Chapter 34: Endgames
The penultimate chapter of City of Gargoyles. Book 2 of the Light-Father trilogy
A microcosm of the battles raging across all Creation, bloodshed comes to Milverburg as the Light-Father and his allies begin to fight for their lives against Schimrian and his Order on both physical and metaphysical battle-fields as all the defenders meet their nemeses as pawns in a much larger celestial struggle.
Harold was in the Mouth of Thor on top of the barricade with Fern, Olias, Marc and Stunnal as stone fragments cascaded down from the artillery rounds slamming into the masonry far above. He was studying the activity in Wealthorpe through powerful binoculars and could clearly see the puffs of smoke from the gun barrel. The crackling of gunfire echoed from the docks as Ursaf’s men exchanged fire with the boats blockading the harbour. “Is your illusion geis working, Fern?” he asked nervously.
“We haven’t been blown to atoms yet, now have we?” she gasped, her hair plastered to her head with perspiration. “Azrael is interfering: I can’t reach them all. They’re on the causeway: two dozen Order and twenty Tally-men. It’s up to you, dear heart. Azrael has all but drained me. Ivy is still able to deceive the Drytenham Brothers but Nightshade tells me that none are left alive in Cwiclasc… and the Angels now battle for Uppermost.”
“Oh, God, no! I sent the little ones up there! I just hope they made it to that bomb shelter in time. Tell Nightshade to bring everyone from the Mouth of Freya to the Northern Stairway. Where are Bas and all the Ferals?” he demanded, peering about the Core. “They have to go up to help Surl and the others!”
“Our two stone ghosts have already taken them into the ducts and vents along with Fria and Amos,” she moaned, clutching at her head. “Damn Azrael: he’s making far-talking painful!”
Harold peered over the barricade and saw two-lines of impassive Tally-Men marching forward like robots, their spears at the ready. Through the binoculars, he saw a Father screaming at some of the gunners and pointing at the barricade. “Looks like they’ve seen though your geis, Fern: that Father is seriously ticked off! Get ready!” he cried, aiming his rifle. “Take out the Tally-men first! Open fire!” He winced at the report of his rifle but he was amazed at how quickly he adapted to the lethal rhythm of aim, fire, reload: aim, fire, reload. It was both a mercy and a slaughter as the Tally-men were advancing in tight formation and took bullet after bullet until a shot to head or heart brought them down.
With the Tally-man bearing the brunt of the defensive fire, the Brothers-Martial recovered from their surprise that the barricade was still intact and the opened up with machine-guns and rifles. Although they had no cover, the concentrated fire made it nearly impossible to shoot back. “Christ!” Harold exclaimed, wincing at the sound of the bullets striking and sparking off the metal in the barricade. “Those bastards know what they’re doing!”
Olias cried out as Stunnal was struck in the forehead as he took aim and was killed instantly, his limp body tumbling down the ramshackle defences and onto the rails. “Fall back!” Harold ordered, physically gagging at the mess the bullets had made of Stunnal’s face. “Fern, I know Azrael’s at you but make sure Ivy can hold Loki as it’s too close to the Northern Stairway.”
She climbed down quickly to stand next to Stunnal’s body and press her fingertips into her temples. “Yes, I got through!” she cried out in weary triumph. “I don’t have the strength to cast a geis but Ivy has – she says she can hold them until we get there.”
Olias lit a pipe bomb and hurled it through the gap as Marc held his rifle above his head and fired blindly down at the viaduct. “This is for Stunnal, you murderous scum!” he screamed above the sound of bullets slamming into the tunnel roof and striking sparks off the metal objects in the barricade. He and Marc scrambled down after Harold but both were clutching at shallow ricochet wounds to their shoulders. “We’re alive,” Marc panted as the pipe-bomb detonated with a dull thump sending shrapnel over their heads. “But I can’t say the same for them. Olias made that one but I packed it with nails and ball bearings.”
“Get to the Stairway now,” Harold ordered, praying his hearing wasn’t permanently damaged. “I just hope Ivy can buy us enough time. Ah! I forgot: tell Ibrahim and the others to close the dock-gates and retreat to the Stairway.”
“Yes, general!” Fern puffed, placing her hands on her knees. “This is hard! Azrael is filling my mind with such horrors! They closed them two minutes ago and they’re running to the Stairway. Ah! There’s a begiuller out there!” she screamed, clutching at her head and sinking slowly to her knees. “Aiee! Not again!”
Harold knew that she was incapacitated so he quickly threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and headed to the Northern Stairway with the others as Marc gingerly retrieved her fallen staff. They were joined by Ibrahim and the dock-gate defenders who ascended the Stairway at a flat run. Harold was struggling with Fern and was caught up with by Cyrus, Camus, Luke and Michael carrying the exhausted Ivy on his back. “She was magnificent,” he said. “We killed the Tally-men and at least ten Brothers!”
They set Fern and Ivy on their feet behind the barricade then turned a truck-length metal trolley onto its side and jammed it into the gap in their defences. The barricade stretched right across the topmost steps which were some thirty feet across as they had once carried the bustling pedestrian hordes of all ten towns. Pale shafts of northern daylight from deeply-set windows in the perimeter wall did little to dispel the gloom in the broad Stairway but the lower half was bathed in the eerie blue glow of the Core’s extensive emergency lighting around the Mouth of Loki.
As Harold’s eyes adjusted, there was just enough light reaching this entrance platform to see that everyone bar Stunnal had made it. He was hoping that any Brothers charging up the Stairway would be silhouetted against the Core lighting and become easy targets for the defenders shooting down from shadows above them. They would be at serious disadvantage as there was no cover at all but for the gentle curve of the Stairway walls.
He beckoned to Ibrahim as Michael, still wearing his Noh mask, Cyrus, Luke, March, Olias and Camus joined Ursaf’s men to take up firing positions behind the barricade. “Do you have my night-vision goggles?” he asked.
“Yes, here they are but we only have two more. Amos and Fria took the other two for the ambushes. We’ll certainly need them if we have to defend the barricade on the next level but everybody else up there will be firing blind if the Brothers have these.”
“I damn well hope not! How’s your inner demon?”
“Impatient,” Ibrahim growled, pointing at Fern. “The Wiccans don’t look well, Light-Father. What are they doing?”
Out of the line of fire and virtually invisible in the murk of Muspelheim, Fern, Ivy and Nightshade had linked hands with their staffs laid at their feet to make a triangle. They had their eyes closed and were swaying and chanting in an ancient tongue: “Biwon, neibo a Gaia abwa nasro-skeito…”
“I guess they’re trying to keep Azrael at bay,” Harold concluded. “That bastard got into my head yesterday and we can’t allow that to happen to any of us again. They can’t use their illusion-geis but they’re giving us a fighting chance. What’s that noise?”
Ibrahim cocked an ear: “My inner demon believes our booby traps on the other Stairways have just blown up some boobies.” He placed a hand on his broad chest. “Ah, I believe he’s dancing a little jig of joy right now,” he sighed contentedly.
Harold frowned at him then approached Ursaf’s men as they waited nervously for the onslaught. “I’m sorry I haven’t learnt all your names yet,” he apologised. “But thank you for defending the docks. I can’t think of anything inspirational to say right now as we lost poor Stunnal at the Mouth of Thor, except to say I don’t want to lose any more of you, understand?”
“I’m Templein,” the nearest man said. “We lost Carrus at the dock gates but we gave a good account of ourselves: few were left alive in those boats when we’d finished with them! This is Elias, Job, and Glensalic,” he added, pointing to each in turn.
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear about Carrus,” Harold said bitterly. “But it looks like we’ve all taken a heavy toll upon those bastards – the Mothers made them think they’d knocked out the barricades! Let’s make sure their deaths are not in vain, shall we?”
“What of the battle in Uppermost?” Saul wondered aloud. “If they land Brothers-Martial up there, they could come down the Stairway and attack us from behind.”
From the gloom to their left, Fern’s voice came: “The Angels have landed after running out of ammunition. We’ve lost one and they’ve lost two but their last two were forced to land. Their pilots and Ursaf’s were not very skilled at fighting in the air.”
“Ah, damn it!” Harold spat. “How many enemy Brothers are in Uppermost? Can Glascae’s men fight them off?”
“We can’t say,” Fern admitted. “There are about eight from Bede but they’re heading straight for the Sisters! Azrael is guiding them! He wants to destroy them utterly. Shield is struggling to keep him out of her head as well – she’s as exhausted as we are.”
“Well, do something!” Harold cried.
“There’s one thing we can try,” Fern said hesitantly in a tone that warned Harold immediately that it was perilous.
Nightshade spoke next, her voice breaking from the stress. “It’s called the kwenkanatikitu or The Five Soul Fold, Light-Father. But it’s so dangerous. We’ve never tried it before…”
“Just do it!” Harold insisted. “They’re coming up the Stairway and you need to help Surl and the others on Uppermost.”
“You don’t understand the risk,” Ivy groaned.
“We all have a serious risk of dying if you don’t stop Azrael controlling these bastards. Do it! Here they come!”
Eight Brothers were charging up the Stairway as others gave them covering fire. Olias lit the fuse of a pipe bomb and hurled it at them with all his might. It bounced and clattered to the bottom of the Stairway where it detonated followed by the screams of four injured Brothers who were dragged to safety by the survivors. “That’ll teach them to get ahead of themselves,” he crowed.
There was a lull followed by the clatter of small metal object bouncing up the stairs. Harold had seen enough movies to know what it was. “Plasma grenade! Get down!” he barked. The trolley was knocked back several inches by the concussion that left everyone’s ears ringing. “Marc? Do the honours, will you?”
Marc nodded and took a pipe bomb with a long fuse from the stockpile they’d prepared the previous evening. He lobbed it down the Stairway where it detonated in the entrance hallway killing two Brothers who thought they were safe and injuring two more.
Olias gave a whoop of glee then stared over Harold’s shoulder: “Hoi! By Saint Peter’s teeth, Light-Father, look at that!”
Even with the door of the reinforced room closed, they heard the sound of the Angels roaring overhead and the rattling of their chain-guns. The Sisters all sat on the floor, huddled together and most of them had their hands over their ears, trembling at every noise. Ondine had armed herself with two handguns and had briefly practiced using them under Naeglin’s tutelage. She was confident she could use them even though she baulked at the thought of bullets tumbling and tearing through human flesh. She looked at Persephone as she whimpered with her face pressed to the wall and remembered the Sisters drowning in the Elver. Her resolution hardened: she was certain she could kill!
Surl stood before her as Pup gave a cup of water to Ignatius who was resting in a chair. “I think the air-battle is over,” she observed. “I hear rifle-fire out there so the enemy must’ve landed. If they come in here, we know how to defend ourselves.”
“That’s good to know, dear heart,” Ondine smiled. “You did so well at the Great Abbey. It’s hard to believe that four children could bring the place to its knees but you did it.”
“I’m glad you’re with us,” Ignatius assured them. “And young Deorth and Eric here look like fierce warriors to me.”
“We know how to fight, Ignatius,” Peter assured him, displaying the blade now attached to his stump. “Even Pup here is lethal with his catapult. He’s taken out Tally-men with it.”
Rabbit was listening at the door. “Shhh, all of you!” she whispered urgently, drawing her hand axes. “There’s someone in the foyer. Two I think. No!” she cried in sudden panic, grabbing at the gear-wheel that moved the door bolts into the steel doorframe. “How is this moving? There’s nothing on the other side of the door! Unh! Help me, Ondine, I can’t stop it turning!”
The door swung outwards to reveal the slight athletic form of Brother Cwellor dwarfed by the bulk of the adjacent Brother Feris. “Ah, Ignatius,” Cwellor said pleasantly, holstering his two hand guns. Brother Feris here was so disappointed: he was really looking forward to entertaining you. Abbess, please, lower those weapons before you shake them to pieces. You have the safety catches on in any case.” He stepped into the cellar to study Surl. “Ah, you must be one of our little saboteurs. Well played, little ones! Schimrian almost burst a blood vessel because of you but,” he shrugged, wagging a finger. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill every one of you. Sad I know but it is an Inquisition! The Sisters we’ll take back to the Redemption Cells.” He leered at Ondine and sensuously licked his lips. “Where I’m sure they’ll all willingly live up to the expectations of the Order.”
Eric grasped his knife and ran at Cwellor only for Feris to swat him half-way across the room with a back-handed blow. Pup let fly with a volley of ball-bearings but Cwellor easily dodged them all. Three struck Feris in the head but the hulking Brother didn’t bat an eyelid. Ondine felt her innards turn to water as she stared into those two merciless faces as their eye-whites and irises became black and their faces contorted with predatory grins. They tilted their heads to the left and hissed: “Time to die, Ondine!”
The atonal grating harmonies in those voices caused the Sisters to scuttle and crawl to the far wall where they cowered in abject terror and despair but Ondine stood her ground, fumbling at the safety catches. “I am not afraid of you, Azrael!”
Peter was about to attack them when he gasped, drawing Ondine’s attention to Surl who was staring at the two possessed men defiantly. “We are now One,” she declared in five voices as a white nimbus formed about her. “I am Surl, Servant of the Sun, Bearer of Souls and Wielder of the Light of Creation.”
The macabre expressions on the Brothers’ faces faded to be replaced by ones of incredulity. “You cannot deny me, child,” they snarled but they could not move a muscle as embers formed upon their clothes. Grotesque crackling and popping sounds filled the shelter as their skin charred and splits formed in flesh releasing brilliant beams of yellow light. Pup fired at them again only this time their heads shattered into smoking fragments. Ondine thought she would faint as the outline of a demonic face etched in writhing black smoke hovered above Cwellor’s smouldering shoulders. “I am Eternal, Ondine. Fear me. Worship me.”
Surl raised a hand at the apparition: “We are the Five-Fold Soul, Azrael. You have no power over us!” A silent concussion of white light obliterated that mocking face and radiated out through the walls and all ten towns to dissipate over the Milverbore. Surl smiled in rapture and hugged herself. “Oh, the ecstasy of the kwenkanatikitu!” she cried, enthralled, in that multiple-voice.
Ignatius jerked to his feet like a puppet being yanked upright by its strings. Snatching up Eric’s knife, he raised it and ran at her. “I have my Purpose! The Balance will be destroyed!” he screeched in Azrael’s unearthly harmonies but Peter barred his way and received the knife thrust intended for Surl’s heart in his crippled shoulder. Doggedly, white-faced and hissing with pain, he held onto the knife hilt as Ignatius tried to pull it free.
Surl raised her right hand with the palm facing Ignatius. “Leave him be!” she commanded. An intense white glare enveloped Ignatius and he sank to the floor senseless. Foul black vapour poured from his mouth, ears and nose only to vanish in a galaxy of crackling sparks leaving behind a vile odour worse than any Dead Marshes reek. As the arc-bright light about Surl grew in brilliance, Rabbit, acting on instinct, raced forward to slap her as hard as she could across the face. The blinding aura vanished instantly. Surl blinked myopically for a few seconds. “Thank you, I think,” she whispered then crumpled to the floor unconscious.
Ursaf appeared at the door with Spero, Beorstahl and Naeglin close behind. “What in the Trinity happened here?” he demanded, staring at the two headless, smoking corpses. Curious, he prodded them and they crumbled into mounds of soot, charred flesh and bone making Rabbit rush to a corner to be violently sick.
“How goes it out there?” Ondine demanded, shaking from the adrenaline. “Are we safe? We heard so much gunfire!”
“Yes, we got the last of the Bede crews but these two slipped past us. I’m sorry about that,” Ursaf apologised, unable to take his eyes off the smoking remains. “Father Aten and these two butchers were almost too good for us. Aten actually put a gun to my head when mine jammed but Naeglin here saved me.”
“I got him with a head shot,” Naeglin shrugged as if it was of little consequence. “He led the Inquisition that killed my sister three years ago so it was most gratifying.”
“Apart from me being covered with bits of his brain,” Ursaf grimaced, wiping at his bloodied jacket with a rag. “They killed two of Thanewell’s men and Thanewell was shot twice but he’ll live. Marcus got a bullet in the leg when these two raced across to this place. It was as if they knew you were here.”
“Azrael was with them,” Ondine explained. “He wanted to kill Surl for some reason. But for Peter he would have succeeded as he possessed poor Ignatius there to attack her.”
Peter let out a low moan as he sat down upon the floor, shuddering from the shock of his injury. Beorstahl rushed into the room to examine the knife still deeply embedded in his shoulder. “Naeglin, see to Ignatius, would you? We were Brothers-Surgeon at Bede, Ondine,” he told her. “It’s not too bad, Peter, isn’t it? There will be some muscle damage but it should heal.” He took hold of the hilt. “Now, Peter, I want you to count to five,” he said. “Then I’ll pull the knife out. Are you ready?”
Peter nodded bravely. “Yes. One… owww!”
“There, well done. This is a field medical kit so I’ll sterilise the wound and stitch it up,” he said removing Peter’s jacket and cutting away the shirt fabric from around the wound. “I’m sorry, but there’s no local anaesthetic. Bite on this piece of wood. Ondine? Can you quieten the Sisters down? I need to concentrate!”
“Ignatius is coming round,” Naeglin reported, helping the dazed old man into a sitting position. “Can someone get him and Peter a drink of water, please? They’ll all need painkillers.” He saw Deorth lifting his dazed brother off the floor. “Ah, another hero, I see! Bring him here and let me have a look at him.”
“So the Wiccans defeated Azrael,” Spero observed as Ondine sat down to cradle Surl who was twitching and drenched in sweat. Pup knelt beside them to anxiously hold Surl’s hand. “How is the little one doing?” Spero asked. “She has the mark of the craft so she must’ve smoked those two jackals.” He smiled triumphantly as Ondine nodded. “I thought so! That young Wiccan, Shield, glowed like a nova on the roof before she keeled over. Glascae and Linden are carrying her down now as she’s still dancing with the elves.”
“Will you all be quiet!” Ursaf roared at the babbling Sisters. “I need to think about what to do next!”
Spero sighed gratefully as the hubbub abated. “We have to hope that the Light-Father and the others are still alive down there, Ursaf. We need to get the Angels back in the air so that we can strafe the boats and viaducts and break up any attacks.”
“Ursaf? Naeglin and I will guard the Sisters and the young ones,” Beorstahl offered. “Ask Ken, Seainare and Linden to take our machineguns and go down the Northern Stairway to aid the Light-Father. We’ll keep the sniper-rifles to hand in case Bede gets the other two Angels working so we can cover you.”
“I’ll go down too,” Rabbit insisted, wiping her mouth.
Pup grabbed her arm. “No, no, no! You’ll die!” he pleaded. “Pup needs Rabbit to help Surl and Peter and Ignatius! Pup needs Rabbit! Surl needs Rabbit! Peter needs Rabbit!”
“You’ve done more than enough, dear heart,” Ondine assured her firmly. “I’ll need your help with the Sisters and these three injured souls. I’d be grateful if you could stay with me.”
Rabbit sat down heavily next to Pup. “If you say so,” she said wearily, laying her hand-axes on the floor next to her. She wrapped her arms around her knees and hid her face from Ondine. “I think I’ve had my fill of death.”
Ondine stared open-mouthed and teary-eyed as Persephone wordlessly turned away from the wall to crawl across the room and enfold the quietly sobbing Rabbit in her arms.