Chapter 09: Small Shadows
Chapter 09 of the City of Gargoyles, the second book of the Light-Father trilogy. Trapped in the Great Abbey, the youngest of the Scatterlings turn to Surl and her growing gift of prescience to save them but she can’t foresee everything as it comes at a price.
“What do you mean by sabotage?” Peter demanded as he revelled in the carnage taking place all across the Great Abbey. “How can four ‘kids’, as the Light-Father calls us, take on hundreds of Brothers and Fathers?”
Surl smiled as Pup ran in little circles behind them shouting “Pup the Mighty!” with excitement at each blast and gout of flame. “Not hundreds now, Peter, and most of the Tally-men are dead. We have to finish what the Light-Father started!”
“Pah! You really do sound like the Eldest,” he grimaced. “All I want to know is will this gift of yours protect us? Hoi! Look over there,” he urged, pointing at the southern horizon. “The sun is going down and more big storms are coming this way. We can’t stay up here all night in the lightning and the rain.”
“He’s right,” Rabbit agreed. “Seeing the sun again today was wonderful but I can smell the lightning on the breeze. What shall we do now, Surl? Where can we hide?”
Surl pursed her lips and pointed downwards. “There are endless tunnels and sewers under the Great Abbey. Because there are so few Brothers left alive down there, I think we can stop them repairing their Angels and their machines until we find a way to escape to Milverburg and find the others.”
“Milverburg?” Peter exclaimed. “Is that where your visions say the Light-Father will be waiting for us? That city in the estuary with statues and all those dried corpses on the platforms?”
Surl hissed in pain and pressed a hand to her forehead. “Yes, yes. I see them waiting for us in a beautiful golden tower but all about them is dark. Ah, it hurts when I try to see too much! We will get to Milverburg but not right away.”
Rabbit peered over the edge of the roof again. “Hoi! We could climb down the outside of this building using the pipe-work but Peter can’t climb as his stump’s injured. We’ll have to find another way down.” She turned to look at Surl as a thought struck her: “Can you see if Schimrian is still alive or did the Light-Father kill him? Huh? Why are you shaking your head?”
“Something worse than Schimrian was down there waiting for him,” Surl choked and shuddered. “Schimrian created a monster called Azrael; a fallen angel full of madness and evil. Azrael made the Tally-men kill all those Brothers and Sisters because it amused him. He stabbed the Light-Father and killed many thousands of them all across the world before he was killed but I think Schimrian is still alive down there in that machine.”
“Why can’t we just escape now?” Rabbit insisted fearfully. “Why do we have to stay here when Mother Fern and the Light-Father failed to destroy this place?”
“They did not fail! The Angel of Hell is gone,” Surl retorted, the tears coursing suddenly down her cheeks. “But Fierce died in that explosion down there… I saw it… she had plasma grenades inside her Honey Bear and blew herself up to save us all… and Mother Moss knew! She knew that Fierce was the only one who could kill Azrael otherwise he would have destroyed everything!”
“No, you’re wrong!” Pup wailed, wrapping his arms around her. “Mother Moss loved Fierce! Surl cannot be right! Use your magic to bring Fierce back! Please!”
Surl’s shoulders sagged as she wiped at her eyes again. “I would if I could, dear heart, but I’m not a Wiccan like Mother Fern. I have so few years and I’m scared too but my visions say we must stop them repairing their rotorcraft and the generators. I-I-I am not sure,” she groaned, rubbing her forehead. “But if we flee now, the Order will kill us all in Milverburg by landing those Angels in the city and blocking the docks and the railways. Ah! Ah! I cannot see any more – it hurts, it hurts!”
Rabbit embraced Surl and comforted her as the four frightened Scatterlings huddled together. Acrid smoke drifted past them and scattered drops of heavy rain began to fall from the darkening skies above. A train whistle blew defiantly in the distance as the Phoenix, the locomotive that had brought them here, reversed westwards on the railway line that ran through the Great Abbey separating the Angel Compound from the rest of the site.
“No! They can’t leave us here!” Rabbit sobbed.
“They can and they must,” Surl said grimly, pointing down at the surviving Brothers and Sisters racing to and fro across the sweeping expanse of the Sisters’ Processional. “The Battle of the Great Abbey is over.”
“What about the rest of the Ferals?”
“Most of them perished,” Surl said, wiping at her tears again. “Sweet Mary, Rabbit, they fought so bravely but so few of them survived! Thirty or forty I think. Oh, and Mother Veneris and Mother Rosemary are dead as well.”
Rabbit put her hands on her hips. “We have to mourn them later,” she urged decisively. “If any of those Brothers look up here, they’ll see us. Hah! If Surl’s visions can’t find us a way down then leave it to Rabbit to find us a warren!”
She pointed to the roof of the Great Cathedral and the tall bell-tower at its south-east corner. “Look, there’s a door and there must be stairs in there we can use to get down to the ground. There can’t be any Brothers inside when there’s been fighting and so many fires are burning everywhere.”
Surl nodded wearily. “Yes, but we need to be careful because the ledges are exposed. We could be seen if anybody looks up at the roof. Well then, Rabbit, lead the way.”
The ledge was indeed narrow and slippery with mould and mildew with a sheer drop to their left. They resorted to crawling as Peter wondered why the architects of this huge structure had given so little thought to the safety of the workers who maintained the roof. A rising wind tugged at them and Pup whimpered in terror for the full ten minutes it took them to reach the door which was mercifully unlocked. Shuddering with fatigue, they entered the musty and brooding silence of the belfry.
Pup shrieked at skittering noises above them in the rafters and shadows fluttered past their faces in the dark. “Ugh, bats,” he shuddered, waving his arms above his head to ward off the whirring wings. “Ugh! Pup can hear them talking to each other in those nasty little squeaks of theirs.”
“It’s how they see,” Rabbit explained. “I read it in a book back at the Keep. They make those sounds to detect objects in the dark. Their huge ears hear the echoes so they never crash into anything. It must be hell for them when this bell rings!” she smiled, reaching out a hand to touch the rim of the thirty-ton brass goliath.
“Ignore them, Pup, they’re a nuisance but they can’t hurt you,” Peter said, crossing to the ladder and peering down into the gloom of the stairwells below. “This leads onto the stairs. Follow me, but be careful,” he warned, clambering onto the ladder. “The rungs are very narrow. There’s not much light down here and this glow-stick is almost done.”
With their hearts in their mouths, they gingerly descended the hollow tower using the flights of steps set against the walls. There were no safety railings and feeble daylight streaming through the small arched windows merely made the sense of vertigo worse until Pup had to stop to pee as he was so frightened. He then lay upon the cold stone steps, his face pressed against the wall and his eyes screwed shut. He was trembling and whimpering for a mother he had never seen and a family he had never known.
Rabbit instinctively knelt beside him and kissed him on his sweat-soaked forehead. “She would think Pup is a brave Pup,” she crooned, copying his way of speaking in the third person. “She would want Pup to be strong because inside his little body beats a warrior’s heart. She would want Pup to get up and fight.”
Pup stared for a long while into Rabbit’s large, dark brown eyes and relaxed. He put a hand up and ran his fingers through her unkempt auburn mane. “Would she really tell Pup that? Pup has had dreams about her – she has no face but she sings Pup a lullaby,” he murmured: “Let the angels fill your dreams with cakes and queens and magic beans…”
“Enough, Pup,” Rabbit coaxed gently and hauled him to his feet. “We are near the bottom now. Just keep a hand on the wall and don’t look down. Just keep moving and keep your eyes on me. That’s it. Good Pup. We’ll soon be on the ground.”
“Yes, where all those angry Fathers and Brothers are running around,” Peter grumbled. “I just hope the fires keep them busy.”
Surl sat down suddenly so that he almost tripped over her. “Saint Paul, Surl!” he exploded. “I almost fell!”
“Shhh! Hide the glow-stick and lie flat on the stairs!”
Such was the tone of urgency in her voice that they obeyed instantly. A second later, the tower door immediately beneath them opened and two Brothers, clutching spears, entered and gazed up into the darkness of the tower above them. “Makes me nauseous to look up at that bell,” one grumbled. “There’s no accursed Unworthy in here! They all fled on that damned train they hid in the woods to the west of the station.”
“Nevertheless, Father Leored insists we search everywhere for stragglers,” the other shrugged, shining a strong torch upwards to illuminate the beams of the belfry far above them. “With the Annexe destroyed and Schimrian dead, we’re vulnerable to another attack. All our radios are dead, don’t forget.”
“Tchah! I’m glad that lunatic is dead. I pray we can elect a new Great-Abbot that has a little more vision and a little less insanity.”
“Watch your tongue, Brother Cyrus, they may resurrect him yet: he was in that satanic machine and that survived the blast.”
“Verily I say unto you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
“Enough quotes! Come; let us move on to search the other towers before darkness falls. Remember, all the electrics have failed so we’ll have to make do with candles and torches.”
“Then throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“By Saint Peter’s beard, Cyrus, will you stop quoting the Scriptures at me? We could run into the Unworthy at any moment – it’s an ill time for attempts at levity.”
“As you wish, Brother Luke,” Cyrus laughed. “But the cowardly shall have their part in the lake which doth burn with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
“No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil; full of deadly poison,” Luke retorted in disgust and slammed the door behind them leaving the children able to draw breath. What little daylight eking through the small windows was fading as Peter ran swiftly down the remaining stairs, knife in hand to open the door a crack. The other three gathered behind him anxiously.
“There’s nobody around but there’s a lot of thick smoke out there. It’ll hide us but where do we go, Surl? If we can’t find a way into those tunnels we’re finished!”
“Stop being a worry-wart,” Rabbit chided “There’s a sewer access over there next to the wall of the Great Annex.”
“How would you know that?” Peter asked sharply.
“Huh! Mother Moss always taught us all to use our eyes and see everything,” Rabbit said loftily. “When we were on the roof I looked for manhole covers and there it was. The sewers won’t run under big heavy buildings like the Cathedral but I think Surl is right: there must be lots of places to hide down there.”
“Hallelujah, Mother Mary, we get to swim in kack or we get killed,” he groaned. “So it’s the kack for us. Come on; let’s run while this wretched smoke stays on the ground!”
They hared across the hundred metres with the acrid fumes burning their lungs and, using an abandoned spear, they prised the cover up and descended on the rungs into the foetid darkness of the sewer system. Rabbit struggled but she managed to pull the heavy cast-iron cover into place but the darkness became total as Peter’s glow-stick suddenly faded.
He exhaled noisily with frustration as he took his two remaining glow-sticks from his jacket and shook them into life. He was about to throw the spent glow-stick into the sewage flow when Surl stopped him.
“No!” she hissed. “It’ll be found!”
“So you can foresee what happens to kack?” he asked with an incredulous grin. “Hai! That is quite the gift!”
“Mother Moss taught us well,” she retorted crossly. “She said we should never leave clues for your enemies to find. Amos said our Da was always telling him things about thinking like a soldier. I wish I could remember him…”
“This is not the time to think of our lost parents, Surl,” Rabbit interjected firmly. “Peter’s knife is still in the duct down by the generator room, remember?”
Surl glared at her for a moment then massaged the bridge of her nose. “True, Rabbit,” she conceded. “But it will take weeks to clear away the wreckage in the power room and check the vents.”
“Huh! I didn’t mean to drop the knife! Some saga this is going to be,” Peter muttered, holding his nose. “Oh, let’s get going before I vomit from the stench.”
The crumbling brickwork of the sewers was barely higher than their heads as they walked along the ledges set into the rounded walls. In the pale light of their glow-sticks they made their way past lines of chittering rats which paid them little heed. Surl was leading the way until she eventually she found a rotting door set into one wall where the sewer opened out into a cubic inspection chamber leading to six smaller tributary sewers.
She carefully pulled the door open which creaked ominously upon its rusty hinges. “We’re here,” she declared and led them into an ancient cellar which had wooden benches around a large oak table and cobwebbed shelves set into three walls.
The fourth wall was covered with racks of hundreds of bottles of wine. “Some of these are over sixty years old,” Peter announced after reading the labels. “This must have been a wine cellar that the Brothers have forgotten about. Mmm, Surl, can you smell cooking? I can,” he said, sniffing at the air hungrily. “Wonderful! Better than a nose full of that kack out there.”
“We’re below the kitchens where the Sisters prepare the food for all the men in the Great Abbey,” Surl explained and sat down gratefully upon one of the benches. “These will be our beds and this will be our Keep for the next two weeks or so. Ah,” she winced and wiped at her nose again, the blood bright red upon her sleeve. “I can’t see any more! It really hurts!” she groaned, closing her eyes. “All I can see is the colour red, red, red, red!”
“I’ll check that opening over there and see if there’s a way up into the kitchens,” Peter said decisively. “Did your visions earlier warn you if there any Brothers are up there?”
“No but I don’t need second sight to tell you no. The Sisters do all the cooking and cleaning and…. um, other things.”
“Good. Sisters are less likely to kill us if they catch us. Pup, you stay to look after Surl and I’ll see if we can find some candles and something to eat. I need some fresh bandages and ointments for this damned stump as well. Can you use your power, Surl?”
Surl put her arms on the table and rested her head on them. “No, I just said I can’t see anything but red when I try,” she grimaced, closing her eyes. “You’re on your own.”
“As always,” he grumbled, clutching at his stump. “By the teats of the Holy Mother, this hurts. I’m sure it’s infected.”
“Hurry then,” Rabbit urged, peering into the dark. She took hold of one of the glow-sticks and in its feeble light she could see stairs going upward. “I think we might be able to get into the kitchen. You’re right, Peter, I can smell the cooking now.”
“Be as quiet as possible,” Surl whispered. “Sisters are not that clever but they have keen ears.”
“We have less than half an hour before those glow-sticks burn out,” Rabbit noted. “I’ll take this one and Pup, you keep that one and look after Surl for us.”
Pup readied his lethal catapult. “Pup will kill any Brother who comes in here,” he declared bravely but the shaking in his voice betrayed the raw fear of a child orphaned by Armageddon.
Peter nodded his approval and scurried after Rabbit as she climbed the musty stairs that seemed to go up forever before reaching another long-forgotten store room with large wooden shelves against all four walls. There were cartons, jars and pots galore upon those shelves all shrouded in cobwebs and dust.
Between two shelving units they found a door boarded up from the inside. There was a faint chink of light that drew them to a small crack in the door. “Strange,” Peter murmured. “Whoever placed these boards here must have come up from the sewers but why would they do that?”
Rabbit peered through the crack. “Who cares, Peter? There’s a hallway lit by candles on the other side but I can’t see much: the crack is too small and the light is too dim. I don’t think there’s anyone around though.”
Peter tugged at one of the pieces of wood and it came away easily in his hand with virtually no sound. “Hoi! The saints are with us, Rabbit: the boards are full of dry rot,” he grinned. A few seconds later, he had freed the door. “Aw, there’s no handle or door knob,” he groaned in despair. “We can’t open it.”
“Wait,” exclaimed Rabbit, rooting around on the floor. “Here’s the spindle, but there’s no way to turn it in the door lock.”
“Let’s see,” Peter said, extending his hand to take it. “Ah, all we need is this nail to go through this hole in the spindle like so and we insert it like this. Now, give me the glow-stick.” He placed it securely in a pocket inside his jacket. “There’s light enough out there and we do not want to leave it behind as a clue.”
“I would not have dropped it!” Rabbit sniffed.
They started a little as the door swung easily inward to reveal a long thin table set against the door frame with lit candles set upon candle-sticks at each end. A faint haze of smoke hung in the air but there was no sign of any Sister as occasional booms and rumbles from the exploding fuel drums shook faint puffs of dust from the arched ceilings above them. To their immediate left, the wide hallway ended at an ornate arched portal into the kitchen.
They crawled under the table and entered the kitchen warily, their weapons at the ready. In the waning daylight from the dozen leaded windows set high in the walls and the ruddy glow from the ranges and oven fires, they saw on the tables closest to them something they’d never thought they would see in this world again: mounds of freshly baked bread and pats of butter.
There were also boxes of candles and matches so that they could not believe their luck: “Don’t take too many,” Peter cautioned, shoving loaves and butter pats onto a tablecloth. “They might get suspicious and come looking for us.”
“We need to check the other tables and pantries for some cheese or smoked meat first,” Rabbit decided. “We can’t live on bread.” She went around another kitchen table then screeched in horror. Peter was by her side in a flash with a knife at the ready.
“Oh, oh, I see,” he whispered in horror, struggling not to heave and puke. There on the floor were three sisters with their throats slashed; their bodies bearing countless puncture wounds and their habits drenched crimson with their blood.
“Saints save us, look at their faces!” Rabbit whimpered, clinging to Peter. “The poor souls have been butchered.”
Peter shook himself free of her. “No, Rabbit! Do not pity them for they serve the Order! We must take this food and get back to the others now or we’ll end up like them.”
He added cheese and dried meat onto the tablecloth along with fourteen candles and a box of matches then drew all four corners together as well as he could, hissing with pain as his claw was now virtually useless. He joined Rabbit who was standing transfixed with her mouth open in abject fear. She was quaking like her namesake but, after years of relentless training, she had both her razor-sharp axes at the ready.
“Oh, what now?” he demanded irritably then a cold thrill ran through him as, in a blur of motion, he dropped his burden and whipped out his longest knife.
Spear in hand and silhouetted by the candles burning in the hallway was the unmistakable shape of a Tally-man.
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell PRS and other copyrights protected.
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