Reading Time: 15 minutes
Mother of Crow
By Jenny K. Brennan
This Sundered World - Book 2
A spirit-punk steam-punk tale we don't know where, maybe not even why, and most certainly not how.
Draft exclusive to House of Imp. Copyright 2017 Jenny K. Brennan - All rights reserved.
Chapter 6 – never fear for this has been known
Last updated: January 13, 2019 at 11:15 am
“Wait here.” Frederico whispered to John. “Remember what to do? Okay?” John opened his mouth. Frederico silenced John with a raised hand. “Push. That’s all you need to remember.”
John nodded carefully beneath his disguise. He whispered to Frederico’s feet, “Push. Fast.”
Frederico nodded and stepped back. “Be quiet, be still no matter what happens, and hurry when I say. Again, John, you can do it.” John squeezed his eyes shut. He was as ready as he would ever be. Frederico draped a piece of a torn undershirt over John’s head and stepped back. It would have to do. He opened the door wide, leaving the room exposed. John stood behind the door, for the occasional watcher perhaps resembling a vertical pile of laundry, broken broom handles and a coatrack covered in dust and grime. After one quick critical look, Frederico added the final touch on John’s disguise, a polishing rag infused with years of rubbing oils and dirt. The disguise wouldn’t fool a man, even the dullest of the dullest. And birds were smarter than some. The hope was not to hide, it was for no one to actually look. Could birds smell humans? Did they hear heartbeats? Well, if they did, They would be on Frederico within moments. Mother would have to do something. No prayer came to mind. mother of Crow would help them if she so wanted. But that, the monk conceded was a big fat if. he peered out in the dim corridor and listened to the approaching clatter. They had just run out of time. To the left, the passage lead to a narrow doorway, inside was a dark stairwell, and at the bottom, winding passages slowly opened up into the vast catacombs. The resting place for centuries of believers, sinners, and nobility with the money to pay their way to the heavenly realms of sky and all knowing. The space beneath the monastery stored Tens of thousands of bones mingled with treasures guaranteed to pave the way to bliss. The place gave Frederico the creeps. Even if it hadn’t, it was a dead end in every meaning of the words. There was no way in or out of the catacombs other than that door. But it could also be the perfect place for what Frederico wanted.
The corridor to the right lead after multiple turns and confusing passages to the kitchens, the sleeping areas, and the offices. Corridors branched off into various workshops, chapels and contemplation chambers. The butterfly breeding room, the catacomb door as well as one oddly placed metal shop turned storage room were on the far side of the cloister building, far from the contemplative silences that were the heart of the monastery, . where monks bustled and performed their duties, prayed and punished themselves in every thought for every thought they ever had. He didn’t stop to listen. Judging distance was near impossible in this stone monstrosity. With a final look at his butterfly sanctuary turned death trap, he .
rushed across the corridor and through the opposite door. He went from dim lamplit shadow to darkness. He stopped before venturing far inside the workshop. Inches and shelves to along the left wall, storage cubbies, malfunctioning machinery, and projects in progress littered the opposite wall. The back of the roughly rectangular room hid crates and boxes , stacked high . What Frederico wanted was back there, tucked behind a stack of illicit tomes, confiscated over an unknown number of years. Dusty tomes and and scrolls not suited for the faithful. Frederico knew the title of every book,, had read none. Frederico started through the narrow passage, rushing past tools piled on trays piled one atop the other and by some miracle retrieved the servant automaton without toppling everything around him to the floor. Frederico was responsible for cleaning and organizing the machines the cloister kept, even though they were never used. He kept the few items that were still working in good condition and despite strict rules against it, tested them every now and then. He placed it in the doorway where he had entered. The small rolling drinks table vibrated softly beneath his fingers when he positioned it just right. He left it there and hurried to the stairwell door that was slightly ajar. John had been the last person there. Oh, grace to you, Brother. for never remembering to close doors, putting away the brooms, sealing the water jars. As carefully as was humanly possible he pulled the door wide open, but it didn’t squeak, didn’t even creak. The heavy door opened with barely a whisper. This was too easy. Too, too easy. Since when did anyone tend to creaking doors? But Frederico had in fact oiled this door along with his own just days ago. He had no memory of doing it, and would never recall such a thing. And at this very moment,, even his noticing of something so unusual faded and disappeared completely in-between one beat of his heart and the next. He peered down in the dark stairwell, but there was nothing to see but dusty shadows draped thick over rough stone steps. A hundred of them. Frederico hadn’t counted but that was the word. A hundred short, steep, traitorous steps winding down in an uneven half circle. A hundred steps, a fair number of broken bones to be sure, and one suicidal machine. Frederico cringed when he rushed back to the metal shop door and his robot. He didn’t know if the machines in his care had a sense of self preservation or not. But it was too late to think about that now. it was far too late. The sound of rustling feathers, clicking scraping talons , and a constantly talking old abbot was clearly audible. He crouched next to the Madam and placed a hand on the polished flat top. He regretted what he would do to it. He spoke softly, “Wait, little one wait,” and waited. The sound of visitors grew louder and in another second they were there. They rounded the corner with the ticking of bird feet, a rustling of wings against stone floor, and the slow shuffling from human feet in sandals. The abbotT. Frederico inhaled and readied his command to the automaton standing ready beneath his trembling hand. They just had to get a little bit closer. Suddenly the abbot spoke. Hesitant but accommodating as ever. The old man had stopped at the corner and the guardians halted. “I must let you go on with your business, honoured guests. I shall wait in my quarters. The monk you wish to see is right over there. That open door. Brother Frederico will be pleased.” The old man nearly shouted those last words. Frederico frowned. The old abbot never raised his voice but Frederico had but a fraction of a second to realize that the abbot was doing all he could to prepare Frederico for what was coming. Too little, too late, old man. The guardians didn’t wait for the human to finish talking before starting to move down the new corridor towards Frederico’s room. Ten steps, five. They moved faster than he expected and they were nearly at the open door before he removed his hand from the little servant automaton. It hummed quietly and rocked back and forth in its eagerness to obey. They would have to see how far that obedience would “go.” The robot took off in a straight line to the open catacomb stairwell. It’s sirens screamed at full volume as instructed. Frederico ducked back behind the wall and pressed his back against the stone. . The screaming robot shot along the corridor toward the open door at the end. Frederico held his breath and waited for the reaction. It came a second later when the guardians answered the shrill cry with their own. Three of the remade killers, each as big as a man and a half, shot past Frederico’s hiding place in per suit of the racing madam. Unable to take flight beneath the low ceiling, they rushed forward, half hopping, working their wings that hindered more than helped their progress. Despite that, they moved fast and a domestic servant drinks table was no match for them. Another ten paces further would have left the robot the loser. But before they reached her, the robot made it to the end of the track, the corridor, and the floor. The robot shot through the doorway and over the edge to the stairwell and into darkness. It was airborne for the briefest of moments until it hit the curved stone wall, the siren stuttered and died. The automaton dropped and hit the one stone step after another, going down into darkness. Delicate machinery torn loose and scattered along the way down the stairwell. The birds followed. In quick succession, the three guardians entered the narrow door and out of sight. They clattered and cried, each bird pushing to get ahead of the others, caught up in the hunt. The remade killer birds were still predators by nature and a chase for prey would win over logical thought every time. This was no exception. Screeching calls for death followed the birds down into darkness. Frederico let out his breath. The sound of the guardians grew distant and Frederico stepped away from the metal shop wall and turned to the open door and the corridor. He opened his mouth to shout for John. When he saw what was ahead of him he froze.
The fourth guardian, an obsidian beast roughly resembling a hawk but the size of a tree stood less than three steps away. Frederico pulled hard on air that wouldn’t come and felt every part of him radiating his presence to the killer in front of him. Unable to move, he stared at the beast that stood in the doorway to the butterfly sanctuary, extending a long neck past the doorway to look in. Its sleek head brushed the ceiling as it slowly moved it back and forth. Suddenly it leaned down and with its beak almost touching the floor, it tilted its head and peered under the tables and cabinets. It jerked upright and Frederico could do nothing but watch as the bird stepped into the room. Its restless wings merely a step from the open door. Feathers and razor sharp blades scraped against the stone floor as it shifted to inspect the inside of the big cage that stood empty and silent against the back wall. Click. Click. Metal scratched and talons scraped lightly against the floor as it sidestepped along the front of the cage. It thrust its head against the crisscrossed copper wires to the cage to look closer. A thin high pitched whine rose from the creature. Disappointed, the bird pulled its head back. To Frederico’s relief, the sound stopped. There was nothing to see in the cage Not anymore. Frederico, unable to close his eyes, found himself staring at the guardians wings as he waited to die. One sound, one wrong move, one random impulse to turn around and it would all be over. So he found himself fascinated by the re-makers artistry. Each feather seemed to have grown alongside a thin blade, serrated and polished to an obscene deep sheen. The dust stirred up didn’t stick to the metal even when the tips of the shiny black feathers were grey from dust. Strange, that, Frederico thought. Distant cries from the catacomb stairs drifted to Frederico. Were they coming back up? Did they find the robot and decided it wasn’t what they thought? He couldn’t tell from the fractured echoes if they were coming or going. The obsidian bird jerked its head around, tilted its head for a moment as if listening to the same sounds Frederico had. But something else caught its attention. It looked up with an inquisitive crooning. It was looking at the ceiling. Puzzled despite his dull horror, , Frederico followed the direction of its gaze and his breath caught. From the ceiling hung cocoons. Frederico had attached each one to the ceiling with string of braided silk and tar. There were two-hundred of them at last count, all of them Frederico’s failed attempts to breed a new butterfly. Frederico had done it to remind himself of his failures. But seeing the collection was a shock. He didn’t remember putting up so many of them. Three, maybe four, he could account for. But two hundred? And when had he counted them? He didn’t know.
The obsidian guardian crowed softly and plucked one dry husk from its string in a quick jerk. Carefully, it lowered the chrysalis to the floor and rolled it around with its beak. Finding nothing but a dry exhausted cocoon covered in dust. The guardian jerked upright and plucked another one from the ceiling. Dropped it on the floor and crushed it, again finding nothing but dust and fragile silk. Frustrated, it turned from the cocoons, toward the doorway. It stepped out of the room, swung its head quickly from side to side and started to turn toward Frederico. Just A few steps, away was death and Frederico knew it. It had all been for nothing. The darkness in the metal shop wouldn’t save him. He closed his eyes, damned the mother and hoped for forgiveness in one and the same thought.
Birds may be smart and ruthless. They certainly were clever and superior in many ways. With weaponry seemingly built in, they had no natural enemies that could take them on. On top of that, the phantomthergy which gave them mental and spiritual abilities beyond any humans, made them hard to hide from. But they were also single minded, their attention-span could be considered intense but short. So when a particularly loud screech followed by a sudden clamber arose from the stairwell to the catacombs, the obsidian guardian immediately lost interest in the corridor and the room it had just searched. It failed to see Frederico where he stood frozen. It turned to the open stairway door and the noise beyond. It made a mad rush through the opening and disappeared into the dark beyond.
Frederico opened his eyes. He breathed. The corridor was silent and empty. He damned the trembling in his legs and thanked the mother all in one thought as he rushed forward. “John” he wheezed and rushed around the open door. “John, time to go!”
John didn’t move. He trembled and wouldn’t respond. He stood as he had moments ago. “John, come, push!” Frederico wheezed in his impatience. He pulled the rags off of John’s head. “Now, John. Now.”
John stared dully at him. “Now?”
Frederico forced himself to be calm and put his hands on John’s shoulders, “Yes, now.”
“Bird.” John said quietly and glanced around the room. “Bird? Bad bird?”
Frederico nodded and tried to pull John out of his stone posture. “They’re gone, Brother. “ John was nearly as movable as a brick wall and shook his head. “Birds gone? Are you sure?”
Frederico shut his eyes and thought desperately. John could stand there for hours. He spoke through clenched teeth, “Gone, John, gone. But if you don’t move. Guess what. They will be back. And they will find you. And they will kill us both.”
Frederico lost his patience. He glared at John and raised his hand. If there was one thing John didn’t like it was pain. And with few other places on a metal armoured man to inflict pain upon, he poked John in the eye.
The big man jerked back with a squeak and covered his face.
Frederico pointed at him, “So now you can move. A poke in the eye is all it takes? Is it? Well, do you want another one?”
John stared at Frederico in shock. And then he snapped out of it. “Move, push, poke bird in the eye.”
“No, John, just push.”
He kept staring distrustful at Frederico as he shook off most of his attire. “Now?”
John rushed out of the room and stomped his way through the corridor. Astonished, Frederico watched the slow minded giant slam the door to the catacombs. He even drew out his key from a pocket Frederico didn’t know about, and locked it. Then with considerable determination and a hellish noise, John put his shoulder to the stone statue that had lived in the corner for over a century. Mainly because it was too heavy to get rid of. The figure depicted three-headed, absurdly muscular dog. It had its spiked tail wrapped tightly around several smaller winged characters, all with their backs twisted in unnatural angles and heads turned backwards. . The statue had always made Frederico shudder but now. It would finally do some good to make up for being created in the first place. Grunting and breathing hard, sweating, John pushed the statue in front of the door. He turned to Frederico and grinned.
Stunned, Frederico gaped at John, looked at the monstrous statue, looked at John. Until that very moment he hadn’t truly believed that John could do it. He opened his mouth but nothing came out of it. Instead he looked along the corridor which was their way out. Maybe they could bring the others with them. Get out and be gone. There had to be a way out somewhere, where they could hide. Or run. Or… he hesitated when the implication of what he had done hit him. There was nowhere to go. If there had been, they would have gone long ago.
“Fred, don’t just dream. Go.”
John stood beside him and pointed at the corner of the corridor. He had shed most of his disguise in his rush to block the catacomb door and he plucked a few more items off his metal suit while Frederico tried to interpret the dusty darkness ahead. Flickering light cast uneasy shadows on the stone and the various idols adorning the walls. Hanging haphazardly on the walls were carvings of faces. The two monks passed a morose row of long dead holy figureheads, now they spent their time impassively watching the last humans to ever walk their floors pass them by.
John and Frederico made it as far as around the corner. A feeble voice spoke to them. “Frederico. John. Best you not go that way, Friends.”
John shrieked and stopped suddenly ahead of Frederico who ran into him. “Father?” Frederico peeked out from behind the mountain of John. When he saw the Abbot standing in the middle of the corridor, smiling at them, he hurried to greet the abbot in a proper manner, “Father, may the Mother be with you.” He stumbled over his words and glanced back to where they had come from. The screeching and scratching told him that the guardians had discovered the trap and worked to break out. “Father, we don’t have time..”
The abbot raised one hand and spoke quietly, “I know, my son. But this is not the way. Our..” The old man grimaced at the word he was about to utter, “benefactors are at the front gate. And every other entrance to our house. We are not meant to leave this place.” He raised a barely visible eyebrow toward Frederico, “I presume that this means your communicator failed to take to the spirits?”
Frederico nodded, with his ears focusing on the birds beyond the catacomb door. How long would it last?
The abbots smile was one of sadness, but also obvious knowing. Frederico fixed him with a questioning stare, “You knew.”
“I have known for many years, Frederico. It would never work. Within these walls,” he made a gesture to encompass the entire monastery, or perhaps the entirety of the world outside. He said, “It held them at bay for longer than I had ever hoped. The original communicator transformed by the mother herself. Before she faded into her oblivion.” He nodded at Frederico’s stunned silence, “She created a ward to keep an eye on those left. A creature that could relay to her how things progressed without her. Well, we know how that turned out. She made a mistake. The communicator fell ill quickly after that. And it suffered the influences of many.” A loud crack echoed in the corridor and the Frederico whirled around, ready to see death come around the corner. But the door held.
“Father, we have to leave. All of us.”
The abbot shook his head, “None of us will leave this place, Frederico my son.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a key of rings. He gave it to Frederico. “No one except for you two. And you need that to do it.” Another loud crack from splintering wood made John jump. Fred?”
The abbot pulled a small pouch tide with a s=drawstring and placed it in one of John’s hands. He looked the big monk in the eyes for a brief moment and nodded. “You will need this, my son.” Come now,” He walked past them, back toward the corridor. He stopped in sight of the catacomb door. Birds scraped and tore at the wood from the inside. Several cracks had formed between the boards. The abbot ignored the birds. But he held out a hand to make them stop at the corner, out of sight. He turned to them and dug at the collar of his robe. A small vial hung around his neck from a silver chain. He smiled again. He indicated something on the wall opposite Fred and John. A small door. Frederico immediately knew what the abbot was intending. The back gardens. There was another way out.
“Come with us!” He desperately urged the ancient monk who just shook his head. “I will not suffer. None of us will.” He caught Frederico’s expression and crinkled his eyes in amusement, “Come no, we are not as ignorant as all that, Frederico my son. Trust me, Frederico, I’m done on this world. If there is something other than this, then I will know.” He grasped the small vial as a life line – a line to an easier death – and looked at the two monks in turn. Finally he nodded one last time and said, “Severin will know what to do. He is back there in his hideaway.” One more crease appeared among the many already on the abbots wrinkled face, “if he is still alive.”
“Severin?Frederico must have heard wrong. Severin was a tale, a story.
The abbot didn’t reply. His watery blue eyes focused on the closed door at the end of the corridor. “That abomination can’t hold them there for long.” He drew a whistling raspy inhale and quickly formed the sign of the Mother and smiled at something taking shape in within his mind. “It is my time.” he whispered, almost whist-fully. “It has been my time for a long time. may the Mother be gentle with us. As and afterthought he said to a spot between John and Frederico, “May she protect all of you on your way to find her.” With that, he started walking toward the failing catacomb door. To Frederico, the man seemed suddenly larger than life, step by step shedding his age, straightening his bowed spine, broadening his form. He took up more space striding down the corridor than was possible. John pulled Frederico’s arm and pulled his mind from his stunned reverie. Then the abbot started singing. His voice filled the space, amplified and distorted by stone surfaces and Mother knows what hidden strengths the abbot tapped into. It was loud, creaky, and strangely pitch perfect. The guardians reacted instantly with a screaming symphony of their own as their assault on the door intensified. The heavy lock disappeared into the wood, ripped out from the other side. Frederico saw the gaping hole for a fraction of a second before the view was obscured by the abbot’s back. But what he saw was enough to jolt him into action. A talon the size of a hand poked through the hole, probing the space beyond. The enormous statue held the door in place but once the door had been destroyed board by board behind it, the statue would be no barrier.
“Fred?” John tugged Frederico’s robe. “They’re coming. Fred?”
And with that, the statue holding the door shut, started to move. Just a fraction, allowing just a bit more darkness to leak out of the frantic turmoil. Frederico didn’t see it, he didn’t have to. The Fred selected a key at random from the big key ring and the door clicked open. “Too easy,” Fred mumbled as he pulled the door open. Oiled hinges, a key that should not fit, a singing abbot. The abbot’s voice couldn’t compete with the birds cacophony anymore but not for lack of trying. Frederico hadn’t recognized the melody but now he knew what it was. It was a hymn never used, never heard. Although all children had to learn it at an early age, they were strictly prohibited to sing it, or even speak of the ancient tune. The song to be performed only in the most dire of circumstances. A text only for the end of days. Something to gather all spirits and all life to celebrate World’s end. He had not heard it sung since his childhood lessons, but the words came to him. Just as fast, he made a point to not hear. As if singing the ominous bittersweet words would make it happen. That was what they were taught. he pushed John through the door and followed him through. Pulling the door , his final view was a frail old man, singing, and the fast glint of torchlight reflecting in a small glass bottle raised as in a toast to the monsters that would rip him apart in seconds. A glimpse of questionable relief for the old faithful man. A shade away from the worst that could happen. But a significant shade. He pulled at the door when John’s considerable hand suddenly squeezed his shoulder. “Fred!” He shoved Frederico out of the way and extended a hand through the opening and shook something out on the floor. Moments later the door was closed and Frederico stared dumbly at the darkness surrounding John. John who suddenly held the ring of keys, locking the door. He had no memory of giving them up. He backed away from the door, expecting it to crash open, for the guardians to rip it open, for something. But it was silent. “Too quiet,” he mumbled through his numb lips, “Ttoo easy.” When a handful of breaths passed and nothing happened, he exhaled, “Okay then.” They turned to face their way forward, “Okay then, okay. This shouldn’t be too difficult,” he said to the darkness ahead. ”
About the author
Jenny K. Brennan is a Swedish/Canadian vocalist, songwriter, and writer living in Ontario, Canada since 2002 with one husband, one dog, and unfinished projects in the thousands. Find her on
The House of Imp,
and anywhere else Mr. Google can locate her. She studies English and braille at The Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually impaired. On her free time, she learns Wordpress by trial and error, audio production using Apple Logic Pro, and carpentry by association.