Chapter 06: Duct Rats
Chapter 06 the City of Gargoyles – Second Book in the Light Father Trilogy
“Small stones create avalanches; small deeds victories” – Thomas Tythe
A death’s-head moth fluttered frantically in front of Surl’s face. She turned her head to follow it and beheld in time the Tally-man thrusting a knife at her. Years of relentless training by Mother Moss served her well as she leapt back and drew her machete. Amos and Saul had spent days honing the edge for her and she held it out in front of her as the two Tally-men with hideous leers upon their normally impassive faces just stood and stared at her as Peter, Fria and Pup formed up behind her, brandishing their weapons.
“Scatterlings,” one hissed malevolently. “More sweet innocent toys for me to play with.” Surl sensed that someone or some thing was speaking through this soulless creature. She could not bear to look at the eyes for more than a second as she sensed a powerful conciousness of absolute evil wanted to consume her body and soul.
The other turned to the prisoners they’d just released from the Redemption Cells in this corridor. They were naked but for soiled loin-cloths and weakened by weeks of relentless torture for the Order needed them to be broken and compliant but most of all conscious when they lobotomised them, driving the Guide wires into their remaining brain tissue. “I’ve had so much pleasure watching my acolytes play with these pathetic beings but now they’ve served their purpose as I serve mine.”
The four children watched in horror as he selected two of the prisoners and plunged his knife into their hearts. He licked the knife blade sensuously as they slumped lifeless to the floor. “Ah, I sense a craft user!” he gloated, grinning at Surl. “Such a rare delicacy but you must thank your precious Light-Father for your swift death. He approaches and I must be there to welcome him.”
As the two Tally-men began to advance, Surl kept Pup, Peter and Fria behind her as they retreated along the corridor. She was at a loss what to do for she’d had no vision of this but Pup didn’t hesitate: he fired his catapult and a heavy ball-bearing struck the Guide on the right temple of the nearest Tally-man. It emitted several bright sparks, causing him to twitch and arch his back. The second Tally-man received another ball-bearing upon the Guide set into his forehead and as they both began to spasm, the children launched themselves forward as one.
Almost without thought, Surl ducked under a poorly-aimed knife thrust and swung her machete at the first Tally-man, slicing through the backs of his knees. He collapsed to the floor, flailing vainly about with his knife. “He’s down! He’s down!” she exalted and struck again and again at the knife-arm as he tried to jab up at her from the floor. She saw that his face was emotionless with no trace of the demonic presence that had turned her innards to water so she was free to hack at him, a white-hot rage coursing through her veins as she remembered the pillow smothering her…
Peter had ducked under a jab from the second Tally-man but got too close and a powerful arm was clamped around his neck. He stabbed the Tally-man in the thighs repeatedly with the knife in his good hand but it was useless: the Tally-man had no pain receptors and raised his blade to strike but Rabbit attacked him from behind, leaving one of her axes embedded in his back. He flung Peter away and vainly attempted to reach the axe handle as Pup kept firing ball-bearings at his head.
“Rabbit!” Surl cried out as she circled her grounded foe, looking for another opening. “Cut through the wires!”
Rabbit leapt high into the air to rake her axe though the wires at the back of the skull. The results were spectacular: the huge Tally-man went into a fit and crashed to the ground. He writhed and gurgled then died as bloody foam sprayed from his mouth spattering Rabbit who shrieked in dismay.
Surl did the same to the first Tally-man with her machete and he too convulsed in a pool of his own blood before dying.
“Help us,” one of the prisoners gasped, clinging to the wall as he watched Rabbit wrench her axe free from the Tally-man’s back. “We cannot fight after all this torture. You have but few years but we beg you: use those weapons well and put us out of our misery otherwise they’ll make us monsters like them.”
Surl knew that these young men had been teenagers when the Plague struck yet they possessed a rare natural immunity. Mother Moss had told them at the Keep how female survivors were killed immediately yet male survivors were captured to serve the Order as mindless drones. “Don’t ask that of us,” she groaned in anguish. “We’ll come back for you, I promise!”
The man sagged to the floor in despair: “So be it, child, but promise me this: kill as many of them as you can. It may help us to endure the torture a little longer when we are captured again.”
“Go through there,” Surl urged, pointing at the door leading to the armoury. “We saw rations and water flasks in there. Take the robes and weapons, dress yourselves as Brothers and make your escape in the confusion.”
“Aye, we shall try,” the man agreed, forcing himself back to his feet. “We’re as weak as babes but we shall die as free men. Get up, all of you!” he commanded, his voice growing stronger. “We will avenge our families! Thank you,” he added as he herded the others down the corridor. “My name is Ken Glascae of Scotia, born of the fabled Aberlour Clan. What’s yours, child?”
“Surl!” she said proudly, drawing herself up to her full height. “I’m no child but a Scatterling of Crawcester. I see you all in my future for I am blessed with the gift of foresight!”
“Farewell then, Surl of Crawcester! We have no choice but to fulfil your prophecy!” he replied with a slight bow and with that, they staggered into the armoury, closing the door behind them.
“I’m fine, thank you for asking,” Peter grunted, retrieving his knife and getting to his feet. “Ouch. That hurt. Ow.”
“Oh, you’ll live,” Surl said sarcastically. She winced as bright, vivid images flooded into her mind and pain lanced from temple to temple almost driving her to her knees. She looked around in panic and saw another death’s-head moth fluttering at the door at the far end of the corridor. 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,” she moaned. “I miss you so much.”
She started at the sound of something smashing above her head. “Pup missed that camera earlier,” he explained.
“Well done, Pup,” she nodded, rubbing at her forehead as the pain subsided. “You must destroy every camera you see after we go through that door. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Surl,” Pup grinned, adjusting the two large bags of ball-bearings on his belt. “Pup likes breaking things!”
“Get ready,” she warned them as she turned the handle. “I’ve had no visions of what’s in there. We… what’s that noise?”
“Sounds like explosions and gunshots outside,” Peter said, tightening one of the leather straps on the small shield attached to his crippled forearm. “I can hear people screaming too.”
“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. “I think it’s what was in those Tally-men… a devil,” she gasped. “We have to stop the begiullers in the walls hurting Mother Fern and we have to find a way to stop the Tally-men getting their orders from the Great Computer.”
“How do you know this?” Peter demanded.
“I see it, I see it!” Surl hissed, tapping her right temple. “It hurts to use my craft but Mother Moss is guiding me.”
“Um, yes, Mother Moss,” Peter muttered, unconvinced. He recalled her wizened head kept in the tin at the Keep and shivered as he heard once more her cries of agony as Schimrian and his Brothers brutally tortured her. “I hope she really is watching over us,” he said, shaking himself free of the thrall. “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 sighed with relief. “The Brothers must’ve gone outside to join the fighting.”
“Go now!” Surl whispered urgently. “Let’s get to that far door and into the power room before they find us.”
As they crossed the room, Pup took out two wall-mounted cameras with his catapult. They had almost reached the power room door when Surl shushed them to be quiet and pulled them behind the last row of desks and told them to hide..
A split second later, the door crashed open and two flustered Brothers entered. One of them actually sat on the desk Pup was hiding under. “Brother Edward,” he panted, the fear making his voice tremble. “What in the name of God’s Holy Lamb possesses the Tally-men? They’re running everyone through with their spears all across the Great Abbey!”
“Wiccan devilry possesses them, Theo,” the other replied in a calm, bass voice. “I have no idea how they’ve done this but the accursed Mothers are responsible for this sacrilege. The Holy Father alone knows what they’ve destroyed with their explosives but it looks like they’ve targeted the fuel stores first.”
“We’ve all grown soft and complacent these last six years thinking all the Unworthy redeemed but fear not: Schimrian and Pious will defend the Great Cathedral. Wiccans are few in number: they cannot win.”
“Yes, yes, Theo, but what about the rest of the Great Abbey? We’re being overrun by their Ferals and now the Tally-men have turned on us! See those blank monitor screens over there? It defies all logic but these same few Wiccans have taken out most of our security cameras. Look, even the Redemption Cell cameras have failed. This is a well-planned attack.”
“Even if the Unworthy break free, they will not get far once we redeem these Harlots of Satan and their beast-children.”
“True, Theo, but I cannot hide here while our Brothers and Sisters are being slaughtered. We must join the Inquisition!”
“Abbot Camus will flay us alive if we leave our posts!”
Edward ran a hand through his coarse black hair in exasperation. “Hear me: they would have targeted the generators by now if that was their plan so why are you prevaricating? Remember: a coward dies a thousand deaths; a hero only one!”
“Gah! Now you’re quoting Thomas Tythe at me again!” Theo grumbled, curling his lip in disgust. “I will join you in this but don’t blame me if Pious personally redeems the pair of us.”
There were racks of spears and dart guns by every exit door throughout the Great Abbey and after arming themselves, the two Brothers left leaving the four children to breathe a huge collective sigh of relief as they cautiously emerged from under the desks.
“Tally-men killing Brothers!” Peter exclaimed gleefully. “Why are they doing this? Are they remembering the torture?”
“No,” Surl said, shaking her head. “The Great Computer has control of them. It’s how Azrael commands them.”
“What? Who is this Azrael? I thought Schimrian was the evil one,” Rabbit said, checking her axes and knives. “Why is this Azrael killing all the Fathers and Brothers?”
“Schimrian wanted an angel for a son but he created a demon that enjoys killing for the sake of it. It was in those Tally-men! We have to shut down the generators or this Azrael will kill the Light-Father and Mother Fern but Fierce….”
“But Fierce?” Peter echoed. “But Fierce what?”
“Oh, nothing,” Surl said quickly and opened the door.
The power room was dominated by two massive diesel-powered generators with a bank of equipment to their left and large fuel tanks to their right. The air stank of diesel oil and ozone as the concrete floor thrummed beneath their feet as the generators span, powering the whole complex. “Peter! See those engines?” Surl insisted, pointing at the twenty-foot high machines. “Mother Fern is in my head telling me they make all the lights and the computers work in the Great Abbey. We have to destroy them!”
“How can we stop these, Surl?” Rabbit asked, gazing around the huge room in fear and awe. “They’re gigantic: we’re only small children and those Brothers will be back soon!”
Peter had climbed on some crates to peer out of the windows set high in the eastern wall. “Mother Veneris and Rosemary are down there in the street,” he reported excitedly. “Their Ferals are fighting all the Brothers and Fathers! Ah! 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 – oh no! Mother Veneris has a spear in her too! Ah! Kack! She’s dying!”
“Mother Fern says there’s nothing we can do!” Surl shouted up at him. “We have to save the Light-Father and the others and shutting down these machines is the only way!”
“Yes, Mother Surl,” Peter said acidly as he clambered down. “The Tally-men have run the Father and Brothers through but…” he spluttered, wide-eyed with fear. “They are not… not…”
“Yes, they are not dying. I see this in my visions. Azrael is using a dark magic to keep them alive. Forget them! We must save the Light-Father and Mother Fern!”
“Then let’s try this,” Peter suggested, hefting 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 instantly with a deafening noise and metal fragments shot upwards through the open hatch while others slammed into the casings.
“One down, one to go!” he crowed and repeated the process with the second generator yielding the same result. The strip-lights went out and blue emergency lamps flickered into life as the stricken machines began to tear themselves apart with one armature shaft completely shattering its bearings.
“Fern says we must destroy these devices along the wall as well!” Surl cried out, clutching at her forehead. She gritted her teeth, grabbed a sledge-hammer from a tool-rack and smashed the screens and control panels for the generators so that the engines could not be shut down. There was a bank of power supply feeds and screens for the radio masts and satellite disks so she laid into these with all her strength until they were unrecognisable.
Panting from the exertion, she threw aside the sledgehammer and looked around the power room. Peter and Pup were breaking phones and screens on the two desks by the main doors but Rabbit was nowhere to be seen. Her heart leapt with fear: “Rabbit? Where are you?” she yelled though her cupped hands.
Rabbit emerged from behind one of the stricken generators and beckoned for them to join her. “We can’t go through the doors so I’ve opened up this ventilation duct I found,” she explained. “It’s wide enough for us crawl through so follow me – ugh! Kack! It’s full of cobwebs!” she cursed as she crawled in.
Surl remembered this from a vision and blessed Rabbit’s good sense and instincts: they could not possibly escape any other way. Whatever door they tried, she foresaw their capture and death.
She almost hurled Pup in after Rabbit and Peter then she followed them in, pulling the grill back into place. Mercifully, it stayed in position and through it she could glimpse Brother Theo racing to the shattered control panels and frantically trying to shut down the huge engines as they screamed and belched smoke with their gearing loads removed and tearing at their mountings.
“What do we do now?” Peter demanded of Surl. “Can Mother Fern tell us where we need to go to be safe?”
“I can’t hear her in my mind but I know this duct joins a vertical shaft a little further on with rungs that will take us to the roof. We have to climb up there before the flames reach the fuel tanks otherwise the heat and fumes will kill us.”
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 and Mother Fern and the others will be able to escape now that Azrael’s dead!”
In the gloom, the others accepted this without a word as they crawled along the duct, feeling their way by touch as the feeble blue light filtering through the grill faded. Here it joined many others at the base of the large vertical shaft that she had foreseen.
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 take the lead,” he offered. “Just follow my light and don’t let go of the rungs!”
The following minutes were etched into their souls forever. A cacophony of shouts, screams, booms and clangs echoed past them as they climbed. They began to feel hot and already the fumes from the stricken diesel engines were making them nauseous. “Hurry,” Surl urged as she followed the others. “This shaft will become a chimney for the fire once it takes hold!”
“We have a problem, Surl,” Peter called down. “There’s a fan set into the shaft: it’s going to be difficult to climb through. Why is it here and not on the roof like in the train sheds?”
“I know not. We can make it: my visions say so!” Surl replied. She was sweating heavily and knew that she was lying but she was also wise beyond her years: better a false hope than none at all as Mother Moss had toll her. “Just climb through it, Peter. If the electrics come back, the fan blades will slice us to bits!”
Peter cursed and thrust himself between the blades but he lost one of his knives as the hilt snagged and it was dragged out of its sheath. It narrowly missed Pup as it banged and clattered down into the darkness beneath them. “Hah! I’m through,” he gasped. “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 his handholds. “The air’s bad. I can’t breathe properly!”
Rabbit immediately grabbed the rung beneath Pup’s midriff, hauled herself level with him and braced her feet. “There, Pup, now you cannot 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 heaved him up onto 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,” he admitted reluctantly. “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 through the blades and join Pup on the rungs. Wisps of acrid white smoke began to rise past them.
“Hurry, Surl!” Peter fretted. “There’s a red glow down there!”
“Then move out of the way!” Surl snapped as she wriggled past the blades, her sweaty hands scrabbling for a grip as the light from the glow-stick sent vast eerie shadows dancing about them. “Start climbing again, 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. Rumbles and booms echoed up from below until Pup cried out: “Pup can see daylight up there!” and his pace increased.
The others caught up with him and were eternally thankful for that pale light. “Pup! Jump out!” Rabbit cried out, 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 get 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 very thin! Pup thinks he can squeeze through now.”
“Be careful, Pup, there’s a drop onto the roof,” Surl warned after a violent cough. “Try and go feet first through the gap.”
“Pup’s almost through… eep!”
“Pup? Are you alright?” Rabbit screamed in panic.
“Unh!” Peter grunted as her 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’m sweating so much, the rungs are slippery. Pup? Are you there?”
“Pup fell – it’s about six feet to the ground but Pup’s 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 sloping lead roof of the generator block gulping in lungfuls of fresh air. There was a dull roar and tongues of flame erupted from under the rain cap then the duct disgorged clouds of toxic black smoke to join the pall from the fires now raging across the Great Abbey.
A gigantic gout of flame erupted from the Angel compound to their south as a rotorcraft exploded inside a blazing hanger. Debris flew high into the air including a rotor-blade that tumbled out of the sky to strike the dormitory of the Brothers-Technician.
“Why are you smiling, Surl?” Peter asked. “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 the air now reeked of burning heavy fuel and plastic. “That rotor-blade just saved Ivy and 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! – this smoke is making me feel sick.”
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 on her bottom to the edge and the others joined her as more titanic detonations raked the Angel compound shaking the masonry beneath them. To their left was a tall, ugly grey accommodation block – one of two in the Great Abbey that housed the Tally-men. Before them was the ornate, Gothic building which was the luxurious residence of the elite Brothers and Fathers who serviced the Great Computer and the Conclave’s favoured Brothers-Surgeon and Fathers-Surgeon. Beyond were the walls and the plain white-washed buildings of the Sisters’ Enclave.
Smoke billowed from broken windows in every building.
“There are fires everywhere!” Peter cackled with delight. “Hoi! Take the judgement of God upon thy pates, thou sinners!”
“I wish Mother Moss was here to see this,” Pup sighed sadly, dangling his legs over the edge. “More fireworks!” he exclaimed, pointing at a great ball of flame billowing skywards as the last of the Angel fuel stores exploded. More followed, this time behind them, as the last of the fuel reserves for the Order vehicles in the north-east of the Great Abbey erupted, sending shrapnel, tiles and masonry spiralling high into the air.
The sun was sinking behind the black clouds forming to the south and west but in the distance beyond them, anvil-clouds rose snow-white and menacing into the stratosphere. “Down there!” Pup squeaked, pointing. They could see the Apse of the Great Cathedral and emerging into the broad avenue of the Sisters’ Processional were figures running and regrouping by the Library. They saw the last of Veneris’ and Rosemary’s Ferals join them but then 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 defiance at the Brothers while clutching at his stomach. “Sweet Mary, save him,” Rabbit prayed anxiously. “Ah, the Ferals are going berserk!”
“There are more Ferals coming up from the station!” Peter said excitedly. There was no mistaking the long white hair of the albino Mother as she was half-carried by two of her Ferals. “That’s Mother Nightshade and she’s injured too!”
“So is Mother Ivy,” Surl added. “This will be remembered as the Battle of the Great Abbey yet we can’t help them.”
“Can’t you guide us down?” Peter demanded hopefully. “You know: with your visions?”
Surl wiped her nose with the back of her hand and showed the fresh blood to him. “No, I can’t. Mother Fern told me that if I try to ‘see’ any more I could have a fit and die.”
“Oh? So we’re stuck here?” he gasped in horror.
“For a while,” she admitted as a death’s head moth fluttered in front of her face only to vanish in a puff of dust. “Trust me.”
“Look!” Rabbit shouted. “They’re charging the Brothers again and driving them back. They’re winning!”
Surl drew up her knees and rested her chin on them. “No, they’re not,” she said, grimacing with pain. “More Brothers are coming and they have begiullers! They have to retreat to the Phoenix now or they’ll all be massacred.”
“Bas! Bas!” Pup wailed. “Please come back for Pup!”
There were flashes as pipe-bombs, hurled by Ivy, exploded amongst the Brothers allowing Fern and the others to flee in good order towards the station gates. Pup burst into tears as they were lost to view behind the drab walls of the Sisters’ Enclave.
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 beneath the Great Abbey where we can hide. Be brave because Fate and Mother Moss have this great destiny awaiting all of us. It will be such an adventure that we can write our own saga one day and we’ll call it The Tales of Pup the Mighty and his Catapult of Justice!”
“Hallelujah, you 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’s this ‘great destiny’ of ours then?”
Surl turned to him and grinned: “Sabotage.”
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell – no copying or transmission permitted without written authorisation – copyright protected