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Luik ran back to help Kinfen load more men in the lift while Fyfler and Quoin spread the word down the line: “When they reach for their arrows, charge!” Thunder clapped overhead and the sky lit up as broad daylight. Luik glanced west and caught a glimpse of the funnel cloud spinning ever closer.
“Don’t worry, my Lord,” Kinfen said as he sent the lift on its way, “we’ll make it.”
Luik appreciated his friend’s optimism, but between the storm closing in and the enemy waiting to strike, their situation was beyond hope.
The advancing taken had passed out the bows and focused their attention on the receding numbers of the warband. Luik felt a sickening knot form in his stomach. He looked up to the headland above. Faces looked down upon them, all shouting at them and urging them to go faster. Fia’s small face stood out among the others, her small voice of encouragement lost in the tumult.
Luik heard Cage’s voice give the command, “Varos!”
Luik spun to watch his men charge into the waiting line of the taken, their adversaries’ hands reaching back for their arrows. The warband closed the distance across the slick rock. Kinfen left his position at the lift and ran after his brothers, sword high. Luik did the same.
The taken nocked their shafts.
The Dibor charged, bounding forward.
And the distance lessened.
Then a strange sight: feathered shafts suddenly appeared in the heads and shoulders of the enemy, raining down from somewhere above. The arrows protruded like quills, routed deep into the unprotected flesh of the taken. The sharp sound of bones splitting went up everywhere; air escaped through open mouths and chests filled with breath.
A few of the taken had managed to draw back their bowstrings, haphazardly sending their arrows into the onrushing warriors. Five of Dionia’s men tumbled forward in midstride. Three were struck in their extremities, while two others were driven through the face and heart. The rest of the warband fell upon the wounded archers and ended their plight.
It was over in a matter of moments.
Wherever the defense had come from, it made short work of the taken, and whoever among them remained alive was swiftly finished off with the sword. Luik surveyed the scene, and then slowly turned in wonder and gazed up the cliff face—past the cluster of boulders, up past the rocky outcroppings—and then fixed his eyes on a spectacle he had never seen before.
There along the cliff top, standing as a noble race of ancient guardians, were warriors dressed in robes of red and purple with armor of gold. They held a longbow in one hand and an elliptical golden shield on the same forearm. Their gleaming open-faced helmets were mounted with wings, looking as if they would fly away at any moment, while a single stem covered the nose.
“Who in Athera’s great name are they?” Cage muttered. The rain beat on his head, wind whipping his hair.
Luik looked to the storm in the west. “Come, there is no time. To the headland!” Luik and the other Dibor gathered the remaining men and loaded a group in the lift. With so many hands at work above, the wooden carriage flew up the cliff-side, returning only moments later for the next load. Six trips were made before Luik and a handful of others stood alone on the rocky beach.
The funnel cloud was only a short distance offshore. The ominous black snake twisted wildly and sucked water up from the surface of the sea only to spew it back out again somewhere far above. The raging winds increased, and soon no one could hear above the roar but for a shout in the ear.
Luik looked up as the lift returned; he saw Kinfen and the others yelling from above but their voices were drowned out in the storm. He looked back at the funnel.
“My liege, it’s time to go!” Fyfler cupped a hand to the King’s ear.
Luik glanced around and made certain they were the last ones on the rocks. He nodded and stepped into the lift. Cage, Rab, Fyfler, Quoin and the rest jumped on board and then gave a wave skyward. The wooden crate lurched and shot up. As the group soared over the shore, they surveyed the bodies of their brothers and the taken; it was a gory scene Luik wished never to remember.
The lift swayed in the driving winds, braided cords groaning under the stress. Suddenly the lift slammed with a shudder against the rock wall. The Dibor fell to the floor and reached for the railing. But Rab was not so fortunate. He flipped over the beam, flying free of the lift’s protection.
There, in midair, time stood still.
He looked down to the mass of rocks and arrow-riddled bodies below.
His body took speed…
A hand grabbed his wrist and he jerked to a halt. Rab swung freely, legs dangling over the height. He looked up.
It was Luik.
Rab smiled knowingly; they both had lost track of how many times they had saved one another, and this only furthered the score. Luik smiled back and then hauled him up with the others. The lift then continued its rapid ascent.
Luik heard shouting.
It was Kinfen driving the men relentlessly from above. The lift was nearing the headland. The pulleys squealed as the ropes whistled through their blocks.
From this height Luik also noticed the speed of the encroaching storm; it was not only deadly, but dangerously swift.
“It’s driven by Morgui himself,” Fyfler shouted.
“Nay,” Luik disagreed, “I think it is Creation’s making.”
Fyfler turned to him, curious.
Just then the lift jounced into the blocks above and the ride came to a sudden halt. Luik stepped out and onto the path, now a muddy rut. He looked about and saw the faces of his warband, each clinging to the ropes. And there, littered throughout the trees standing along the cliff’s edge, the mysterious robed bowmen.
Everyone was looking at Luik. The rain and wind tore through the woods, leaves and branches flying everywhere. What a strange scene, Luik thought.
Fia walked forward and took his hand.
We must move, her eyes implied.
“To the Central Hall!” Luik raised Fia to his back, and then strode down the pathway and took off running. It had been nearly three summers since he had last seen Kirtsell, but his feet took to the trail as if he had never left. Fia clung tightly, arms wrapped around his neck, as Luik emerged from the wood and into the large field that he’d often trained in, bounding over rocks and following the sweeping curves of the shallow hills.
Luik cast a quick glance behind him; his men followed, the new bowmen farthest back. Eyes returning to the trail, he looked skyward. Luik had hardly noticed how black the sky had become. Suddenly the field around him lit up as if in broad daylight.
A shaft of razor-edged light careened down from the storm and struck a patch of forest in front of them. The men faltered. Luik turned around.
“Press on!” he waved. “Press on!”
They looked past him in dread as flames burst from the wooded canopy beyond.
“We’re not going in there, are we?” Fia yelled in his ear.
“Aye, Fia. But the flames will not last.”
Luik moved more hesitantly, now trotting down the path. But his view of the nearing funnel sent him running once again. He watched as the wind whipped up the flames in the treetops. They twisted wildly, but with nothing dry to burn, the orange glow soon died, never to reappear.
Luik could see the path enter the woods up ahead. The brush to the sides grew thicker as they neared. Moments later they were bounding along a dark trail, weaving between tree trunks on a well-worn track. He knew every branch here, every fold and turn. All was exactly as he had last seen it. Even in such a moment of crisis, this unchanging wood was a place of great comfort. He had always dreamed of coming back here, yet he had secretly held to the probability that it might never happen, that this place of his boyhood dreams would remain just that—a dream.
Kirstell was all he had known for four summers of his life, four summers that had changed him forever. It was here he had become a warrior, consumed by Gorn’s teachings; it was here he had made friends more true than any others he would ever know; and it was here he had touched realms of the Most High he had never known existed.
It was also here that he had learned his life was no longer his own.
“Give everything. Endure anything,” Gorn had once said while walking with them on this very path. “Your life is not your own, but you must make certain there is something in it worth giving. And then just how much will you endure to see that is indeed given?” Gorn had turned to him. “What will it cost you, Luik son of Lair?”
Luik’s feet thumped dully along the beaten trail. Fia’s breathing was quick in his ear. She was nervous. The men followed him deeper into the wood.
What will it cost you, Luik?
The mounting winds were tossing leaves and small branches. Debris from the forest floor smattered his wet clothing. The funnel was very near.
“We’re almost there!” Luik yelled over his shoulder.
The trail began to widen as it rounded the final few turns. Luik followed the ground with his eyes, convinced at one point he could see footprints that were his own, made there long ago.
The path ebbed slowly around a large oak and then spilled them out into a large square, covered above by a thick canopy of green. Leaves and vines interlaced, all bound by groaning limbs. Great lettings of flowers and greenery swung violently, their sweet fragrance washed out by the tormenting winds.
In the center of the square was the firepit, each rock just as Luik remembered. And remember them he did. How many nights had he sat around that pit with his fellow Boralee? How many times had he studied the rocks as they took on the warm orange glow of the dancing flames?
Luik slowed and then looked to the Great Hall. The massive trees that formed the outline of the structure were as secure as ever. More like trees one would find in Grandath, they grew tightly packed in a perfect rectangle, their girth nearly touching even at the height where the thatched roof had been constructed. Between the trunks, timbers and stone had been used to make walls, as well as the wide steps that lead to the entrance.
“She still stands,” Jrio exclaimed.
“Of course she does,” Rab punched him in the arm. “Did you suspect otherwise?”
“Come,” Luik ordered, “everyone inside.”
Fia slipped to the ground and was the first to bound up the steps. Those wounded or too weak to walk were carried in next, followed by the rest of the fighting men.
Cage stopped by Luik and then looked up through the cracks in the foliage and said, “This monster will sift Kirstell like wheat, I fear.”
“Unless there is still more to this home of ours than we know of.”
When the last of the warband were inside, the mysterious archers filled the square, and one approached Luik, standing amongst the Dibor.
“Hey’a, King Luik, Lord of Dionia.” The man’s voice was regal and alive, clearly audible above the maelstrom.
“Hey’a—” Luik was suddenly taken aback. He knew this man. “Hey’a servant of the Most High,” was all Luik could think of. The man was notably older than most, yet still retained a youthful glow about him. Despite the dim light that filtered through the canopy, Luik could tell the man’s face was worn and had seen many days in the sun…and the darkness. But Luik could not place him.
“The storm is upon us. May I suggest a secret place of hiding within the Great Hall?” Considering the fact that Luik had never actually been in Kirstell’s Great Hall before—one of the only places on the island that could be said of—he was more than willing to comply.
“Lead the way.” Luik gestured with his hand. The bowman strode forward, robe flowing, followed by the Dibor, and then the rest of the mysterious warriors. Up the staircase and into the Great Hall they went, a moment later consumed by darkness.
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