Chapter 18: Wolf and Feral
Chapter 18 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father trilogy.
Father Ursaf and the Brothers of Bede take refuge in a ruined farmhouse from the storm but meet a new and dangerous threat worthy of their dystopia….
Wolf and Feral
“Brother Spero,” Father Ursaf said loftily. “I deem the worst of the storm has now passed. I need you to go out and see if there is any significant damage to our rotorcraft.”
Spero’s inventive expletives were completely drowned out by a savage peal of thunder. “I’m sorry, my son,” Ursaf said with exaggerated patience, cupping a hand round one ear: “Could you say that again? I completely missed your wisdom on the matter.”
“I will not check the accursed rotors and the Angels by torchlight in rain like this,” Spero snarled, reining in his pejoratives with difficulty: he was beginning to acquire new layers to his loathing of the portly Father especially as Ursaf had just eaten most of their rations without sharing them. “The lightning is striking limbs from the trees over there and a bolt could easily ground through an Angel. So curse me to hell and back if you will, Father, but I refuse to do your absurd bidding.”
“As would I,” Gudflan added, shivering. “And curse this place too: we can’t find anywhere dry to sleep!”
Savage crosswinds buffeted the ruined farmhouse, tearing at the broken tiles above their heads. Ceilings had long collapsed so torrents cascaded unhindered into ground floor rooms with only the kitchen left dry apart from puddles on the flagstones. Father Ursaf and both Angel crews had been soaked to the skin and bruised by hail as they raced across the fields in search of shelter. Hailstones now lay deep upon the ground and inside the farmhouse so that their breath steamed in the ice-chilled air.
One room contained the skeletal remains of the family who had perished at the height of the Great Plague with their clothing all but rotted from their bones. In the ghoulish humour now rampant at Bede, their skulls had been placed upon the kitchen table and lit candles set atop them. Ursaf bit his tongue at this sacrilege as six years of regret and isolation had created this macabre mindset amongst the Brothers-Technician at Bede as a way of dealing with the sheer weight of guilt now bearing down upon their souls.
The Bede Angel Three pilot, Brother Marcus, grimaced as he gazed through a broken window pane at the lightning flashes. “The hail and ice could compromise the electrics,” he fretted anxiously. “And if the rotor-blades are badly dented then the Angels might not be airworthy at all.”
“We had no choice but to set down in these accursed fields and ride out the tempest!” Ursaf snapped irritably. “Perhaps you would have preferred a night in the Angels or taking shelter with the Wiccans in the ruins of Wealthorpe, hmm? There’s no guarantee that we Redeemed them all – they’ve already bewitched us once this day, remember?”
Marcus glared at him: “We were bewitched, Father, but the Great-Abbot will brook no excuses for failing Father Beorcraft,” he pointed out. “Unless we get airborne at first light and resume our search for the Naked One and his Unworthy followers, he will send his monster, Pious, to Inquire of us. He…”
“Remember how he threatened to gut you at Bede, Father?” Piamadet interjected. “According to our contacts at the Great Abbey, the Wiccans killed him and glamoured him into some kind of walking corpse. He buried a postulant alive for disobeying him so the Ghost alone knows what he will do to us.”
The Bede Angel Three gunner, Brother Hneftal, ran a hand through his long lank hair and coughed nervously. “They say he is a worse sight to behold than poor Abbot Michael. His flesh is cold, his face is bloodless, he draws no breath and he lifts Brothers clean off their feet with just one hand.”
Father Ursaf nodded. “So they say, my son, but Pious was a monster well before the Wiccans ensorcelled him. He made my blood run cold every time he passed through Bede but there are other darker rumours: my sources say the Harlots conjured up a demon that destroyed the Great Computer and that’s what sent our Tally-men berserk. This is all hearsay: we need to go to the Great Abbey and determine the truth of it for ourselves.”
The Bede Angel Three navigator and radio operator, Brother Durwyn, a tall and round-shouldered man, laughed ironically: “No, Father, Schimrian was paranoid before the attack but they say he became a raving lunatic for two weeks; spitting at shadows and speaking in tongues. Even though we’ve suffered great losses, he would have Pious run us through if we ever dared set foot in the Great Abbey. Some of his Brothers-Inquisitor also survived the battle and they are to be feared as well.”
“Those are dark ones indeed,” Hneftal agreed quickly. ”I didn’t meet any of them at Bede but they say there was not one spark of Christian mercy in their souls. Pious had these psychopaths accompany him on all his Inquisitions: in truth they are the Locusts to his Abaddon. They had to be reined in otherwise there would not have been a single Unworthy soul left alive for the Redemption Cells. Unfettered by conscience, they glory in fell deeds.”
“Ah, now there’s a mixed blessing for you,” Piamadet muttered sarcastically. “Tally-men: I never suspected the Conclave and their confidants were capable of such barbarity until they started bringing them to Bede in the half-tracks five years. They are apparently tortured for weeks in the cells below Schimrian in the Great Manse – their screams are a lullaby to his slumbers. They must remember being tortured and that is why they sought revenge upon us. What say you, Father?”
Ursaf massaged his face and sighed wearily: “We hardened our hearts to their suffering and thought not of the knives and arts of the Fathers-Surgeon as they created Tally-men. Thus we paid a heavy price, my son, with half our brethren slain at Bede. The remaining Tally-Men were not connected to the barracks computer but we have no guarantee that they’re free from bewitchment.”
“All these years, I would often gaze into their eyes hoping to find a spark of humanity,” Hneftal confessed. “But no: they are soulless golems that would kill their Worthy masters in an instant.”
“Then we should destroy them all,” Piamadet said earnestly, clenching a fist. “Every single damned one of them! We had nothing to do with their Redemption so why should we endure this threat? Yes, they can clean toilets and corridors well enough but remember how we had one pick up a red hot rivet last Eastertide and he just stood there as it burnt through his flesh. Then, three weeks ago, this same Tally-man gutted Gregorius and Aspenald before me – I barely escaped with my life!”
“Ah, ha, that’s because you were always so fleet of foot,” Hneftal laughed nervously.
Piamadet scowled darkly and pointed his spear at his tormentor: “How would you like to be gutted, snake-tongue?”
“Be at peace, Brother,” Hneftal said, making a conciliatory gesture. “I meant no disrespect by my jest for I hid like a child in the cold store while our Brothers were slaughtered in the refectory. I only came out when the massacre was over.”
“One was about to kill me too,” Durwyn shuddered, wide-eyed at the memory: “I was cornered with his spear pointed at my innards then the Guides in his skull sparked and he toppled backwards like a felled tree. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
“They all fell as one and every single dead Tally-man had that damned smile upon his face,” Piamadet added angrily. “I see them in my dreams every night; smirking at me as if they’re sharing some divine joke at my expense.”
“Let us not gnaw at these bones, my sons,” Ursaf said decisively. “It has been hard for all of us at Bede: we had no part in designing and unleashing the Plague but we are of the Order and that’s all we have left. We have no other home or purpose. We must…”
“The damned need no purpose, Father!” Marcus said bitterly. “Bless Camus and Michael: they kept the worst of the zealots away from our airfield yet here we are,” he added, waving a hand at the kitchen and the row of grinning skulls on the table. “For six years we all shrank from discussing the Tally-men, the Plague and our part in Armageddon but in this place, having buried sixty of our friends at Bede, such self-delusion is an insult to God!”
Ursaf exhaled heavily and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Listen, my son: we did not shrink from discussing the Plague these last six years; it’s just that we knew that such discussions were a distraction when we had duties to attend to. We survived…”
“Why did we survive?” Piamadet interjected, tears coursing down his face. “We all went into this collective fugue as the Plague was released; we put all thought and conscience aside and clung to this false illusion of a New Jerusalem like the drowning rats we are. The Conclave and the Order slaughtered billions for nothing. We, blessed lambs that we are, sacrificed our families for nothing. What say you, Father Ursaf? Away from our warm beds and full bellies at Bede, behold: the Lord has guided us here to reveal unto us the true fruits of our labours.”
He walked to the table and cocked an ear at one of the skulls: “What’s that? You would like us to fix your roof? Well, that’s going to be a bit difficult, Mister Farmer: as I was only telling your lovely wife and children earlier, all the tradesmen around here became naught but rat-droppings and dog-turds six years ago. What’s that you say? You bless the Order? Quite right too, you disgusting Unworthy peasant!”
“Enough blasphemy, Brother!” Ursaf said curtly. “What would you have me do, hmmm? Schimrian has recovered his wits so his plans for a New Jerusalem will no doubt resume regardless of our losses. For now, that has to be enough for us because we still have Wiccans and Ferals out there to deal with.”
Ursaf knew full well that contemplating their part in the Order’s genocide had resulted in six Brothers and a Father committing suicide since the desecration of the Great Abbey. Even though the Virus had made them almost immortal, it was disturbing yet somehow comforting to know that he could die if he drank enough poison. Ten others had sought succour in the screaming halls of insanity and were incarcerated in secure cells leaving him with only fifty able-bodied Brothers to keep Bede operational.
He’d been hard-pressed for six years to keep them all focussed on their tasks especially during the year of the Rats when the smell of rotting corpses drifted across the airfield but in the last three weeks it had become impossible. It was as though a veil had been ripped away from their souls and they could finally accept the enormity of the sins committed in their name. Prayer and sermon became nothing but a hollow lip-service to a vengeful God.
“Don’t forget their Ferals,” Gudflan pointed out, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “The Wiccans managed to train hundreds of them to attack the Great Abbey. I’m told they were adept at biting out throats and if they struck at Bede, we would be defenceless! We could all end up like that brute, Father Bucheort!”
“It’s a blessing that we’re allowed to carry plasma-grenades,” Piamadet growled, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. “But we need firearms and more begiullers, Father! We cannot defend Bede with these damned toys.”
Ursaf patted his holster. “Even these would be of little use if they attacked us at night, my son,” he pointed out. “The Wiccans got into the mind of Camus and made him shoot his own men and Ferals can see in the dark. I suspect Schimrian will be planning an Inquisition after our losses at Wealthorpe and it has to be against Milverburg: its endless labyrinths would make the perfect lair for this so-called Light-Father and his witches.”
“I hope they don’t expect us to attack Milverburg!” Durwyn burst out, his knuckles whitening as he grasped his spear. “I‘m a Brother-Technician not a Brother-Martial! I would be useless in a real battle as would most of us would be. Why should we care about them anyway: the Brothers-Martial sneer at us and call us ‘rotor-monkeys’ behind our backs.”
The conversation became heated as they rounded upon the many and varied shortcomings of the Brothers-Martial so Ursaf, grateful for the distraction, went to the door to watch the Angels as they were illuminated by incessant lightning. “I expect Schimrian will ask us to attack any boats escaping from Milverburg, Father,” Marcus said as he joined him. “Or command us to land in Uppermost. There are parks there where we can easily set the Brothers-Martial down. I do not relish this but we should be safe enough in the air, would you not agree?”
“Unless the Wiccans bind our senses again like they did to the Angel crews in Beorminghas,” Ursaf replied despondently. “I was proud of my mind and my discipline yet I was so easily sidetracked at Wealthorpe. We were at least spared the fate of the Angels in Beorminghas: they flew straight into buildings!”
“But Milverburg!” Marcus persisted. “The Queen of Babylons will be crawling with Ferals and ghosts. I went there once with Abbot Balthus so I know how our Brothers-Martial will have to search all ten levels for Wiccans and fight Ferals at every turn amongst those vile and decadent murals and statues…”
“Tch! Statues are not corruptors of the soul, my son,” Ursaf snorted. “And vengeful ghosts are but flickers in the corner of the eye magnified by a fevered imagination…”
Marcus passed a hand across his eyes. “Pah! Now you quote Chenikov at me,” he sighed. “Thank God for the books we have at Bede and their blessed diversion otherwise I would be in a secure cell myself! I tell you this, Father: I would sell my worthless soul here and now in a heartbeat for a glass of rum.”
Ursaf studied him with a worried frown. The Brothers at Bede had all but exhausted their supplies of alcohol, sleeping tablets and potions they had meticulously looted from the ruined shops and pharmacies of the Southern Cities. For three weeks they had drifted abed in soul-searing dreams and now no amount of alcohol could numb them to the fact that half of them had been slaughtered and their families because of a mutated Vatican animal.
Marcus raised his hand and called for the others to be silent. “I cannot be sure in all this lightning but there’s something moving out there by the Angels!” he cried.
“It’s probably just a pack of dogs,” Ursaf said, straining to see through the veils of rain. “I can’t see anything. Let us not panic and extinguish the candles until we are sure.”
“Could they be Ferals, Marcus?” Spero demanded nervously as the others joined them. He had drawn a plasma-grenade and was attempting to set the fuse timer with such fear-fumbled fingers that Gudflan had no choice but to take it from him lest he accidentally detonated it amongst them.
“It’s hard to tell,” Marcus replied anxiously. “They must be Ferals for dogs could not swarm so over the Angels.”
“I knew the Conclave were fools to let these damned mutants survive!” Hneftal shouted above a peal of thunder.
“The Conclave believed that the Virus would kill them off,” Ursaf retorted. “Another divine jest played upon us if you will.”
“Well? Will they attack us, do you think?” Spero asked, his voice trembling in near panic. “They’ll rip our throats out!”
“Keep your nerve, Brother!” Ursaf ordered, struggling to master the fear threatening to overwhelm his senses. “Keep your weapons to hand and ready the grenades. It’s just primitive curiosity about the Angels. Ferals are usually afraid of the Order and I doubt any Wiccans are out there in this tempest to guide them.”
A peal of thunder faded away and there came a howling from unseen throats that froze the marrow in their bones. “Saints have mercy! There are wolves with them!” Gudflan groaned. “By the bones of the Martyrs, Father, have you heard of such a thing?”
Ursaf frowned. “I’ve heard rumours from several Inquisitors that this is so in the North but why are you surprised? Ferals are nothing but beasts themselves after all this time.”
Marcus took a large torch from the table and returned to the door. “Father, I think you need to come and look at this.” Ursaf joined him on the porch as the Brother switched on the torch and swept the powerful beam in an arc before them.
The hail had started to melt into the sodden ground but against the white blanket they could clearly see hundreds of dark shapes massed about the farmhouse and, in the torchlight, hundred of pairs of eyes glittered with hunger and unspeakable intent.
Ursaf felt his bowels turn to water as he slowly drew his firearm. Each lightning flash left a vivid image on his retinas and he could clearly see their bared fangs as a deep mass growling merged with the rumbling of the thunder. He and Marcus stepped back into the kitchen and quickly bolted the door shut.
He checked the safety was off on his gun and addressed the wide-eyed Brothers with a quote from the Book of First Peter that popped unbidden into his mind: “Be alert and of sober mind, my sons!” he cried out. “Our true enemy prowls about us like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour! Resist and stand firm in our true faith because we know that our Brothers throughout the world undergo the same travails! We can’t guard all the ground floor windows or the roof so we must make a stand in this kitchen!”
Stirred from their daze, Hneftal and Piamadet placed the skulls and candles upon kitchen units and jammed the table and chairs into the hallway to form a barricade as there was no door separating the kitchen from the rest of the farmhouse. Piamadet primed the fuses on their four plasma grenades and placed them on a stool nearby as they set their spears and loaded their dart guns.
“Gudflan, Durwyn and I will guard the kitchen windows, Father,” Spero said, his face grim and pale in the flickering candlelight. “How many of them are out there, Father? Is there any point in me trying to use this damned begiuller?”
“Keep it to hand, my son,” Ursaf replied, trying to calm his own hammering heart. “I doubt any Wiccans are out there but we can use it if they besiege us as it has some effect on Ferals. We know the sound waves confuse dogs so it’ll work on wolves as well.”
“How many?” Spero insisted, the fear clear in his voice.
“A horde beyond count,” Marcus answered grimly. “Ferals and wolves enough to surround this farmhouse thrice over.”
Spero’s shoulders sagged: “Ah, this is not how I envisaged my end but a fitting irony nonetheless for I can bear my guilt no longer. Will you take my confession, Father? No? I suppose only our Lord God Himself could do that; such is the magnitude of our sins.” He went down upon his knees and prayed: “Receive our Unworthy souls, O Lord, and forgive us our transgressions. Grant us this day release from immortality and a swift and merciful death, amen.”
Ursaf said nothing as the others sank to their knees briefly and chorused: “Amen.” A cold shiver ran down his spine as he saw in their faces that they fully expected to die in this place, bereft of hope and salvation in the face of divine retribution.
Spero got to his feet and placed his dart gun and spear on the work surface by one of the two double-casement windows and set the fuses on his two grenades as did Gudflan and Durwyn at the other window. Then they waited; each wrapped in silent terror and beset by swirling black thoughts and unbearable guilt about their lost families. They gazed at the skulls with the guttering candles still atop them and the skulls gazed back.
There was a lull in the storm and they realised that the howling without had faded into an expectant silence. Then came a tentative scratching of claws on the farmhouse door that made their neck hairs stand on end. Marcus and Ursaf looked at each other and flung themselves against the door just in time as something powerful and heavy slammed into it, rattling the door frame and sending the topmost saddle keep flying across the room.
“God’s breath!” Marcus hissed through gritted teeth. “What in all Seven Levels of Hell was that? A battering ram? This door won’t hold with just two bolts left! A few more charges like that and the hinges will go as well!”
“Not if we brace it,” Ursaf said, feeling a pain in his chest as he struggled to draw breath. “We can but hope it lasts the night. What can you see through the windows?”
“Not much!” Durwyn said shrilly. “Just pairs of eyes staring in at us.” He jabbed the tip of his spear through a broken window pane at a face creating a yammering that seemed to come from all around them. “Hoi! That’s for the Great Abbey!” he crowed and thrust again at another face only this time the tip was caught by several pairs of strong hands. “Gah! This is why we need firearms!” he cursed as it was torn from his hands. He went to grab his dart gun from the work surface but the spear was thrust back through the broken pane and pierced his throat beneath the larynx. Gudflan couldn’t help him as he was frantically stabbing at powerful hands reaching in to try and open the window latches.
As Durwyn collapsed slowly to the floor clutching at his mortal wound, the door was impacted again and again but it held with Marcus and Ursaf throwing their weight against it. “Unh!” Marcus grunted. “We’ll not be able to hold this door for long. One of you use the begiuller! It might buy us some time!”
Hneftal turned to Ursaf: “The windows in the other rooms are being smashed in,” he shouted. They’ll be at our throats next!” He was perspiring heavily and shaking but he paused to gaze up at the ceiling. “Hark! They’re in the room above us! Well, will you hear our confessions now, Father?”
Ursaf glared at him as another huge impact rattled both the door frame and his teeth and he could hear the floor boards being ripped up above their heads. “Now is not the time, my son!” he bellowed. He gasped as he saw the shadows moving in the corridor behind Hneftal and the acceptance of death in the Brother’s eyes.
“Now is the only time we have left, Father.”
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell PRS and other copyrights protected.
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