Chapter 31: Nick of Time
Chapter 31 of City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy
The Five Angels race to Fitzgeran Island on the River Elver to rescue Ondine and her Sisters but the Erdethric Hybrids and their wolves may well beat them to it….
Nick of Time
Thanewell had never seen a Wiccan before but Mother Ivy, with her Persian heritage and long brown hair set in pearls, was the most exotic and intriguing woman he’d ever met in his sheltered, cloistered life. He felt a stirring of arousal as he cast sidelong glances at her slender profile despite her clothing mocking the Conclave of Architects. Her knuckles whitened as she sat in the co-pilot’s seat of Bede Angel Eight, grasping her ebony staff. She looked at him from the corner of her eye and adjusted her headset microphone. “Pardon me, Wiccan,” he apologised quickly, turning his head away. “I fear Azrael was infiltrating my thoughts.”
“You’re not an unhandsome fellow now that you’ve discarded those robes,” she replied magnanimously. “The urges you feel are perfectly natural and flattering up to a point bearing in mind how misogynists like you have persecuted Wiccans like me for centuries. Even without the urgings of the Beast, your predecessors would have me stoned to death or burnt at the stake.”
Thanewell chewed at his lower lip and reddened. “This I must concede, Mother Ivy: a mere few weeks ago I would’ve thrust a brand into your pyre and counted myself blessed by God but…”
“Why did I kiss young Kai in front of you all before we climbed into the Angels? I wanted to show you and the Light-Father that we can all move on; Wiccans and Brothers alike. We can shed our fear and hatred of men and you can shed your fear and hatred of women. Kai was foolishly punishing himself for the sins of the Order so I bedded him to absolve him of those sins.”
“Using one sin to absolve another?” Thanewell spluttered and then he grinned bashfully being painfully aware that the Wiccan had the ability to pluck the very thoughts from his head. “What a curious reason to justify corrupting a young, former Brother.”
“Pah! Think what you will of me, Thanewell, I’m no crib-thief and Kai is no child.” Ivy shrugged, staring through the windows to enjoy the spectacular views of meadows and forests basking in the unaccustomed sunshine below. “This is the first time I’ve ever flown in a rotorcraft. It’s somewhat unnerving yet wonderful.”
“You get used to it and it’s probably a lot more comfortable than a broomstick,” he chuckled nervously.
“Ah, a joke oft foretells the flourishing of an open mind,” Ivy nodded approvingly. “There’s hope for you yet.”
“What about you, Piamadet? How are you faring?”
“Don’t be concerned about a gun-monkey like me, Thanewell,” Piamadet grumbled through his headset microphone. “You get used to the permanent kinks in your neck and back.”
“How much further is it to this island?” Ivy enquired. She smiled as a childhood memory fragment surfaced: she was in the back of her parents’ car endlessly whining: ‘are we there yet?’
“Another five leagues or so,” Thanewell replied, checking his fuel gauges. “About ten minutes flight at this speed.” He glanced at her. “Thank the Virgin Mary we have you with us as we must maintain radio silence. Even though we’re on different frequencies, there’s no guarantee that Aten won’t think of this and scan the airwaves for us. Speaking of which: can you detect him?”
“Azrael? Yes. He’s brooding in the Great Manse as far as I can tell. I fought him off earlier at the Tower of the Sun after I tried to scry Aten’s thoughts but I’m not sure how I managed it. I discussed it with Fern and Nightshade and we think it’s because he cannot bear new life being created in his presence.”
“Whatever it is,” Piamadet added with heartfelt sincerity. “I hope you can do it again. I’ve never thought this clearly in my life: I don’t want to be overtaken by that miasma again. Hoi! Look at that scenery down there! After years of rain, this is the perfect metaphor for me: sunlight representing this sense of being reborn.”
“I’m glad to hear that. You claim you had nothing to do with the Great Plague or Tally-men,” Ivy reminded them brusquely. “But you both have to live with the fact that you’ve flown countless missions in support of brutal, bloody Inquisitions. You’ve killed dozens if not hundreds of people with your chain guns.”
Thanewell gritted his teeth until the veins on his temples stood proud. “Their deaths will always be on our consciences; you have but to read our minds to see that! Don’t forget we had no choice: a Brother-Martial was always on board with us directing the strafing of defences erected by survivors. One of the advantages of being removed from your target is that you rarely get to see the blood and body-parts flying everywhere but fear not; our imaginations fill in the blanks. I rue every day, every single death.”
“As do I,” Piamadet echoed. “We’re above the Elver now. I can see the Great Abbey from here. Get lower, Thanewell, otherwise they may spot us from one of the towers. They must have heard the noise of our rotors by now. Look! On the northern shore there’s movement. Hoi! It’s those bloody-handed devil-hybrids we fought! Can you see them? By Saint Stephen’s arrow-heads, how can those things move so fast? They can’t be natural.”
Thanewell banked the Angel slightly. “Yes, I see them. The hybrids are easily keeping up with the wolves! They’re not even looking up at us as they’re fixated on something…. Ah!” he exclaimed, his eyes widening. “They’re going after the Sisters but how would they know they’re on the island? They can’t possibly track them by scent as they were thrown into the river!”
“It has to be Azrael,” Ivy answered grimly, staring through the windows at the running packs that seemed to flow along the banks like a black tide. “Both wolves and hybrids are full of the same kind of insensate malice at the Great Abbey. They carry the same psychic stench as Azrael when he attacked me in the tower: a relentless hatred for all sentient living beings.”
Thanewell looked grim. “You’ve told me all you know about this monstrous creature controlling the direction of the Order for centuries yet you defeated a Fallen One ordained in the Bible itself. I can’t believe that you Wiccans are that powerful.” His brow furrowed. “But how can a disembodied will actually exist?”
Ivy sighed then patted her abdomen. “Azrael’s will survives because I suspect his real body is embedded in the Void between Creations but if he can once again transfer to a physical form in this world, he will become infinitely more powerful as when he seized control of the Tally-men across the globe and resurrected those dead Brothers. We only defeated him by the sacrifice of a young Scatterling and our good fortune in that he was still attached to the Great Computer by umbilical cords.” She fixed him with a penetrating stare: “Had we not done so, every survivor, every Feral, every Brother would be dead and Gaia destroyed.”
“I concede this but given his hatred for sentient life may explain why the creation of new life is like a poison to this devil. Wait! Are you saying that you’re pregnant by Kai?” Thanewell gasped. “How can you possibly tell in the space of a few short hours?”
“I see you’re just as shrewd as Ursaf claims you are. I couldn’t tell but Azrael could. New life must be a torment to creatures dragged from ascension to be cast into the Void. We’ll discuss this later as there’s the island.”
“That’s an impressive mansion! The lawns down there look level enough to land but we must hurry!” Piamadet urged. “Wolves and Ferals were entering the Elver and swimming out into the current – they’ll be all over the island in minutes!”
“I can’t see the Sisters,” Thanewell fretted, craning his neck to search the mansion and the grounds. “Did they really make it to this island as your Scatterling claims they did?”
Ivy put her fingertips to her temples for a few moments. “Ah, I have them. They’re hiding in the cellars as they fear we’ve come to take them back or kill them in cold blood.”
“Of course they would,” Thanewell sighed. “Brace yourself: I’m going to set down as close as I can to the main doors.”
One by one the Angels landed and Ursaf broke radio silence to instruct Thanewell and the other pilots to keep their engines on standby. “Everyone else,” he added. “Keep your rifles trained upon the surrounding trees until the Sisters are on board.”
Piamadet pushed himself into the cabin on the roller bed and got up to grab his rifle. “We’ve fought those beasts north of Wealthorpe,” he told Thanewell. “They’re vicious beyond belief. They tore Gudflan, Durwyn and Hneftal to pieces and both wolf and hybrid ate them!”
Thanewell blanched and turned to Ivy: “I have to stay here so you’ll have to persuade my cousin, Ondine – that’s the Abbess if she’s survived – and the others to get to the Angels otherwise we’ll all be overrun by Farzad’s abominations. Oh, and get everyone to keep their heads down when they get close to the Angels.” He shuddered: “I don’t want a repeat of what happened at Bede: Azrael made those poor fools jump into our rotor blades!”
“I understand,” Ivy acknowledged, removing her safety belt. She clambered down to the ground and waved to Nightshade and Fern who had joined the six crew members in forming a defensive ring around the Angels. As she entered the mansion doors, she could hear the first of the wolves howling on the island shore. “Diana, preserve us,” she whispered, scurrying along one of the dusty corridors to a cellar door where she knew the sisters and the others had taken refuge. “This is going to be close.”
She was about to open the door when a premonition gripped her and she stepped aside in the nick of time as a volley of bullets tore through the wood and smashed into the plastered wall opposite destroying a large, priceless Grecian vase. Part of her mind had noted the sumptuous furnishings, ornaments and gilded mouldings of the mansion and the ceramic fragments somehow symbolised the shattering of the world. “Hold your fire!” she screamed, mortified that her haste had almost got her killed. “I’m a Wiccan! The Light-Father has sent us to rescue you. You must hurry! Something evil is already on the island and it will kill you all unless you move now!”
A male voice demanded gruffly: “How do we know you’re a Wiccan? You could be a Sister from Burslen sent to deceive us!”
Ivy ground her teeth in impotent fury then she concentrated. Several men screamed out and she could hear their rifles clattering down the cellar steps and onto the flagstones below eliciting thin shrieks and screams from the terrified Sisters and what sounded like children. “Now do you believe me?” she yelled out. “That was an illusion-geis making you believe your guns were hot!”
The door bolts were thrown back and a middle-aged woman dressed in male clothes stepped into the corridor to embrace her. “Bless you and the Light-Father, Wiccan,” she said gratefully. “I am Ondine and Abbess to my thirty beloved Sisters. I have Abbot Camus and three Brothers with us and two children of the Fitzgeran Clan who’ve survived here alone.”
Ivy gave Ondine a reassuring squeeze. “We must hurry. Azrael’s Erdethric monsters are already on the island and they will kill us all unless you hurry! I release my geis: you can pick up your rifles!” she shouted down the cellar steps. “Trust me, you’ll need them!”
Ursaf appeared at the end of the corridor. “They’re here!” he bellowed, panic-stricken. “They’re emerging from the trees!”
Ivy was glad that Ursaf had come to warn her because what awaited them outside was the stuff of nightmares. The former lawns were roughly circular and close-cropped by goats that were huddled against the mansion wall, trembling and bleating pitifully. From the western arc of trees and undergrowth, black wolves were emerging along with dozens of shambling powerfully-muscled ape-like hybrids with hunched shoulders and arms almost touching the ground. They were advancing from the lengthening shadows into the bright sunlight whilst keeping a dreadful, focussed silence.
“What are you waiting for?” Ursaf cried as he herded the Sisters through the doors. “You three fill the gaps in the defence,” he ordered, virtually hurling the bemused Camus, Cyrus and Luke down the steps. “Don’t let them near you! They’ll rip your face off! Come on, Abbess! Let’s get the Sisters into the Angels.”
Ivy was relieved to see the resolute look on Ondine’s face as she took command and divided the Sisters and the two boys into groups but it was difficult as the Sisters were terrified out of their wits as the first shots rang out. Ondine had to resort to slapping the most hysterical as she forced them to climb into the cabins. Ignatius used the last of his strength to crawl aboard as Ivy joined Nightshade and Fern to face the creatures who, unfazed by their comrades being killed and injured, were still pressing forward implacably.
“You are in my domain!” Ivy cried out suddenly, raising her staff at the advancing packs. Piamadet and the others stopped firing at the sound of her voice which carried unearthly harmonies that made their teeth itch. They stared in awe as the ground beneath the hybrids and wolves undulated then thick vines erupted vertically ten feet into the air with leaves budding and growing upon them at an unbelievable rate. The wolves howled then yelped in agony as the vines seized their bodies and crushed them to the ground. The hybrids however slashed the vines apart with their talons and teeth or simply tore themselves free by sheer brute force.
Sporadic panicky fire broke out as Camus and the others quailed at the sheer remorseless fury on those warped and bestial faces. Only Piamadet and Spero made their shots count, crying out the names of their three fallen comrades.
Fern raised her staff. “My turn I think,” she said decisively and brought it down hard upon the ground which bucked beneath their feet. Glass panes shattered in several mansion windows as seismic shock waves radiated away from the point of impact. The earth and rock beneath the feet of the hybrids heaved upwards tossing them twenty or more feet into the air to land heavily amongst the overgrowth and tree branches.
Ursaf looked up at Ondine who was standing on the struts of Bede Angel Eight having recognised Thanewell. She had her mouth open. “Impressive, aren’t they?” he grinned. “Yet for all that craft, they obey the Light-Father without question.”
Ondine pointed southwards as more shapes burst into view from the brambles, willows and overgrowth. “Thank God for the Wiccans but those beast-men are mostly unhurt!” she groaned. “And there are others trying to outflank us!”
“Everyone!” Ursaf roared, cupping his hands. “Get into your Angels! We can’t fend them off: there’s too many of them!”
More wolves erupted from the trees but Ivy raised her staff again and the goats bolted forward to intercept them. The wolves, presented with easy prey, immediately fell upon them, clamping jaws about throats. The screams of the goats as they were torn apart echoed those of the two Fitzgeran children who’d raised them.
Everyone, including the three Wiccans, needed no urging and clambered into the cabins as another wave surged towards them with a few pausing to feast upon the dead and mortally-wounded. As the Angels rose, chaos reigned as hybrids leapt up and grabbed the landing-struts of all five machines. Several tried to claw their way through the cabin doors only to be shot in the face by Piamadet and the other gunners but many more clung to the struts so that the rotorcraft could not gain altitude and two were already slowly sinking towards the trees with their engines labouring.
Nightshade bared her teeth, growling as the bestial, alien thoughts of the hybrids overwhelmed her mental barriers and she screeched in an ancient forgotten tongue that made everyone without headsets cover their ears: “dawje gentin kommaljho mallostillnyae! I am Mother Nightshade of the Fourth Degree, Servant of Leo and Wielder of Fire and I deny thee!”
The five Angels suddenly gained altitude and Ondine risked leaning out of the open cabin door to watch the screaming hybrids, limbs flailing, bodies ablaze, falling into the trees and the River Elver like meteors. Piamadet drew her gently back into the cabin and closed the door as the angel picked up speed. “What do you think of the Wiccans now?” he asked, with a wry smile. “If they hadn’t been here, those abominations would be tearing the flesh from our dead bodies down there.”
Ondine gave him a relieved grin and received a reassuring pat on the shoulder in return then, cursing and grumbling, he wriggled onto his roller bed and slid forward into the nose-cone.
Ivy was weary to the bone and slumped in the co-pilot’s seat with her eyes closed remembering little of the journey back to Milverburg apart from a few hopeful shots fired at them from the Cwiclasc causeway. She was last to leave Bede Angel Eight and skirted the excited melee that had gathered after the last of the rotor-blades had come to a stop.
All three Wiccans were not party to the hubbub and chatter as Ondine tended to the Sisters with the help of the Scatterlings especially Surl who seemed to bond instantly with the befuddled, distraught Persephone who would not let Amos approach her. Amos was about to protest but Ondine placed a hand upon his shoulder and whispered into his ear. A look of shock and then outrage crossed his scarred face. “Tell her I’ll kill the next man that lays a finger on her!” he pledged.
As they could bear no men to be close to them and Bas terrified them on a primal level, Ondine decided to lead her Sisters into the Tower of the Sun assisted, as instructed by Harold, by Mouse, Fria, Surl and Rabbit as well as Kayleigh and Pomona who were exceedingly curious and bombarded Ondine with questions about the Sisters.
Camus helped Ignatius get to the ground and was immediately embraced on alighting from his Angel by Michael. The two men hugged in silence, watched by Harold, Ursaf and Thanewell, for a full minute before Michael finally said: “I forgive you, old friend,” – a simple statement that moved Harold immensely.
Ignatius had to be supported by Thanewell and Camus but he extended a veined and shaking hand to Harold who took it and shook it gently. “Well met at last, Light-Father,” he smiled, looking Harold up and down. “I’m honoured to meet you though I must admit I expected someone a little more… imposing.”
Harold laughed ruefully. “I used to get that a lot in my world, Ignatius. What you see is what you get, I’m afraid. I really want to want to thank you for saving Mouse, Peter and Fria and for finding the sign of the craft on Surl’s tongue of all places.”
“They helped to save others including Michael here as Camus, Luke and Cyrus saved me. Surl is an extraordinary girl, Light-Father. Look after her well. I cannot help but feel her craft may be the saving of us. You must excuse me but I will be of little use to you for a while – Pious and Aten were most proficient in their Inquiring of me and I think both my feet are bleeding again.”
Harold beckoned to Amos who was examining a chain-gun and to Saul who was talking earnestly to Shield some yards away about her far-seeing attempt – it was plain to see that he was deeply upset. “Yes, Light-Father?” he said. “What do you wish of us?”
“Ignatius, this is Saul Dis, the Eldest of the Scatterlings and this is Amos, Surl’s older brother. They’ll take you to an unused bedroom on the fourth floor that has books in it as I understand from the young ones that you’re a scholar.” He turned to Saul and Amos. “Ignatius was badly tortured by Pious and Aten. Can you see to his wounds and make sure he eats some food, please?”
Saul’s face became grim and he rubbed at the scar upon his chin. “Amos and I am pleased to meet you, Ignatius and we, too, praise your for helping the little ones. So Abbot Pious likes to torture old men,” he added darkly. “Well there’s another reason for me to chop that balanith helrúna’s head off!”
Ignatius bowed to the tall black-haired youth. “Thank you. I hear some of the Old Tongue in your speech, my son. When I am well and this hellish nightmare is done, I would be honoured to be tutor to you and your Scatterlings. Oh, I am so looking forward to exploring the libraries once I am rested.”
Harold watched Saul kiss Shield briefly on the cheek but she remained impassive, her eyes upon the ground and did not return the kiss. Saul sighed then he and Amos supported Ignatius as they walked towards the tower. They had to physically carry the old man up the flights of stairs, laying him gently on the bed as he was in considerable pain. Sunlight and a fresh sea-scented westerly streamed in through the open window. He gave a contented sigh, muttering ‘ah, this is bliss’ and fell into a doze before Saul and Amos could return with water, food and a medical kit.
Meanwhile, Harold was introduced to Camus who also shook hands with Ursaf and Thanewell as Shield went to talk to the Wiccans and question them about astral projection. He noted sadly that Fern had difficulty meeting his gaze but listened attentively as Camus related what he knew of the planned attack.
“We guessed it would be coordinated,” Harold told them. “But we still don’t know which viaduct will carry the main thrust or how the Angels will be used in Uppermost. If those bastards use that field artillery, those barricades won’t slow them down for a second unless the Mothers can stop them.”
“After what I witnessed today on the River Elver is anything to go by,” Camus laughed incredulously. “I think we have a fighting chance. I’ve never seen anything like it, Light-Father, and I certainly don’t understand the physics of it.”
“Neither do I,” Michael interjected.
Harold smiled. “One of the Doctors at my university, Doctor Smith, always used to say that an inexplicable event was just something that had to wait awhile for science to catch up to it.”
Camus watched as the gnomon-shadow of the Tower of the Sun crept across the park and the mansions beyond. “Somehow, between Azrael and their craft, it’ll be a very long wait.”
Michael placed a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “Come now,” he said kindly. “Let’s rid you, Cyrus and Luke of these filthy robes and find you apparel as befits free men. Then we have to go down to the lowest level where we’ve set up a factory of sorts. We have a lot of pipe-bombs to make before nightfall!”
After they’d gone and the Angel crews had left for the Core after refuelling the Angels, Harold spoke at length to the two shy blond Fitzgeran boys, Eric and Deorth, who were twelve and fourteen years of age respectively. They were whisper-thin and undersized for their age but they seemed healthy enough so Harold placed them in the care of Ibrahim and Bas who took to them immediately. As they ambled towards the Northern Perimeter Stairway, the boys bewailed the loss of the goats they’d raised from kids then they begged permission to fluff Bas’s tail and stroke her ears. To Harold’s immense surprise and a wink from Ibrahim, she knelt and stoically endured the humiliating petting for a full minute and a half before baring her teeth and hissing like a cat, making the boys laugh out loud in delighted surprise.
Finally, only Shield and the three Wiccans remained. Fern, Ivy and Nightshade were all exhausted and stood silently, leaning upon their staffs and gazed expectantly at him as he removed his cap and ran his fingers through his thinning ginger hair.
“Well done,” he said.
(c) 2019 Paul D E Mitchell – copyright protected