Chapter 32: Such Calm Before
Chapter 32 of City of Gargoyles: Second Book of the Light-Father Trilogy
As night falls across Milverburg, lights blaze from tower windows for the first time in six years as the defenders drift through an evening of fear and uncertainty. At the Great Abbey, a new horror unfolds…
Such Calm Before
Nightshade was observing the Brothers occupying the Cwiclasc causeway through her binoculars. She was concerned to see Tally-men with them given the information from Ursaf and Camus about them being killed or confined. “This is not good,” she murmured to herself. “Azrael must’ve purged their suspicions.”
A barrier of rubble, felled trees, beams and girders had been heaped across the causeway to ensure that any train emerging from the Mouth of Freya – as this railway tunnel was called – would be derailed. She imagined them staring back at the immense carving of the warlike face of the Vanir Goddess of the Valkyries surrounding the entrance as the setting sun threw deep shadows across her snarling features. She could not see the field ordnance but she knew in her heart that it was there; waiting to blow the ramshackle barricade she was standing on to gledes and smithereens.
She remembered entering Milverburg as a young Daughter with Mother Vervain on the Brigstowe train, imagining their train being devoured by Freya’s maw now gagged with carriages, trolleys and all manner of dockside items by the Ferals and Scatterlings. They’d left a gap at the top of the tunnel so that lookouts could climb up and observe the viaduct through Freya’s upper fangs. The ad hoc barricade shifted ominously beneath her weight and she knew it would offer scant defence against their besiegers.
Despite her exhaustion, she let her mind roam around all three causeways but she could only ‘far-see’ the one field gun at Wealthorpe surrounded by excited Brothers and novices consulting a manual or unpacking artillery shells from padded transportation crates. Dozens of Tally-men guarded the camp perimeter with their spears upright and standing to attention like statues.
She returned to her body but the effort of astral projection had drained her and she trembled a little from fatigue. Adjusting the binoculars, she could just make out the village of Cwiclasc nestling to the right of the causeway. Unlike Wealthorpe, the imposing houses were all two or three stories high as befitted the village of the legendary engineering clans who had designed and built the mammoth causeways and viaducts. The mildewing white-washed walls and sharply-sloping roofs glowed ruby-red from the setting sun and here and there window panes reflected crimson laser-flares of light. She smiled as she recalled the old rumour that the villagers had evolved cast-iron noses being the only folk in Britannia unaffected by the foetid reeks of the adjacent Dead Marshes.
“What are you smiling about, Mother Nightshade?” Mouse asked as she scrambled up to join the albino Wiccan.
“Oh, just memories from when I visited Milverburg,” Nightshade replied wistfully, placing a hand upon Mouse’s cheek. “Mother Vervain brought me here whenever they caught me sneaking off to spy upon my family. Like Fern and Clover, I was mesmerised.” She swept out an arm to indicate the vast spaces of the Core beyond the tunnel mouth. “There were incredible sights and scenes back there to captivate a fanciful young maid like me: merchants shouting at stevedores to unload their cargo; the Dock Masters screaming back at the merchants; the peculiar Duct Masters strutting about in their black uniforms as if they owned the place. Diana bless their souls,” she sighed. “We’ll never see such a spectacle again.”
“Were the towns above just as busy?” Mouse asked, trying to imagine the scenes then she gasped as they came to life before her mind’s eye. “Oh! You’re sharing memories with me!”
“I am,” Nightshade chuckled. “These people were enlightened if somewhat curious about albinos but they made us welcome as they often sought Mother Vervain’s advice and assistance. The level above us was Muspeleim where the tedious money exchanges and international barter houses were. Despite the rise of Beorminghas as a global financial centre they still thrived because merchant clans never trusted bankers and would not deal in stocks and shares like the Beorminghas traders did.”
“So merchants were more like pirates then?”
“Pretty much,” Nightshade agreed. “But I loved the town above that: Folkvangr or Freyaheimas as some called it and that’s where spice and textile trading took place. Mother Vervain used to spend all day shopping for herbs and spices but I never got bored of all the incredible shops and busy bazaars. The town above Folkvangr was Helheim and I hated that bleak place where all the hospitals, prisons and funeral directors were sited. It was so quiet compared to the clamour and clatter of the other levels.” She counted the towns off on her fingers: “And then you had the smithies and weapons-masters of Svartalfheim.”
“That’s where that Marc, Ken and the others were, wasn’t it?”
“Aye, they’ve found more than enough weapons,” Nightshade said, peering through the binoculars again. “They distributed them all at Six Bells so everybody is armed to the teeth but we’ve run out of gunpowder to make any more pipe bombs.”
“We’ve worked really hard helping the Ferals today,” Mouse wheedled. “So tell me about the rest of Milverburg!”
“Well, the town above Svartalfheim was called Alfheim; the City of the Artisans. Oh, I loved exploring the galleries, studios and workshops where they made the statues and the gargoyles and so much more. Let’s see now: ah, yes, Vanaheim was where all the trading in electrical and ceramic goods took place then above that was Jotunheim where the goldsmiths and jewellers worked. Mother Vervain once dragged me out of there by my collar and beat me when I tried to buy a brooch for my mother!”
“Then the last is Midgard where the servants who worked for the rich people in Uppermost lived,” Mouse concluded brightly.
“Correct but you didn’t climb up here just to badger me for a geography lesson, now did you, little Mouse?”
Mouse looked guilty and toyed with her spear: “No, Mother Nightshade. It’s the Wiccan Egg that Michael gave us. Mother Fern has it but Shield and I want to know if Michael was telling the truth: does it really hold my sister’s soul?”
Nightshade embraced Mouse and hugged her tightly: “We can’t promise anything, dear heart. We did not think Mother Veneris was capable of such a feat as it was but a legend amongst us. Mother Rosemary was adamant, even as a Heliodrammus, that she could not do such a thing but Mother Veneris spent years studying the old ways in the grimoires at the Retreat. We had the greatest collection of incantations and lore in all Britannia so we may need to go back to the Hill Where It Never Rains to read them.”
“Well? Can she be brought back?” Mouse demanded tearfully.
Nightshade’s smile faded. “There is a way: a ceremony we call kwenkanatikitu or The Five Soul Fold in the modern tongue. Do you know why we never have a coven with five Wiccans?”
Mouse shook her head, wide-eyed. “Is it because five is an unlucky number for Wiccans?” she suggested hesitantly.
“You used to find covens of three easily enough in the old days,” Nightshade explained, turning to view Cwiclasc through her binoculars once more just as Fern was watching Wealthorpe and Ivy was watching Drytenham. “They reflect the Triple Goddess and Life itself as bound to the Three Fates but centuries ago we found six to be a safer, powerful number incorporating the elements and our powers as our craft and knowledge grew. You see, five is the thaumaturgical or magical optimum number in this reality. When five of us far-talk to each other at the same time, something both wondrous and perilous happens: our minds quickly ‘fold’ together until we are but one mind living in five bodies. Whole covens were lost to the sheer erotic bliss of such a union as their neglected bodies died yet, as with Azrael, their co-joined minds survived decaying into malicious, vengeful sprites before fading away as if those five Wiccan souls had never existed.”
“Un-geh!” Mouse breathed. “So they become monsters?”
Nightshade turned to smile down upon Mouse once more. “Not at first. The Five Soul Fold is powerful enough to touch the very stars but as the ecstasy grows, it becomes fey and seductive. This is why there must be a sixth Wiccan present to disrupt the Five Soul Fold once its task has been completed. We’ve never done this in Britannia for over a century but even if we were willing to take the risk, we may not be strong enough to draw your sister back into this reality and you must accept that, Mouse. I’m sorry.”
“Yes, I see, Mother Nightshade,” Mouse said glumly. “Would that Five Fold thing be strong enough to ward off Azrael? Shield told me that he attacked the Light-Father and Ivy but how can he do things like that without a body?”
“His true form lies in the Void but he astral projects his will, part of which rode that machine into our world as a ‘seed’. I doubt we’ll defeat him as he’s one of an ancient and powerful race that stormed the very Gates of Heaven. I think the goddess Ormuzd helped the Light-Father but,” she added thoughtfully. “Ivy fended him off alone because she and Kai had just lain together in the Tower of the Su…”
“What?” Mouse exploded, blushing furiously. “You mean a Wiccan has just mated with a Brother?”
“Technically, he’s not a Brother any more,” Nightshade pointed out delicately. “Tch! You all know how new life is created. Mother Moss taught you Scatterlings well enough.”
“What do you mean….?” Mouse probed. “Is she…? I mean how can… lying together in a bed stop a demon like Azrael?”
“Mother Nightshade! Mouse!” Saul called up to them. “It’s almost Eight Bells! It’s time to meet with the Light-Father and l the others in the Town Hall in Uppermost. He says this is our last chance to discuss tomorrow’s tactics before the twilight fades. Is there any activity out there in Cwiclasc?”
“None; they’re settling down for the night,” she reported, glad of the distraction. They began descending the rickety jumble of trolleys, cases and dockside equipment that creaked and shifted alarmingly beneath their feet. “But there’s definitely field artillery at Wealthorpe as well as Tally-men there and as in Cwiclasc.”
“Ah, far-seeing again,” Saul noted with the doubt plain in his voice. “The Light-Father really needs to know of the Tally-men as Ursaf said they’d locked them up at Bede after the massacre. In my heart of hearts, I knew they use them to attack us.”
“I sense you also wish to ask me a favour.”
“Aye, I beg you to talk to Shield as I don’t want her to scry again – it’s far too dangerous but she won’t discuss it with me,” he added sadly, offering a hand to assist Nightshade down from a tall cargo trolley. “I need your help to convince her.”
She leapt nimbly down after declining his assistance leaving him flustered and barely able to catch Mouse in time as she jumped gleefully into his arms, almost braining him with her spear shaft.
“You should never ask a Wiccan to deny another’s craft. I advise you to let her become what she needs to be, Saul,” Nightshade told him with a steely edge to her voice. “Would you be happy if I took that katana from you by force?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he sighed, setting the exuberant Mouse upon her feet. He reached over his shoulder to draw the blade and for a brief moment, Nightshade sensed his frustration emerge in a desire to slice clean through her staff. He ran two fingers lovingly along the hi and hamon of the blade then he sheathed it. “After all that time together in Crawcester I thought I knew her well but I don’t.” He looked stricken, prompting Mouse to hug him sympathetically. “I’m so afraid of losing her, Mother Nightshade!”
Nightshade closed her eyes for a moment then opened them again, grinning from ear to ear. “Ha! Foolish boy!” she laughed. “As the Light-Father has told you countless times: she’s grown into a strong, complex and beautiful woman as well as a powerful Wiccan and you must accept all those facets of her not just the one you want. You must give her time to explore her craft but know this: she loves you from the deepest depths of her heart so the only thing you’re going to lose, dear heart, is a little dignity.”
Mouse giggled on cue. “She does love you, Eldest! You’re all she ever talks about you know. She’s grumpy, tired and frightened right now but you’ll always be her honey-numpkins!”
Saul looked mortified. “Dear God, kill me now,” he groaned in martyred tones: “I didn’t know she’d told everyone about that!”
Fern sat upon the window sill of their bedroom in the Tower of the Sun, combing her hair. It had been a pleasure to wash it as the ends of her tresses were normally intricately beaded and a chore to maintain. They hadn’t bothered drawing the heavy bedroom drapes to hide the candlelight and lamplight as there was no longer any point. A bloated full Moon had just risen in the east between two perimeter towers with a leprous yellow hue. Nevertheless, she enjoyed seeing it for the first time in six years and softly sang an old lament about the Lunar Goddess in welcome.
She turned to Harold who had shed his overalls and was pacing up and down the bedroom in boxer shorts and a singlet. “Come here,” she said, beckoning him to the window. “We should both be dancing naked in a sycamore grove to welcome Selene.”
“It’s just a lump of dead rock,” he grumbled but nevertheless he sat on the sill to enjoy the view. Along the southern horizon was a band of thin, high stratus that flickered faintly from the lightning discharges of distant storms but he felt the weather was betraying them somehow as those storms could have frustrated their attackers and lessened their fighting abilities especially as Tally-men were joining all three causeway blockades. “It looks like this north-westerly wind is keeping those storms at bay for now.”
He studied the Moon and inhaled sharply: “The surface is so different from the Moon in my world!” he exclaimed then he sighed: “Of course it would be: the general process of formation is the same but the asteroid bombardments would be different. You know, that really does make me feel like an alien.”
“Your world had no hold on you so you’re of Gaia now,” she assured him, squeezing his hand. “Whether you were brought here by Mother Moss or Ormuzd doesn’t matter: the Fates meant you to be here to save us. None of the Scatterlings, none of the Brothers out there, none of us would be alive but for you, dear heart. You are a pebble setting off an avalanche; a pivot about which the destiny of this world has lately turned.”
“Well, I don’t feel very pivoty right now,” he sighed, taking her hand. Suddenly a brief chorus of a dozen blackbirds in the park trees below sounded as a counterpoint to the dolorous tone of his voice. “Who the hell asked for your opinion?” he shouted down to them, making Fern chuckle.
“You are more in tune with our world than you realise,” she explained then she concentrated, closing her eyes. He gaped at her as one by one the blackbirds sang creating a complex harmony. “That’s part of my craft,” she smiled, releasing them. She listened as their territorial songs resumed. “But it pains me to know I’ll never match their creativity.”
“You spent some time with Surl earlier,” he pointed out. “How is she? I haven’t had time to speak much to our little saboteurs today. They were helping the Ferals built the barricades and there just hasn’t been time to talk to them.”
“She cannot use her prescience as she still haemorrhages when she tries but she is well enough to be jealous of Fria falling in love with her brother. Amos is enjoying being the centre of attention. I’ve spoken to Fria but you may need to speak to Amos about the male side of their relationship. They’re too young to be engaged in love-making as I fear Fria may not mature enough to bear a child safely. We need to find them contraceptives and instruct them on how to use them properly.”
“Fine,” he agreed reluctantly, reddening slightly. “We’re about to be wiped out yet you want me to teach a teenage boy how not to be a chauvinist and how to treat women properly. I’m more used to fixing mass spectrometers not giving sex education.”
“I’ve no complaints about your credentials, dear teacher.”
“Don’t try sweet-talking me, Fern. I wish you’d told me about the pregnancy before Shield blurted it out.”
“It’s just one late period, dear heart. I didn’t want to raise your hopes or remind you of little Naomi.” She tapped her forehead. “I try not to pry into your thoughts but powerful emotions are hard to filter out such as the love you once had for Andrea.”
“You know how much I love you. Do I need words?”
“Words are good,” she smiled, scooting along the sill to snuggle up to him. “An unvoiced thought is a leaf torn from a tree in a storm whereas a word is a seed that takes root, dear heart.”
“I haven’t read any books here yet so I’ve no idea who you’ve just quoted but he sounds like a very wise man.”
“Woman,” she corrected sweetly.
“Fine, woman,” he conceded, blushing slightly and decided to change the subject: “Have you fully recovered your strength yet? I wish I’d been there to see it, especially Nightshade torching those hybrids. I had a lot to organise here but, all in all, that was quite the rescue on the Elver you pulled off.”
“Yes, it was,” she said archly. “But we expected a little more praise from you than a ‘well done’ you know. You have no idea how much Ivy and Nightshade respect you. All those men who joined us today spoke of their loyalty to you as they laid the mines and booby traps on the perimeter stairs. They see you as a natural leader, despite the overalls, and their only hope of salvation.”
“I can barely remember their names,” he noted despondently. “And many of them could die tomorrow. Why aren’t they bedding down in the Tower of the Sun? There are plenty of bedrooms.”
“Marcus told me that the Ferals make them nervous given what happened in the Great Abbey and they say they aren’t worthy yet so they’re sleeping in the Towers of the Moon for now. See their lights in the East Tower windows? Oh, and before you ask, we looked into their minds but we found no sign of treachery. The only one we couldn’t scry was Ignatius as he’s deeply asleep and dreaming of wine and literature,” she chuckled. “Peter, Rabbit, Surl and Pup visited him earlier with a bottle of red wine and Ondine joined them. They really do love that old man! Given the torture, he’s so forgiving and gentle.”
“That’s good to know. I’m sorry about the ‘well done’ earlier but my brain was still fried from having that bastard inside my head. I would love to meet Nightshade’s goddess in person to thank her for whatever it was she did to get rid of him.”
“She probably knows if she really is a Power That Be. Ivy is still exhausted as that conflict with Azrael had weakened her to the core before the fighting at Fitzgeran Island. Kai is fussing about her in the bedroom above us at the moment,” she chuckled, pointing up at the ceiling. “She’s telling him that conception hasn’t turned her into fragile glass and that he should lie next to her. She may be tired but, oh, by the Huntress, she’s insatiable.”
“You’re like some psychic curtain-twitching biddy. Give them some privacy,” Harold insisted. “How are the Ferals doing?”
“They’re determined to keep watch on the dock gates and the tunnels. Marc, Olias and Stunneson have joined Ken Glascae and his men and are using those grills to cook meals for the Ferals. They’re learning to communicate with them and getting them to sleep in shifts in the carriages of the Phoenix.”
“Good. I didn’t ask them to do that but Ken said they would find it hard to sleep on the ‘eve of our revenge’ as he put it. They really need to be rested and up here covering Uppermost at first light,” he fretted. “They are Ursaf and Thanewell’s only defence as the Angels are sitting ducks unless we can get them into the air. You can’t give us an early warning if you’re defending the tunnels.”
“Yes, we need to be focussed on the viaducts,” she admitted. “Even Wiccans can’t be everywhere at once.”
“Mmm, right now there’s one place I’d like you to be,” he grinned, getting off the sill and hauling her to her feet.
“Do you see them below us, Yin-chan?”
“Yes, six climbing men, Yang-chan.”
“They can see the handholds in the moonlight.”
“There are lots of handholds in these old stones.”
“They’re very brave to scale such walls.”
“We did the same for fun before, remember?”
“I do. They must be here to sabotage the Angels.”
“Most likely they want to kill the Light-Father.”
“We can’t allow that, now can we, Yin-chan?”
Two bows sang as one three times.
Shield and Bas had tucked in Surl, Peter, Rabbit and Pup who had bonded together during their adventures and closed their bedroom door. Even though Pup gave her a goodnight kiss, Bas was so melancholy that her ears drooped forward as she put a hand to the sign taped to the door upon which was scrawled in a childish hand: “Do not disturb. Saboteurs at work!”
“Pup has grown distant from me,” she confided. “He didn’t want a story from me tonight. I should’ve gone back for him and not fled the Great Abbey like some coward.”
“Pup knows you would’ve been killed but it no longer matters,” Shield said, grabbing her friend by the shoulders and gently shaking her. “He’s alive and still has need of his mother. Who will protect him tomorrow, if you don’t?”
Bas perked up and smiled. “True, like all mothers, I know he’s growing up and will leave me but it hurts so much!”
“It’s that pain that proves you’ve a human heart,” Shield replied simply, desperately hoping that she’d said the right thing.
Bas raised an eyebrow. “Shield, you must be jesting with me! Me? Have a human heart? Don’t let the shade of our cruel father ever hear you say a thing like that,” she said bitterly. “He’d die once more from laughter. You have the Eldest in your bed now and even Amos and Fria have awakened to their feelings for each other. Even that Kai has found comfort with a Wiccan like you.”
Bas had emphasised the ‘you’ with a poke to Shield’s chest leaving her completely at a loss at what to say. It seemed to open up a chasm between them that she felt could never be crossed.
“Look at me,” Bas continued, swishing her tail and flicking her ears. “Who would ever bed a freak like me? A tom cat? Where will I ever find love in this dead, empty existence?”
The door creaked open and Pup, dressed in a night-shirt, marched resolutely up to Bas with a determined look upon his face. “If you’ll wait for Pup to grow up, Bas, he’ll fall in love with you!” he declared. “You’re the most beautiful thing in the whole world!”
Bas sank to one knee to embrace him and relaxed, her tears damp upon Pup’s shoulder but he did not seem to mind. “You can tell Pup a story now if you like,” he said.
Michael, Cyrus, Luke and Camus had returned to their Spartan quarters in the Eastern Tower of the Moon after seeing to Ignatius and keeping him company as he fell asleep after enjoying a glass of wine with them all. Cyrus opened a bottle of whisky and poured them shots in cut-glass tumblers. “Ignatius is impressive,” he said. “He endured all that torment yet not a shadow clouds his heart. He puts me to shame: I just want to avenge him. I hope I get the chance to take down that bastard, Aten, and his butchers.”
Luke shook his head: “Pray you never come across Brodiglede. If he doesn’t shoot you first only your severed head will see him sheathe his sword.”
“Even the most fearsome foe shall not daunt thee, my Prince, for thy arm is righteous, thy cause noble and thy quest thrice blessed.”
“Tythe,” Michael sighed, sucking the whisky up through the mouth slit in his mask. “What would he make of me, I wonder?”
Camus drained his glass “I was a coward once,” he confessed. “But this strange man, this Light-Father, somehow inspires me.”
Luke refilled their glasses. “What is it about him? He looks so unremarkable yet he commands so much loyalty and devotion. To the man from another world,” he proclaimed raising his glass. “Though we dishonoured souls may falter and fall before the Gates of Chaos, may God and valour grant us salvation!”
“Chenikov again,” Michael muttered. “Appropriate.”
Near dawn, Edward and Theo opened a second bottle at their table in the generator room to celebrate the fact that they were not scheduled to take part in the Inquisition. Four frightened postulates entered and approached them cautiously. “Ah, little Chaucer!” Edward slurred happily, patting one of them on the cheek. “Are you here to listen to more of my wondrous literature, my son?”
“No, Father, sitting on your lap makes me uncomfortable. Father Leored requests that you go to the Great Annex. The auxiliary computers have all come to life for some reason.”
“What?” Theo slurred. “That can’t be. We disconnected them as they cannot function without the Great Computer.”
“Nevertheless, Father, they’re all active now.”
“Very well,” Edward grumbled, hauling himself to his feet. “But you four are coming with us. If this is some kind of prank, we’ll thrash the living souls out of you.”
In the Great Annex, the ceiling lights were ablaze and machinery thrummed. “It’s true,” Theo exclaimed. He turned to the four cowering postulants: “Did you connect up these cables?”
“No!” Chaucer whimpered. “We know nothing of electrics!”
“Look,” Edward said, pointing at thin red pencils of light flickering randomly above their heads. “The communication lasers are fully operational. How can this be?”
“A door has just opened in that immortality-machine on its own,” Chaucer pointed out fearfully. “Who’s doing that?”
Curious, Theo and Edward skirted the wreckage of the Great Computer to peer into the open cubicle. The cables on the floor suddenly rose up and wrapped around their throats and bodies and dragged them into the machine. Theo reached out his hands to the postulants. “For God’s sake, get help!” he croaked.
They tilted their heads to leer at them as the whites of their eyes turned black: “Your flesh to my flesh!” they hissed in unison.