Chapter 29: Flight of the Sisters
Azrael increases his grip upon the Great Abbey placing Ondine and her Sisters in mortal danger as Camus frees Ignatius only to find a spear tip at his shoulder. Meanwhile, Father Aten secures Bede and flies his first sortie to Milverburg….
Flight of the Sisters
Ondine looked at her flock aimlessly milling around the kitchen in bleak despair. If any of the Sisters started bleating, she thought savagely, it would not seem out of place. Why has she wasted her life protecting them? For what reward? These endless blank looks and vacuous ninny smiles; orders kept simple without a hint of ambiguity otherwise disasters would occur. She was so far above these creatures intellectually and educationally yet she’d been cajoled, seduced, bamboozled in spending her adult life trammelled in a cage of prayer and duty to these imbeciles.
Just getting them all to undress and put on shirts, stout work-jackets, trousers and field boots had been an ordeal taking nearly an hour and now they moaned and whinnied about being too hot with their habits over these clothes. She’d tried and tried to explain clearly and simply that they had no choice but to escape but they just twittered with fear and indecision:
“We can’t go down there, Abbess. It’s unclean!”
“It’s so hot and smelly down there!”
“Why aren’t we finishing the meals?”
“Do we have to carry bundles of food?”
“Why weren’t you taking midday prayers, Abbess?”
“How do these torches work, Abbess?”
Ondine realised that she was grinding her teeth as a speechless, relentless fury boiled in her heart. Where the hell was Camus? It was ten minutes to First Bell and there was no sign of the fool. Who cares about Ignatius? He’s old. He got caught too easily! She quailed at the notion of leading these cretins into the woods as they’d probably wander off witless in all directions. She was leaning against a table with a chopping board and she realised that her left hand had reached behind her, almost of its own volition, to grasp a long knife that settled sweetly into the palm of her hand as if it was destined to become an extension to her body.
Her mind was full of images of that knife rising and falling; rising and falling bringing forth a beautiful rain of crimson silence. All she had to do was stab thirty-six times and she would be free of this brainless babble for ever. A sharp cry of anguish snapped her out of her black trance and she hastily released the knife, clutching at her chest, almost doubled over in shock. She bared her teeth: “Azrael!” she hissed. “How dare you violate me!”
She saw Sister Persephone sitting, huddled in a corner with her arms around her knees despite the patient coaxing and cajoling of Geraldine and Freya. She was still naked, refusing to touch male garments and her limbs clearly covered with bruises from blows and restraints and her anus and vagina were still bleeding.
“There,” Ondine growled under her breath. “Is thy legacy, O Fallen One! The extinction of innocence and the extinction of life itself: is this what brings you comfort in the Void? How petty! Begone from my mind, demon, for I deny thee.”
Like viscous tar she felt that vile presence slough away from her and she almost collapsed, clutching onto the table for support. She turned to see Persephone staring at her, her eyes as wide as saucers. “A shadow,” she gasped, pointing. “Abbess, there was a dark shadow all about you and it was whispering to me, telling me how I deserved to be raped and how worthless I am. It said I deserved death then I saw you pick up that knife!”
Ondine shuddered. “He was trying to possess me, my daughter,” she said through clenched teeth. “Trying to fill me with his hatreds but I’ve driven him from me. Ah, I feel so tainted, dear heart, but he’s made you suffer far more than I. Come, let me tend to your wounds. It’s going to sting but I must apply salve and antiseptics to your injuries then I will dress you. Will you comply?”
She held out her hand but Persephone laid her forehead on her knees. “Take up thy knife, Abbess, and slay this Unworthy vessel. I am no use to God and Jesus like this! They did not save me from defilement as they clearly think me Unworthy!”
Ondine was brutal: she stepped forward and hauled Persephone over to one of the sinks where there was a medical kit she’d opened earlier to check the contents. “I have no time for this, my daughter,” she insisted. “This has always been the lot of countless women in this patriarchal world for millennia so you are not the first but, as God is my witness, you will be the last!”
The kitchen fell silent as Ondine saw to the cuts and abrasions, rubbed salve into the intimate wounds, and a healing gel on the developing bruises. She dressed the trembling Sister until she looked like a postulant as all the Sisters kept their hair short. She cupped Persephone’s face in her hands and kissed her forehead. “You’ll survive, child,” she assured her firmly, almost nose to nose. “You’ll never forget this violation nor should you for it is now part of you. With your sisters and I beside you, you’ll grow stronger than the memory; you’ll grow strong enough to forgive those who sinned against you and become whole again. It will take time but we will be with you on this journey. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Abbess,” Persephone whispered, her voice hoarse form hours of screaming and her skin raw from the scrubbing. “I will escape the shadow of the Evil One. I will survive.”
“Good! You must be a sensitive to have seen his presence, my daughter,” she said softly. “What is it, now?”
She followed Persephone’s fear-stricken gaze and saw, standing in the corridor portal, two smiling Brothers with rifles slung upon their backs and clutching spears – the same two that had almost caught the Scatterlings in the bell-tower – and her heart almost stopped from sheer dread. It was so unfair. They were going to be killed or worse before they’d even had a chance to escape. “God, why hast thou forsaken us?”
Cyrus smiled a predatory smile at the cowering Sisters: “I give them eternal life,” he recited, stretching out a hand. “And they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
Luke nodded approvingly. “Amen,” he said.
The door to Redemption Cell corridor had opened easily enough after a bowel-loosening mistake with the wrong key. Camus had his handgun at the ready but he’d slung several rifles and filled a shoulder bag with spare ammunition from the Manse armoury by the corridor entrance. He rattled and clanked alarmingly as he tiptoed down the corridor where all the cell doors were open bar one. He noted with revulsion the blackened pools of blood on the floors of the corridor and several cells and the finger-smears of injured and dying men upon every wall.
The strip lighting flickered and buzzed like swarms of angry bees adding to the hellish nature of the place. He could feel a monstrous spiritual weight pressing down upon him, his knees buckling as he approached the door. He was nothing but an insect, a crawling defecator upon the virgin earth…
He shook himself free of the thrall but a quote from Revelations surfaced in his mind as he fumbled with the cell key and he spoke aloud: “But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped its image…”
A quavering voice within answered: “The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur.”
“Ignatius! Thank God you’re alive!” Camus exclaimed, rushing to untie the naked old man from the Inquisition Table.
He was stained with blood and faeces and covered with welts and bruises innumerable but his voice was strong. “Bless you, Eminence, but you’ll have to carry me as my circulation has been somewhat compromised by their enthusiasm. Unh! I apologise for my toiletry shortcomings but they cared little for my hygiene. Father Aten and Abbot Pious are such uncouth fellows.”
“I care not, old friend,” Camus said, weeping openly. “We stood idle while Hell formed around us but now there is hope!”
“It’s a pity,” Ignatius croaked, as Camus carried the old man in his arms down the corridor. “I understood Great-Abbot Schimrian was coming to share afternoon tea with me. I so love scones.”
“You need to stop rambling, Ignatius,” Camus urged as they reached the armoury. There was a sink and using paper towels and cloth he cleaned the shaking, swaying Brother as best he could. He dressed him with clothes from several Unworthy victims that he’d found in a large storage space behind the weapons-racks and laced boots upon his feet then he made Ignatius drink as much water as he could stomach. Despite retching pitifully, he kept it down.
Camus froze as a spear-tip was tapped upon his shoulder when everyone was supposed to be practicing at the Library! There was a chuckle as Brother Luke set his spear upright then he too shouldered a rifle. “We were sent to fetch more rifles but Father Theo told us to follow you if we saw you so we did.”
“We had dreams,” Cyrus explained, foregoing his usual penchant for endless quotations. “My mother came to me and told me that she and the rest of the family were watching over me and they wanted me to help this Light-Father. We’ve now seen the same ghosts you have, Eminence. I’m sorry that we didn’t believe you.”
“I saw my dead family, too,” Luke nodded, handing Cyrus a rifle and ammunition pouch. “They’ve only been able to break through into the Great Abbey after Schimrian’s monster was defeated in the Great Annex but this devil is slowly regaining its strength.”
“It’s our only chance to escape,” Cyrus added.
“We feel him eating at our thoughts,” Luke continued, steadying a grateful Ignatius. “But the countless dead that you and Michael could see are shielding us. There was dreadful talk at the Library of storming the Sisters’ Enclave once that dead abomination, Pious, was satisfied with their weaponry progress. Far from decrying such a sin, he told them it was a reward; part of their holy duty to impregnate the Sisters all night before they set out upon the Last Great Inquisition at dawn tomorrow.”
“Azrael controls them just as we corrupted and controlled the Tally-men,” Camus grunted as he and Cyrus half-carried Ignatius down the stairs. “Thus Irony and Karma are the twins in our nightmare.” The exit was next to his office which gave him such an incongruous pang of nostalgia that he almost laughed out loud.
Cyrus smiled as if reading his thoughts: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. We, too, are leaving all we’ve ever known. We know not if we tread the Path Righteous or a bridge built of crumbling bones set high above the Abyss.”
“Corinthians and Parsival,” Ignatius chuckled as the Great Bell tolled One. “I taught you two well as postulants, did I not?”
“Seeing you abused like this dispels all doubt,” Cyrus declared fiercely. “New Jerusalem was but a deceit that made us murderers and now, out there before Pious’s dead eyes, they howl as one for blood and flesh. They are demons all bar hooves and horns.”
“Tythe again,” Ignatius chuckled as they went as fast as they could down the Cloisters. “Ah, the echoes of civilisation still stir my aching bones! There is hope. I must meet this Light-Father!”
“It was a relief to see you, Eminence,” Luke admitted. “We thought we were the last free souls in the Great Abbey. We were going to arm ourselves and steal a half-track but we found you by happenstance. I presume you have an escape plan?”
“Yes,” Camus said, wisely keeping the details to himself. “There’s no such thing as happenstance in this brutal dystopia, my son. The dead must have guided you to our meeting.”
Luke unslung the loaded rifle he was carrying and held it one hand and his spear in the other. “Possibly but it’s lucky that the Light-Father failed to destroy the Manse armoury – these spears are all but useless in battle.”
They were through the sturdy oaken doors of the Chaste Gate but Camus suddenly felt a powerful urge to turn back and lock them then pocket the key. As they headed past the Abbess Manse they heard dozens of novices hammering on the doors as they’d slipped away from weapons training having decided not to wait for nightfall. Camus could hear their demands and pleas for entrance mixed with chilling threats of physical and sexual violence. “Dear God,” he shuddered. “Cyrus was right.”
He entered the kitchen, still supporting Ignatius, a few moments after Luke and Cyrus had entered and saw the mortified expressions on the faces of the Sisters. “I’m sorry we startled you, Ondine,” he apologised quickly. “Fear not, Luke and Cyrus are with us. The dead have reached out to them and warned them to leave before Azrael and Schimrian regained control of their minds.”
“The stupid bull-pats could have said so! They nearly gave me a heart attack!” Ondine fumed then she saw Ignatius and immediately guided him to a chair. “He needs calories! Freya, dear heart, put honey on some bread and butter. We can’t leave until he has energy inside him. We can’t carry him in the sewers.”
“Ah, off the skillet and into the kack!” Luke groaned comically. “We were going to steal half-tracks,” he pointed out.
Camus saw Persephone trembling by the sink, propped up by Geraldine. Instinctively he went over to comfort her but she pulled away, cringing and weeping uncontrollably. Geraldine held up a field-calloused hand to forestall him. “Forgive me, Eminence,” she frowned. “She knows you mean well but countless men and boys forced themselves upon her and you are a man, after all.”
“Ah, this might be a problem,” Camus said to Ondine as he stepped back. “We can’t have her shrieking like that as we flee. I need to give her a stronger sedative, Sister Geraldine. He fished out a red vial from the medical kit. Make her swallow this pill. She’ll be sleepy for a few hours but still able to run if needs be. Ondine, novices are clawing at the Chaste Gate already but the doors there are stout enough to resist them for now.”
“I’ve already locked and barred the other two Enclave gates,” she assured him. “They’ll need battering rams.”
“The walls can easily be climbed,” he reminded her. “We need to buy as much time as we can.”
She nodded and barred the kitchen door then locked the main door at the end of the hallway. Luke carried several tables and jammed them between the porch inner wall and the door under her direction. She returned to the kitchen to brusquely order the Sisters to discard the habits that they now no longer needed. She carefully dragged the narrow corridor table to one side so as not to topple the candlesticks and the lit candles upon them. At her command, Luke shoulder-charged the door and the small props and wedges Peter had placed there failed easily. Camus had just finished bandaging a gash in Ignatius’s arm when he noticed the shooting had stopped.
“We have to move NOW!” he roared. “They must know we plan to escape. Either they’ve found the Redemption Cell empty or Azrael is influencing them but there’s a foul tsunami surging towards us. Hurry! Hurry!” he urged, literally hurling the Sisters and Ignatius through the door. “They’re coming!”
He drew the table into place, taking care not to disturb the lit candlesticks. He and Cyrus dragged everything off the shelves and piled the heavier shelving units up against the door before descending the steps to the wine cellar.
Luke had already notice the makeshift beds in the torchlight and the stale bread upon the table. “Aha!” he crowed. “Here’s the nest of our saboteurs!” then he shone his torch upon the wine-racks. “So you did help them as they say, you old rascal! It was selfish of you to keep this place secret: there are some excellent vintages!”
“I know,” Ignatius said sadly, patting a bottle like an old friend. “Perhaps, one day, we’ll come back and reclaim them.”
“Let’s move!” Ondine barked. The cellar was crowded with frightened Sisters clinging to each other and a smiling, soporific Persephone declaring her undying love for Freya. “I’ll take the lead with twelve Sisters including Persephone and Geraldine. Eminence, you take Ignatius and the next twelve then Cyrus with his twelve and Luke at the rear. Is that acceptable?”
“Aye, Abbess,” Luke grunted sourly. “The rearguard is always the first to get killed in all the war sagas but I’ll give a good account of myself: you have my oath on it.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully.
Despite the foetid darkness, they felt their spirits lighten the further they got from the Great Manse. It was difficult to herd the disoriented Sisters up the four feet of rungs into the overflow tunnel that opened out onto the River Elver a mile to the south but once in the tunnel, they made good speed despite Persephone’s rambling euphoria and Ignatius’s injuries. Camus swore that the old man was regaining his stamina at an amazing rate as they scuttled along the cylinder of dancing and flaring torch-shadows.
The old man smiled at him as if reading his thoughts: “The beatings and losing my toenails was bad enough but to that thing was in my mind,” he explained. “He drew pleasure from every moment of agony. A despicable creature but strangely, for all his ancient hatreds, I told him that I pitied him. He did not like that,” he chuckled. “But his grip upon my soul weakened at that point as if he had nothing to hang onto. I think a mind free of hate, revenge and desire is an anathema to him.”
“So when he has no physical form, he can only magnify existing flaws in a heart to control that person. That’s useful to know,” Camus assured him, pointing ahead. “There, Ignatius! It’s the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!”
“Um, I think I can hear rushing water behind us,” Ignatius noted fearfully. Others behind them had also heard the dull roaring sound which was rapidly growing in volume. “It can’t be a flash flood as there’s no rain so what’s making that sound?”
Camus gasped as the awful answer struck him. “They’ve opened the sluices of the Abbey Reservoir! Everybody! We need to fly as fast as Hermes!” Even as he said it, he felt the first three inches of water impacting his boots followed by a dull whoosh of air as the waters in the sewer submerged the mouth of the overflow tunnel. “Everyone!” he cried. “Sit down and put your hands on the back of your heads and take a deep breath: we’re going for a ride!”
“Shield?” Harold said. “Can you bring it down from here?”
“No, Light-Father,” she replied, reverting to his formal title in front of Ursaf and the others whilst aiming her cross-bow at the distant Bede rotorcraft. “It’s at least another three furlongs beyond the perimeter walls. It’s too far. I can’t reach it.”
“Pity,” Spero said. “If only we had Glascae’s sniper rifles, we could at least make them back off. It has to be Aten on a reconnaissance flight: he’s supposed to be as smart as he is vicious. By the time we fire up the engines, he’ll be long gone.”
“What about you, Mother Fern?” Piamadet asked hopefully. “You Wiccans took out our rotorcraft in Beorminghas and Crawcester easily enough. I’d love to see how you do it!”
Fern did not reply as she was staring up at the Tower of the Sun with a worried expression on her face. “My nerves are still jangling after that begiuller hit me so I can’t reach into the pilot’s mind,” she explained. “Either I’m still too weak or Azrael is shielding their minds from me. I do sense they are full of hatred and… darker things but not Aten: he is, as you say, a monster by his own design.” She put her fingertips to her temples and concentrated then gasped in awe: “Ivy tried to read Aten’s mind but Azrael attacked her. She drove him out of the tower somehow!”
“Does she need medical assistance?” Ursaf enquired.
“No it was a psychic assault not a physical one but young Kai is with her. He’s now… um, seeing to her needs.”
Despite the danger and the enemy rotorcraft to the east, Harold found himself smiling at Fern who was blushing furiously with a hand to her cheek. He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her tenderly on the other cheek. “I think you need to stop eavesdropping on them. Talk to Ivy later and see what she found out about Azrael. As you said, she managed to drive him off: I’d like to know how she did that.”
She kissed him briefly on the lips. “As would I, dear heart.”
Harold turned to Ursaf. “Get on the radios and warn Thanewell and the others not to approach until that bastard up there is gone. He’s seen the two Angels and us clearly enough but I want them to think Thanewell has deserted to one of the Southern Cities. His rotorcraft will come in very useful tomorrow.”
Shield shaded her eyes. “It’s moving to the south now I think.”
“Damn it,” Harold fumed. “They’ll be checking on the Brothers guarding the causeways and they’ll probably scope out the dock gates as well. It’s what I would do: look for a weakness. Fine, let them see the barricades!”
“Shall I go to one of the towers, Mother Fern? If he comes too close, he might be vulnerable enough for me to take him down.”
“No,” Fern said firmly. “You would be alone if Azrael lashed out at you. See? The Angel is retreating eastwards now.”
“Trust me, Shield,” Harold grimaced, rubbing at his forehead. “You don’t want that thing inside your head. I saw something warping these star-creatures, dragging them into darkness and into this,” he shrugged, at a loss for words. “Void I suppose. There were billions of them all stuck together resenting their fate. I have no idea why Azrael showed me this. It doesn’t make sense.”
Ursaf sucked at a tooth thoughtfully. “Might be a race memory,” he suggested. “Perhaps they really were evolving into angels when something went horribly wrong and they were cast into the Abyss.”
“As it says in the Book of Peter,” Marcus intoned, folding his arms. “For if God did not spare sinning angels, but thrust them down into Tartarus, and delivered them into chains of darkness, being reserved to judgement.”
“Yes, that’s exactly the ‘feeling’ I got as if he was trying to justify cosmic genocide,” Harold nodded. “We’ll have to trust the Wiccans to keep him at bay tomorrow as we’ll have our hands full dodging spears, bullets and all sorts of imminent physical death. Marcus? Can you let Thanewell know it’s safe to return?”
As Marcus complied, Harold fretted about the Angels. “If they attacked this evening or at dawn they could catch the Angels on the ground and wipe us out. Does anyone have any ideas? Fern, Ivy and Nightshade have to defend the viaducts.”
“I’ll be with Ken Glascae and the snipers at dawn,” Shield confirmed. “But it may be difficult to stop them strafing Uppermost once they clear the perimeter walls but at close range I can stop them as my element is air and I am awakened into it.”
“But we need more lead time,” Ursaf reminded her. “We could keep one Angel airborne at all times but we’re low on fuel. We can’t use the athidol here; it has to be aviation grade fuel.”
“Can you ‘far-see’ yet?” Harold asked Shield.
“No,” Shield admitted gloomily. “I cannot ‘far-talk’ either. I don’t know how. Mother Fern? Can you teach me?”
“You are of the craft, dear heart,” Fern assured her, grasping her by the shoulders. “Close your eyes and imagine the Milverbore in your mind. Can you see it? Concentrate. Shut off all physical senses and just soar like a bird. What do you see?”
“Sea birds,” Shield gasped. “I can feel the wind beneath their wings, my wings. Oh, I am one with a bird! Now I am moving east. I see the rotorcraft heading for Bede. There is a darkness shrouding the Great Abbey that’s watching me. I am moving south. I see trees and something in the River El… ulp!” She opened her eyes in horror and began vomiting copious amounts of clear water, sinking to her knees and struggling to breathe.
“Fern! Do something!” Harold cried out. “She’s drowning!”
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell – all rights reserved