Chapter 35: Checkmate
Last Chapter in the City of Gargoyles. Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy
The battle of Uppermost has been won but the battle of Muspelheim begins and their survival depends on the the bravery of one small child hiding in a barricade…
Ten Bells came and went punctuated by sporadic exchanges of fire, plasma-grenades and pipe bombs. The plasma grenades were thrown at the barricade but they bounced back down the stairs and exploded. There had also been distant detonations echoing across Muspelheim as luckless Brothers sent to clear the other Stairways made fatal errors in dealing with the complex webs of trip-wires.
Hvretsope ground his teeth in impotent fury having learnt that the substantial barricades blocking the Stairways were also seeded with pipe-bombs whose fuse-caps were triggered by the slightest tug on near-invisible threads. They were almost through into Muspelheim but they’d paid a heavy price.
From the Wyehold and Burslen Abbeys only he, Father Awrecai and twelve able-bodied Brothers remained to regroup at the entrance to the Northern Stairway now littered with corpses. He could hear the groans of the wounded Brothers on their makeshift stretchers behind him then his nightmare was compounded by Awrecai urgently tapping him on the shoulder.
He turned to see that thirty armed Brothers with Schimrian, Pious, Brodiglede and Dreorman at the fore had closed upon them in utter silence. “Ah, Eminence,” he grovelled, trying to kiss Schimrian’s seal of office only to have it snatched away. “You’ve arrived just in time. We breached the defences as Aten attacked Uppermost. Only the Light-Father and a handful of Unworthy remain at the top of this Stairway. I, um, thought it best to wait for you to lead your final Inquisition, Eminence.”
Schimrian smiled thinly. “We’ve lost contact with Abbot Aten, my son. He clearly failed to secure Uppermost while you defied my implicit order to await my arrival to coordinate my Inquisition. Thanks to your precipitous action, this is all that remains of your Brothers bar those few in boats full of novices floating aimlessly about on the Milverbore. I was going to ordain you Abbot of Burslen but I see my faith has been sorely misplaced yet again. Old friend,” he said, addressing Pious. “I despair of my trusting nature. Will you please restore my faith in you, my son?”
Pious strode forward and clamped his left hand around Hvretsope’s throat and effortlessly lifted the large and muscular Father-Martial off his feet. Hvretsope’s eyes bulged as he frantically lashed out with fists and feet to no avail until with one final squeeze and a crunch of bone and cartilage, Pious released him and his lifeless body flopped to the ground. Awrecai and the others retreated, watching helplessly as Dreorman and Brodiglede casually snapped the necks of the injured Brothers, blessing each of their helpless victims in Latin as they did so.
Schimrian grabbed a loud-hailer from one of the quaking Brothers and approached the Stairway. “Light-Father, this is Great-Abbot Schimrian! I wish to parley with you!”
“Just crawl away and die, Schimrian!” Harold shouted down the Stairway. “There’s nothing to parley with, you maniac!”
“How disappointing,” Schimrian replied urbanely. “This is my Great Inquisition and the end of your blasphemy yet you fail to engage me with the bon mots and badinage I expected of you. You will parley for the mercy of a swift death which is more than you deserve given your desecration of my Great Abbey and the death of my beloved son, Azrael. How I wish I’d killed you then, Light-Father, but Fate and God will not deny me twice!”
As he spoke, Pious and Brodiglede were organising the cowed Brothers into three teams. Twelve were to remain with Awrecai, Leored, Dreorman and Schimrian while Pious led fifteen to the Southern Stairway which was now largely clear of booby-traps but not the blood and body parts of their brethren. Brodiglede, with his munitions and weaponry experience, quickly led his own team of fifteen Brothers towards the Eastern Stairway.
“Azrael isn’t dead: he’s in your mind right now,” Harold retorted angrily. “You’ll never admit it but he crushed your skull and killed all those Brothers simply because it amused him. I was there! It wasn’t just your brother’s brains in that device, you moron! It was a Fallen One! Your so-called ‘son’ is one of an ancient race cast into the Void by your God and he’s here to kill all sentient life in Creation for revenge. He’s warped your Order for centuries. He created the mindset necessary for you to release the Virus of Revelation and kill billions. You’re nothing more than pathetic puppets of something you can’t control or understand!”
“Hah! I expected such quicksilver words to drip from the tongue of a Prince of Lies,” Schimrian countered. “I dub thee Lucifer but perhaps we’ll cross swords so that I can have the pleasure of cutting that blasphemous tongue from your Unworthy mouth!”
Harold was startled by a tug at his sleeve. “Oh, Mouse! I’d forgotten about you! Listen, I should’ve sent you up to Uppermost with Surl and the others but can you keep an eye on Fern and the other two? I don’t know what they did with that weird light show just now but Azrael’s presence has gone from my mind.”
“Mine too. Saul says they’re in some sort of deep slumber, Light-Father. They’re twitching but he can’t rouse them – they seem to be having a really bad nightmare.”
“I’m not surprised if they took on Azrael with… with whatever that shining thing was all about.”
“It’s called a Five Soul Fold, Father,” Mouse said gravely. “It’s very dangerous but something broke the link before it was too late. They all could’ve died.”
“Why do you not answer me?” Schimrian taunted. “Will you meet me in single combat so you can depart this vallis lacrimarum with at least some shred of honour to your risible tally?”
“Huh! He’s trying to distract you,” Mouse scoffed, standing on tiptoe to peer through a gap in the barricade. “They’re not attacking here so they must be up to something somewhere else.”
A rumbling boom echoed and re-echoed across Muspelheim like a roll of thunder. “You’re right, Mouse!” Harold said, his heart sinking. “They’re trying to outflank us. Ah, I think there may be torches at the Southern Stairway. Hell’s teeth! They’ve broken through! We’ll have to pull back up to Folkvangr and hold that barricade there. We have to retreat!” he ordered. “Can some of you carry the Wiccans? We can’t leave them behind.”
“Well, Light-Father?” Schimrian mocked. “Will you always be remembered as the eternal coward fleeing from your foe? Are you man enough to face me sword to sword? Will you grant me the holy bliss of dying upon my blade?”
“You’re just a diversion, puppet!” Harold yelled back. “Doesn’t it bother you to be next to a walking corpse? Nothing in the Bible about that is there? Pious is Azrael’s creature not yours. That thing will be the one who ends your miserable, twisted life when your ‘beloved son’ gets bored with you.”
“Liar! Blasphemer!” Schimrian screeched through the loud-hailer. “Awrecai! Leored! Take your men and charge up those stairs now! Inquire of them, my sons, Inquire of them!”
The two Fathers and their Brothers, terrified by Hvretsope’s death and the brutal murder of their injured brethren, ran up the Stairway with Awrecai’s and Leored’s machine-guns chattering away and the Brothers firing volley after volley with their rifles. They were so frightened that few bullets actually struck the barricade. Harold took aim as Ken, Linden and Seainare arrived, panting after the long race down the Stairway, and took up positions alongside him to open up with their machine-guns.
Harold fired his rifle twice and struck Awrecai in the chest while Leored and the twelve Brothers, one of whom was carrying a begiuller, were mown down with no hope of ever reaching the barricade alive. One tried to hurl a plasma-grenade but he was hit and the blast killed the last three surviving Brothers. As the echoes of the carnage faded away, six rapid reports sounded from the Core below and then the unexpected happened: Dreorman and Schimrian were slowly backing up the stairs, pointing their swords at eight angry Ferals glaring at them with a dreadful hunger in their eyes, clutching a variety of knives and improvised weapons.
Schimrian threw his empty revolver at them in disgust and almost tripped over a corpse. “Stay back, hell spawn!” he yelled. “We’ll not die at the hands of mutated filth like you!”
Dreorman despaired to see rifles and machine-guns pointed at them, realising that only two choices remained to him at the end of a brutal, sadistic life: death by Feral or death by bullet. Schimrian was unfazed: he bared his teeth at Harold, the thin veneer of civility sloughing away from him. “Ah, there you are, Lucifer!” he sneered, pointing his sword at him. “My offer of an honourable death is still valid. Will you not honour my challenge, Lucifer?”
“Not today,” Harold said, shaking his head slowly. He drew one of his handguns and pointed it at the Great-Abbot’s head. “My father always said you should put a mad dog down.”
Before he could pull the trigger, he heard the sound of running feet and Saul crying out: “You’ll not have him, Pious!” as his sword clashed with that of the dead Abbot’s a mere six inches from the back of Harold’s neck.
Startled, Harold spun round to empty his gun into Pious before the others could react. Pious grinned and actually spat out the round that had impacted his face leaving a hole in his cheek which was rapidly healing to everyone’s disgust and disbelief. He extracted two flares from his pocket and pulled the fuses, tossing them to one side. “Now, how does the old saying go?” he mused in his rasping, wheezing voice. “Oh, yes, let there be light.”
He launched himself at Saul as the darks of Muspelheim were rent by the hellish red glare of the flares. He rained powerful strikes upon the youth, drawing sparks from both weapons. Had Saul not been genetically enhanced, those blows would have numbed his arm completely but his heightened reflexes served him well and both blades were blood-red blurs in the crimson glow.
Behind the dead Abbot, all hell was breaking loose with the echoing of distant screams and gunfire and feeble lights pricking the pitch-black underbelly of Muspelheim. Ken snatched the rifle from the bemused Olias and shot Dreorman in the right leg but it jammed when he tried to shoot Schimrian. The Great-Abbot took one contemptuous look at the Ferals and immediately leapt over the barricade to swing his sword at Ken only Harold blocked him, finding it quicker to draw his katana than his second gun.
Ken rolled away gratefully and joined Beorstahl and Naeglin to guard the Wiccans whom they’d dragged to the foot of the Stairway leading up to Folkvangr. “Shoot them!” he screamed.
“We’re trying!” Olias replied, grabbing another rifle from Marc. “But all the firing mechanisms keep jamming!”
“And ours!” Michael added, wrenching at his rifle bolt. “This is impossible! The mechanisms should work!”
“Club the aglaecen then,” Ken roared in desperation as Harold desperately blocked several rapid thrusts at his abdomen.
Templein raised his rifle like a club and smashed Pious across the back of the head. The Abbot’s head bobbed forward slightly but the ragged gash in his scalp healed almost instantly. Templein looked down in helpless horror to see that Pious had reversed his sword, whilst keeping eye contact with Saul, and had thrust it backwards into his abdomen just beneath the sternum.
Pious inhaled a rasping breath to speak: “I cannot be killed, worm.” Then he twisted the blade slowly as Saul took up a defensive posture, unable to intervene as he was gasping for breath. “But know that it pleases my Master to kill you thus!”
As Templein fell to the floor, trying in vain to keep his bowels inside his body, the others did not see Dreorman succumb to a mass of vengeful Ferals and begin a death as prolonged and as savage as any inflicted by the Erdethric hybrids.
Try as they might, neither Ken or Beorstahl or any of the others could fire a single shot at Pious or Schimrian. They couldn’t even use their knives as the strength suddenly ebbed from their limbs if they came within three yards of both men. Ibrahim battled through the numbing geis and swung his axe repeatedly at Pious but the blade constantly veered away from his target until he was howling with frustration and retreated, utterly spent.
“See? We’re protected by God!” Schimrian gloated, feinting at Harold who was ‘heeding the soul of the sword’ as Saul had once described the technique of fighting with a katana.
Harold knew Schimrian was toying with him and guessed that Azrael was preventing anyone from physically interfering with the swordplay. He had a sudden vision of the winged angel seated upon a throne gazing benevolently down like Caesar watching gladiators fighting to the death in Rome. Schimrian was instantly upon him with arcing overhead strokes but Harold suddenly remembered the pattern from the Great Annex and countered the reverse slash to his abdomen which was unprotected by the stab vest. “Well parried, Lucifer,” Schimrian conceded grudgingly. “But as for your Harlots over there: we shall hand them naked to the novices for sport. Know that we’ll make sure they take months to die.”
Harold ignored the goading. “Ken! See to Templein! The rest of you, help Bas and the Ferals!” he ordered as blue flames rippled down his katana and that of Saul’s and coils of black vapour caressed the blades of their enemies. “There’s nothing you can do here. The Powers That Be are with the four of us!”
“But our weapons are useless, Light-Father,” Camus protested. “We’ll be at their mercy!”
“Trust me, Azrael won’t protect those Brothers,” he snarled. “He’s focussed here and doesn’t give a toss about them. He wants all sentient life to die including these two morons!”
Michael and the others warily skirted the four combatants and gladly rushed into the shadows of Muspelheim to search for enemies they could kill leaving the three exhausted and helpless Wiccans sat upon the steps to watch the swordplay. They were flanked by the terrified Naeglin and Beorstahl who heroically battled their fight or flight instincts and held their knives at the ready. Unseen, unheard, down the steps beyond the barricade, long dead families were being avenged as Dreorman was torn apart…
“There are twelve beneath us, Yin-chan,” Kayleigh murmured, peering through a duct vent into Auros Avenue below where most of the squat, fortified gold bullion trading houses were situated. “What foresight of ours to remove all the grills.”
Pomona notched an arrow to her bow and aimed. “Indeed, sweet Yang-chan,” she whispered lovingly. “We had the foresight.”
“Bas, there’s a vertical shaft with rungs connected to the duct to your right. Tell your Ferals to go down to the vent at street level,” Kayleigh urged. “When we shot Brothers years ago, they scattered everywhere and never, ever bothered to look up. Sheep they are so when we start killing them, you and your Ferals can hunt down those who flee into the alleys. See? They’re not moving at all now as they’re lost in the dark and that map is confusing them.”
Bas peered down though the vent and twitched her ears. “You’re right, Kayleigh,” she hissed, baring her fangs. “They’re cursing that monster, Pious, for running on ahead of them.”
“We’ll go with the Ferals,” Amos volunteered. “Fria and I can see everything in the dark with these goggles. I just hope we can use our knives and war hammers – we haven’t practiced with these things yet,” he confessed, patting his gun holsters.
“I’ll come with you,” Bas told them.
“They may move on at any moment but we’ll count to one hundred before we start killing them,” Pomona said. “So you’d better hurry. Go! Go!”
The Ferals needed no urging and swarmed silently down into the side-streets like a tide of rats. Amos emerged from the vent after Bas and Fria frantically massaging his fingers as they’d been trodden on several times by Fria as she descended the shaft above him. His temper was not helped by the fact that had he lost his grip, he would have fallen some thirty yards down into the Core.
The Brothers were huddled together in a pool of lantern light around the map in the middle of the broad avenue but all of a sudden, to the north, a brilliant red glow appeared casting immense but faint shadows across the vaulted ceilings, pillars and air ducts of Muspelheim, making the alley darks seem even deeper. Bas, Amos and Fria peered around the entrance to an alley still full of refuse bins and bales of waste-paper. “What the hell is that accursed light?” Bas spat. “Wait! Ninety-six, ninety-seven…”
“There!” one of the Brothers cried, pointing. “Pious must be fighting the Light-Father so that has to be the Northern Stairway! We have to get there and help them or Schimrian will feed us to his butchers! Brother Aaron? Have you got the begiuller ready? These Harlots of Satan could be lying in wait for us and that flare could just be one of their glamours fooling our senses.”
“Aye, Brother Wyken, I’m switching it on now,” Aaron grinned. “This device will protect us from the witches.”
“Oh no,” Bas breathed and cringed as the sound tore into her auditory nerves but it was far worse for Pomona and Kayleigh who screamed loudly. Luckily the echoes made it hard for the Brothers to pinpoint their location and as the two girls had predicted, the Brothers did not look up but formed a defensive ring around Aaron. Bas did not hesitate and let fly an arrow that whistled between the heads of two Brothers, striking Aaron in the throat.
The Brothers panicked and began blindly firing their rifles and hand-guns at alley mouths and surrounding rooftops. The money exchangers and precious metal traders had emulated the merchants in Uppermost and so uncounted marble statues and gargoyles on the roofs were either marred or shattered by their bullets.
Wyken dropped to his knees to try and retrieve the begiuller but Pomona and Kayleigh had quickly recovered and he received two arrows in the back of his neck. “They’re above us,” one of the Brothers exclaimed and fired up at the ducts that were faintly illuminated by their powerful lanterns. Bas let loose two more arrows and drew fire at her position but she’d successfully smashed one of the lanterns. “We’re too exposed,” she told Fria and Amos. “We must lure them into areas where they can’t see us.”
More arrows whistled down from yet another vent and the remaining eleven Brothers realised too late that they were horribly exposed in the middle of the avenue. Bas leapt ten feet unto a window sill and swung up onto the flat roof. “Go around the back!” she called down. “Don’t be afraid to use those guns if you can’t get close to them in the dark.”
Kayleigh and Pomona had caught on quickly and soon only one lantern was left and near-total darkness engulfed the unnerved Brothers who fired wildly until there was a succession of clicks from their empty weapons. Three of them threw plasma grenades randomly along the avenue and onto the surrounding rooftops destroying yet more priceless sculptures then an arrow from Bas put paid to the lantern and their last glimmer of hope.
Ferals tore forth from the alleys but suffered numerous cuts and wounds as the Brothers drew knives and flailed about them blindly as the distant red beacon now illuminated nothing. Ferals hung from limbs and necks by their fangs as the Brothers shrieked and tried to club them off with fists and rifle butts. Bas leapt from the roof with her knives drawn while Fria and Amos targeted two Brothers who were groping their way along a wall.
Amos found no pleasure in swinging his sledgehammer down upon the head of his helpless adversary and killing him outright. Fria cut the throat of her Brother and wiped the knives on his robes as the last of the fighting ceased. By the time they reached her, Bas had accounted for the last four Brothers but the Ferals were gathered around three of their own, mourning their loss wordlessly in high-pitched wails and mewls.
An arrow slammed into the ground making Bas leap back several feet. “Silly cat!” Kayleigh called down. “There are fifteen or sixteen Brothers coming from the east! They heard the shooting! Get the Ferals into the alleys! Hide! Hide!”
A powerful lantern rounded a corner held aloft by a Brother who had a machine-gun at the ready in his other hand. He spotted the dead Brothers and quickly guessed that they’d been ambushed. “I am Brother Brodiglede,” he declared arrogantly. “We’ll take our revenge for our fallen brethren upon you and this Light-Father. Are you out there, Ursaf? Or is it that traitor, Camus?”
He stepped into a nearby alley and to their surprise, he doused the lantern. Bas retrieved her bow and quiver from the roof and leapt down into the alley where Fria and Amos were hiding. “We’ll outflank them using the side streets,” she whispered. “I just hope the Ferals have the sense to do the same or we’ll be outnumbered. I’m going back onto the rooftops to cover you.”
“Please be careful, Bas,” Amos said impulsively. “We don’t want to lose you!” Through his night-vision goggles he could see Bas peer down at him over the edge of the roof with a peculiar, unreadable expression on her face before vanishing from view. “Come on Fria,” he urged. “Let’s do what we can.”
Kayleigh and Pomona had been told about begiullers and now recognised the weapon beneath them using their untrained but acute far-seeing abilities. “I don’t want to feel that pain again, Yin-chan,” she growled. “I hate these bad men!”
“As do I, Yang-chan. But there are good men.”
“Oh? Like the light-Father?”
“Yes, like the Light-Father!”
The Brother with the begiuller did not even feel the arrow enter behind his clavicle to piece his heart. Again, the Brothers failed to look upwards and instead opened fire at rooftops and imagined enemies in windows cascading glass shards and gargoyle fragments down upon the pavements. Amos fired his handgun into the clustered Brothers from a narrow alley and hit one of them but had the sense to retreat with Fria around the back corner of the trading house as a plasma-grenade came tumbling after them.
Bas found it almost impossible to take aim at the Brothers as they were raking the rooftop edges with rifle-fire. Then her heart fluttered as she saw faint torch lights emerging from the red glow and heading quickly towards the Brothers who were now standing in a defensive ring at the cross-roads of the two large avenues.
“Where’s that murderous pig, Brodiglede?” one of them demanded angrily. “He’s supposed to be leading us!”
“There!” another warned. “There are torches approaching us down this northern avenue but I don’t think they’re our brethren. Let’s split into two groups and take cover either side of the avenue over there and douse the lanterns! Let them come to us; shoot at their torches and throw your plasma-grenades at them. Those accursed archers won’t be able to see us either!”
The tactician didn’t realise that they were still easy targets for the craft of Pomona and Kayleigh who had raced through the duct system to be above one group while Bas had leapt from roof to roof to fire down upon the other. Fria and Amos were creeping to the west to come at that group from behind but the Ferals beat them to it, rushing past them to leap upon the backs of the six Brothers.
The other group suffered numerous arrow wounds from above and panicked, firing wildly upwards just as Camus, Michael and the others rounded to the corner unchallenged to engage them at close quarters with rifles and knives and, as Harold had predicted, their rifles now worked flawlessly.
Fria and Amos ran down two Brothers who’d broken through the Ferals and were fleeing westwards. They halted and cowered in the pitch black, begging for mercy whilst blindly groping for their enemy. “Do you yield?” Fria said only for the Brothers to home in on her voice and fire their rifles at her. Amos had reacted instantly, dragging her down and receiving a bullet graze to his back. He lay on top of her, knowing that they were both about to die.
Instead of the gunshots and oblivion he’d expected, there was a rapid succession of grisly sounds, grunts and thuds and when they looked up, they knew Ibrahim was glaring down at them through his night-vision goggles. “You fool, Fria!” he snapped. “These are fanatics! They’re nothing like Ursaf, Ignatius and the others. You almost got yourself and Amos killed!”
He hauled them roughly to their feet. “I’m s-sorry, Ibrahim,” she stuttered, shame-faced. “It won’t happen again.”
“It’d better not,” Ibrahim grunted sourly. “Still you did save these two devils for me. My inner demon thanks you.”
“Ugh, the Ferals didn’t leave much of those Brothers behind,” she shuddered. “But at least they didn’t get a chance to throw their plasma grenades at us.”
“Uh-huh,” Ibrahim muttered, scanning the alleys and rooftops anxiously. “Now where’s my sister?”
Bas was about to fire an arrow when a metal inspection plate smashed the bow out of her hands. She turned to find Brother Brodiglede calmly aiming a machine-gun at her and tapping his night-vision goggles. “I knew I’d find an archer on the roof but by the blackened bones of Saint Casalle, I never thought I’d find such a cute cat-girl up here! I suppose I could just shoot you with this but where would be the sport in that, freak?”
Two arrows whistled down to knock the machine-gun from his hands, sending it skittering over the edge of the roof. “Oh, how clever of the Light-Father!” he laughed delightedly. “He’s posted two guardian sprites up there to protect you! How absolutely divine! Oh, I do hope they’ll let us play, kitty!”
He adopted an Eastern martial art posture as the fighting continued in the avenues below. “Hand to hand or shall we use knives, kitty-cat? Wait! Of course! I expect the poor little kitty thinks she’s the only little kitty in the whole wide world, yes?”
“What do you mean, monster?” she growled, crouching and drawing her knives. “I am unique. There are no others!”
“Yes! Fire! Passion! I like that in a feline.”
“You’re going to die,” Bas snarled as he drew two knives from his belt-sheaths. “So you might as well explain yourself.”
He looked up at the ceilings and ducts. “What’s this? No more arrows from above? It seems that your guardian sprites don’t want to save a freak like you after all, kitty-cat.”
“They know I would punish them for denying me my prey,” she hissed, slowly circling and looking for an opening. “Before I kill you, monster, tell me what you know!”
“Yes, yes, I am a monster, I suppose. A monster blessed by God, no less. So many Inquisitions; so much fun! Ah, don’t make that face, you’re such a pretty kitty-cat, yes you are!” His face became serious: “Very well, I’ll tell you. I was at Erdethric when Farzad and his lackeys were splicing more than just wolf genes into those children. They used dogs, pigs, deer, chimpanzees and cats. There! You may have some sisters still alive! Am I not generous? I get to give you all this hope before I kill you!”
He leapt forward and caught Bas by surprise as she was too close to the roof edge to dodge him effectively and suffered a long scratch on her right forearm. “First blood,” he crowed, licking her blood off the blade. “Let’s dance, little kitty-cat.”
Something snapped inside Bas and she crouched low, emitting a growl from her throat and pounced but Brodiglede was too fast. He executed a roundhouse kick just before she landed catching her in the midriff and sending her tumbling back to the roof edge. She rolled to one side to avoid the follow-through but again it was a complex move by her opponent who kicked her to the head, dazing her. “See what happens when you focus on the knives, kitty-cat?” he admonished. “Anyway, I’m bored now. Lesson’s over.”
As he thrust a knife down at her chest, she spun round on her back and kicked his legs from under him. She continued the movement as he was falling and drove a knife up between his ribs. He crashed down on his back and smiled at her. “Unh! Lesson two, kitty-cat,” he gurgled, the blood trickling from his mouth. “You’re only overconfident once in this life. Learn this well… ahh.”
She struggled silently with violently conflicting emotions on that rooftop while Brodiglede breathed his last but most of all she wanted to claw his face to ragged shreds. She looked over her shoulder to find Ibrahim standing there, staring at her. “It’s time we got back to the Light-Father,” he said anxiously. “You need to spend time with him before you lose yourself, Bas!”
“All I can see are after-images,” Nightshade complained. “It’s like each sword is swinging through several dimensions before they connect. I want to help the Light-Father but I can’t focus!”
“You have to do something, Wiccans!” Naeglin urged, unable to take his eyes off the spectacle. “Saul and the Light-Father are going to be killed unless you do!”
Fern grabbed Naeglin’s arm and hauled herself upright and leant on her staff for support. “Azrael has drained us dry but you’re right: we must help them,” she said, gritting her teeth.
“That blue aura on Saul’s sword and on the Light-Father’s must be Ormuzd’s craft at play,” Nightshade concluded. “She can’t cross over into Gaia so she’s fighting Azrael through them!”
Harold felt like an ice-giant swinging his sword to carve out the mountains and valleys of virgin worlds. The power surging through him was so seductive yet his katana moved as if by its own will. He could sense Schimrian was drawing energy from Azrael as he was drawing his from this goddess. Anger stirred within him as he fought: he was nobody’s proxy no matter how powerful they were! He was Harold Norman Porter. He was the Light-Father and he had to save his Scatterlings. He’d known this since he’d first opened his eyes in this world and now these Powers That Be – creatures beyond his ken – were moving him, Schimrian, Pious and Saul about like pawns on some bloody celestial chessboard.
Suddenly, he had Schimrian on the defensive, driving the Great-Abbot back towards the barricade and raining blow after blow down upon him. Schimrian side-stepped a thrust causing Harold to lose his balance and, in a blur of motion, he drove a kick into Harold’s lower abdomen, badly winding him.
“You’re mine now, Light-Father!” he cackled then he gasped in agony because Mouse, hidden in the barricade, had hurled her spear at him and pierced his side. Harold didn’t hesitate and drove his katana deep into his enemy’s abdomen. “That’s what your so-called ‘son’ did to me, you bastard! Enjoy the karma!”
Pious saw Schimrian drop his sword and stagger backwards clutching at his wound. He immediately seized Harold by the throat with his left hand. “Die, Light-Father!” Azrael hissed through the Abbot’s dead throat but Saul saw the opening and severed his left arm from his body. Pious dropped his own sword to clutch at the stump, emitting a hissing scream of pain not unlike a kettle upon a stove. “Thou young upstart!” he wheezed into Saul’s face. “Thou shalt not take either of us this day!”
Before Harold or Saul could move a muscle, Pious surged forward at an unbelievable speed to sweep Schimrian off his feet and leap clear over the barricade, scattering the Ferals like bowling pins. “After them!” Harold cried out, tearing open a gap in the barricade. His body awash with adrenaline, he bounded down the steps closely followed by Saul, Naeglin and Beorstahl who had snatched up Schimrian’s blade.
Fern drew in a deep and shuddering breath. “Oh, thank Gaia, Azrael’s gone from us!” she sighed in relief, stretching out her arms. “Stay here. I’m going to go after my Light-Father!”
“Me too,” Mouse declared brightly, retrieving her spear.
Nightshade stood up and assisted Ivy to her feet as Fern and Mouse weaved quickly through the gap in the barricade “Let’s not do that again for a while,” she grumbled, massaging her stiff neck. “I’m too tired to think so where does she get all that energy from?”
“The Light-Father,” Ivy smiled. “Even though he doesn’t realise it yet… by Diana’s tears, look at that arm!” she cried out.
In the last gutterings of the flares, they could see Pious’s severed arm twitching, the fingers clenching and unclenching then the flesh suddenly dissolved into a black powder that flowed beneath the barricade leaving behind an empty sleeve.
“That’s necromancy and no mistake,” Nightshade grimaced in disgust. “This is well beyond our craft, Ivy. If Azrael ever regains physical form, we’ll be snuffed out like candles.”
“Diana teaches us that wherever a human heart beats, there’s always hope. We must hone our craft. We must become stronger if we’re going to save the Light-Father and all his children.”
“Perhaps we should start with poor Templein over there.”
Harold was the first to confront Pious on the Wealthorpe viaduct which was littered with the bodies of Brothers and Tally-men. “It’s over, Pious. There’s nowhere left to run. You two bastards deserve death more than any creature that’s ever lived in this world!”
“Who are you to judge us, Light-Father?” Pious demanded in his bellows-wheeze of a voice. He effortlessly leapt up onto the viaduct retaining wall with the semi-conscious Schimrian slung over his shoulder. “You have no more free will in this tragedy than we do!” He closed his eyes and slowly toppled backwards off the wall taking Schimrian with him into the Milverbore far below.
Beorstahl peered over the wall: “They’re not surfacing, Light-Father! That has to be the last of them! We’re free!”
Harold slumped down onto the rail track ballast stones and rested his back against the retaining wall, glad of the sea breeze and the sight of Fern and Mouse emerging from the wreckage at the Mouth of Thor. The reaction was setting and his muscles were trembling and cramping. He looked up at Saul then at Beorstahl and Naeglin, realising how much these three young men had suffered compared to him: he’d been here mere weeks when they’d lived in fear for six years. “It’s not over,” he said grimly. “Not as long as that bastard, Azrael, is out there.”
Fern came up to him so he laid aside his bloodied katana and levered himself awkwardly to his feet to take her hands. “That Five Soul light thing you did was amazing,” he said gratefully, putting his forehead to hers. “I never thought I could love you as much as I do right now.” He looked down at Mouse staring up at him expectantly. “And you!” he laughed, placing a hand on her head. “What you did was amazing too. Azrael didn’t notice you until it was too late so I owe you my life, Mouse.”
She reached up and patted his cheek affectionately and grinned. “You’re welcome, Father! That sword fight was un-geh!”
“Listen, Light-Father,” Naeglin interrupted. “I think Ursaf has at least one Angel in the air. I can hear chain guns so he must be attacking the boats on the other of the city. See? The rest have just realised what’s happening and are fleeing towards Drytenham. The rats know those Angels aren’t Aten’s!”
Harold shaded his eyes and could just about make out the first of the terrified novices and Brothers clambering onto the quaysides but Fern turned her head away in horror: “Ursaf has just destroyed two boats but those already on shore will not escape; wolves and hybrids are waiting for them in the woods. Oh, Gaia, forgive us: most of them are no more than children!”
Harold put his right arm around her shoulder and held Mouse close to his side with his left. He felt numb inside as he watched Saul methodically clean both katanas on the robes of a dead Brother. “There’s nothing we can do to save them and those hybrids will be coming after us next,” he said despondently. “Even if Pious and Schimrian are dead, Azrael will draw the rest of the Order back here and then we’re really screwed: we can’t fight thousands of Fathers and Brothers!”
“I’m just grateful we’re alive right now, thanks to you two,” Beorstahl said stoutly, clapping him and Saul on the back. “I suggest we find some bottles of whisky to celebrate both our victory and the first days of sunshine in six years!”
“I’d never thought I see blue sky again!” Naeglin agreed.
Harold placed his hands on Fern’s shoulders and stared into her eyes. “I know you’re absolutely bone-tired, Fern, but can you far-see how everyone is for me? I really need to know.”
She sighed heavily and closed her eyes. “Just give me a minute, dear heart. I’m so tired I’m going to sleep for days.”
He reached inside his stab-vest pocket and was delighted to find a lighter and his cigar case miraculously intact. He extracted a cigar and lit it despite Mouse glaring at him. He luxuriously savoured the aromatic smoke as he stared westwards, half-expecting the Order fleet to appear at any moment.
Fern opened her eyes suddenly: “Ah! I’m sorry, dear heart, but brave Templein has just died and Ursaf lost two crewmen so only one Angel is airborne. The Sisters are safe but Peter, Marcus and Thanewell were hurt. Surl and Shield are still unconscious from the Five Soul Fold but, don’t worry, Saul, they’ll be fine.”
“Bless the Virgin Mary for small mercies. Thank you,” Saul smiled gratefully, sheathing his katana. “But what of Bas and all the others who were fighting in Muspelheim?”
“They’re alive and the Brothers are all dead but we’ve lost another ten of our poor Ferals,” she said, bowing her head in grief. “We’ve got to destroy Azrael or this misery will never end! Bas needs you, Light-Father. They all do. You can’t hide in the Tower of Grieving any more.”
Harold nodded and solemnly took his clean katana from Saul to sheathe it in its saya. He looked up as Ursaf’s Angel clattered overhead towards Drytenham to attack those boats yet to reach the quaysides. As he exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke, he wondered why he felt no remorse or sympathy for the Brothers and novices about to die and prayed that he could hold on to his humanity despite all this bloodshed and darkness.
He waved a hand at the corpses of the Brothers and Tally-men scattered about the viaduct as carrion crows began to circle above them and chain-guns chattered in the distance. “The whisky will have to wait, Beorstahl. We have a lot of work to do.”