Chapter 18: Wolf and Feral
Chapter 18 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father trilogy.
Chapter 18: 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 rotor-craft.”
Spero’s inventive expletives were completely drowned out by a savage peal of thunder. “I am 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 the 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 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 horror and isolation had created this macabre mindset amongst the Brothers-Technician at Bede as a way of dealing with the sheer weight of long unspoken guilt bearing down upon their souls.
The Bede Angel Three pilot, Brother Marcus, grimaced as he gazed through the filthy windows at the lightning flashes. “The hail and ice could compromise the electrics,” he fretted. “And if the rotor-blades are badly dented then the Angels might not be airworthy.”
“We had no choice but to set down in these accursed fields and ride out the tempest here!” Ursaf snapped irritably. “Perhaps you would have preferred a night in the Angels or taking shelter with the Wiccans in the ruins at Wealthorpe, hmm? There is no guarantee that we redeemed them – they have already bewitched us once this day, remember?”
Marcus glared at him: “We were, Father, but the Great-Abbot will brook no excuses for failing 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, Father?” Piamadet interjected. “According to our contacts at the Great Abbey, the Wiccans killed him and glamoured him into some kind of walking corpse. They say he buried a postulant alive for disobeying him so the Ghost alone knows what he might 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 before he ever faced the Wiccans. 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 other Bede Angel Three crew member, Brother Durwyn, a tall and round-shouldered man, shook his head: “No, Father. Schimrian was paranoid before the attack but they say he became a raving lunatic for two weeks; howling at shadows and speaking in tongues. Even though they 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.”
“They 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 always had these psychopaths accompany him on his Inquisitions: they are the Locusts to his Abaddon. They had to be reined in otherwise there would not have been a single recruit for the Redemption Cells as they so gloried in their fell butchery.”
“Ah, now there’s a mixed blessing,” Piamadet muttered sarcastically. “Tally-men: I never suspected the Conclave was capable of such barbarity until they started bringing them to Bede in the half-tracks five years ago and we began flying them out. They are tortured for weeks in the cells below Schimrian in the Great Manse – their screams 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 Brothers-Surgeon as they created the Tally-men, and we paid a heavy price, my son, with half our Brothers slain. The remaining Tally-Men were not connected to the barracks computer but we have no guarantee they are 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 remain soulless golems that woud kill the rest of us 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 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 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.”
“And every single dead Tally-man had that damned smile upon his face,” Piamadet added angrily. “I see them in my damned dreams every night; smirking at me as if they are sharing some divine joke at my expense.”
“Let us not gnaw these bones, my sons,” Ursaf said decisively. “It has been hard for all of us at Bede: we had no part in unleashing Revelation but we are of the Order and that is all we have now. We have no other home or purpose. We must…”
“The damned need no purpose, Father!” Marcus said suddenly. “Bless Camus and Michael: they kept most of the zealots away from our airfields yet here we are,” he added, indicating the kitchen of the farmhouse and the row of grinning skulls on the table. “For six years we all shrank from discussing the Plague and our small part in Armageddon but in this place, having buried sixty of our friends such self-delusion is an insult to God!”
Ursaf sighed 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 our duties to attend to. We survived…”
“Why did we survive?” Piamadet interjected, tears coursing his face. “Most of us did not wish to become immortal yet for six years we put all thought aside and clung to this false illusion of a New Jerusalem like the drowning rats we are and now the Wiccans have taken all hope from us. The Conclave 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 the skulls: “What’s that? You would like us to fix your roof? Hmm, that’s going to be a bit difficult, Mister Farmer: as I was 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? Blessings be upon the Order? Quite right too, you disgusting Unworthy peasant…”
“Enough blasphemy!” Ursaf said curtly. “What would you have me do, hmmm? Schimrian has clearly 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 the ultimate sin of suicide. Even though the Virus had made them almost immortal, it was both disturbing and somehow comforting to know that he could still die if he drank enough poison. Ten others had sought succour in the screaming thralls of insanity and were now permanently locked in secure cells at Bede leaving him but fifty able-bodied Brothers to keep Bede operational.
He’d been hard-pressed for six years to keep them all focussed at Bede 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 an impossible task as they mourned their fellow Brothers and they began to fatalistically accept the enormity of the sins committed in their name. Prayers and sermons had become naught but hollow lip-services 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. They were said to be adept at biting out throats and if they struck at Bede now, we would be completely defenceless!”
“It’s a blessing we are allowed to carry these plasma-grenades,” Piamadet growled, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. “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. “Ferals see in the dark. I suspect Schimrian will be planning an Inquisition after our losses at Wealthorpe and it has to be against the fortress at Milverburg: its dark labyrinths would make the perfect lair for this so-called Light-Father and his Wiccans.”
“I hope they don’t force us to attack Milverburg!” Gudflan burst out, his knuckles whitening as he grasped his spear. “I am 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 illuminated by the flickering lightning. “I expect Schimrian will ask us to attack any boats escaping Milverburg, Father,” Marcus said as he joined him. “Or command us to land in Uppermost. “There are parks there where we can 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 fool 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 hypnotised 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 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 ‘twixt Matins and Compline but 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 six long years they had walked alone in their howling dreams and no amount of alcohol could numb them to the fact that half of them had been slaughtered and their dream of a New Jerusalem crushed.
Marcus raised his hand and called for the others to be silent. “I cannot be sure in this lightning but there is 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 cannot 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 vainly attempting to set the fuse timer with such fear-fumbled fingers that Gudflan had no choice but to take it from him lest it detonate amongst them.
“Hard to say in this damned lightning,” 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. “We are done for! They will 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. I wager it is 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 have heard rumours from several Inquisitors that this is so 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 startedto 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 an unspeakable malice.
Ursaf felt his bowels turn to water as he slowly drew his pistol. Each lightning flash was like a photograph on his retinas and he could clearly see bared fangs and teeth as a deep mass growling merged with the rumbling of the thunder. He and Marcus stepped back into the kitchen and closed the door and quickly threw the bolts.
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 thrall, Hneftal and Piamadet placed the skulls and candles upon kitchen units and jammed the table and all 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 grenade and placed them on a stool nearby as they set their spears and loaded their dart guns.
“Gudflan and I will guard the windows, Father,” Spero offered, his face grim in the flickering candlelight. “How many of them are out there, Father? Is there any point in my using 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 as it has some effect on Ferals and we know it confuses dogs and hounds.”
“How many?” Spero insisted, the terror clear in voice. “Tell us!”
“A horde beyond count,” Marcus answered grimly. “Ferals and wolves enough to surround this farmhouse five times 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. Would you take my confession, Father? No? I suppose only 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 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 now 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 his window and set the fuses on his two grenades – as did Gudflan and they all waited; each wrapped in silent terror and swirling black thoughts about their lost souls and 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!”
“All we can do is brace it,” Ursaf said, feeling a pain in his chest as he struggled to draw breath. “And hope it lasts the night. What can you see through the windows?”
“Not much!” Gudflan said shrilly, shining the torch through the panes. “Just wolves and Ferals staring in at us.” He thrust the tip of his spear through a window pane and gored a face creating a howling and shrieking that seemed to come from all around them. “I think I got their attention! 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 and the spear was ripped from his grasp. “Gah! This is why we need firearms!” he cursed, snatching up his dart gun as the spear was thrust through the broken pane at him.
The door was impacted again and again but it held with Marcus and Ursaf throwing their weight against it. “Unh!” Marcus grunted. “We will not be able to hold this door. Gudflan, try the begiuller instead! 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, would you hear our confessions now, Father?”
Ursaf glared at him as another huge impact rattled both the door frame and his teeth and the sound of floor boards being ripped up came from above their heads. “Now is not the time, my son!” he bellowed. He gasped as he saw 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.”
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