Chapter 07: Schimrian
Chapter 07 of the City of Gargoyles: the second book of the Light-Father trilogy.
“You wanted to see me, Eminence,” Abbot Camus said wearily as he entered the Great-Abbot’s extensive Gothic chambers on the top floor of the Great Manse. Columns supported the ribbed vault roof twelve yards above their heads and the shuttered windows and the door were set into pointed arches. There had been a ceiling in here and an attic above but Schimrian had them removed to expose the carved angels set at the base of the diagonal ribs who gazed down upon him as he sat at his imposing mahogany desk.
He was dressed in his immaculate formal vestments but Camus noted that he was also wearing a complex, gold-embroidered dalmatic with the emblem of the Order dominating the chest: the cross in lieu of the rod of Asclepius and coiled about by the two Hippocratic snakes of healing. He knew that the Great-Abbott had taken to wearing the dalmatic constantly since his temporary bout of dementia but for some reason Camus found that it made Schimrian seem even more menacing and capricious. ‘How is that possible?’ said a small voice in his head. ‘He created this dystopia.’ Another voice chimed in, mocking: ‘Try not to soil yourself!’
There were candles burning in various recesses and on the desk but the far corners of the chambers were lost in deep and dancing shadows. The storm raged above the Great Abbey and Camus felt his heart sink as he thought of all the havoc the pounding rain was wreaking on the fire-damaged buildings. The Great-Abbot was still reading some papers and hadn’t acknowledged his presence. “I have much to do, as you know, Eminence,” he prompted, wringing his hands. “With so few able souls to assist me.”
Schimrian sighed theatrically, placing his papers into a folder then he poured some brandy into two large glasses. “Please be seated, my son,” he said quietly, indicating the chairs in front of his enormous mahogany desk. “We have much to discuss.”
Camus swallowed nervously as he sat down. The chairs in front of the desk were deliberately lower than Schimrian’s so that the interviewees felt like naughty schoolchildren called before a stern headmaster. He knew the psychology of it but it was still effective only more so in his case. It had been difficult with Schimrian ranting and raging constantly for two weeks after being dragged half-alive from Azrael’s machine in the Great Annex. His friend, Abbot Michael, had not been so lucky and the mere thought of what had emerged from that device made the bile rise dangerously in his throat. He blinked and realised that Schimrian was staring at him with a hand raised above the desk.
“Oh! Forgive my disrespect, Eminence!” he flustered and rose to kiss the Great-Abbot’s proffered ring of office. He sat back down heavily. “I-I must apologise for wearing overalls and being oil-stained and unkempt in your presence, Eminence, but I can’t work on machinery in my vestments or even my field-robes…”
“Peace, my son,” Schimrian insisted, raising a hand to silence him. “Your work-attire speaks eloquently of your selfless efforts to restore our Order. I could hardly expect you to strip engines with a mitre upon your head and a crozier in your hand.” He slid a glass of brandy across the desk towards Camus. “Please, enjoy this token of my esteem. We have a thousand bottles from the revered vintners of Provence-Ardechia and such exquisite brandy is best savoured in virtuous and blessed company is it not?” He swirled the liquor in his glass, holding it up to the candle-light. “Such colour, such aroma,” he sighed before downing it in a single gulp. “Ah, such divine fire to the belly and such holy warmth in one’s veins.”
Camus cautiously sipped at the brandy before placing the glass on the desk. Schimrian had terrified him to the core before the attack but after two weeks of vitriol and garbled pronouncements in the near empty Great Cathedral, this sudden calmness was unnerving as he had never received praise or such familiar compassion from the Great-Abbot in all his years of service.
He glanced over at Schimrian’s computer-desk and was shocked to see that all three consoles and their screens had been systematically smashed to pieces. He quickly turned his attention back to Schimrian who had steepled his delicate, long fingers and had a smile on his face that made his blood run cold.
“To business, my son: we are three weeks on since the death of my precious Azrael and yet not one Abbey Angel is functional. I would welcome some good news, my son, for this is our darkest hour: our Redemption Cells are almost empty, all our scientists are dead and Revelation slips ever further from us as we speak. Is our New Jerusalem but a fool’s dream, hmm?”
“N-no, Eminence,” Camus stuttered. “I-it is not.”
“Ah, good,” Schimrian nodded, the smile broadening. “You are my last trusted scion of machinery and circuitry so forgive me if I test your faith and patience at times. You are a role model to our postulates and novices as well as the more… naïve Brothers and thus you are held in high regard amongst them.”
Camus recognised the danger he was in immediately. “Y-you have no need to test my faith or my loyalty, Eminence, but how can I repair buildings, computers, radios, Angels, communications, generators with only twenty Fathers and Brothers skilled in such arts? While you were, um, indisposed, parts went missing, equipment failed for no good reason and untended buildings constantly caught fire: the Great Abbey is dying, Eminence. I have been without sleep for days!”
“Calm thyself, my son. As you see: I am now of calmer mien myself.” Schimrian paused to refill his glass. “I know what stalks your dreams: phantoms, ghosts, will o’ the wisps of a guilty soul. Your Brothers inform me of your nightmares but still thy fears: I am conscious of the impossible burden placed upon you.”
“Then call in more survivors from Britannia and Europe to staff the Great Abbey and help me… I cannot do more: the damage done by the Ferals and Wiccans to the hangars is too extensive…”
“Yet, as we have explored in depth, you let two Mothers escape when you had them both at your mercy.”
“We had but one begiuller wielded by Brother Althayne,” Camus protested. “If my Brothers had firearms, we would not have lost all but two of our Angels. Althayne was cruelly struck down by a rotor blade and the Mothers I had at my mercy were freed: they wielded their arcane arts and then their Ferals tore my technicians apart. That albino Harlot got into my mind and forced me to shoot yet more of my Brothers and had she not lost count of the bullets, she would have had me shoot myself!”
“Yes, yes, my son, their foul craft is indeed powerful; vexing to the mind; tortuous to the soul.” Schimrian paused to sip yet more brandy that was bringing colour to the high, pale cheeks of the most powerful man on the planet. “I myself was bewitched in Crawcester as I redeemed an ancient Hag so I lay no blame at your feet, my son. I merely broach the subject as we have just received word that those same three Wiccans we let slip may have just slaughtered Father Beorcraft and all his Brothers.”
“How?” Camus gasped, wide-eyed. “Father Ursaf was aiding them, was he not? I understood he’d taken two Angels from Bede to support Beorcraft in the search for the…. um, Naked One and those Unworthy prisoners he set free.”
“Bede serves us well, my son, but Father Ursaf reports that the hamlet of Wealthorpe is strewn with the corpses of our Brethren and Tally-men. He suggests a sortie came ashore in a boat and ambushed them as they were engaging the Unworthy.”
“Ah, so Father Ursaf and his Angels were not at Wealthorpe when Beorcraft was attacked?”
“He was not. He has now fled north to land and wait out this storm but he claims he was bewitched into thinking the refugees were hiding in an isolated farmstead to the east of Wealthorpe. He was certain he was right and Beorcraft was wrong so, once again, the sin of arrogance has thwarted our most holy ambitions. Ursaf shall feel my wrath, my son, of that you can be certain.”
“Was the Light-Father there, Eminence?”
“He is confident that he killed the Unworthy who were hiding in the cottages but due to his cowardice he would not set down close to the hamlet to verify matters before the storm was upon him. We must therefore assume the Light-Father and his witches were indeed at Wealthorpe and both Beorcraft and Ursaf have failed us in every respect. What stratagems can your agile mind devise to rid me of this troublesome creature, hmm?”
“A boat indicates that the Unworthy must reside in Milverburg, Eminence, or in one of the towns on the southern banks of the Milverbore. If I were them, I would choose Milverburg: the place has ten levels; each one a town; each one a maze.”
Schimrian curled his lips in disgust: “Pah! Milverburg was ever a Gomorrah of merchant excess and debauchery but I concur, my son, this vile city must indeed be their refuge. We therefore need all our remaining Angels to land upon Uppermost at the same time as three forces of our Brothers-Martial advance along the viaducts.”
“I agree, Eminence, but our boats must take to the Milverbore as well to sink any vessel that flees Inquisition as the Angels could be grounded by poor weather or poor visibility.”
“Excellent thinking, my son! I know you’re exhausted but I want you to co-ordinate the ships and Angels to form a blockade of Milverburg. However, we must first redeem the Naked One before he reaches this Light-Father – do you not agree?”
“Aye, Eminence. I agree,” Camus nodded, licking his dry lips. “He knows the Order well and was unparalleled in circuitry and computers. His knowledge of our systems run deep. He could do us far more harm than the treachery of Brother Kai. He…”
Camus paused as he became aware of movement in the shadows then a familiar figure stepped into the candlelight. The face was corpse-white but the livid scar upon it was blood-red as were the eyes. Like Camus, he wore black overalls set with the small silver emblem of the Order which only the Abbots could bear on their vestments and working clothes. He had a sword strapped to his belt and a heavy calibre machine-gun slung over his shoulder.
There was a sharp wheezing intake of air into lungs no longer needed for the earthly requirements of breathing but for speech delivered in a voice as cold and as merciless as the grave: “I seek the honour of redeeming the Naked One, Eminence.”
“Ah, Pious, you provide me with solace,” Schimrian smiled indulgently. “You are my staff and my shield in these trying times. It’s a pity you cannot savour this excellent brandy but the Lord fashioned you thus to carry on His mighty works.”
“If I m-may be excused, Eminence,” Camus stuttered, getting to his feet. “The two Angels that landed on the roof of the Brothers’ dormitory during the desecration of the Great Cathedral are beyond repair after the roof collapsed but we may be able to salvage two of the Angels in the compound. I w-will resume working on them and inform you when I’ve completed the repairs.”
“Not yet, my son; stay seated,” Schimrian insisted and Camus flopped back down. “We still have much to discuss.”
“What of the Naked One?” Pious whispered hungrily. “I wish to set forth and redeem him immediately.”
“All in good time, my old friend, all in good time.” Schimrian smiled again at his old protégé. “Please, lay aside your weapons and lend us your wisdom.”
Asthmatic hissing issued from the Abbot’s dry lungs as he bent over the desk to kiss the seal on the Great-Abbot’s ring. Camus could not bear to look at Pious’s face but gazed instead at his white hands where the veins were black for no heartbeat sounded within those creaking ribs. How could he move? How was he possessed of the strength of ten men? Everything about the man was unholy yet here he sat with the eager, predatory smile of the Pious of old and with the full unquestioning support of the Great-Abbot.
“Camus is more than capable of this task, Eminence,” Pious approved. “However, I crave your indulgence. After I hunt down the Naked One, I wish to lead the ground assault on this Babylon; this poisonous canker in the midst of our most Holy Britannia. We shall raze this affront to Heaven in our wrath and let the Milverbore reclaim the smoking ruins. Will you join us, Eminence, in our most holy assault on this last redoubt of the Unworthy?”
Schimrian’s smile faded quickly as if a switch had been thrown and he ran a hand through his thinning hair, subconsciously feeling for the protrusions left after the machine had reformed his shattered skull and restarted his heart. “You know I cannot leave the Great Abbey untended, my friend, and none other is worthy enough to sit on my throne. None! Camus would have me flood the Abbey with Abbots and Fathers when I must first interview them to determine who is worthy of my trust and who is not.”
“As you wish, Eminence, but you ask too much of poor Camus here,” Pious smiled, placing a hand on the Abbot’s shoulder making him shudder for it felt as hard and as cold as marble even through the thick fabric of his overalls. “He was beset by so many problems that we suspected Unworthy spies were amongst us but we searched in vain. It is a pity that the others altered like me did not stir again after Azrael perished but such is the Will of God. I am thrice blessed to be allowed to continue His great work.”
“Yes, so many dead,” Schimrian grimaced, steepling his fingers again. “With so few left to bury them, the corpses were putrefying. I am eternally grateful that you took charge, old friend, and saw to the burials and cremations with such efficiency.”
“The postulates and novices just needed motivation, Eminence, so when a postulate defied me at the Library shortly after the attack, I buried him alive to set an example to the others.”
Camus shook his head slowly. “You l-left the boy in that coffin for three hours before you exhumed him! He is of no use to anyone and soils his bed constantly. With so many Sisters killed, there are too few to tend the greenhouses and see to our laundry. In fact, this tempest above us is destroying the few remaining greenhouses we have left. Food rots on the vine and we have to work in these stained and unclean garments.”
“Nevertheless,” Schimrian said icily, his eyes narrowing. “This one cruel example did mean the cremations and burials were all completed by this morning. As for the dead Sisters, I mourn their loss but there remain three dozen healthy Eves: more than enough to restore our Twelve Tribes in the centuries to come. Now that all our dead Fathers, Brothers and Sisters are finally at rest, rejoice for God has restored my clarity of thought and my purpose.”
“Hallelujah,” Pious rasped. “I so wearied of holes being dug and corpses being burnt. Camus, however, has a point: we must allow more Brothers and Fathers in here as soon as possible before your throne sits amidst nothing but a rain-swept ruin.”
“Not yet!” Schimrian shouted, slamming his hand down upon the desk. “This will happen on my terms. Some Brothers and Fathers will be loyal to Abbots whose own loyalties lie with their Tribes while still others answer only to the Conclave. In this darkest hour, I must be certain of their veracity!”
“What say you, Camus?” Pious wheezed.
Camus knew they were toying with him and despaired but out loud he said: “It has to happen quickly. Maybe the Brothers-Technician at Norton can help us as I know they’re loyal to you, Eminence. We need more Brothers well-versed in electrics and mechanics to repair our satellite communications, computers and generators. We are salvaging parts from nearby towns and villages as well as the Southern Cities but at this rate it will be months before I can restore electrics across all the buildings here let alone salvage spare parts from the wrecked Angels. We also need more aviation fuel or they will be grounded anyway.”
“In truth, my son, it is all most frustrating,” Schimrian said, indicating the smashed computer equipment. “All our devices are useless and we are almost blind and deaf to what is happening across the globe.” He paused to delicately open a Bible at a marked page. “It is at times like these that the dialogues of Job aptly remind us of our need for humility: God does not trust his heavenly servants; he finds fault even with his angels. Do you think He will trust a creature of clay, a thing of dust that can be crushed like a moth? We may be alive in the morning, but die unnoticed before evening comes. All that we have is taken away from us; we die, still lacking wisdom.”
“Forgive my ignorance in these matters, Eminence,” Camus ventured, wiping the nervous sweat from his brow with a rag. “But what relevance has this quote to our crisis?”
“It contains a profound warning about how all things are transient even with the blessings of our forefathers, my son,” Schimrian said with a thin smile, his eyes alive with manic fervour. “Like my loyal Bucheort, tormented and crucified in Crawcester by those vile harpies, we are but frail and fallible creatures in the eyes of Our Lord God and his Hosts.”
Camus immediately thought of Azrael as the ultimate golem; a satanic creature of clay according to Michael who had described the events in the Great Annex to several novices who then spread the details to those they trusted in the Great Abbey. A small but suicidal voice in mind urged him to put this theory to the Great-Abbott but he could see that the irony would be completely lost on Schimrian and Pious. He recalled a phrase from an unknown Slavic author: when caught between two hungry wolves, do not put on a fleece and bleat. “This I see, Eminence,” he said carefully. “But I beseech you: enlighten me as to its significance.”
“The Lord guided me to these Holy words because for weeks, death’s head moths had tormented me day and night until I recovered my wits through the wisdom and patience of Job. The epiphany is clear, my son: we must restore ourselves in the eyes of God; we must Inquire of Milverburg; we must redeem these Harlots of Satan; we must crush this emissary of Lucifer; this so-called Light-Father!” he seethed, banging his fist on his desk in emphasis: “You will both lead the Last True Inquisition and make of this task a new scripture to be revered for millennia yet to come!”
Pious grinned, drawing his sword from its scabbard as peals of thunder shook dust from the masonry far above their heads. “I promise you, Eminence, your Inquisition shall be glorious.”
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell