Bewildering Stories

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The Price of Light

part 1

by Beverly Forehand

This is the third wave. I can see them massing from my perch at the top of the castle’s turret. Wave after wave of warriors in blood and bone and putrid green-spattered in the blood and gore that was once my Sisters. I am 7642 — one of the Fallen.

A shell whizzes by my head and embeds itself in a statue of Holy Artemis. I jump down from the shattered sacristy I’ve been using as a lookout post. Bits of stained glass crunch under my boots. They glitter in the day’s falling light. This chapel must have been beautiful once. Now, it’s broken glass, charred walls, and the Dead; Dead everywhere. Every morning we pile them by the walls.

We have been here seven days. I wonder if I will be in the neat stacks lining the walls by morning or if I will spend hours carrying others to the walls as I did today. There are fewer to carry each morning. We are down to fifteen Sisters. We were twenty companies when this siege began. None of us left, we few remaining, are from the same unit. Even Red and I, unrepentant slaves though we are, are from different units. But we still have our Holy Mother, Lady Ephraim in her shining armor, and she demands good order. She is the one who has us piling the Dead against the walls. It is respectful and they catch stray bullets. We Sisters like to be useful even in death.

I am to make my report. I can see Sister Cordelia tapping her foot at the bottom of the spiral stair. On the cold stone floor, her armored foot makes more noise than it should. It is eerie how quiet it is right before they attack — just the odd bestial howl and the screams of vengeance or joy or pain.

Who knows what they think, these creatures outside who once were men? They hung one of their captives from the outstretched hand of the statue of Lady Vesta the Ever-Loving and have been using the corpse for target practice all morning. Poor 7647 is out there hanging by one arm now, filled with hundreds of shells and arrows. I’m glad I can’t see her face. To Cordelia down there tapping her foot, 7647 was just another nameless sinner expendable to the Cause. But once she was Sister Penelope. She was in my company and she helped sew our Battle Flag. I remember how pleased she was with the gold-leaf thread for Holy Artemis’ bow. She spent weeks embroidering millefleurs around the edges of Our Lady’s gown.

“7642,” Cordelia shouts, “what is your report?”

I give her the numbers and the positions of the enemy. There are hundreds, maybe a thousand of mixed men and beasts. We are lucky they are mostly the Converted — those beings who were once men but who have embraced Darkness. There are Demons there — some at the edges of the battle. More than enough to finish us and take this last stronghold.

I do not tell her what she already knows, that the situation is hopeless. We are outnumbered, outgunned, and this is the last night we can possibly hold this site. We have only a few cases of ammunition. The flame-throwers exhausted their fuel days ago, the phase-bows are fizzing pitifully from overuse, and last night the last plasma-caster overheated. Sister Magdala is trying to repair it, but it is less than one hour until sunset.

Of course, the enemy dead have plenty of weapons. But Lady Ephraim would never allow the use of tainted guns. I guess that’s why I am Fallen. I have been eyeing that phase-bow in the front of the chapel door all day. The gunner was human once, and I can still make out the icon of the City of Angels under the demon-scrawl tattooed across it.

I wouldn’t mind some armor either. There is plenty to be had, but Lady Ephraim forbids either myself or 7748 to wear anything but our neuro-badges. They are issued to Fallen and hooked strategically into the skin to issue neural shocks when we misbehave. Of course, our Mistress died in the first wave and is piled against the wall, so no more neural shocks for Red or me.

I call her that because of the red sash she ties to her leg. It’s better than a number, anyway. She can’t be much more than a kid. I didn’t know her before and I have been Fallen for six years. It is hard to remember sometimes what it was like to wear armor and carry a sword and blessed bow. But I remember the day they shaved my head and took my armor and my name. I remember them tattooing my wrist with the broken arrow — the sign of a disgraced Sister of Artemis — the Unforgivable sentenced to a life of slavery without hope of redemption.

Penelope was the last living member of my company, until last night when she went out to secure the power converter on Lady Ephraim’s orders. Well, there would be no reason to protect the converter tonight. Those grime-smeared devils blew the main hatches off it before dawn. That’s about the time Penelope stopped screaming.

Shadows are everywhere here. The broken windows and holes blown in the walls filter the light at strange angles and make everything look sinister. We’ve been careful to seal and trap every possible access point, but Cordelia and I can’t help but check every corner and dark recess. You can feel the tension in the air. In less than an hour they’ll be on us again, their first ranks charging the doors, war-beasts bellowing and worse things lurking just out of view. But they never use explosives — nothing more than hand-held weapons: slug-throwers, phase-guns, and even axes and swords. They don’t want this castle destroyed. Even I can see that.

And the Demon-Blessed are up to something. They are the only bit of order outside. Those thrice-cursed mortals who allowed themselves to be merged with those things that seek to destroy all mankind. They had their slaves burning the dead this morning to make a clear path to the building.

Their slaves are like a sea. Wild-eyed, mouths foaming, they throw themselves at our walls and are blown apart by ammunition. They are a diversion. The enemy could have this place in a heartbeat, but they want it to remain intact. That’s why the slaves charge while the Demon-Blessed move at the edges.

I could see them circling this morning, their Leader, a giant in armor the color of an oil slick, directing them. Will they come in tonight? They’re probably tunneling down into the catacombs under this place. Even a child could see the weakness in this building’s design. We will be beset from beneath. And while the slaves and berserkers rage about our doors, the Demon-Blessed will strike from below and secure... whatever it is they seek.

What could it be? This castle is known throughout the galaxy for its holy relics — the thighbone and finger of Saint Childebric Goddess-Blessed, but what use could Demons have for a few dry bones? The power of our Holy Relics is in the faith they inspire. Who would know that they had them — or care — once this city is destroyed? How many more Sisters and faithful warriors could there possibly be left in this city — on this world? There has to be something else here hidden in the depths of the castle-fortress. Someone once told me that this building though dedicated as a shrine to Holy Artemis, Mother Goddess of our Order, was built on the site of some older heathen temple. Of course, the site was sanctified and scoured first. Still, perhaps something survived.

“7642,” Cordelia hisses and gestures for me to stop. She looks at me quizzically. “Did you hear that?”

I listen; it’s a small scratching noise, almost mouse-like. I nod. It seems to be coming from below us. “Perhaps they’re tunneling into the crypts,” I say. Cordelia nods slowly.

“Yes, there’s something down there, we heard them this morning while you were up on top.” She pauses. “Magdala has rigged the door leading from the catacombs — it’s all we can do. She set the last of the video-creepers as spies near the stair to the main chamber.” She nods again, “Maybe it will be enough for tonight.” Cordelia’s bionic eye glints when she nods. It always makes her look like she’s studying something intensely. Maybe she is. Cordelia’s usually quiet. She wasn’t meant to be part of a fighting company. She was trained as a healer and her skills have stood us in good stead during this siege.

When we get to the main chamber, everything is abuzz. Magdala is hunched over a phase-bow, with a pile of plasma-casters at her feet. She nods at Cordelia, “We have 4 plas-casts working — I drained the big ones to get these in working order. The phase-bow will be ready in about,” she stops to consider then continues, “twenty minutes.”

Young Junia, who devoted herself to the Service of the Holy Artemis only a month ago, chimes in: “And tell her what you found!”

Magdala smiles, “We found three more crates of grenades behind the reliquary.”

Junia is practically hopping with joy as she adds, “And the Siege-Tank.”

“And a Siege-Tank, which doesn’t work and has a hole as big as Junia here in its rear,” states Magdala.

“We could push it to the front door as a barrier,” Cordelia says.

“Oh, it drives fine,” says Magdala, “that’s about all it does. It was down in storage with the rest of the castoffs. A bunch of fried video-creepers, slug-thrower bits and cleaning supplies, all very useful.”

“We took some of the ammonia and chemicals just in case,” says Junia conspiratorially. “You never know what might be of use.”

Magdala snorts, “Demons won’t care if you throw a vat-full of ammonia at them, Junia.”

“But men might,” says the girl.

“They might indeed,” I add. Junia looks pleased.

“Well, none of that will matter if we don’t get the rest of these weapons up and running,” says Cordelia. “Come.”

We move across the room to the pile of slug-throwers which Red and Sub-Vestal Honoria are cleaning. I am pleased to see that Red has cleaned nearly twice as many as Honoria.

“7642, you aid in this effort,” says Cordelia as she turns to find Lady Ephraim.

The three of us sit on the stone floor checking the slug-throwers for damage and jammed shells. Honoria, is silent, but Red keeps up a steady stream of chatter. Red’s unceasing banter appears to annoy the Vestal, who occasionally stops work to glower at the girl. Red’s nervous and she hopes to fill the empty space with words. We’ve all seen battle before. Some of us hundreds of times over the years, but never with odds this overwhelming.

Honoria looks up at one of the last intact windows. “Ten minutes, then we need to be in our positions.”

I look around and see that Magdala and Junia have already moved up to the outer wall. Magdala has opened one of the murder slits and is positioning the phase-bow.

I pick up a slug-thrower and move to one of the holes blown in the wall. We’ve patched it so there is only a slit out of which you can see the enemy and fire. There are too many targets to choose. I fire into the mass and watch as man after man falls. Red, behind me, hands me more ammunition when mine is expended. I can hear the steady tat-tat-tat of Magdala’s slug-thrower firing from beside me. The phase-bow must be working, because I see occasional liquid streams when the enemy comes within range. They melt screaming, leaving an afterimage on the air for a split second.

“I need more ammo,” I hear someone yell, and Red runs down the line feeding someone else’s slug-thrower.

We are an engine of death, efficient and merciless. When bodies start to cover the murder slits, one of the Holy Sisters, Octavia, I think, uses the plasma-casters to evaporate the blockage. We continue firing. The Demon-tainted slaves fling themselves at us, screaming about the glory of their Dark Gods and firing their weapons. Some of them are unarmed and simply run forward to the wall. They gibber and dance as if they don’t know where they are and look surprised when they are hit.

The Holy Icon of Artemis and of the City of Angels are everywhere, covered though they are by soot, blood, and Demon filth. It’s like those paintings of Armageddon and the Fall of the Titans they used to show us when we were first dedicated to Artemis. I can’t tell one body from another. I keep firing. This is the end of time.

Someone is hit to my right. I hear the metallic thud of an armored body hitting the floor, then the slug-thrower begins firing again as another Sister steps up to take the place of the fallen. A body blocks my line of fire. He’s deranged, pawing at the end of the slug-thrower, foaming at mouth and crying all at once. I fire through him until he sinks into the heaps of dead in front of the building. Out of the corner of my eye, I can still see him twitching. I lean forward slightly. There’s something big moving out there behind the battle smoke.

“Demon-Blessed!” I hear Cordelia yell. I brace the slug-thrower on my knee so I can keep firing while I reach behind me and pull the extra ammo closer. One of the mutated swollen forms pushes through the smoke a heartbeat ahead of his brothers. I take aim and fire. I see him flinch from the impact, but he doesn’t even slow until Magdala shoots his legs from under him. He continues to crawl forward until the sea of slaves covers him.

The berserkers surge forward waving their swords and mauls and howling. Some attack each other in their madness. I aim for their heads. It usually takes three or four shots to bring one down. My slug-thrower clicks empty and I reach down for more shells, but by hand grates on nothingness. Then they hit the door. It actually bends inward on its hinges, but it holds. I can hear the dull grate of metal on its metallic surface. An arm reaches in through the slug-thrower hole and tries to wrench me out, but I slash sloppily with my battle-kurka and lop off a hand. I push away from the dead slug-thrower and turn toward the door, elongated battle-kurka held two-handed. A Sister falls back from the wall with her arm ripped away at the socket. She rolls her eyes and falls with a thud, blood pooling on the floor.

Something slams into the door and with a splintering crack is gives way. Demons, men, and war-beasts topple into the main chamber. “Fall back, fall back,” Lady Ephraim is screaming. We retreat toward the corridor that leads to the sanctum, Magdala laying down covering fire with her slug-thrower. Red and I walk backward swinging the battle-kurkas as shields. Unarmored men pop apart under slug-thrower fire and the battle-kurkas’ slices. Another of the Sisters is hit and falls to her knees. Blood-streaked hands pull her into the mass of bodies screaming until Cordelia shoots her in the head. She slumps and falls under the press of bodies.

The Demon-Blessed begin hacking through the mess of bodies with their axes and swords in the furor to reach us. They rant and roar as they hack through the crowd. When the last of the Sisters is through the archway to the sanctum, Red and I turn and run.

I hear the sanctum door clang shut behind me and see Magdala struggling to get out of the slug-thrower harness. “What I wouldn’t give for a flame-thrower,” she says. Junia runs past me and disappears down a side alcove.

There’s a scream to my right. “Holy Mother,” Honoria wails, as Lady Ephraim falls to the floor.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand

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