The Pealsong Refounding fantasy trilogy by Michael Warden. Gideon's Dawn, The Waymaker, The Word Within.

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CHAPTER 9: WORMWOOD (PART 1)

0 comments | Posted: Novel-Entry-The-Word-Within, by Michael D. Warden

The river the priests called Wormwood became our unwelcome guide. Its waters, if you could call them such, were inky black with a tar like consistency reminiscent of a riftman’s skin. Its rate of flow frequently varied for reasons I could never ascertain, shifting from a frothy boil to chilled sludge and back again in a matter of a hundred paces. But the stench was always the same—rot and raw sewage. It pervaded everything, our hair, our skin, even our Worded cloaks stank of it. The priests assured us the odor was not dangerous, but it did not escape my notice that their own tattooed skin remained free of the smell, or that they seemed loathe to come near any of the rest of us in those days, even Grace.
— The Kyrinthan Journals, Chronicles, Chapter 23, Verses 42-44

Aybel scanned the terrain behind them for the thousandth time as their group marched alongside the foul banks of the Wormwood. It was now the third day since they fled Solidari, but there was still no sign of Stevron or his mon’jalen. With the Waymaker in tow and Grace’s little legs setting the pace, they were moving slower than any soldier of Phallenar, certainly slower than Stevron, who had shown himself capable of traversing great distances in a single day. So where were they? Why had they not attacked? (1)

The priest Ammiel, who walked behind her, pretended to ignore the look of consternation on her face. She didn’t blame him. He’d seen nothing else from her since they’d left the Fallen Wood. She was certain Stevron would quickly hunt them down once he realized they were no longer in Solidari, yet since that horrible moment when they heard the wails of the people being slaughtered, they had sensed no sign of Stevron or his forces—no riftmen, no mon’jalen. Nothing. (2)

So on they marched. The way had gotten easier since the forest, as much as anything could be considered easy in the Barrens. The terrain was mostly flat, there were few trees or bushes, and what grasses lay in their path were easily cleansed by Terebin, who walked with Grace at the front of their line. Revel and Kyrintha followed him, with the Waymaker floating along behind. It was Revel’s Words that held Gideon now, to allow the Trevail priests to give their full attention to the dangers of the Barrens, which they were better equipped to fight. Concerning attacks, the priests seemed particularly agitated, for none had come since their battle with the tree, a fact which they said was unprecedented given their use of the Words to cleanse the path and to carry and shield the Waymaker. Teribin said they should have been attacked a dozen times or more by now. The fact that they hadn’t seemed to unnerve the priests more than if they’d been under continuous assault. (3)

The only obvious danger on their path was the Wormwood itself, whose oily black sludge would lurch out to snatch at any living soul who strayed too close to its bank. Like many things in the Barrens, the waters were poisonous to the touch. Grace warned that the black waters burned like molten stone, though pungent waves of frigid air rolled out from its currents at random moments. The stench of the thing was enough to keep all of them well clear of its reach. (4)

Despite the relative quiet of their journey these past three days, the constant threat of attack from Stevron had left them all exhausted. They marched from first light to late afternoon each day. The heat had not been particularly oppressive (another surprise), mostly because the sun had not made an appearance. A thick blanket of grey half light had hung heavily across the sky since their first morning after Solidari. (5)

Despite the lessened heat, the lack of water remained a significant threat. Their proximity to the river made fresh water nearly impossible for the priests to draw from the available vegetation. Every living thing within a half-day’s walk from the river was choked full of its black poison. Of course there was no food, aside from the little they had packed away as they fled the sounden. Added to all of that, the lack of cover at night, combined with the oppressive sense that they were constantly being watched, meant they barely slept at all. (6)

Aybel was more durable than most, but even she was feeling stretched thin, and knew the group could not go on like this much longer—particularly the underlord and young Grace, who were both visibly struggling to keep moving. Thankfully, at first light Grace had told them she expected they would reach the headwaters of the Wormwood today, and that the secret stairs were just a short walk beyond that. (7)

To be following a child through the Deathland Barrens! Who would imagine? (8)

“What’s so funny?” asked the other priest, Magan, glancing back from his march about ten feet ahead. (9)

“Nothing,” said Aybel. She hadn’t realized she was laughing. “How much farther to the headwaters, do you think?” (10)

Magan flicked his hand up ahead. “It seems we’re coming to them now.” (11)

Some hundred paces ahead, the inky flow of the Wormwood flattened out like a fan. Beyond it, the ground erupted upward in a series of staggered stumpy cliffs, their bleached white rock streaked with a dozen or more black liquid flows, as if the rock itself were bleeding. (12)

“Is that a spring?” she asked. (13)

“Perhaps at one time,” said Magan, “long ago.” (14)

As they drew closer, she noticed how the central flow of the Wormwood branched out into a succession of veiny fans, each more intricate than the last, each rivulet carving its way through the white limestone to its respective spring head in the cliffs, or else bubbling up from small puddles in the ground. If the whole scene weren’t so deadly, she might have thought it fascinating, but in a morbid sort of way. (15)

Not far from the edge of the fan network, Grace stopped and pointed to a jutting section of cliff that rose slightly above the others. “The hidden path is there, just a little beyond that rock!” Despite her obvious exhaustion, the girl still managed to beam with pride at her announcement. She had been impossibly strong these past days, guiding them faithfully through the long tedious hours without complaint. She never seemed afraid, even at night. She was much braver than Aybel herself ever was at that age. (16)

“How will we get up there?” asked Kyrintha. “The tar is everywhere.” (17)

“We must risk the Words,” said Terebin, “though the more we use them the more we draw the Barren’s attention. We’ll be quick about it. Be watchful of the water’s reaction.” (18)

“Agreed,” said Ammiel. Megan nodded with a sigh, and in short order the three of them gathered the group into a huddle around the Wamaker’s pallet, with the priests in a loose circle around them, facing outward. Speaking in unison, they forged a sphere around them all, and the entire group quietly lifted skyward some fifty feet or more before rapidly flying toward the outcropping Grace had indicated. As Terebin had predicted, the fresh invocation of Dei’lo provoked the river to a frothy madness. Veins of black water boiled and splattered all about as if screaming with pain, with thin streams of it lurching into the sky in a clear attempt to snatch the sphere from the air. The priests had apparently foreseen this possibility, however, as the height they maintained was sufficient to keep the serpentine ribbons from reaching them. In less than a minute, they were deposited safely on the ridge above the river. (19)

The priests dissolved the sphere, then Terebin said, “Grace and I will locate the path. The rest of you remain here. Rest if you can. My brothers will alert you to any further danger from the land.” (20)

Aybel had barely nodded her assent before Revel lowered Gideon’s pallet to a patch of barren rock, and both he and Kyrintha dropped to the ground beside him. Revel didn’t actually look that tired, but the underlord’s body drooped low and heavy like a wilted flower. She could well be near collapse, thought Aybel, though to her credit the underlord had not once complained nor demanded special treatment. In truth, the woman’s demeanor flew in the face of everything Aybel had ever been taught about the Phallenar elite. (21)

And where was her grief? The underlord had watched her own father ripped apart right before her eyes. Yet she had not wept, nor even spoken a word about it since that day. Aybel honestly still didn’t know what to make of her. But Revel seemed quite taken with her, which was enough to assuage Aybel’s doubts for now. Besides, there were much more immediate concerns demanding her attention. (22)

Ammiel and Magan were already surveying the immediate area with the same thought in mind. She moved to join them. (23)

“At least this ridge appears somewhat defensible,” she said. “It’s been troubling how exposed we’ve been the last few days.” (24)

Ammiel nodded. “There are a few points of access where one may climb up from below, but we can set stones to block those, and the poison of the headwaters creates a natural barrier as well, at least to humans. As for the riftborn, who can say?” (25)

“I don’t like it,” said Magan. “If we are cornered here, there is nowhere to run. It’s a death trap.” (26)

“There’s the hidden path down to the gorge,” offered Aybel. (27)

But Magan only snorted. “We shall see.” (28)

Ammiel ignored him. “We’ll need stones here, there, and on the far end over there,” he said. Megan nodded, and the two of them began dissolving huge slabs of rock into mounds of find dust, then catching them up in precise columns of wind to relocate them before reforging them into walls of solid stone custom fit to each location. The priests’ fluency in Dei’lo had entranced Aybel since the moment she first witnessed it, but it also pierced her with envy. She longed to use the Words as deftly as they did. Compared to them, she was a clumsy child with a broadsword too big for her to wield. It was why she had spent so much time with the priests since entering the Barrens. She was hungry to learn. (29)

“Ammiel, tell me,” she said, “you priests often speak of the danger of using Dei’lo within the Barrens, yet you clearly do use it. How do you determine when it is strategically worth the risk?” (30)

Ammiel grinned at Magan, who seemed preoccupied with tearing out the smattering of tainted weeds that spotted the area around them, then lowered himself gracefully onto the ground. “Ah. You have touched upon a topic of some debate among the priests. Some, such as Magan here, believe we should not speak the Tongue at all within the Desolation. Not only does it draw unwanted attention from the dark forces in this place, but the land itself is not worthy of it. To speak the Tongue here cheapens it. It’s an unholy act.” (31)

“But he has spoken the Words here,” said Aybel. “Just now.” (32)

“He is not in charge,” said Ammiel, grinning. (33)

“And what about you?” (34)

“I am not in charge either.” (35)

“No, I mean, how do you regard the use of Dei’lo here?” (36)

Ammiel shrugged. “I am more pragmatic about it. The Words shine here like a harsh light in a dark place. Even our bodies blaze like a great fire, because of the Words covering our skin. The brighter the light, the more attention it draws. But that same light makes us stronger than the darkness around us. It’s by the light that we conquer, and are delivered. So in any mission here, I ask myself: Is it better to make my light small, or big? Which will help me achieve my objective faster?” He shrugged lightly again. “Of course many times the land doesn’t give you a choice.” (37)

Magan snorted derisively at that last comment. (38)

“You don’t agree?” asked Ammiel, clearly amused. (39)

“Doesn’t matter what I think,” he said, tossing a wad of tainted weeds off the cliff. Then he nodded to the west. “Terebin returns.” (40)

Ammiel stood. “So he does. And it seems he and the Solidari girl have become the best of friends while we weren’t looking.” (41)

The ever-stoic Terebin came walking from the west with laughter in his face, and young Grace riding contentedly on his shoulders. (42)

“By the Words,” muttered Ammiel. “He’s smiling.” (43)

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Aybel. (44)

“Nothing, I hope,” said Ammiel. “I just thought he’d forgotten how.” (45)

They hurried to join the others just as Terebin and Grace reached them. (46)

“I found it!” she exclaimed, her hands raised high in triumph. “I found it!” (47)

Despite her exuberance, Terebin’s smile had all but faded by the time they reached the group, replaced with his usual stolid expression. He hoisted Grace to the ground without comment. (48)

“It is extremely treacherous,” he said. “Much more a steep climb than a simple walk. It’s a over a thousand feet down to the waters below. We’ll need to recover our strength before we attempt it.” (49)

“Are you suggesting we stay the night here?” asked Aybel, her spirit instantly rebelling against the idea of enduring one more sleepless night under threat of Stevron’s attack. (50)

“If only we could, but I believe it is too dangerous. The land is unnaturally quiet. Its silence makes me uneasy. And as you say it’s unusual that this ‘Stevron’ has not attacked us thus far, but it is foolish to think he is not tracking us and watching for an opportunity. We cannot remain here more than an hour or two. That will have to be rest enough.” (51)

“I don’t understand,” Kyrintha interjected. “Why can’t we form a sphere as we’ve done before and just float down to the waters below?” (52)

Terebin nodded. “That brings me to the other matter,” he said. “The cliffs below are infested with shadow worms.” (53)

“Shadow worms?” asked Revel. (54)

“Large, plated creatures that burrow into the ground and use light to hide themselves,” explained Grace with a nod. “The people call them Hiders.” (55)

“Viperon, I suspect?” offered Kyrintha, looking to Revel. He nodded his agreement. (56)

“I’ve never seen them in such numbers,” said Terebin, “at least not near Rema. But we have encountered them before. They are particularly sensitive to the use of the Tongue. It drives them to frenzy, and draws them like moth to flame. They cannot fly but can leap great distances when they wish. A sphere would draw a swarm. Worded spheres might hold, but with so many I can’t be certain. We’ll be safer to move past them quietly.” (57)

“They are also known to prowl the waters of the Gorge,” added Revel. “They attacked our ship as we fled Phallenar. The Gorge is wide. How are we to cross it once we reach the waters?” (58)

“The speaker told me the people were going to build a boat and take it there,” said Grace. “He said a group was going to cross the black water and see if we could find other pure borns like you,” she nodded toward Terebin. “I don’t know if they built it yet.” (59)

“Even if they did, it may not be big enough to hold us all,” said Magan, “and one of us on a pallet.” (60)

“That’s right,” said Kyrintha, pointing to Gideon, who lay sleeping in apparent bliss, as he had the past few days. “How will we get him down the cliff without the Words?” (61)

“The ordinary way,” said Ammiel. “With ropes.” (62)

“As I said, it will be treacherous,” said Terebin. “At this point we do not know what awaits us at the bottom. If there is no boat, the other priests and I can craft one from the stone of the cliffs, although to do so would certainly draw a swarm of the shadow worms down upon us.” (63)

“The Pearl is with us,” said Revel firmly. “We can trust in that.” (64)

The others nodded, but Aybel doubted whether any of them actually believed it. Honestly, she wasn’t sure how much she did, either. She desperately clung to her belief in the Pearl, but so far it wasn’t behaving anything like any of them had expected. Would it really deliver them? It hardly seemed aware of anything happening to them. (65)

“Take your rest,” said Terebin. “We’ll leave within the hour. We need to reach the bottom before nightfall. Ammiel, Magan, help me rig the Waymaker’s pallet for the descent.” (66)

“Wait,” said Kyrintha, pointing east. “What’s that?” (67)

On the horizon rose an undulating cloud, darker than all the rest, and getting larger. (68)

“A storm?” ventured Aybel. (69)

But the priests were already running to the cliff’s edge. “That is no storm,” said Ammiel. (70)


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Inherited Lands
Gideon's Dawn Waymaker

"...a work of extreme depth and breadth of vision."
-Christian Fiction Review

Author

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.

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