Chapter 28: Azrael Strikes
Chapter 28 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 in the Light-Father Trilogy
The Bede Angels go to Brigstowe for munitions as Ursaf, Harold and Fern realise they are part of an endless war spanning all the planes of Creation; a part they must win – then Harold himself becomes a battleground for the Powers That Be….
“Where are they going?” Harold demanded of Ursaf who was sweating copiously in the afternoon sunshine beating down upon Uppermost. The air was sultry; wisps of steam spiralled upwards as the pavements and tarmac of the merchant town dried out for the first time in six years. The three Bede Angels had hovered briefly above them whilst Ursaf had spoken to the crews on the radio then they’d banked sharply and sped south-westwards.
“They’re going to the armouries in Brigstowe,” Ursaf explained. “I was wrong about the place being empty. There are still some drums of aviation fuel and chain-gun magazines hidden in one of the warehouses there. I thought I knew Thanewell but when he worked at Brigstowe, he set aside secret stores of ammunition without telling the Fathers there. He confessed that he didn’t believe the Conclave would release the Virus and planned to sell them to a notorious clan of weapons merchants.”
“So his greed and treachery worked to our advantage then,” Harold said sarcastically. “I trust him already.”
“You’ve killed people,” Ursaf countered bluntly. “You’re in no position to judge Thanewell’s morals.”
“I am in a position to judge. I was dragged into this world and left with no choice but to kill in self-defence and to protect my Scatterlings whereas your Order killed billions without cause. Azrael couldn’t cloud all your minds: many in the Order wanted to exterminate the Unworthy and did so for six years!”
“Not at Bede!” Ursaf protested. “We had nothing to do with the Virus, the Inquisitions or the Tally-man program. Amherus decided to convert Unworthy prisoners into slaves so that more Brothers could be free to Inquire of the world. Even saying this is difficult, Light-Father, as each word I utter is a needle of guilt in my heart because we did nothing to stop it.”
Harold grimaced. “There’s my problem with Azrael and his geis influencing minds: all he had to do was reinforce a willingness in you to hide from the truth at Bede. He fostered a belief in the moral and intellectual superiority of the Twelve Tribes where the Unworthy were reduced to being less than human; mere laboratory animals to be experimented on or disposed of. This is the classic propaganda theme of the untermensch; where dehumanising your victims exorcises any remorse you may have about killing them.”
“You’ve told me a little of your world,” Ursaf said pointedly. “It’s plain your world suffered wars and genocide too.”
“Yes, we did. We had fascist regimes and two brutal world wars that killed millions. Given what’s happened here, I suspect another ‘fallen angel’ was at work in my world but, thank God, we didn’t have anything as efficient as the Order – at least not yet.”
Ursaf mulled this over for a while. “Thanewell and the others are keen to meet you. They apologise for failing to persuade the others from joining them but something bad happened as they were about to take off…” he fell silent, gazing southwards.
Harold did likewise, shading his eyes. He could not see the hills and moors of the Southern Lands from here as the perimeter walls obscured the view, but the sky was the deepest cobalt blue he had ever seen and utterly cloudless. Here, near the centre of Uppermost, you could imagine those walls marking the boundaries of the known universe. Fern had quoted a Milverburg poet at him when he’d mentioned that feeling to her one night: ‘From the bowl of merchant gold, fifteen pillars rise like spears, pinning Nut to her blessed hold, as her stars cascade like tears.’ He also knew in his bones that a violent storm-line was forming over Southern Europe fuelled by the moisture and furnace heat of the Equator.
He saw Ursaf’s face was grim: “So I take it that Thanewell only managed to escape by the skin of his teeth?” he prompted.
“Another of your strange sayings, Light-Father, but yes, they were lucky. As they boarded the Angels, those others not addled by alcohol had gathered to watch them depart with some berating them and the rest beseeching them to stay and protect them from Aten. As they started up the engines, Thanewell noticed that nine of the Brothers were staring blankly at him like Tally-men awaiting instructions from a barrack-computer. It made his blood run cold, he said, when they walked towards him as the blades began to spin up. He said that he and the others in the Angels felt as if their willpower was draining away as it did six years ago. They also saw images of sexual violence and depravity; a primal lust stirred in their loins until it became difficult for them to think rationally.”
“It sounds as though Azrael was trying to distract them by going for their baser instincts this time round.”
“I agree, Light-Father, but you don’t understand the full horror of it. These were brethren I’ve known all my adult life from when Bede was a world-renowned medical-relief airport. These were men who travelled the world on aid programmes, helping others devastated by natural disasters and wars. There was no Unworthy back then just people! We had no extremists at Bede but, enthralled as we were, we felt little or nothing as our relatives died or when the winds carried the smell of death from the Southern Cities and rats swarmed across the runways. I fear Azrael will strip away the last shards of their humanity and turn them into beasts.”
“Then how did Thanewell and the others escape if everyone was affected? How did they resist Azrael’s compulsions?”
“Ah, Thanewell said they suddenly felt and heard the presence of billions of souls about them, shielding them from Azrael’s geis. They were almost overwhelmed by the dead but they rallied quickly when they realised they would be torn apart for there was no way for them to get airborne in time.”
Harold noted the misery and grief on Ursaf’s face but felt the need to persist: “So how come these Brothers failed to stop the Angels from taking off if the blades were still spinning up?”
“They didn’t duck.”
“Ah,” was all Harold could say as the gruesome penny dropped.
“Ah, indeed,” Ursaf echoed, wiping at a tear. “I mourn for them: they were reduced to meat-puppets. I suspect it amused Azrael to see their skulls smashed open.” He placed his fingertips to his temples and closed his eyes. “I can hear him even now whispering at the edge of my consciousness like a shadow out of the corner of your eye but he has no power over me.”
“The dead protect you,” Fern said. Both men jumped because it looked as though she had simply materialised out of thin air in front of them clutching her staff and a tray with food set upon it.
“Jesus, Fern!” Harold spluttered. “I wish you wouldn’t do that!”
“Forgive me,” she grinned impishly. “I was using my illusion-geis to camouflage my approach – I need the practice and I wanted to eavesdrop on your conversation. I can clearly sense a psychic pressure in the direction of Bede. It’s been too weak and subtle for us to detect before but now it’s powerful. Like a candle becoming a supernova. I fear your Brothers are lost to you, Ursaf.”
“Aten will no doubt kill anyone who resists that vile geis,” Ursaf seethed, chewing at his lower lip. He clenched a fist: “I will make Schimrian and Aten pay for their deaths!”
“And so, even in the world of the dead, death still begets more death.” Fern sighed heavily.
Ursaf smiled and bowed as she laid the tray upon the grass. “I humbly deserve that Tythe quote,” he said formally. “But I cannot comprehend how bodiless souls can protect us for all that they’ve haunted our dreams of late. We thought them to be gescyldgrimen – ephemeral constructs of guilty souls!”
Fern brandished her black ebony staff so that he could see the raven set upon it. “This was a gift for Mother Rosemary from the Eirann as she could speak to the dead. The Eirann called her the Wibrana – a Bearer of Souls as represented by this raven. You and Michael claim to be empirical men of science yet you hold to the ‘reality’ of a Holy Spirit on faith alone. Similarly, I believed I had a little of her craft as I’ve seen the dead on the paths of Mag Mell for six years but,” she added, looking sheepishly at Harold. “This day, I’ve realised that they weren’t the dead at all but my own tortured mind conjuring up gescyldgrimen because I failed to save my Ferals and everyone else in this Order-forsaken world.”
“About time,” Harold declared; the relief evident in his voice.
She rewarded him with a weary smile. “But, even if we cannot see them, the dead are indeed with us. If only Mother Rosemary was here: she could converse with them as a Heliodrammus, standing before the portals of Death itself.”
Ursaf looked at Harold with his eyebrows raised. “I’d heard the Wiccans could do this but I thought it was simply a myth they’d woven about themselves to delude the weak-minded.”
“But now you think your ges- ah!” Harold winced, screwing his eyes shut. “Ah, I must stop doing that!”
“What ails you, Light-Father?” Ursaf asked with some concern, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Whatever Moss did to program your language into my brain was crude, Ursaf,” Harold grumbled, massaging his temples.
Ursaf turned to Fern in some alarm: “Why is he speaking gibberish? Can your craft discern what ails him?”
“What the hell is happening to me?” Harold demanded bleakly.
Fern frowned and placed a hand on his forehead. “There is some foul presence at work, Ursaf! I…” She gasped as her arm was flung back, causing her lose her balance. “Azrael!” she cried.
Ursaf took a pace back as a blue light briefly engulfed Harold who was clutching at his head in agony. Faint tendrils of writhing smoke erupted from his ears and nose to be pursued by streamers of blue light intertwining like snakes locked in a death-struggle.
Mesmerised, Ursaf reached out a hand to touch the astral forms as the light about Harold faded and he fell to his knees but Fern seized his arm in the nick of time.
“Don’t touch them!” she warned him. “Unless you wish to become a psychic battleground! Azrael tried to disconnect the Light-Father from us but he’s been driven out by that light.”
Ursaf helped Harold to his feet as the bizarre combat drifted away from them, fading until nothing was visible. “Then our struggle tomorrow will be physical and metaphysical!” he exclaimed. “I wish I could understand Azrael’s power; that blue light or the powers you witches wield to bind the senses.” He put his lips to Harold’s ear: “Are… you… all… right?”
Harold pulled away, scowling. “Don’t bellow in my ear,” he grunted. “Or talk slowly to me as if I’m an idiot!”
“He’s back to normal,” Fern laughed. “As for my illusion-geis: you saw me clearly enough; I simply persuaded your brain to ignore the concept of Fern. Without the concept of ground, for example, what’s holding the both of you up?”
Both men staggered as a massive wave of vertigo struck them and they fell down upon something solid but they could not remember what it was until Fern said simply: “I release you.” Suddenly the grasses and soil of the parkland reappeared beneath their bodies. She sat down beside them, enjoying their chagrin and the sun upon her upturned face. “Ah, by the grace of Diana, I hope we have more days of sunshine. I’m so tired of the rain.”
Shield and Ursaf’s men joined them. Shield had brought them their meals as they’d finished checking several bullet-holes they’d discovered in the fuselages. They listened intently as Ursaf related what had happened at Bede and it was obvious that they shared Ursaf’s desire for revenge. They looked at Harold with a new respect when Ursaf explained what had just happened to him.
“How do you feel, Father?” Shield enquired anxiously. “You had a Satan inside your head!”
“I feel pretty violated, that’s for sure,” Harold replied after swallowing some beautifully-cooked fish. He noted with some humility that she had dropped the prefix. “I had this vision of a beautiful transparent being, full of light and sailing from star to star yet being denied ascension only to be dragged, full of rage, into some kind of void. Then I had something else inside me fighting him. It’s not the first time I’ve felt those kinds of presences… spirits or whatever we’re going to call them. A sphere similar to the one that brought Azrael here came into my University. It was made of type of white metal that emitted this blinding light – like a massive arc-welding spark with black swirling shadows around it. It got into my mind telepathically and projected the faces of dead relatives and vile emotions until I could feel its hate like acid eating away at my brain. I could hear its programming – it was definitely insane alright but in a human way…”
“The machine here had a canister filled with human brain tissue attached to its processing core,” Ursaf pointed out. “So the same may have been true for that device in your world.”
“Maybe but it told me it was going to ‘purge the world of deviation’ and projected this music into my mind that sounded like whales being tortured until I thought it would blow my head apart. It attacked me but it vanished in a blue-white flash the same colour as those energy ribbons we saw just now.”
“I think Nightshade’s vision may explain it,” Fern interjected.
“In hindsight, the shadows around the machine’s arc-light might have been something like Azrael and it told me, not in actual words, that I have this ‘fulcrum of destiny’ that it could not allow me to fulfil – whatever that means. It told me that there was no God, no Devil, no Allah, no Buddha, no good, no evil, only sentience which it regards as a kind of disease to be eradicated. I’ve had nightmares about that day ever since.”
“Then Nightshade’s vision was right,” Fern said brightly. She related the details of Nightshade’s astral meeting with Ormuzd and what Azrael’s true purpose was in controlling the Order. They all sat in stunned silence, looking at each other in horror.
“How can we fight that,” Piamadet exploded. “This Ormuzd or whatever she is fights a horde of Satans of which Azrael is just one that used us to destroy mankind.”
“Dear God, he really is a Fallen Angel in the true Biblical sense,” Spero snarled, clenching a fist: “I’m terrified to the core of my being, Light-Father, but I want to fight him!”
“Ormuzd sent her astral form to save the Light-Father just now,” Fern replied. “So we know that she’ll help us when she can.”
“Mother Moss didn’t bring me here,” Harold exclaimed, somewhat disappointed. “Ormuzd brought me here by using one of those machines – she did it by using science not magic.”
“Perhaps only these machines can cross the veils between worlds,” Marcus suggested, finishing the last of his meal with relish. “The devices must adapt to the physical laws of the new reality otherwise they’d break down on an atomic level.”
Ursaf exhaled heavily: “Given the existence of such entities, it’s no wonder the dead are able to fend off a creature as powerful as Azrael – there are four billion of them unable or unwilling to ascend. Perhaps they want revenge above all else.”
“I don’t pretend to understand the physics of it: I’m just grateful they can help us,” Harold stated firmly. “I hope they can hear me say thank you to them because, finally, we know what we’re dealing with: we are part of a universal war that spans the whole of Creation. It scares the hell out of me but at least I know what my ‘fulcrum of destiny’ is: saving what’s left of this world so that the dead can finally be at peace.” He massaged the bridge of his nose and chuckled ironically. “Hah! No pressure, then!”
“Father, Mouse and I need to talk to Fern about… the thing that Michael gave us,” Shield pleaded anxiously. “We need to know if what Michael believes about it is true or not.”
“Fine,” Harold said sympathetically. “But please don’t get your hopes up. Let’s sort out all the pressing mundane matters first. How are things going down below?”
They listened intently to Fern as the shadows of the nearby Angels slowly crept towards them and their radios crackled faintly. She reported first on the bomb-making and the progress of the intensive searches of the gunsmiths and weapon-shops in the Svartalfheim level. “Marc and Ken report that they will have an arsenal of weapons ready for us by Six Bells.”
Harold shielded his eyes to gaze up at the dazzling apex of the Tower of the Sun. “Who’s taken first watch up there?” he asked.
“Kai volunteered then Ivy joined him,” Fern replied.
“She’d be more useful making bombs or reinforcing the barricade,” Harold said with some surprise. “Does she really need to be keeping watch up there with him?”
“Yes,” Fern smiled enigmatically. “In a manner of speaking.”
Piamadet grimaced suddenly. “Ah, here’s a bleak thought, Light-Father: that immortality-machine in the Great Annex withstood the explosion and the electrics could be restored at any moment. Unless it’s destroyed, Azrael could rise again!”
“Why are you here, Mother Ivy?” Kai demanded, his face flushed and his heart pounding. “I volunteered to keep watch up here so that I may consider my sins and reflect on what happened to Michael. Why are you not down there with the Light-Father and Shield?” He could not meet her candid gaze and an image of a faun before a tigress came to mind. “With all due respect, I fear you are here to distract me once more from my vows and my faith.”
“The Light-Father is truly extraordinary,” Ivy agreed with a smile, laying her staff upon the bed and joining him at the window from where he had been scanning the eastern shorelines with powerful binoculars. “Yet he is evidently an ordinary man and therein lies the enigma. I am curious. What do you see in him?”
He shrugged. “The same as you, I suppose. He seems to salve my soul somehow. I can’t explain it but for all that he mourned the young ones, even the Ferals revered him as he would talk to them as human beings and not the deformed creatures they are. The Scatterlings also told me of how he came to them in a blazing halo of light and in a few short days, he rekindled their hope enough to attack the Great Abbey with you Wiccans against impossible odds so that Fierce could destroy Azrael. That to me is miraculous.”
“It was miraculous. It’s no wonder Fern is besotted with him. We could have stayed behind our illusion-geis at our sanctuary in the woods for some time but we knew from Mother Moss that hope would arrive and we had to act. He surpasses us yet he wields no magic but when we summoned his soul to our circle, we saw a soul free of hatred and deceit and a heart large enough to encompass us all – a rare thing in a man. We instantly knew was of the Seventh Degree and a herald of Saturn who would one day save us all.”
Kai nodded in agreement. “I know nothing of these pagan Wiccan labels; all I know is that he gives me a reason to live, atoning for my sins by fighting alongside him.” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “So why have you joined me?”
She smiled innocently, clasping her hands behind her back. “Oh, no reason, dear heart: I merely wanted to view this magnificent bedroom before returning to the tedium of manufacturing pipe-bombs.”
The topmost room of the Tower of the Sun was the sumptuous master bedroom of the matriarch of the leading merchant clan of Milverburg. It had survived the Apocalypse intact with little mildew or rot evident upon the drapes, portraits, gold leaf-covered mouldings and the ornate but decadently decorated ceilings.
“I may have few years, Mother Ivy, but I am aware you desire me carnally. I respectfully decline as I know nothing about the ways of the flesh and you are a Wiccan; a Harlot; a seductress that the Fathers warned us about morning, noon and night,” he glanced at the clothes neatly folded upon the bed. “Why have you brought those for me? I had hoped that even you would respect my decision to retain my field robes as a symbol of my penitence.”
“Dear heart,” she said, coming close to him and tugging at the fabric. “This does not earn you any respect from the Scatterlings even though you acquitted yourself well at the Great Abbey. The Light-Father is right: your decision just brings pain to everyone here who would otherwise welcome you into their family with open arms. There’s no excuse: you insult every one of their dead relatives and friends by this misguided obsession that you should eternally repent for events you had absolutely no control over.”
He placed the binoculars to his eyes and resumed his searching for enemy Angels. “I can’t accept absolution from you in this, Mother Ivy,” he said archly. “You yourself admit that you are not of God and regard the Holy Scriptures as fiction.”
“No, I never said that,” Ivy murmured, taking the binoculars from him. “The Bible and other holy texts contain the Words of the Creator but they’re written down by the hand of Man through the distorted lenses of politics and history. I don’t need these to keep watch,” she murmured, placing the binoculars on the sill and drawing him into her embrace. Her lips drew close to his. “This is as good a time as any to complete your education.” He tried to draw away but his will crumbled before the tsunami of desire coursing through his veins. “I feel your heart quicken,” she smiled, drawing the robes over his head, leaving him bare-chested and helpless.
She followed suit and his eyes bulged as he beheld her naked breasts. He did not protest as she hurled his robes through an open window where they fluttered from view on the southerly breeze. Neither did he protest as she gently drew him onto the bed where a tiny part of his mind registered that the sheets had been freshly laundered and wondered how this could possibly be so. She removed his boots and trousers and enticed him to remove the last of her clothing and explore her body. History affords them a little privacy regarding their frenzied, passionate love-making but it notes that Kai felt his all-pervading guilt dissolve like morning mist and he was truly at peace for the first time in his life.
He lay alongside her in his first, blessed, wondrous post-coital daze, gently caressing her body when she stiffened, her left hand grabbing her staff that she’d laid next to them upon the huge bed. “What’s the matter, Mother Ivy,” he asked nervously, snatching his hand away. “Have I offended you?”
“No, dear heart,” she assured him, her eyes focussing upon something through the walls. “I sense something down there,” she hissed, rushing to the easternmost windows. “I am far-speaking with Fern: Ah! Azrael has attacked the Light-Father but he’s been driven off by the same creature that summoned Nightshade! Thank the Blessed Diana: there is one of the Powers That Be amongst us! Ah! There!” she said, beckoning him to join her. “There’s an Angel hovering to the east. Can you see it?”
He grabbed the binoculars and adjusted the focus. “I can see a Father using a telescope. I’m not sure but I think it’s Father Aten. He’s a vicious brute of a man.”
“So I sense,” she grimaced, clenching her free hand. Her brow furrowed with the effort. “I am trying to reach into his mind but there’s a mist… a-a distortion about him. Ahhh!” There was a silent concussion and she flew past Kai across the room to slam into the tall quilted headboard of the bed. She landed heavily on the bed but rolled off and back onto her feet in a fluid motion holding the staff before her. “Azrael! I deny thee!” she snarled.
Kai felt the heat drawn from the room and his breath misted. A faint image of a huge floating head made of billions of minute human faces in torment formed before the window. A voice composed of soul-searing harmonies spoke: “I despise thee, insect,” it grated, forcing Kai, cowering, to his knees, his hands covering his ears. “I have Purpose to which you will all succumb!”
The Moon symbols on her pendant and atop her staff flared with a searing white light that tore into the apparition. “I deny thee, Fallen One! As a Wiccan; as a woman and by the new life now seeded within me!” Embers guttered on the head until a fierce white fire consumed it and it was gone leaving wisps of foul smoke and a necrotic stench. She gasped, leaning on her staff for support. “Ah, I am spent, Kai. Help me to the bed. I must rest!”
He did so and watched her lying there, spread-eagled, gasping in huge lungfuls of air. “You defeated him!” he said, utterly awestruck. “But, um, what did you mean by new life within?”
She placed a hand upon her belly. “Nothing and everything.”