They ran northwest toward the river, where Ajel stood on the southern bank some four hundred feet or more from the oncoming blaze. Just like Brasen, Wordhaven soldiers from all sides rallied to him, but as soon as they got within earshot he would wave them away, giving the signal command to retreat to the Stand. And they obeyed, vanishing in successive waves of twenty or fifty or a hundred or more, as ethereal as mirages dispersed by the wind. (1)
Not wanting to be commanded back to the Stand, Brasen slowed his approach. Most of those with him followed his lead, but some kept running, anxious to escape Brasen’s stubbornness and gain permission to flee. But there was no sign of Donovan anywhere on the field, and whatever Ajel was doing, he should not be left to do it alone. (2)
But what is he doing? Brasen wondered. The Paladin just stood there, unmoving, staring it seemed at the approaching fiery mass as if trying to study it. Brasen took a quick scan of the skies. No juron. No red spheres that he could detect. But the smoke was black and thick as tar and blanketed everything from one valley end to the other. There was no telling what might be hiding up there. He only hoped it was too hot overhead for either guardian or lord to maneuver too close. (3)
But why should they? Brasen scowled. These cursed fires were all that was needed to crush Wordhaven’s will and send its forces scrambling to hide behind the walls of the Stand. He slammed his fist against his chest. We are not ready! And soon we’ll be under siege. (4)
But then…Ajel roared. As if suddenly resolved, he blasted the advancing wall of heat with a tirade of Dei’lo, Words Brasen had not learned, had not even heard, and the wall moaned and shuddered as the Words hit their mark, forming ripples of hiss and black smoke fluttering out along its length, the effect not unlike that of a stone hurled in a pond. The length of it writhed and its advance became unstable—some sections rolling faster, twisting round on others that had slowed. The vortex in its center seemed to be unraveling. (5)
Just then, a red sphere emerged from the shroud of ash-laden smoke above, and more Words rang out—grating, furious, darkly feminine. Varia? Brasen wondered. Or perhaps Elise? Who knew how many lords were here now? At least four he was certain, for no guardian however strong could conjure blazes such as these. (6)
In response to her Words, the churning flames uncoiled and reformed, spinning faster than before, hurling toward him. Ajel shot back a flurry of Dei’lo as the blaze raced on, hungrily closing the distance between them. But whatever Words Ajel used seemed to have no effect this time, and the crackle of his sphere intensified as the churning wall tumbled forward, growing loud enough for Brasen to hear it even above the roar of the flames themselves. Yet Ajel did not move. He let fly another string of Words, then another, and a third, but the fire churned unabated, and what had seemed at first a hopeful turn was quickly falling into nightmare. (7)
“Ajel!” cried Brasen. “Retreat!” He raced toward the Paladin once again. But the distance between them was too great, and his voice was no use as in the last moment he watched Ajel lift his arms reflexively to block the heat from his eyes as the churning wall enveloped him. (8)
“No!” Brasen screamed. He drew his sword, not knowing why, and charged at the approaching flame, his mind at once racing and having no thought at all. He knew only that Ajel must not die. He could not die. Dei’lo was the stronger Tongue. He knew it. Believed it. Everything depended on it. (9)
He knew in that moment that he would run into the fire. He would run in, and find him, and pull Ajel out. (10)
Be proud of me, Father, he prayed. I’m just like you now. (11)
But as he charged forward, the flames began to change. From deep in the vortex, waves of shadow broke through the surface in darkening undulations that ran the length of the blaze to both north and south. The brilliant oranges and reds dimmed to deep yellow, and a resonant buzz rose up and increased, even as the churning heat disappeared along with its light. What was unliving flame transformed into life—a swarm, then a horde, of yellow stingwoods billowed upward from the dissipating flame and flew into the low-hanging layer of dense smoke overhead, revealing in its wake the black and gold of Wordhaven’s walls, and before them, a company of guardians larger than Brasen could count. (12)
But they were not what captured his gaze. For at that moment, two wondrous things occurred—simultaneously, as if timed to happen just that way. The horde of stinging insects reemerged from the smoke and spiraled down like a coiling snake upon the guardians to the west. And Ajel’s blue sphere sprang from the charred earth where the great blaze had been, darting east. He was running, faster than any human could run, his face and leathers torn and charred black from heat and smoke. But his head was flung back and his mouth all a grin. He laughed as he sang out the Words, charging toward the remaining vortex of fire still churning toward the Stand from the valley’s eastern end. (13)
"...a work of extreme depth and breadth of vision."
-Christian Fiction Review
Michael D. Warden has been working professionally as a writer and editor since 1989. After several years as Managing Editor for a large publishing house in Colorado, he stepped into the adventure of writing full time. In addition to his fantasy trilogy The Pearlsong Refounding, he has written several non-fiction books, and contributed to more than 150 other books and magazines.