Chapter 21: Howlings
Chapter 21 of the City of Gargoyles. Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy.
Abbot Pious tortures Brother Ignatius and plans the assault on Milverburg; Abbot Michael takes his first steps towards salvation while Burslen Abbey comes under attack from the new threat and terror sweeping south…
“Well, Pious,” Schimrian said, setting aside his glass of brandy. “Forgive me for summoning you again but I heard some pitiful bleating through the floor beneath my feet so may I take it that you were Inquiring of our treacherous lamb?”
“That I was, Excellency,” Pious said, his voice a dry graveyard whisper. “He tried to break my skull with a fire-iron at his tower so I have some respect for his fighting spirit but not for his years of dissolution. He has such a low threshold of pain that he keeps fainting on me, no doubt as a result of his incessant intoxication. He’s an utter disgrace to the Order.”
Schimrian yawned and stretched. “Indeed, my friend. Did he confess his sins to you?”
“I’m afraid not. I suspect he is protecting someone at the Great Abbey whom he holds in high regard. It’s helping him to resist my Inquisitional arts. He’s a Philistine: he has no appreciation of the time and skill I lavish upon him.”
“Whom is he protecting? A Father? It can’t be a lowly novice or a postulant. Could it be Camus?”
“Absolutely not, Eminence,” Pious frowned. “He was with me when the Exodus laboratories were destroyed. What troubles me most is that just before he passed out, he mumbled something about saboteurs infiltrating the Great Abbey.”
Schimrian’s eyes blazed and he slammed his fist down on the desk. “So there were saboteurs and he’d known about them for weeks, damn his eyes! I will personally Inquire of him tomorrow! He shall face my full wrath for his treachery!” He glared up at the impassive chalk-white face of his old ally: “May Saint Saul curse me for my indisposition: I might have deduced that saboteurs were at work here but I cast no blame, my son, for you and Camus were hard put to it during the crisis but nevertheless these saboteurs have cost us dear. We need to find them!”
“If there were any saboteurs then they fled with the Naked One taking my five prisoners with them because there have been no further reports of missing parts or mysterious fires since then and those prisoners could not have escaped without their help.”
“It could also mean that there were no Unworthy here at all and that Ignatius and his vile accomplice are simply lulling us by ceasing their sabotage after freeing Michael and the others.”
“I agree that’s possible but consider this: Ignatius is old and stiff of joint. He could not possibly have crawled through the smaller sewers in the northern reaches of the Great Abbey. Many novices and postulants think well of Ignatius and visit him often so they may have been corrupted but I’ve had my hands around the throats of all of them: children who soil themselves in front of you cannot lie. No, I’m beginning to think that there were some accursed Exodus brats left behind by that Light-Father. I also fear that our postulants and novices might have innocently given Ignatius information that he passed on to these saboteurs.”
Schimrian ground his teeth in impotent fury: “It makes sense but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that we have one or more serpents still walking freely amongst us. When I raised Brothers Theo and Edward to the Fatherhood today, I told them in my arrogance, that I had deduced that the Light-Father would not leave any of his followers behind but I was a fool: Lord, grant me some sense and humility! Do you see this revolver upon my desk?”
“Yes, a fine Prussian weapon, Eminence.”
“It’s a treasured possession of mine as it once belonged to my grandfather, a knight of the Holy Prussian Empire. I have been contemplating why I never thought to draw this on entering the Great Annex and simply shoot the Light-Father.” He indicated the Austro-Hungarian sword with a badly damaged hilt next to the revolver. “No, I wanted to test him in combat, sword to sword, and redeem him personally,” he laughed bitterly. “Was it witchcraft, aesthetics or a sinful arrogance about my swordsmanship that drove all thought of this revolver from my mind, hmm?”
“I cannot say, Eminence,” Pious shrugged. “Maybe the Wiccan cast a spell upon you as that old Harlot did at Crawcester when you Inquired of her. I was engaged in the Cathedral so I did not witness your swordplay with the Light-Father and his Wiccan nor did I witness the final emergence of your archangel.”
“Ah, sweet Azrael,” Schimrian sighed, his eyes shining. “He was magnificent; everything we imagine an angel of the Lord to be.” His face became a mask of fury: “That Wiccan bewitched him! Even with all those begiullers screaming at her, she worked her dark craft and through him, she corrupted our Tally-men! Her arcane devilry had already impaled every Brother-Technician in the Annexe. The other witches defiled and raised our Brothers from the dead and then that Exodus brat destroyed my beautiful Adonis! He had strategy, Pious. That thrice-accursed Light-Father had strategy. We must never underestimate him again!”
Pious looked sceptical: “By that logic, Eminence, I owe my continued existence, such as it is, to their arcane arts.”
“No, no, no, my friend,” Schimrian insisted, emphasising each syllable with a chopping motion of his hands. “In his death throes, ensorcelled as he was, Azrael filled you with his holy spirit to enable you to serve our great purpose: to build our New Jerusalem in his stead! You were chosen by God to rise victorious from the gates of death: know that I would have your heart beat again and the blood surge warm into your limbs so that we may rise up as brothers and cast down the Queen of Babylon.”
Pious raised an eyebrow. “Thomas Tythe? The Ruin of Reason? Act two if I’m not mistaken. How appropriate.”
Schimrian smiled wearily: “I see you are astute as ever, old friend. The Wiccans have taken much from us but with you by my side, we’ll reclaim our prize in the fullness of time. Now that I’ve repented and acknowledged my human frailties in such matters, let us return to Ignatius and his villains.”
“I failed you, Eminence, and beg your forgiveness,” Pious said, his hand upon his cold and silent heart: “I did not see the sabotage amongst so much carnage and then I thought that Ignatius must have acted alone but I must caution you: we only have his ramblings as proof that there actually were any saboteurs. It may be a desperate ruse on his part to escape Redemption and protect his accomplices here at the Great Abbey.”
“We are not flies ensnared in Pyrrho’s web, my friend: the Great Abbey was contaminated by the Light-Father,” Schimrian seethed, running a finger along his sword edge. “Are you sure there are no more vermin running loose beneath our feet?”
“None, Eminence, but whether there were or not, any Brother or Father who assisted Ignatius is still a threat to the Order.”
“I think you may be correct in this analysis, my friend,” Schimrian sighed, massaging his eyes. “Nevertheless, I want the sewer systems searched for evidence. Use every Father and Brother if you have to – except for our new Fathers, Theo and Edward. Let them work on the generators your Inquisitor found for us.”
“Father Aten is efficient and loyal, Eminence.”
“He is. I visited Theo and Edward earlier only to find them asleep at their desks. Poor Camus was taken to his chambers after collapsing as he repaired an Angel. Camus and all the others need to rest in order to focus on repairs whilst you prepare the Brothers-Martial tomorrow for our Inquisition of Milverburg.”
He gave vent to another jaw-cracking yawn. “In fact, we shall suspend all morning services until our holy task has been completed. I envy you for no longer requiring sleep, my friend, nor are you afflicted by the need to take repast or toilet – ever the thieves of our precious time upon this sweet Earth.”
“It has its disadvantages, Eminence, as I know not what sustains me,” Pious hissed with a hunger animating his dead eyes. “I feel no thirst or hunger yet this Holy Spirit; this blessing fills me with such divine strength. It means I can exact my revenge on that Exodus upstart who robbed me of my life. How dare he pierce my heart! I shall redeem him most exquisitely.”
Schimrian held a hand for silence and listened intently. “This storm is abating,” he declared. “Have we heard from Father Ursaf and his Angel crews? I would have them bury Father Beorcraft and his Brothers rather than leave them as carrion for crows and dogs to feast upon. We also need to recover their half-tracks as we have few left that are serviceable.”
“Alas, many athidol tanks had been filled with sugar but we assumed that this was done during the initial attack. We’ve heard nothing but static from Ursaf’s Angels according to Brother Matthew and he tells me that Bede cannot raise them either. We have yet to hear from our outposts and retreats up there but I fear all our Scotian and Eirann Brothers and Fathers are dead. We must have electrics soon else all our battery-packs will be depleted and we’ll lose contact with everyone across the globe.”
“Our two new Fathers are confident we’ll have the electrics restored to the Manse and the Great Cathedral by Compline tomorrow. We’ll keep trying to contact our bases in Scotia and Eirann: I won’t accept that we’ve lost them all!”
“Neither will I, Eminence,” Pious agreed, adjusting his sword belt and the machine gun he perpetually carried upon his back. “But there has been no contact. If any had survived then they would have been here in person to report to you. We must investigate once the Inquisition is done. However, Burslen will send us eighty stout Brothers-Martial under Father Hvretsope.”
“Ah, as ever, you bring me solace and glad tidings my old friend but I mourn the loss of loyal Abbot Damien at Burslen. Now there was a Worthy soul and a true stalwart of the Conclave. Hvretsope is loyal to me and a fine Father-Martial so he will take Damien’s place at Burslen after our Inquisition. We have no Fathers-Martial left here and but forty Brothers-Martial while none were left alive at Bede. What news of Wyehold?”
“They were sore depleted but they can still muster four Fathers-Martial and sixty-five Brothers-Martial. I regret I must bear grim news: Abbot Amalgan of Wyehold, another of your supporters at the Conclave, succumbed to his wounds this morning.”
“Ah, this is grim news indeed,” Schimrian grimaced. “I shall pray for his Worthy soul. By all the fires of Hell, I could lose my majority in the Conclave unless I add new Abbots to it!”
“With respect, Eminence, that’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get to it. For now, we have the Light-Father and his Wiccans to deal with. Camus agrees that we may need boats but if we man these with Brothers-Technician, they’ll need firearms and begiullers yet you are loathe to countenance this.”
Schimrian chewed at a thumbnail: “You know I am, old friend,” he fretted. “Fathers who’ve earned my trust can carry them but not Brothers. A Brother at the Great Abbey could easily kill me with a firearm and I reluctantly acceded to their possession of plasma-grenades at your insistence! Even now, I will not change that decision. We’ll hold those boats in reserve and only issue firearms in extremis. Instead we shall pray to God to send us calm weather so that we may advance along the viaducts with our Angels guarding both the air above and the estuary below.”
“You’ve read our minds, Eminence,” Pious nodded approvingly. “It’s a blessing to see your wits fully restored. Meanwhile, we’ll deploy our brethren at the end of each viaduct while Angels sortie when they can across Uppermost and use searchlights at night to sink any vessels fleeing our glorious Inquisition.”
Schimrian reached for his brandy glass and downed it in a single gulp. A rare smile touched his thin lips: “Ah, my friend; my solace; my shield, you’ve laid out sweet comfort upon my brow to salve my woes and bid me sleep. I bid you goodnight, my friend, but tell me: what will you do in the dark watches before dawn?”
“I will meditate and pray for the Blessings of the Lamb upon our mission,” Pious said, getting to his feet. He bent to kiss the ring of the Order upon Schimrian’s finger. “Then I might drag a postulant or two from their beds at cock-crow and watch them soil themselves. I find it instils obedience and discipline.”
“So you claim but I beg you, just don’t render them incapable of assisting the Sisters about their tasks as you did with that postulant you buried,” Schimrian said as he poured yet more brandy into his glass. “They will be Brothers one day and I want soldiers of the Order to build our New Jerusalem not trembling bedwetters. I am still unconvinced about your decision to slay all but five of the Unworthy in the Redemption Cells.”
“As I’ve said before, the Tally-men are redundant as we cannot trust them, Eminence, and we were wasting scarce rations keeping them alive. As for the postulants, I will find some other activity with which to pass the time. Perhaps I might read The Ruins of Reason as Tythe echoes well our current dilemma.”
Schimrian watched him depart in silence and sipped at his brandy, savouring both it and the call of a dreamless sleep creeping over him; a man who had engineered the deaths of billions. Within and without the Great Manse swirled a billion angry shades unseen while a billion vengeful voices howled unheard.
The thunder had ceased and the rain reduced to a dull soothing roar upon the tiles. Peter was starting to nod off in his chair when Michael returned with dry blankets he’d found wrapped in plastic in one of the cupboards. Surl, Pup and Rabbit were in a snoring but contented tangle on the sofa whilst Fern and the Light-Father were sleeping relatively quietly in the other armchairs. He placed blankets upon them all and then placed his hand on Peter’s head. “You did well, brave boy. Sleep well. I shall watch over you all till dawn for I need little rest and what sleep I get is filled with hateful ghosts. This is ordained by God to give me more time in which to pray for His forgiveness for my countless sins and failings.”
“I don’t think God had anything to do with that,” Peter yawned. “Mother Moss preferred to call it karma. If God did that to you after He let billions die then why pray to Him at all?”
Michael shrugged. “It’s all I know. It’s all I have.” he whispered as he tucked the blanket around Peter. “I can do naught else.”
“Do what you will for I lie here with your hand atop my head when I would lie in the arms of my parents but for your Order.”
Such was the hate in his eyes that Michael withdrew his hand as if scalded. “That, Scatterling, is something I cannot undo.”
“Then leave me be for I need no comfort from a butcher,” Peter snarled, turning his face away and drawing the blanket over his head. “Mother, be in my dreams, I beg you, please.”
Michael pinched out all but the one candle at the dining table by the window and sat upon a dining chair to listen as Peter’s muffled sobs slowly transformed into gentle snoring. He arose and checked upon the five sleeping men in the bedrooms and gazed down at the face of his brother as he twitched and muttered in vivid blood-red nightmares about Redemption Cells as did the other four: time and again the names of Pious and Aten passed their lips until an anger stirred in his heart and he clenched his fists. “I am finally on the right path,” he whispered up at the ceiling. “Lord, I thank thee for tearing away the veils about my empty heart. Bless me and aid me as I guide them all into your Holy Light. Amen.”
The next bedroom which had two beds with the slumbering forms of Ibrahim and Bas huddled together on one as were Shield and Saul upon the other. Another long-unfelt feeling stirred in his heart: love; a pure and overwhelming love for these precious children as all woe and fear had vanished from their faces in such a deep sleep. “Thank you, Lord, for granting me this vision. Again, I vow unto you, Father of All, that I will be their shield and defender unto my dying day. This I swear.”
Tears flowing freely, he doused all but one candle in the kitchen and returned to the dining chair and upon the table he beheld a book covered in dust and cobwebs. He opened it and found photographs of the family whose house this was and various notes from the children lovingly affixed to the pages. He now knew all their names and whispered them one by one ending with: “May God have mercy upon your souls and grant you eternal peace amongst his heavenly hosts. Forgive me as I strive to atone for your untimely deaths and hold you in my soul forever. Amen.”
He closed the book as an overwhelming weariness claimed him. He laid his head upon his arms was asleep instantly, dreaming of drinking wine with Ignatius in his study, discussing art and poetry whilst eating cheese melted upon thick toast. He felt the warmth of the coal fire upon his face as he laughed at a joke being poorly told by Ignatius and for the first time in six years, his dreams were free of the hate-filled, faces and voices of the dead.
Burslen Abbey was being hammered by the storm with giant hail smashing onto the flagstones along with stone fragments torn from statues and masonry. A lightning strike had blown one of the spires apart sending half of it crashing through the roof of the nearby dormitory killing a novice and three postulants. A young Brother was watching the lightning from the refectory two floors above the large garage housing the half-tracks. He turned to the muscular, blond cleric next to him: “This is the worst weather I’ve seen for six years, Father Hvretsope,” he said nervously.
“Is this is the Wrath of God, my son, or the Devil hindering the righteous?” the impassive Father shrugged. “It matters not: there’s nothing we can do about this tempest except hold true to our faith and endure it. Schimrian is counting on us to move our Brothers-Martial south to that abomination of a city to Inquire of this monster they call the Light-Father and his coven.”
“They say Wyehold and Bede will help us but what news of our barracks and brethren in Norton?”
“As you know, there were but a handful of Brothers-Technician left alive and they’ve been ordered to abandon Norton altogether and assist Abbot Camus at the Great Abbey.”
The Brother looked doubtful: “They say they can still reach our brethren overseas on the radio but our brethren in Scotia and Eirann have fallen upon the spears of their Tally-men.”
“This is correct, my son, and we can’t trust those we have left.”
“Burslen will be undefended as Bede is. If this Light-Father struck northwards after you’ve headed south, he could overrun us as our perimeter walls are only eight feet high at most.”
Hvretsope was silent for a moment as he appraised the young Brother. “Valour ripostes when the Devil lunges, my son. You have your spears and plasma-grenades and I will leave two begiullers. If the walls are overrun then retreat to the Sister’s Enclave or the Infirmary and barricade the doors. Fear not, Brother Ionas, we’ll be back in two days or three at the most to assist with repairs.”
“We lack the masons to restore the spire and the statues and Father Thomas is struggling with the injuries from the falling masonry. Eight of the youngest are badly injured. With the Tally-men killing so many of us and Abbot Damien and now this storm, it feels like God is forsaking us, Father. We…” His voice was cut off by Hvretsope clamping a large and powerful hand about his throat.
“Never ever blaspheme in my presence, my son,” he hissed.
“Urk! Gahah! I-I a-apologise, Father,” Ionas choked out, massaging his bruised throat. “I meant no sacrilege. We will see our New Jerusalem built one day!”
“Apology accepted, my son, and we will restore the Twelve Tribes in the decades to come with the help of our blessed Sisters. Look how white the ground is in this strange green storm-glow! It reminds me of a blizzard I saw one Christ Mass before I became a novice and began my martial arts. I made snowmen… hoi, what is happening to the electrics? Are the generators failing? Go to the generator room and see what transpires there, my son.”
The lights were flickering badly as the young Brother hastened away. A few minutes later, the lighting was restored but Ionas returned drenched and with a panicked look upon his face. “The athidol in one of the tanks was low,” he explained. “I refilled it myself as Brothers Argent and Tayte were nowhere to be found but then I beheld a trail of blood smeared upon the floor leading towards the rear doors. I fear someone has taken them!”
“Impossible!” Hvretsope snarled, checking his firearm. “These Blessed Isles are empty but for dogs, wild pigs, dying beast-children and this so-called Light-Father at Milverburg! We need to let the Brothers-Martial rest for tomorrow so go and gather five Brothers-Technician you can rely upon, get them to take up their spears and meet me at the generator room. We Martial always err on the side of caution, my son, but they are most likely to be in the infirmary adding to the woes of Father Thomas.”
After Ionas had gone, Hvretsope ambled downstairs with gun in hand and suppressed a yawn. If the two Brothers were slacking or asleep somewhere, he’d make them regret it. He opened the rear exit door and immediately stepped back across the threshold for against the eerie sheen of the hail he could see black, fleeting shapes running silently to and fro as if hunting. Some were clearly canine or wolf but there were other silhouettes resembling apes yet capering at great speed across the carpet of ice and broken stone.
He watched as the hail ceased and the lightning paused creating an unnerving silence but for the susurrus of the rain. For a moment, he thought he could hear Ionas desperately screaming for help in the distance. Then the howling began.
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