Chapter 22: Strange Dawns
Chapter 22 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy.
Mother Nightshade meets a Goddess, Father Ursaf and the Brothers of Bede find an epiphany through fang and claw while Mother Ivy tames two Stone Ghosts…..
The Ferals twitched in dreams of lost childhoods on the seats of the bullet-scarred railway carriages as were Fria and Amos, still hand-in-hand. Nightshade was lying across several seats in the rearmost compartment with Mouse snuggled up to her, smiling in her own dreams of happier days – mostly due to the herb infusion Nightshade had given her. Warm sun played upon her face as she ran pell-mell around the family garden during a summer solstice party playing tag with her sisters and cousins. Their huge garden was full of family, guests and marquees; wine glasses clinked, people laughed and sang as meat sizzled on outdoor grills.
She frowned suddenly: her parents were sitting in a rowing boat on the small duck pond but nobody else in the garden seemed to notice them doing this. They were beckoning to her.
Nightshade stirred and whispered: “You cannot go, Mouse: they sail the lakes of Avalon beyond the Gates of Death. This is not your time. Dream not of dark museum halls or of rats and death but of daisy chains and summer days. Be at peace, dear heart.”
Mouse stirred and muttered: “Fierce wasn’t in the boat; why wasn’t she in the boat?” before slipping into meadow-dreams.
Nightshade removed Mouse’s mouse-ears headband and stroked her hair before she, too, drifted back to sleep but her meadow-dreams were not so tranquil. She was lying on the blue-green grass of a strange world where a gas giant planet could be faintly seen hanging in the sky beyond the cumuli. The sun had just risen above the hills casting long shadows as iridescent, six-winged dragonflies swarmed about her and a breeze scented faintly with strange spices and honey gently swayed the wondrous and exquisite flowers. Beyond the distant hills, she could see the golden and silver towers and spires of a colossal city.
“Welcome, Mother Nightshade,” said a female voice behind her. “I‘m so happy to meet a Wiccan again!”
Nightshade rolled over to sit cross-legged and beheld a young Caucasian woman sitting upon the grass. She seemed to have but twenty-five years or so but Nightshade felt instinctively that this woman measured her span in millennia not in mere orbits of the Earth about the Sun. She seemed solid enough but she was surrounded by a nimbus of faint neutron-blue plasma filaments radiating away from her and vanishing into the air.
She was dressed in blue trousers and leather boots and wore a leather jacket over a patterned T-shirt with a slogan in Romanic letters that Nightshade could not read. Her long blond hair was tied back into a ponytail and her tanned elfin features bore a small, sensuous mouth and a slightly-upturned nose. There was a butterfly tattooed on her left cheek. Nightshade sighed at her ethereal beauty but it was the eyes which were truly unsettling: they had a slightly oriental look but the whites were a brilliant blue and two small blue sparks glittered where the irises should have been.
“Am I dreaming?” Nightshade demanded, running her hand through the grass. “I can’t be: I could never dream texture like this nor, ah, smell these peculiar fragrances. Ach…” She had to avert her eyes from the heavens as that gas giant hanging above them gave her waves of debilitating vertigo as if this world was a moon falling upwards to its inevitable destruction.
“You are not dreaming: this world does not exist in your reality. I’ve simply drawn forth your astral form to speak with you.”
“This is my astral form?” Nightshade gasped, staring at her hands. “Some of us can project our consciousness when we far see places and events but not as completely as this! Dreistkred!”
The woman simply smiled, crossed her legs and laid the backs of her hands upon her knees as if in meditation. There were six plasma streamers emanating from her and if they were arms Nightshade thought she could be in the presence of a Hindu avatar – not that she knew much of their gods: the Wiccans had such a cluttered and contradictory pantheon of their own that it precluded study of other religions. “Are you Gaia,” she asked, awe-struck. “Diana? Helen? Verdandi?”
“None of them and all of them,” the woman said enigmatically, speaking in a voice with a thousand faint harmonies. “I suppose you could say that I am One of the Powers That Be but I do favour this form more than the others as I was born of human parents.”
“So you are not a god?”
“No but I have been worshipped as one if that impresses you.”
“A priestess then?”
“I suppose you could call me that but guardian and harbinger would be a better description of my purpose.”
“Is this why you’ve summoned me, priestess?”
“We wage a war eternal against demons across the whole of Creation and beyond. A demon entered your world centuries ago and lay dormant until it was revived by fools who did not know of its compulsion to exterminate sentient life. We did not sense its presence on your world until it was too late as even we cannot be everywhere and everywhen but with my help you destroyed the physical form of this creature – as foretold by Mother Moss.”
“What? She knew you?”
“I brought her here as I’ve brought you. She was remarkably wise for someone of such few decades but that’s the price of prescience: you can live a thousand lifetimes in just one.”
“You said you helped us. How?”
“Ah, Moss begged us to give you the Light-Father.”
“Yes. Without his presence at that key turning point your world would have been stripped of all sentience by now.” The woman’s outline suddenly faded until there was nothing but a network of glowing nerves. Her body slowly reformed but her face was contorted in agony: “Ah, the Enemy moves…”
“But why have you summoned me? Who are you, priestess?” Nightshade demanded, shaken by the images.
“I have so many names that I cannot recall the first name my mother gave me. I am called Ormuzd in worlds such as yours. I brought you here to warn you; to prepare you.”
“What do you mean? We fought the Order and they number thousands yet we defeated Azrael and killed many of them at the Great Abbey. Are you saying if we die at their hands then we can die content knowing that we kept Hell from manifesting?”
Ormuzd shook her head. “No, you see: there is a Divine Design governing each and every Creation but there must also be a Divine Balance in all things. For life to evolve there must be conflict and challenge; there must be good and evil…”
“My world has evil in abundance! Where was this precious ‘Balance’ of yours when four billion of us died?”
“That happened because the Balance is being destroyed by the Enemy; the Greatest of All Satans. These ancient parasites gorge upon the divine spark in all living things and they bring entire Creations down in ruin and dissolution. Be warned: the One you fought may rise again in many forms before your world is cleansed of evil and the last sagas are acted out.”
“Azrael will rise again? No!” Nightshade moaned, holding her head in her hands in despair. “Oh, I am so tired, Ormuzd!”
Ormuzd leant forward and placed an index finger on the centre of Nightshade’s forehead. “As am I,” she said. “But we brought the Light-Father to you and instilled your language into him as best we could. We cannot aid you any further for we alone face the First of the Fallen Angels who strove for Heaven in their arrogance but fell into the void between Creations. There they festered and became envious of all sentient life and resolved to wipe it from the face of Existence. That is their fell Purpose.” Ormuzd tapped Nightshade’s forehead. “Be thankful you have but one of these demons to deal with but now it’s time you got some rest, little Ellete.”
Nightshade blinked and was floating naked but unharmed in a sea of burning stars and fiercely glowing nebula. She could see her body was emitting a pure white light but she was but a spark above a blue giant star.
She blinked again only to find herself as a child in Kendra’s arms drifting down a well of peaceful, dreamless sleep.
“Jesus and Mary spare my shriveless soul!” Spero cursed as his spear was seized again and he had to use all his strength to recover it. “I can’t tell if one of these things is a feral or a wolf!”
Hneftal looked over his shoulder as he pointed his spear down the hallway. “If it’s a wolf with hands, it’s a Feral,” he shouted. “And if it’s a Feral with claws, it’s a wolf.”
Ursaf and Marcus still braced the door but the last two bolts were beginning to fail. Ursaf had already fired two shots killing two Ferals in the hallway and one through the hole in the ceiling killing something but he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d killed. He knew he had to conserve his bullets but at least the shots had caused the attackers to withdraw from inside the farmhouse for now.
Hneftal and Piamadet had acquitted themselves well and a score of wolves and Ferals lay dead in front of their makeshift barricade. Both men had been raked badly during the fighting but were elated at having survived thus far on sheer adrenaline and good fortune. “I think they’re climbing back into the other rooms,” Piamadet said. “Come!” he shouted. “Come and meet your Redemption! Come at us if you dare, thou Hell spawn!”
“What of the begiuller, Brother Gudflan?” Ursaf panted. He and Marcus were exhausted by the constant assaults on the door.
“The battery is almost drained, Father,” Gudflan grunted. “The electrics gauge is reading twenty percent: enough for another two short blasts I reckon then our throats get torn out.”
Ursaf checked his watch and then wiped the sweat from his eyes. His clothing was saturated but it wasn’t rain. “Three hours,” he grated. “How many plasma-grenades do we have?”
“Three remain, Father,” Gudflan said, trying to peer into the darkness beyond the broken window frames. “It’s keeping most of them away from the kitchen windows but that won’t last. I think they’ll come at us down the hallway and the ceiling next and then attack the kitchen door again. What say you, Father?”
“There is a pattern,” Ursaf wheezed, trying to draw breath. “They attack and withdraw then rest and attack again after a two-howl signal. What of your dart guns, my sons?”
“We’ve emptied them, Father, and no doubt the ones we’ve darted are already waking up out there,” Spero muttered, clutching the spear Marcus had given him. “Oh, thank you so much, Great-Abbot Schimrian! I would trade my soul for a rifle right now!”
“Cease your blasphemy!” Ursaf bellowed, his face turning a mottled crimson. “We will survive this as true brethren of the Order and defenders of the Faith! Be careful what you wish the Devil for, Brother Spero, as such…”
Marcus had his ear to the door. “Two howls!” he cried out. “They’re coming again. Fire the begiuller!”
Gudflan pointed it out of the window and pressed the trigger and again they felt a silent pressure in their inner ears. Outside, a shrill yammering broke out but this time it did not recede. “It’s not powerful enough to drive them away!” he cried in despair.
There was a massive impact on the kitchen door and the bolts failed completely and to their horror, both Ursaf and Marcus were pushed back inch by inch. With his left shoulder against the door, Ursaf managed to fire a shot through the gap and the pressure eased and they could shut it once more.
“The accursed begiuller has died!” Gudflan shouted, throwing it across the kitchen in frustration. “I’m going to try a grenade!” He primed the fuse and threw it through the broken window. The explosion was almost instantaneous but the concussion caused the door to twist on its hinges and cast Ursaf and Marcus cursing to the floor. Gudflan and Spero were cut by flying glass from the windows but it had bought them another lull in the attack.
Marcus clambered to his feet and glared at Gudflan. “You mule-brained kack-spewing troll!” he roared. “Why in Saint Peter’s name didn’t you throw it further than two yards from the wall?”
“Bind your mouth, Brother! I cast it a goodly distance but they must’ve thrown it back towards the door before it detonated.”
“Enough! Brace the door!” Ursaf said curtly. “The hinges have failed and we have only our strength to protect us, my son. All of you: you’ve made me proud this night to be your Father. Dawn is almost upon us and dawn oft brings hope…”
He never got to finish the sentence as the attack was swift and brutal. A wolf smashed straight through the broken window frame into the kitchen as Gudflan was turning back to his station and clamped its jaws about his throat as more shapes swarmed through the window and brought him down.
Shadowy forms appeared at the hole in the ceiling and there was a rush down the corridor only Hneftal was ready and had grabbed a grenade. Simultaneously, the door shattered into fragments sending Ursaf and Marcus crashing into Spero as a tide of teeth and fang burst through the doorway sweeping Hneftal over the barricade and to his doom in the hallway. Piamadet managed to leap aside and gore a large dog with his spear but he could not stop the others from attacking Hneftal and savaging Durwyn’s body.
Ursaf, Marcus, Spero and Piamadet hastily retreated to the far corner of the kitchen. Marcus grabbed some kitchen knives from a wall rack as Spero and Piamadet readied their spears. All the candles had been snuffed out in the assault except for one guttering on a work-surface but they could clearly see the kitchen was filled with over fifty silent shapes. The pale green phosphorescence in those eyes unnerved Ursaf immensely for it revealed an intelligent, murderous intent that regarded them as prey.
Hneftal shrieked: “Forgive me for I have sinned….aieee!” The thrashing of limbs ended and there was silence but for the tearing of flesh from three corpses. The Ferals and beasts watching them did not move a muscle as these gruesome sounds continued.
“How many bullets have you left, Father,” Marcus demanded.
“Four I think, my son, but not enough for all these fell things.”
“They’re for us, Father! Grant us a swift death, I beg you.”
“Another mortal sin you would have me commit?”
Piamadet laughed incredulously: “Sin? The true sin of the Order stands before us, Father, these monsters are our creations; our sin. Hoi! Look through the windows, Father! We are blessed to see another sunrise after all.”
Ursaf saw the unmistakable ruddy glow from the sun ascending into a cloudless sky and heard the avian chorus heralding its arrival in nearby trees. “Aye, my son, we’ve survived but let us pray for the souls of Gudflan, Durwyn and Hneftal. Grant them your divine mercy, O Lord, and receive them into your heavenly host. Amen.”
“Amen,” Marcus echoed quickly. “Why are they just staring at us? What is it about the dawn that troubles them?”
“Ah,” said Piamadet, jabbing with his spear as a wolf slunk towards him. “Hoi! Have at you, beast! I’ll not die today!”
The wolf began growling as did the others in the room etching the scene into their memories. The wolves and large dogs were bad enough but the Ferals had more wolf traits than human and they were adult-sized, barely upright and muscled massively across the shoulders. Their fangs were formidable and saliva foamed at their mouths and it was obvious that they were hungry.
Ursaf’s eyes widened. “These Ferals are from Erdethric!” he exclaimed in horror. “I heard a dark rumour that Professor Farzad had bred such chimerae in the Exodus laboratories on the island after consulting the Great Computer and the Fathers-Surgeon. It must’ve been true because there’s no lupine DNA in our genomes! It’s the only explanation for these abominations.”
“And now they’re on the mainland, Father,” Marcus grimaced. “Our divine retribution writ large! Shoot us now! Quickly, before they tear us apart!” he yelled, frantically slashing one wolf across the muzzle with a knife causing it to yelp and retreat a few feet. “Look at them: they’re just toying with us; watching us panic!”
Ursaf came to a decision and fired at the nearest four Ferals killing two outright and wounding two others which were then set upon by their starving fellows. There were more than enough left to press the four clerics further into the corner. Suddenly, there was a fusillade of shots outside and the Ferals and their pack beasts flinched and went down on their haunches, their hackles rising.
“Is that Pious or some of the Brothers come to rescue us,” Piamadet wondered joyfully as he jabbed his spear at a wolf causing it to yelp in pain as the tip dug into its shoulder. “Fly, you damned animal! Back to Hell with you!”
Like an ebbing tide the pack turned and flowed out of the door leaving the survivors to sink to their knees in relief, exhaustion to offer up private prayers of thanks for their deliverance. More shots rang out to be met by wordless screams and howls of hatred followed by the crackling of automatic weapons. Then there was a heavy silence before the dawn chorus resumed and then came the sound of booted feet approaching the doorway. Five heavily armed young men entered the kitchen only they were not of the Order.
“Who are you?” Ursaf demanded, his voice shaking.
The man who was obviously the leader of the group stepped forward and his blue piecing eyes were full of hatred and contempt. He was gaunt with long dank black hair and dressed in a green quilted hunting-jacket and corduroy trousers and muddied walking boots. Like the others he wore numerous ammunition belts and strange large black goggles hung around his neck.
As he spoke they realised that he was Scotian: “My name is Ken Glascae,” he said as all five of them pointed their weapons at Ursaf. “Stay on your knees, aglaecen! Only three weeks ago we were all being tortured in your Redemption Cells. How in God’s name can you claim to be of God and do such evil? Who gave you the right to kill innocent women and children? Who ordained you to take a knife to a man’s brain to destroy his personality and make of him a mindless drone? Where in the Holy Scriptures did all that cruelty and arrogance come from? Gah!” he spat copiously at Ursaf. “I am minded to send your souls screaming to Hell for all eternity.”
“Then kill me but spare the others,” Ursaf begged. “As a Father of the Order I bear the full burden of guilt for our monstrous crimes. We at Bede have torn the veils from our eyes; we have unchained our hearts. We accept that we were the agents of a great evil and I can blame no other here more than myself. Let my Brothers live. Let them atone for their sins, I beg you.”
The three Brothers looked at Ursaf in astonishment: they had all thought him utterly incapable of such a selfless act.
“Pathetic and ironic,” Glascae snorted. He spat again. “Pah! To think we thought you scaernae were refugees being ambushed by those monsters and thus risked our lives to save you! Now what shall we do with you sinners, hmmm? I remember the favourite adage of my murdered father: out of the skillet and into the flames. Rather appropriate in your case, don’t you think?”
At the end of the quay closest to the harbour entrance of the Merchant Docks, Ivy watched the faint red-gold glow of dawn tinting the wavelets and the massive harbour walls were slowly becoming visible through the open dock gates. In the artistic excess typical of Milverburg there were two gigantic and ingenious marionettes of Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite, each with a hand upon the edge of the harbour gates so that when they were opened it looked as if both god and sea nymph were pulling them apart.
“It’s a shame we’re facing west,” she sighed aloud. “I would love to see the sun rise unfettered after all these years.” An obscure poem came to her lips: “As Sol sheds the sleep of Selene or Arctic night, how does it happen that birds sing, that ice melts, the rose unfolds, the red of blood; of birth renewed grows lighter, whiter behind the silhouettes of trees and hills to blush the Spring Maiden’s cheeks as her lips draw near to those of the Summer Youth whose scent of apple wood entices her…”
Kai had fallen asleep on their bed of sacking after telling her of his youth spent under the various House-Fathers who had stalked their dormitories at night singling out the comeliest of their helpless charges. He’d told her of beatings and casual brutality and how his heart and spirit broke as he was forced to act the Judas-goat, leading Unworthy children to a brutal death at the hands of the Order. Better a quick death, he’d told her, than what awaited them at the hands of the fanatical Abbot and their Fathers-Surgeon in the Abbeys of Britannia and beyond.
Again, he relived Cora’s death, shuddering at the memory and crying helplessly. She had cradled him until his sorrow was spent and made him recall how Brother Ignatius had been there for him; how the old man had slowly restored his soul, giving him the strength to break free of the Order when the opportunity arose in Crawcester. He was too indoctrinated to let go of his faith, she’d realised as she studied his sleeping form, his head resting upon her lap, but he had awakened to more than just blind dogma thanks to Brother Ignatius and the science of Brother Camus.
She laid more sacking over him as she felt no need of sleep herself as she drew sustenance from the ever-growing light. “I know you’re behind me, little déathscufan,” she whispered. “If you keep pointing those arrows as me I will become vexed. You fired arrows at me once. You will not be able do so again.”
There was a faint scraping as the weapons were laid upon the flagstones. “We do not fear thee, Wiccan,” said a blond-haired girl as she sat next to her upon the sacking. “But we fear the Order. They will come in their thousands. They will kill us.”
A black-haired girl sat down in front of Ivy and stared angrily at her before taking the hand of her blond companion. “We have talked long in our hold. We weary of hiding in shadow and fear and listening to the cursing of rats and mice.”
“We hear of the magic of this Light-Father,” said the other.
“We wish for his enchantments upon us.”
“We wish to run in green fields and sail the seas once more.”
“And feel the sun again. There is a strange day upon us: there are no clouds and the sea-birds soar high into the blue.”
“We have played too long amongst bones and statues.”
“It’s made our hearts harder than a gargoyle’s.”
“We are so…”
Ivy smiled as she stroked Kai’s hair. “Perhaps it’s because you feel you are of birthing age and need a mate,” she said suggestively. “I knew you would not hide from us for long.”
“We need no mates. We have each other. You caught our arrows so we were curious of your craft.”
“We wished for them to strike your heart as we did with Tally-men and Brothers uncounted as they hunted down Plague survivors in the ten towns who were not as we were.”
“Stupid as sheep and easily slain.”
“Not us. We knew their tricks and we taught them to fear the dark places beneath Uppermost and lo, after three years they did not come again and we were free of them.”
“Milverburg was our home.”
“Until you came.”
“Yes, until we came, dear hearts,” Ivy sighed. “I wish it were otherwise but they will attack us here and we will fight them as we did in the Great Abbey. We will defeat them and make the whole of Britannia our home and not just Milverburg.”
She studied the two girls. They were both strong and dressed identically in plain khaki cotton shirts and trousers, short sleeveless jackets and stout leather boots. Their hair was hacked short and both had two knives in sheaths on their leather belts but what caught her eye were the amulets they wore. The black-haired, brown-skinned girl’s amulet was a black Yin symbol while her fair-skinned blond cousin wore a white Yang symbol – obviously gifts from the Japanese Empire traders. “What are your names?” she prompted. “As you know, this is Kai and I am Mother Ivy.”
The two girls looked at each other sheepishly and intertwined their fingers. “I am Pomona,” said the black-haired girl. “Pomona Regina of the Regina merchant clan and my sweet Yang-chan here is Kayleigh Burr of the Scotian Burr merchant clan and we are cousins by wedlock as our clans often intermarried.”
“The Beomodor is the fastest boat owned by our clans yet your Light-Father would steal her from us,” Kayleigh said angrily.
“You are being foolish: you cannot sail her and there is nowhere to sail to,” Ivy said bluntly. “Stay with us. We shall be your new clan; the clan of the Scatterlings. Stay and tell me of your life in Milverburg and how you ‘wish’ your arrows to strike the targets. Do you bear the mark of the craft?”
The girls displayed their palms and there they were: one upon the right palm of Kayleigh and one upon the left palm of Pomona. “The merchants knew of the mark,” Pomona explained. “But it mattered not as we were always at sea and our fathers bid us wear gloves ashore and they forbade the crews to speak of it.”
“We could move things with our minds and one captain called it te-le-kin-es-is,” Kayleigh added proudly. “We could wish things to move and so we were often paid a silver coin apiece to rig the dice games. They would get so vexed with us.”
“But we were such kawaiee little girls,” Pomona laughed. “They couldn’t stay mad at us for long!”
“I met merchants who were tolerant of the craft,” Ivy nodded. “The longer the open road walked, the more open the mind.”
Kayleigh pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes. “Even with the mark, they loved us and we miss them.”
Pomona wiped at her tears: “An Exodus scientist called Edric Olafson came to see my father when the Plague began. He knew my father well of old and gave him two vials. He said it was the only vaccine they had left and then he told Da how the Order had betrayed their work and infected them and their families and that everybody in the world was going to die except them. His wife and daughter died quickly but the vaccine had saved his son and he’d hidden him safe in Crawcester. Even though he was dying, he knew of our mark, and felt compelled to make one last journey to see us.”
“He was shaking and coughing up blood,” Kayleigh sniffed. “Then he left saying he was going to talk to God in some tavern. Da and everyone talked about the vials then they injected us with the vaccine and then, one by one, the Plague took them.”
“We couldn’t save them,” Pomona wept. “We tried talismans and apothecary powders and nothing worked. They gave us the vaccine knowing they would die and we would live. They said we had to remember them and then they’d live on in us.”
Ivy pushed a basket towards them. “Here. Eat. This is cooked fish seasoned with roots, herbs and spices from Uppermost. I put this aside for you as I knew you two would come especially if we sat here patiently far away from my poor Ferals.”
Ivy had planted a compulsion in them to seek her out but it had not really been needed: their loneliness and fear had overcome their mistrust of strangers. Thus the tide slowly ebbed, the daylight grew and as the two girls relished their food, they told her of their clans, their life at sea as small children and their battle for survival for six long years in Milverburg. Their words poured forth in torrents and breathless cascades as they’d not spoken to a living soul since they’d nursed their dying clans.
She marvelled at the happenstance that had revealed two able Daughters unto her whilst the presence of Kai’s head in her lap stirred a passion deep inside her that any man would have been hard put to quench. A death’s head moth fluttered into view to land briefly upon the heads of the two curious girls and then it settled upon Kai’s brow only to vanish in a puff of dust.
“Ah, I see I have your blessings upon all three,” she said and to consternation of Pomona and Kayleigh, she placed a hand across her eyes and gave vent to her decades of sorrow and grief.