Episode Two, Part Four

EPISODE TWO: THE SOUND OF SCREAMING

PART FOUR

          I sprinted until I thought my lungs would burst, slipping and sliding over the uneven ground, barely able to sense the outline of the passage ahead in the darkness. When the wails of the nuns behind had faded to a low murmur and I was quite sure I could run no further without having some sort of coronary attack, I pulled on Michael’s hand to slow him to a walk. It was as I was panting hard, labouring to get my breath back, that I realised that the air here seemed to be staler than ever. In the blind panic of the nun’s grotto I hadn’t even noticed that there had been more than one passageway out of the cavern.

          “We’ve gone the wrong way,” I exclaimed hopelessly between gasping breaths. “We’re heading further into the mountain, not back to the entrance.”

          I could just about make out Michael’s worried expression through the gloom. “This passage must lead somewhere,” he insisted defiantly. “There must be more than one way out of the mountain.”

          With no other alternative, we continued to trek forward cautiously. We hadn’t got much further when my hand, running along the wall of the passage for support, suddenly slipped across something smooth and wooden. “Hang on, there’s a door here!” I called out. My fingers grasped expectantly round a handle. “This must be it.”

          The door opened easily and I took a step forward. Immediately I had to put my hand to my mouth to stop myself retching as I was almost overwhelmed by a hideous rush of foetid air. My eyes caught a glimpse of something white poking out from beneath what appeared to be a heap of old rags. I hastily backed out into the passage and shut the door.

          “What’s the matter?” asked Michael with concern.

          “I think I just found out what happened to the Nazis. Or it could be the Von Trapp family. Hard to tell.”

          Michael quickly grasped my meaning and we continued forward down the corridor. Gradually I realised my ears were beginning to pick out a sound over the noise of our footsteps. It was a low collective moan gathering pace in the passage behind us. “Oh hell, she’s let them out,” said Michael.

          “Come on,” I muttered, breaking once more into a run.

         We’d scrabbled our way another few hundred yards down the passage, leaving the moans behind, when the path veered sharply. We turned the corner to find ourselves in a small alcove that gave a bit more breathing space but unfortunately surrounded us on all sides with walls of solid rock. We stood and stared for a moment, utterly stupefied.

          “I don’t believe it – a dead end!” I eventually exclaimed.

          Michael began anxiously tapping the walls at random. “That can’t be right. There has to be some other way out of here,” he insisted. But every rap against the wall only indicated solid rock in every direction.

          A low moaning was sweeping up the passage towards us. “Oh Lord and here come the brain-dead brides of Christ to help us to our maker,” I muttered wearily. From the speed the noise was approaching it seemed fairly evident that they had got a hold of our scent.

          Michael gazed round in frustration. “But why go to all the trouble of carving this tunnel out of the rock only to have it finish in a dead end?”

          “Maybe they got tired. I know how they feel.” I leaned back against the wall and, noticing a slab of rock jutting out from the side, slid down to rest my weight upon it. If I was going to be ripped to pieces by flesh-eating nuns then at least I might have a moment of comfort first.

          There was a sharp click beneath the rock, then the sound of gears slowly crunching into place and suddenly a section of the wall rolled away, revealing an even darker passage beyond.

          “A secret door!” cried Michael. “Everingham – you’re a genius!”

          “Don’t just stand there,” I responded as the increasingly frantic moans were almost upon us. I grabbed Michael by the arm and pulled him through.

          The second passage was darker even than the first, pitch black and utterly disorientating. The wails and howls of the nuns could still be heard, almost upon us. They must have reached the alcove but not yet spotted the gap we had just created in the rock.

          “How do we stop them following?” I murmured to Michael as quietly as I could, fearful of alerting them to our whereabouts.

          “There must be another mechanism,” he whispered back. “Check the walls.”

          I reached out and ran my hands frantically up and down the wall beside me. A muffled exclamation soon indicated it was my colleague who had discovered the necessary device. There was another crunching of gears and we heard the wall rolling smoothly back into place. It clicked shut, drowning out the sound of the nuns beyond, leaving us in a sudden and overwhelming silence.

          We paused for a moment, listening to the sounds of our own frantically beating hearts before daring to press on down the black corridor. We had not gone far when the passage widened out and a dim light appeared up ahead. As the slimy rock walls retreated away from us the space was filled with shelf upon shelf of dusty wine bottles. I picked one out at random. Chateau Lafite 1892 pronounced the label. A few steps further and these wine cellars opened out into a large kitchen.

          One side of the room was occupied by a vast Aga-style cooking range whilst the other held a huge fireplace, above which was rather incongruously mounted an array of stuffed animal heads and a selection of ancient weapons. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table and several chairs. I immediately collapsed into the nearest chair and breathed out what must be the most enormous sigh of relief I have ever had to contemplate.

          Michael leaned against the fireplace. “Blimey, that was a bit of a close run thing.”

          “I don’t know what you’re worried about,” I remarked. “You’re already dead.”

          “Not that dead.”

          Before I could respond I was distracted by a hauntingly familiar low moan that emanated from the dark passageway. Michael and I both froze. There was a moment of almost unbearable silence, then a crash of bottles and out of the darkness from which we had just emerged loped a solitary nun of ghastly grey pallor and glazed eyes, her torn habit trailing along the floor behind her. Although the light in the kitchen was fairly dim, she seemed momentarily disorientated after the blackness of the passage and stood for a moment in the cellar entrance, blinking in confusion.

          I have to confess it took me a few moments myself to reactivate my shocked brain and I am not proud to say that my first reaction was to loudly exclaim, “Oh Jesus fucking Christ!”

          Unfortunately that proved to be not the most soothing of remarks to make to a zombified nun, having something of the effect of a red rag to a bull. Fixing her glassy eyes upon me, she lunged forward with a deranged howl. I instantly leapt up and scooped the chair on which I had been sitting off the floor, holding it forth to effect a temporary barrier between my flesh and those slavering jaws. Unfortunately the zombie nun proved distressingly strong and within seconds I was pushed back against the cooking range, desperately parrying her forceful lunges with the chair.

          It was at this point that Michael swung rather heroically into action. He glanced quickly round the room, looking for an appropriate weapon with which to join the fray, and his eyes soon rested upon the display above the fireplace. Reaching up with his tall frame he grasped the handle of one of a pair of crossed swords and swiftly slid it out of the frame. Just as my defensive chair began to splinter with the force of the nun hurling herself against it, Michael took three long strides forward and swung his sword in a wide arc.

          Whoever was responsible for weapon maintenance in this place was clearly a conscientious worker for the sword struck the nun just above the collar bone and the blade proved its sharpness by slicing clean through the neck. The nun’s desperate howl of pain and surprise seemed to echo on even after the severed head fell to the floor with a sickening thud and rolled away under the table. The body swayed for a few seconds, arms still outstretched, before collapsing to the floor in a heap. Both Michael and I stood, open-mouthed, clutching tightly to our respective weapons and staring at the bloody trail across the floor.

          “Blood hell Redgrave,” I eventually gasped. “First you set fire to a Mother Superior, now you’ve decapitated a nun. I’m impressed.”

          Michael leant a little unsteadily on his sword. “Let’s hope God is in a forgiving mood,” he murmured.

          I stared warily at the entrance to the wine cellar, half expecting another attack, but all was silent. It seemed that our undead interloper must have slipped through alone into the passage before we had closed the hidden door. I carefully set the splintered remnants of the chair down on the floor with shaking hands. “I think perhaps we ought to keep moving,” I said.

          Michael cautiously nodded. “I agree,” he responded. “Just as soon as we’ve discovered just exactly where we are.”

          “You are in the kitchen of the Hohensalzburg Castle,” a lightly accented male voice announced abruptly from behind us. I must have jumped about five feet into the air and then turned round to see a fair haired young man calmly walking down the stairs that formed the exit at the far end of the room. He was carrying a rifle which he carefully aimed at us the moment he reached the bottom step. “And you are trespassing.”

          “Jesus! Where did you come from?” burst out Michael.

          “From upstairs in the castle,” replied the young man in a measured voice. “I heard the commotion and came down to investigate. I thought the sisters had broken through.”

          “No, just us,” I said quickly in an attempt to reassure him. Then my eye caught the heap of decomposing flesh and shredded nun’s habit that lay at my feet. “Well, this one got through too but we’ve, er, dealt with that.”

          “Yes, sorry to intrude but we didn’t realise there was anyone left alive in Salzburg,” said Michael. He stepped forward and held out his hand. “I’m Michael by the way and this is Natasha. Pleased to meet you.”

          The young man brandished his rifle at us menacingly. “Not so fast!” he called out. “You came from the Abbey – how can I be sure you haven’t been infected?”

          I help up my hands and stepped slowly towards the table to allow him a better look. “Honestly – we’re clean. Not zombiefied in any way.”

          The young man regarded us suspiciously. “Hmmm, skin looks clear, pupils are reactive, your speech patterns are clear and varied,” he summarised. He lowered his gun. “I think you are okay. My name is Fritz.”

          “Delighted to meet you Fritz,” I responded, rather relieved to be no longer staring down the barrel of a gun.

          “And, if you don’t mind my asking, just how have you managed to stay clear of the sisters?” asked Michael.

          “I have been hiding,” explained Fritz abruptly. He stared distastefully for a moment at the remains of the decapitated nun and then turned away. “You had better come up into the castle.”

*****************************

          He led us up through the stone stairway and out into a spacious baronial hall. All around hung the trappings of a wealthy elite; rich tapestries, fine paintings, displays of weaponry and arts and crafts. Exquisitely carved mahogany furniture and polished suits of armour were dotted strategically about.

          “Nice place you’ve got here Fritz,” I remarked as he led us across the tiled floor towards an ornate staircase.

          “It is not mine. I am merely a caretaker. It belongs to the Von Schuster family. Or rather I should say it belonged to the Von Schuster family.”

          “And the Von Schusters themselves?” asked Michael apprehensively.

          “Dead. Along with just about everyone else in Salzburg.”

          “What exactly happened here Fritz?” I demanded as we climbed the staircase. “Just how did things get like this?”

          Fritz sighed. “We heard rumours of some trouble at the Abbey. An illness, a plague even. My master and mistress went over to see if they could help. They never returned. Nobody who visited the Abbey returned.”

          “But somebody must have realised what was happening,” Michael pressed gently. “Did no-one try to stop them?”

          “They are sisters of Christ. Nobody wants to accuse the sisters of Christ of…” Fritz hesitated and then ended with a helpless shrug. “Well, you understand. And then people were afraid. They thought that if they hid in their houses and pretended everything was fine they would be safe. But they were wrong. The Reverend Mother brought the sisters out to feed…”

          “But you’ve stayed safe,” I countered with a note of suspicion.

          “When the sisters came to the castle I hid,” confessed Fritz. “I know every inch of this place and I was able to throw them off my scent. I trembled in corners while the others…” Fritz stopped and hung his head. “I am a coward.”

          “Don’t say that,” I responded instinctively. His unhappy expression of shame and frustrated anger was almost heart-breaking.

          “What could you have done?” added Michael. “Nobody would expect you to take them on all by yourself.”

          Fritz swallowed hard then shook his head angrily. “No, there is no excuse – I acted like a coward to save my own skin. Not that it matters, for now you have brought the sisters back to the castle.”

          Michael drew himself up rather haughtily. “Excuse me, but we only let one in and we dealt with her,” he protested.

          “The rest are safely stuck behind a wall of solid rock,” I added comfortingly.

          Fritz merely sighed. Having reached the top of the stairs he walked across to a thick wooden door. “Let me show you just what you have done,” he said with a weary smile.

******************************

          We entered a broad room dominated by a grand four poster bed. Fritz marched straight over to the window directly opposite and pointed out. “See what you have done,” he said sharply. Michael and I peered cautiously out.

          The window looked out over a courtyard at the front of the castle surrounded by a high stone wall. In the centre of the wall were a set of ornate iron gates and clustered around the gates, clawing and grasping and pulling at them with a blind fury, were the sisters of the Abbey.

          “Bugger,” I said.

          “The gates will hold them for a couple of hours maybe,” announced Fritz. “If we are lucky. But now they have our scent they will not give up.”

          “Damn, I was rather counting on them scrabbling around in the tunnels long enough for us to make our escape,” muttered Michael.

          “If it were just the sisters then perhaps you would have your wish,” responded Fritz. “The infection has damaged their minds. But they are under the charge of the Reverend Mother and she remains sharp enough to outwit anyone.”

          “Then perhaps we should be trying to reason with the Reverend Mother,” suggested Michael. “She clearly retains some control over the sisters. If we could just persuade her to hold them off for an hour or two…”

          “Do not imagine that others have not tried,” said Fritz. “They have all paid with their lives. The Reverend Mother believes it is her duty to provide for the sisters… Whatever that might take. She believes this to be God’s will.”

          “And you saw her down in the mountain,” I interjected. “Did she seem particularly reasonable to you?”

          “I guess not,” conceded Michael.

          “And so now we are doomed,” announced Fritz gloomily.

          I was a little irked by the accusatory glare that accompanied this comment. “No offence mate,” I countered. “But it doesn’t seem to me like you had the most inspired plan in the first place. Just how long did you figure you could hole up here for?”

          “The Von Schusters had recently come back from the annual game hunt on their estate,” argued Fritz. “The larders are very well stocked.”

          “But you must have at least thought about an escape route,” suggested Michael. “A way out of Salzburg…”

          “There are tracks that will take you over the mountains if you know your way,” Fritz admitted coyly.

          “So what were you waiting for?” I demanded.

          “The winter has been cold and hard. The snows were deep, the ice was thick. The weather is getting warmer but it will take a few more weeks before the tracks are clear. To go now – when the snows are melting and the glaciers are cracking,” Fritz sighed and shook his head uncertainly. “Even for one who knows his way the chances are not good.”

          I took another look out of the window. “Well it seems to me that our chances if we stay here much longer are zero,” I announced matter-of-factly. “So I say not good beats no chance at all.”

          “Natasha’s right,” agreed Michael. “We’ll just have to hope and pray.”

          “You seem to forget that, thanks to you two, now we have hungry sisters waiting outside for us,” retorted Fritz. “We will be devoured the moment we step outside the door. We will not get within sight of the hills.”

          His argument did give me pause for thought. “I don’t suppose you happen to have any other secret passages leading out of the castle, do you?” I tried hopefully.

          “Just the one that leads you straight to the Abbey.”

          “Okay, so I guess above ground is the only way to go then.”

          “And the nuns?” asked Michael.

          I glanced reluctantly out of the window again and racked my brains. “We’ll just have to distract them, won’t we?” I turned to Fritz. “You said the larders were well stocked. Well, let’s just hope the sisters aren’t too fussy what type of meat they get.”

          Michael looked at me in horror. “What are you planning to do? Drop lumps of meat out of the window? That’s not distracting them, that’s whetting their appetite.”

          “We just need to get the meat away from the castle gates,” I countered, trying desperately not to sound like I was making it up as I was going along. Which, of course, I was. “If we had some sort of device to launch it with. Just far enough for us to sneak out unnoticed. You wouldn’t happen to have any catapults lying around your castle, would you Fritz?”

          “This is not the middle ages. We are all out of catapults I am afraid,” retorted Fritz with a sarcasm that I felt was rather unwarranted. What with all the other weaponry dangling from the walls I hadn’t thought a catapult that far out of the question.

          “Then we’ll just have to make one,” I insisted.

          “You want us to make a catapult?” clarified Michael doubtfully.

          “Why not? There must be enough stuff lying around for us to cobble something together. Have you people never seen The A-Team?”

          I was met with two blank faces of incomprehension.

          “Entschuldigung?”

          “The what team?”

          “Never mind, I’ll explain as we go,” I told them, buoyed by enthusiasm for my new idea. “We just need something to make a frame from and some elastic material for launching with. Come on Fritz, I bet you’ve got loads of stuff stashed away round here.”

          Without waiting for a response I strode off purposefully away from the window. After a moments hesitation Michael and Fritz trudged reluctantly behind. “We are all going to die,” mumbled Fritz helpfully as we headed off to inspect the contents of the castle.

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