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

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CHAPTER 9: WORMWOOD (PART 2)

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

“Birds,” said Terebin, “blighted crows unless I miss my guess.” He glanced back to Aybel. “The priests and I will hold them off. You three, craft ropes and rig the pallet for descent. The earth and stone are tainted here, so you must purify it first with blue fire. Can you do that?” (1)

Aybel nodded. Terebin turned and with his brothers set the whole line of the cliff ablaze with with purifying fire, then from the rock called forth a cast of mighty hawks, a dozen or more, who flew off toward the cloud. (2)

Revel had already set to work amassing dirt in a whirlwind of blue flame, working it with untainted air until it coalesced in braided cords of hemp. It seems Aybel was not the only one who’d been learning from the priests. Eagerly she joined in, crafting a second line to match his own. These they secured across the Waymaker’s body, cinching him and the staff to the pallet. To the ends they tied additional lines, rigged so that the whole thing could be lowered vertically, with Gideon’s back to the cliff and feet toward the ground. (3)

Kyrintha helped with all this as best she could, shifting the ropes by hand as they were laid to ensure they didn’t hinder the Waymaker’s breathing or abrade his skin too roughly. (4)

“Wolves!” Magan called. Aybel and Revel ran to join the priests, who had by now set much of the terrain below them on fire. Blue flames seared the living rock surrounding the black springs of the Wormwood. But the river itself resisted their approach and remained untouched. (5)

Just beyond the flames, twenty or more rancid beasts like nothing Aybel had ever seen encroached against the fires. They did indeed look something like wolves, or what may once have been wolves, but larger, and deformed in ways hard to look upon. They growled and howled through multiple mouths, with multiple jaws, and multiple rows of teeth, all of various sizes and location, erupting from the putrescent flesh like boils. The same held true for their eyes, which cried tears of blood that formed shiny crusted tracks down their black fur to the ground. For all their ferocity, they evoked in Aybel a gut-wrenching pity. The beasts lived in perpetual agony, so great it had clearly driven them mad. No living thing should be forced to endure such misery. (6)

“Revel, take Kyrintha and Grace and carry the Waymaker down the path,” said Aybel. “I will follow with the priests as soon as I can.” (7)

To her surprise, Revel did not resist her command, but only nodded with his typical grin before running back to where Kyrintha and Grace knelt beside Gideon, whose deep sleep kept him oblivious to everything going on. (8)

The fallen wolves made their advance, weaving their way around the flames by walking in the rivulets of the Wormwood’s spring. Clearly, the black waters posed no danger to the despoiled life of the Barrens, then. Well, now they knew. (9)

To combat this, the priests called on the air, and from it forged three pillars of blue fire, which spun out in a fury toward the advancing line of wolves. They snarled and howled and snapped at the swirling flames, but whenever one brushed their fur even a little, it set the whole beast ablaze in a piercing moan that filled the skies with a sorrow so heavy it was nearly too much to bear. (10)

For the next few moments, it seemed a stalemate of sorts had settled in. The fiery pillars chasing the wolves, and the wolves nimbly dancing just out of their reach. The murder of crows, still distant, was likewise being held at bay by the hawks who wreaked havoc in their midst. (11)

“Is it enough?” asked Aybel. “Shall we go?” (12)

Terebin nodded. “Ammiel, go with Aybel. Catch up to the others and hasten their pace. Magan and I will follow shortly. I want to be certain the defenses will hold…” (13)

Just then a cry rose from the west, and, as if materializing from nowhere, a line of mon’jalen appeared behind the wolves. There were scores of them, perhaps a full hundred. The priests summoned shields a single breath before the full line of them unleashed black lightning against the cliff and everyone on it. Magan bellowed at the Sa’lei warriors, unleashing curses in Dei’lo Aybel had never heard before and did not understand. But the black garbs quickly began to drop one by one, like puppets whose strings were snipped in two. (14)

“Go!” Terebin commanded Ammiel. “Now!” (15)

The priest grabbed Aybel by the arm and dragged her reluctantly toward the hidden path. It was sound strategy, she knew. Now that mon’jalen had come, Stevron himself would not be far behind. They had to make their escape now, a task made doubly hard by having to lower Gideon a thousand feet down a near vertical cliff, and to do it without the use of the Words for fear of stirring the nest of viperon entrenched in the rocks. Even so, it chaffed Aybel’s nature to run from a fight while others remained behind. She hated every fleeing step. (16)

In her last fleeting glance back to the battle, just before she dipped out of sight, she saw him. Riding a wolf three times bigger than any of the rest, Stevron looked every inch the regal prince. Unlike his mon’jalen, who bore on their faces and hands the decay of the Barrens, no doubt held at bay by his dark Word, he himself had not so much as single speck of dust upon him. His clothing was immaculate and rich, not at all the garments of war, but rather of victory. He grinned the smug grin of a man who believed he had already won. (17)

“Come now!” urged Ammiel, and Aybel finally let him pull her down the path. The first dozen steps or so were simple enough, but then the whole thing disintegrated into a series of haphazard switchbacks, much more a climbing route than an actual trail, so roughly marked as to be nearly impossible to follow beyond the first handful of turns. Some thirty feet below, Revel and Kyrintha struggled with the pallet, with Grace below them guiding the way. Revel was strong, but without the Words to help, the dead weight of Gideon and the pallet were nearly too much for him to maneuver safely alone, and though Kyrintha did what she could, slight as she was it wasn’t nearly enough. (18)

She and Ammiel scrambled down to join them, sending a sheet of stones ahead of them, which by sheer luck missed the crew below by mere inches. Upon reaching them, Ammiel took half the load from Revel, and securing the ropes around each of their torsos, the two of them began to make much quicker work of lowering the Waymaker down, with Aybel providing support from below to keep the pallet itself from getting lodged in the rocks as it dropped. (19)

Still, it wasn’t fast enough, Aybel knew. Terebin and Magan were powerful in the Words, more powerful than any speaker of Dei’lo than she had ever seen. But she had watched Stevron tear apart the High Lord Balaam as if he were a ragged old toy. It was just a matter of time before Stevron broke through the priests’ defensive line. When he did, how could the rest of them defend against his direct assault, trapped as they were on the side of a cliff completely exposed and surrounded by nests of viperon? She could not foresee a way for them to survive if he broke through. All she could do now was cling to the hope that Terebin and Magan could hold him and his mon’jalen off long enough to give them a chance to reach the gorge. (20)

Just then, the fluttered rumble of hundreds of wings echoed overhead, and she looked up to see the dark cloud of crows emerging beyond the ledge, and begin to spiral down the cliff face toward them. There were no hawks in sight. (21)

“No shields!” warned Ammiel. “The Tongue attracts the birds like carrion to vultures. Their eyesight is poor. If we hold still, they may pass by and leave us untouched.” (22)

So they all went still, careful not to move or make any sound. The black cloud swirled slowly down, the birds within likewise quiet except for the low thunder of their hundreds of wings. As the mass came level with the Waymaker, a crow landed on the ledge a few feet from his pallet. It did not attack, nor make any sound, but simply looked curiously about, as if trying to decide whether they might be something of interest. Unlike most creatures tainted by the Barrens, the bird did not seem much changed from how a normal crow might look, but for two things. Its claws were longer and sharper than they ought to have been, and from its upper beak a row of tiny blade like teeth protruded down, coupled with a matching set on the lower beak, which revealed themselves when the creature opened its jaws as if to taste the air with its forked tongue. (23)

Still, it made no move toward any of them, even when a second bird alighted near the first. Then a third, followed by a few more on the ledge above where they stood. Despite this, Ammiel continued to give them the sign to hold. (24)

A few more lighted on the ledges around them even as the larger mass of the cloud continued on to the north. No one spoke, not even a whisper, but all were hoping the birds would soon alight to join the others so they could keeping moving down the path. The waiting was infuriating for Aybel, who knew every moment they delayed brought Stevron closer, and wasted the efforts Terebin and Magan were making on their behalf at the risk of their very lives. (25)

Finally, two of the wretched creatures took to the air and flew away toward the departing cloud. Another followed. Then a fourth, a fifth. The sixth seemed about to follow, but then curiously turned and hopped upon the Waymaker’s pallet, less than a handbreadth away from Kyrintha. It eyed her as if trying to discern what she was. Revel made a slight move toward her, but she stopped him with a look. At last, the creature spread its wings as if to depart, but then with an unnatural quickness lashed out with its beak and latched onto her hand. She screamed and tried to shake it off but it would not let go until at last Revel knocked it away with a stone.
As it fell away it let out a cry, and the cloud immediately turned and raced back toward them. (26)

Aybel called up to Ammiel, “They’ll be too many now, we have to shield. And keep moving!” (27)

“Agreed,” he replied. “But be ready. Those silver demons will also come fast once the Tongue is uttered!” (28)

“Are you all right?” Revel reached toward Kyrintha, but she waved him off with out a word. She had already shorn a strip from her tunic and was using it to wrap her hand, her face nonplussed as if to pretend it wasn’t serious. But they all knew what that bite meant. (29)

A line of blue light spheres materialized around each of them just before the birds arrived. The spheres seemed to drive the birds to madness. With screeches and caws they rammed into the shields like living spears, sacrificing themselves by the dozens in eruptions of blue fire. The shields sparked and crackled but were not at first much strained by the attack. The onslaught roared like a storm of stones crashing onto metal roofs. But none of it touched them, and they quickly resumed their descent down the cliff. (30)

They had barely a minute of progress, though, before the first viperon arrived, boring out of the rock wall beside them and as a moth to a flame latching onto Ammiel’s shield with its suctioned mouth and multiple rows of razor teeth. In less than a breath, he turned it to dust, but just as fast, two more arrived, latching onto his shield again. Others followed, striking at Revel’s shield, and Aybel’s too, but they were soon also dispatched. The beasts then tried to emerge from the very rock at their backs or beneath their feet, but once they realized it they each extended their defensive spheres into the cliff itself. All the while the birds continued their assault, though thankfully their numbers were thinning quickly as more and more were set ablaze. Still the madness of it all made progress down the path much slower than before. It had been many minutes now since Aybel had left Terebin and Magan on the ridgeline above. She feared for them, and worried that their efforts would be in vain if they could not find a way to go faster. (31)

But it was not to be. (32)

“Riftmen!” Revel yelled just one second before Aybel saw the wave of black tar rise from the cliffs to the north.
“They’re all around us!” Kyrintha yelled, and Aybel turned to see them coming from the south as well. She yelled at them in the righteous fury of Dei’lo, and blue fire erupted from the inky surface of the riftmen wave, provoking more dark screams that pierced their ears. The others called forth fire as well, and soon a ring of blue flame circled all around them. But still they came, as if driven mad by Stevron’s Word, gushing forward even as they burned, blanketing the edges of the shields like a poison. (33)

“You must keep them off the shields,” cried Ammiel. But one glance told Aybel even he was unable to keep them away. The spheres held true, but the strain was growing. They were effectively trapped, surrounded above and below and on either side by viperon and crows and more and more riftmen, who kept flowing down from the ridgeline above in a succession of suffocating waves. (34)

Then a flash of lightning. And another. (35)

“It’s Terebin!” called Ammiel, his voice hopeful. “Magan too.” (36)

Aybel saw them some fifty feet above. Even from this distance, she could see their tattooed skin was torn and blooded. What wasn’t bloody was coated in soot. All their hair had been burned away. But their eyes were bright, and their voices sang out like thunder, blasting wave after wave of viperon and riftmen into oblivion. (37)

“Give me the Pearl and the one you call Waymaker, and the rest of you may live.” (38)

The voice bellowed from everywhere, and she immediately recognized whose it was. There was no point in answering. (39)

Then black lightning came, striking down upon each of their shields from the ridgeline above. Her own sphere buckled under the strain of it. The riftmen, viperon, and now the dark lightning. It was too much for her to hold at bay. At least the crows were finally gone. (40)

To her surprise, however, she felt the Words of the priests above reinforcing her shield. Heartened by their unyielding faith, she screamed again and again at the encroaching darkness, stoking the fires that forced the creatures back before the next wave snuffed it out. (41)

Then high above she saw a sphere float out, both black and glowing in that way only Sa’lei did. (42)

Stevron. (43)


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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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