the street. Their Ferals are fighting the Brothers and Fathers but things go badly for them. Mother Rosemary is down and Veneris… wait! The Tally-men have just stabbed a Father and all the Brothers in the back down there and no! Mother Veneris has a spear in her too! I think she’s dying!”
“Fern says there’s nothing we can do to save them!” Surl shouted heatedly. “We have to save the Light-Father and the others and shutting down these machines is the only way!”
“Yes, Mother Surl,” Peter said as he clambered down. “The Tally-men have run the Brothers through but…” he spluttered, wide-eyed with fear. “They are not… they are not …”
“Yes, the Father and Brothers are not dying. I can see this in my visions. I think Azrael is keeping them alive to serve him as slaves. Their fate is even worse than that of the Tally-men. But enough! We need to save the Light-Father and Mother Fern!”
“Let’s try this,” Peter said, picking up a heavy wrench He opened an inspection hatch on top of one of the generators and dropped it into the gearing housing of the diesel unit and jumped clear just in time as the gears jammed and metal fragments shot upwards through the hatch while others dented the casings. “One down, one to go!” he crowed and repeated the process with the second generator. The lights went out and blue emergency lamps flickered into life as the stricken machines tore themselves apart with one armature shaft shattering its bearings.
“Fern says we must destroy these devices!” Surl cried out, clutching her forehead. She took a large wrench and smashed the screens and control panels of the radio relays, generators and engines to fragments. “Rabbit? Where are you?” she yelled.
Rabbit emerged from behind the generators and beckoned for them to follow her. “I’ve found the ventilation duct,” she shouted above the bedlam, having yanked the grill off the duct opening. “Thank Sweet Mary this was loose – we can hide inside – ach! cobwebs!” she cursed as she crawled in.
Surl almost hurled Pup in after Rabbit and Peter then crawled in, pulling the grill into place. Mercifully, it stayed in position and she could observe a frantic Brother racing to the control panels to try in vain to shut the engines down which were now howling and belching smoke with their gearing loads removed.
“What do we do?” Peter demanded. “Can Mother Fern tell us where we need to go to be safe?”
“I can’t hear her in my mind anymore but I do remember this shaft from a vision. We have to climb in the dark and quickly too before the flames take hold. The fumes and heat will fill these ducts and kill us unless we reach the roof. Look, everyone, the vertical shaft at the end of this duct has handholds in it so keep climbing; just keep reaching the next one until we reach the roof. We must do this for the Light-Father!”
Suddenly the sound of a massive blast shook the duct. “What was that?” Pup shrieked. “Pup nearly wet himself.”
Surl groaned as she concentrated. “A bad thing and a good thing just happened. I think the Light-Father is safe now.”
In the gloom, the others accepted this without a word and so they crawled to the end of the duct where it joined many others at the base of a large vertical shaft with handholds set into it as she had predicted. Peter fished out a glow-stick and shook it violently to initiate the chemical reaction. He took a headband out of his pocket and with some difficulty because of his claw; he threaded the glow stick into the loops sewn into the head band. “I’ll go first,” he offered. “Don’t worry: the light will grow brighter as your eyes grow accustomed to the dark.”
And with that they climbed: something that was etched into their souls forever. Shouts, booms and clangs echoed past them and as they climbed, they began to feel hot and fumes made them feel dizzy. “Hurry,” Surl urged as she followed the others. “This shaft will become a chimney for the fire once it takes hold!”
“Agh! This is a problem, Surl,” Peter called down. “There is a huge fan set in the shaft: it will be difficult to climb through. Why is it set here and not on the roof like in the train sheds?”
“I don’t know why but we can make it. My visions say so!” Surl called back. She was sweating heavily and knew that she was lying but she was wise beyond her years: better false hope than none at all. “Just climb, Peter – they might have other generators and if the electrics are restored, those fan blades will slice us to bits!”
“Kack!” Peter cursed and thrust himself between the blades but he lost one of his knives which narrowly missed Pup as it banged and clattered into the darkness beneath them. “Hah! I’m through. Here, Pup, give me your hand! There’s a small ledge around the shaft above the fan and some more rungs.”
“Pup is scared,” Pup whimpered, too frightened to let go of the handholds. “The air is getting bad. I can’t breathe.”
Rabbit immediately grabbed the handholds beneath Pup’s midriff, hauled herself level with him and braced her feet. “There, Pup, now you can’t fall as I can catch you now. Now, reach up, that’s a good Pup, that’s a brave Pup!”
Trembling, Pup extended a hand. Peter grabbed him and heaved Pup up on the ledge but he cried out in pain as he did so as was hanging from a rung by his claw and the weight almost tore the leather sheath from his arm. His stump still had not healed and a trickle of blood oozed through the stitching. He made sure Pup had a good handhold and footing before he adjusted the straps, hissing with pain as he did so. “I can’t help you two,” he said. “I’m bleeding and my stump can’t take any more weight.”
“Pfft! I am Rabbit!” Rabbit declared. “I could hop to the top and never stop!” Nevertheless, it took her three attempts to clamber up past the blades and join Pup on the rungs. All the while the heat was increasing and an acrid white smoke was rising past them. “Come on, Surl, I can see a red glow down there!”
“Move out of the way, Peter,” Surl said as she wriggled past the blades, her sweaty hands scrabbling for a grip as the light from Peter’s glow-stick sent eerie shadows dancing about them. “Start climbing, all of you. We have but seconds to get out of here! Come on, Pup! Quick as you can!”
With Peter crying with pain at every rung, the last stage of their nightmare journey began as the air grew foul and hot about them. Rumblings and booms echoed up from below until Pup cried out: “I can see daylight up there!” and his pace increased.
The others caught up with him and were grateful for that light. “Come on, Pup, jump out!” Rabbit said, her voice hoarse with fear. “My lungs are burning! I want to get out of here!”
“There’s a cap on top of the duct,” Pup wailed. “It’s too narrow for Pup to squeeze through!”
“It must come off,” Peter said. “Otherwise, why have these ladder rungs in here to maintain the fan? Push up as hard as you can Pup. Rabbit, you hold on to him in case he slips.”
“The edge of the cap is bending, Peter, the metal is thin! I think Pup can wriggle through.”
“Be careful, there is a drop to the roof,” Surl warned after a violent cough. “Try and go feet first through the gap.”
“Pup is almost through…eep!”
“Pup? Are you alright?” Rabbit squeaked in panic.
“Unh!” Peter grunted as Rabbit’s foot slipped and he received her boot sole full in his face. “Kack! Rabbit!” he screamed. “I almost fell! I can’t put any weight on my claw!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Rabbit panted. “I am sweating so much, the rungs are slippery. Pup! Are you there?”
“I fell – it’s about six feet to the ground but I’m not hurt. You’ll have to make the gap bigger before you climb out but there are rungs on the outside as well.”
Rabbit heaved frantically and the rain cap twisted to one side so all three of them were soon lying on their backs on the slightly sloping lead roof of the generator block gulping in fresh air. There was a dull roar and tongues of flame burst from under the rain cap then the duct belched clouds of acrid, black smoke to join the pall from the fires now raging across the Great Abbey.
A huge explosion rocked the Angel compound as another rotorcraft exploded in one of the burning hangers. They could see debris flying high into the air including a rotor-blade that tumbled out of the sky to strike the dormitory building. “Why are you smiling, Surl?” Peter demanded. “We’re trapped up here and this building could explode any second.”
“No, it won’t,” she sighed, wiping the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. She wrinkled up her nose for it stank of burning diesel and plastic. “Diana lent a hand: that rotor-blade just saved Nightshade! Veneris and Rosemary are gone but the others are still fighting in the Great Cathedral. Let’s get away from these ducts and chimneys – hack! – the smoke is getting worse.”
She led the way up and over the roof of the Great Annexe that adjoined the generator block and out across the flat roof of the surgery units on the southern flank of the Great Annexe. She shuffled to the edge and the other joined her as more explosions raked the Angel compound to the south and the generator room below shaking the masonry beneath them. To their left was a tall, ugly grey block – one of two in the Great Abbey that housed the Tally-men. Before them was an ornate and Gothic building which was the luxurious residence of the elite Brothers and Fathers who serviced the Great Computer and beyond that were the walls and ornate houses of the Sister’s Enclave.
Smoke billowed from broken windows in every building.
“There are fires everywhere!” Peter cried out with glee. “Take the judgement of God upon thy pates, thou sinners!”
“I wish my parents were here to see this,” Pup said sadly, dangling his legs over the edge. “Look, more fireworks!” he cried out, pointing at a great ball of flame roaring skywards as the last of the Angel Fuel stores exploded. More explosions followed, this time behind them, as the last of the huge fuel tanks in the north-east of the Great-Abbey – sabotaged by Veneris and Rosemary as they fought their way south from the North Wall – exploded, sending shrapnel tiles and masonry high into the air.
The sun was sinking behind the black clouds forming to the south and west but in the distance beyond them, vast anvil-clouds rose snow-white and menacing. “Down there!” Pup squeaked, pointing. They could see the Apse of the Great Cathedral and emerging into the broad avenue of the Sister’s Processional, figures were running and regrouping by the Library. They saw the last of Veneris’ and Rosemary’s Ferals join them but a large group of Brothers emerged from the Apse and charged. “Look! The Light-Father’s hurt and so is Mother Fern!”
There was no mistaking their precious Light-Father and his red baseball cap, waving his sword and screaming at the Brothers while clutching his stomach. “Sweet Mary, save him,” Rabbit prayed anxiously. “Hoi! The Ferals are going berserk down there.”
“There are more Ferals coming up from the station,” Peter pointed out. There was no mistaking the long white hair of the albino Mother as she was half-carried by two Ferals. “I can see Mother Nightshade and she’s injured too!”
“So is Ivy,” Surl added. “This will be remembered as the Battle of the Great Abbey and we can’t get down from here to help them!”
“Can’t you guide us down?” Peter demanded hopefully. “You know: with you your visions?”
Surl wiped her nose with the back of her hand and showed the fresh blood to him. “No, I can’t. Fern told me that if I try to ‘see’ too much I will have a fit and die.”
“So we’re stuck here?” he demanded in horror.
“For a while,” she sighed as a death’s head moth fluttered in front of her face only to vanish again in a puff of dust.
“Look,” Rabbit exclaimed. “They are charging the Brothers again and driving them back. They’re winning!”
Surl drew up her knees and rested her chin on them. “No, they are not. The last of the Tally-men are there now and back under their control so the Brothers are driving them back. They have to retreat to the Phoenix or they will be massacred.”
“Bas! Bas!” Pup wailed. “Don’t leave Pup here!”
There was a flash as a pipe-bomb, hurled by Ivy, exploded amongst the Brothers allowing Fern and the others to flee in good order. Pup burst into tears as they vanished from sight as the Sister’s Enclave hid the station gates from view.
Surl put her arm about his shoulders as he sobbed. “Shhh, dear heart, we will be safe enough. There are ducts and sewer tunnels everywhere under the Great Abbey. Be brave because Fate and Mother Moss have this great destiny awaiting us. It will be such an adventure that we can write our own saga and we’ll call it The Tales of Pup the Mighty and his Catapult of Justice!”
“Hallelujah, you’ve stopped him crying,” Peter muttered, huddled up in misery. “Even if we ever get off this accursed roof, we’ll be knee deep in kack till we’re slaughtered like piglets. Some adventure! So what is this ‘great destiny’ of ours then?”
Surl turned to him and grinned: “Sabotage.”