All The Woes Of A World. Part 6
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Helios seemed to watch. The mountains, illuminated in part by the sun, seemed to beckon. In point of fact, the mountains did more than just beckon, they positively welcomed the sacrifice with open arms.
The sacrifice was a long time coming, but the mountains had patience aplenty. They had claimed lives before, many times before, but this one was special. In a way irony had its part to play also, for this life was to be the last offering Angelis (pre-cataclysm) would have to give.
The jagged tops of the Mountains of Triton seemed razor-sharp. Their barbs, honed to perfection by the weather of millions of years, glistened in the afternoon sun, its icy glare refracted and reflected by the snow and ice-crystals that adorned the peaks of grey Mother-Stone.
Helios was not all powerful here. Its luminosity was frequently interrupted by the anvil-heads of the storm-front coming down from the North. On the most Northerly summits of the range the snow was already at blizzard density and the wind at gale force. The air temperature was hovering around zero, but the wind would bring with it a chill factor that would freeze the blood of the travellers.
The Northern wind told Daldareth many things. The air would get extremely cold and yet it would be a fairly simple exercise to gain enough altitude to rise above the low-level storm clouds. To survive they had to get above the clouds to where Helios would grudgingly bestow a small part of its energy upon them, and where the sheer-effect of the cold front would keep the air at an endurable temperature.
Daldareth signalled the rise. Barely increasing his wing speed, but severely altering his angle of ascent, he began to haul his human dead weight into the upper-Heights. The flight kept a loose 'V' formation: Daldareth, with the two Northlanders to his right and left and slightly behind, Gabriel and Brielga following suit. At the rear, somewhat forgotten, the youngest Winged and the last to leave the rock, maintained a steady speed. He did not feel forgotten. In his life he had learnt enough to warrant unsupervised Crossings. His competence in the Heights was not cause for concern. It could be easily seen that in good time he would make his elders proud.
Seeing those ahead of him ascend he too altered his position and began to climb. It dawned on him that a sense of urgency had crept upon them. The Crossing had at that moment two reasons to be anxious. Their time limit was severely finite and the cold front from the North was bearing down on them. He knew enough to divine Daldareth's intentions and carefully gauged the course he should follow. He was in fact only fifty metres behind the Southlander Gabriel, and it was to him rather than Daldareth he looked to as a yardstick for his own movements.
The thunderheads were frighteningly close now. Daldareth intended to take them on his right-wing side passing to the left of them and using the up-draught from the warmer Southern air to gain extra lift for very little extra effort.
Daldareth altered course to bring the travellers slightly West of North. In his mind's eye he envisaged their flight path. Still climbing, he calculated the time required to get them all out of danger. As they settled onto their modified course Daldareth realised the possibility that he might have waited too long, that he had underestimated the closing speed of the storm front. The air around them had become suddenly wet. This was not rain but an increase in airborne moisture which at this altitude signalled the onset of rain.
Now the huge Northerner began to fear. His skin prickled with the presence of static in the air. They had become positively charged, magnets for a lightning strike. Around them all he saw all at once and with trepidation the many facets, the many faces of death. Around them the static, the presence of electrical energy, pent-up, stored until such a time that nature could contain it no longer. The storm front, the anvil clouds, broiling, billowing, harbourers of pressures and vacuums, up-draughts and downdraughts, the chill enough to freeze a body to the solidity of ice, the power to contain that same body, dead and frozen within itself and deposited at will.
Below, far below, now that the greater altitude had been acquired, lay the glistening shards, the ice-sheathed pinnacles of the Mountains of Triton. Like so many pointed teeth, like the lower jaw of some foreboding monster, the summits begged for the forces of gravity to be granted their power and deliver unto them those who would defy that gravity.
Now the travellers could be thrust to the ground, sucked into the clouds, rent asunder by the power of vacuum, roasted in the discharge of lightning, concussed by thunder, frozen by the ever-chilling air or buffeted by the turmoil of the growing storm until broken wings supported the Winged no more.
A thousand yards ahead Daldareth saw that which he craved. An opening ahead and above revealed the blue of clear air. He had known that such an opening would exist. He knew also of its significance. Clear air meant safety and a smoother Crossing for them all.
He increased his speed but maintained his angle of ascent. His charge, the Lady Sarah, glanced up at him and saw relief erase the furrows of concern on his brow. By now they had all seen the patch of blue and understood. They needed no guidance. It was for all to see the blatantly obvious. The Winged could at least make their own judgements of speed and tangents.
Gabriel chose to rise higher than Daldareth and his two escorts. Brielga changed course to bring himself somewhere between the two elder Winged. In the van the youngest elected to hold his present course, lack of confidence preventing him from reaching other decisions; better to keep a simple path than to confuse unnecessarily.
For those ahead of him the tingling sensations lessened, prickling hair and the finest of their down sounded no alarms for them and in relaxing eased their troubled minds. For him this was not to be and, had he time to consider, the reason for this would have been made apparent.
But time was not available to him, nor indeed was it available to the others. The moment of sacrifice was upon them. Angelis required of them one, and only one, to mark the path of the Crossing. In the space of time that saw Daldareth soar through the cloud ringed opening, that saw the others witness that accomplishment, that saw the rain and sleet begin to fall, the bolt of lightning screamed through air. Not a downward strike this, not an attraction to the iron cores of the mountains. The multimillion volt thrust arched across the air to the highly charged body of the trailing Winged.
Mercifully, he did not see its approach. In an instant his entire being was filled with light and heat. Every fibre, every molecule was rendered almost to carbon, smoking and crackling. In that same moment his life force fled and sought refuge in the afterlife. Long before the collapsing air of thunder sounded its deafening rumble, Younger Oiska's roasted body was falling to the mountainous terrain below.
Blinded by the lightning flash, deafened by the thunder's roar, thrown sideways with a wing collapsed under the pressure of the bolt, Brielga felt the horror of his approaching death. It reached into him, his body and his soul and announced the termination of his life. The brilliance of the light convinced him of his transition from here to the eternity of death. The roar of thunder he assumed to be his lifeblood rushing past his ears. His collapsed wing became the paralysis of muscles no longer receiving signals from his brain.
Gabriel missed Oiska's demise; the bolt had thrown him also. Instinctively, he looked behind and saw enough to make him drop his left wing and tilt right and twist into a vicious turn that would reverse his course and reduce his altitude. He could see Oiska's charred remains tumbling like a discarded leaf. It took him no more than a second to realise the cause. With that in mind he turned through almost ninety degrees and dived for Brielga who had also taken on the semblance of something wind-blown.
Here was every Winged's nightmare. To fall, to drop out of the sky, to forsake the Crossing. These were real horrors for, once out of control, injured or even dying, contact with the ground was inevitable and for all that, unsurvivable.
Gabriel screamed. But although it was Brielga's name that left his lips it was a hysterical sound of terror that reached other ears. As one they searched for the source. It didn't take them long.
From the Heights, from the gap in the clouds they had been desperately reaching for, Gabriel looked pitifully small, Brielga more so.
Injured, Brielga fluttered like a moth. His good wing had stretched out and slowed his spinning fall. Gabriel folded back as he dived to close the gap between them. The equation was a good one. Brielga's rate of descent was being outstripped by Gabriel. The trick was to be able to reach Brielga before Brielga reached the ground, or more correctly, smashed himself like a bag of water, dashed on the mountains below.
Gabriel stretched his arms ahead of him, breaking the air in front to increase his speed by reducing his drag-coefficient. His eyes began to lose their nasolacrimal fluid, his vision was beginning to blur, a sign that his speed was in the extreme for a Winged. He could feel the pinpricks of pain as down and minor feathers were ripped from his wings.
To an outsider, one not versed in the actions of Winged, it might have seemed that Brielga was in the midst of an aerobatic fete, that in a moment his collapsed wing would extend and return control of the fall to its owner. When focussed on Gabriel unknowing eyes might have assumed that he was intent of suicide. These visions would remain valid for only a few seconds. A hypothetical witness would soon realise the true horror, the deadly messages contained in Gabriel's actions.
He had by now reached Brielga and was struggling to match his rate of descent whilst manoeuvering into a position that would allow him to take hold of the injured Winged. Now he could hear Brielga's screams. Now he could see the damage done to the wing, the maddening terror on his face, the desperate movements of his good wing, the twisting of his body as he tried to control the fall.
Having matched Brielga's speed, Gabriel quickly reached for him...and missed. He tried again. He had to attach himself, grab anything, hair, arms, wing. He was under Brielga now. He had to gauge his movements. Brielga should practically fall on him.
Missed...the second attempt. The ground seemed to be rushing up at them. No longer were they in that part of the descent that might be called 'free fall'.
Downwards, like plummeting stones. Brielga and Gabriel. Gabriel and Brielga. Two marionettes, each vying for position in the storm-filled sky. The others watched the dance. They circled slowly far above, helpless and disbelieving, their porthole through the clouds still miraculously open.
Gabriel had figured it out. Brielga was less than five feet above him. He had momentarily managed to point his legs downwards. He was vertical but still falling, wings still folded. He pushed his arms out in front of him again, the man catching the baby falling from the window, the Winged catching the Winged falling out of the sky.
Three feet separated them. Gabriel snapped his wings out to their limits. With such a massive wing area suddenly giving him an impossible drag-coefficient Gabriel, for all intents and purposes, stopped in midair.
Brielga crashed into him and immediately transferred his momentum to Gabriel. With wings still extended Gabriel reached with his left hand and snapped a length of harness with its steel clip to a ring on Brielga's. If they were unable to pull out of the dive they would die together.
"Your wing!" screamed Gabriel, brutally aware of their danger. "Fold back! I need to control this!!"
Brielga retracted his good wing. Gabriel had him now, but despite his own extended wings they were still descending. He wrapped his fingers around Brielga's body-harness. They were fixed, face to face. They could fly as one.
Gabriel collapsed his left wing and allowed his right to grab the air alone. It screamed its messages of agony but sent the Winged into a left-wing slide. He knew it could all be too much, He was beginning to lose quills, and it hurt!
He twisted his body and tilted his wing. This brought them almost head first to the ground. Still suffering the agonies of pressure on his extended wing he brought his other back into use. He groaned in relief. He didn't need air-brakes now, he could initiate a swoop.
He brought his head up. momentarily viewing their distance from the ground, the tops of the mountains. The trailing edges of his wings bent upwards. The force of air over his wings gradually buffeted them into a horizontal position. He held them until he was angled slightly above the horizontal plane and had lost much of their forward momentum.
One beat. It hurt his huge chest muscles. Two beats. They were still losing height. Three beats. His sternum threatened failure. Brielga was much heavier than the Lady Sarah. A Winged rarely harnessed a Winged.
"Get the other clip on! I have to have my arms!"
Brielga looked dazed. His injuries were more severe than Gabriel had first thought. He fumbled around for the second harness clip and found it flapping in the wind and rain. He grabbed the strip of leather, clenched it tight, felt the moisture it had absorbed. The gleaming clip at the strip's end beckoned him, taunted him, begged him to release Brielga's harness.
This he could not do. To lose his grip on the injured Winged was to unbalance them both. That would amount to a catastrophe. He could not dredge up resources of stamina he no longer had.
He raised the leather strip to his mouth and bit. He slid his hand along the leather until he clasped the metal he so dearly sought. In a sudden practised moved he at once relaxed his jaw and snapped the clip onto Brielga's harness.
He was in control now. His arms were free. Brielga had managed to recover enough to cross his own arms over his chest. Gabriel, though overloaded, could adjust their trim, change course, manoeuvre. He increased the beating of his wings, corrected his angle of ascent and climbed slowly to the gap in the clouds where others awaited his arrival. To Groundlings this might have appeared cruel, even merciless, but in truth there was in fact nothing for them to do. They would only get in the way.
Nor was it possible for them to descend and seek out a resting place for the storm was upon them. Rumblings and whistling winds told all that survival lay above the clouds and far to the North.
Foot by excruciating foot Gabriel marked the ascent with the beating of his wings. He knew what lay ahead, the sun, the clear air, and most of all, the encouragement of his companions.
Brielga's head tipped back, a sign that he had succumbed to the pain of his damaged wing. He was in shock but this held no danger for his saviour. His wings had locked themselves into position. In this way he remained a dead weight certainly, but a safe dead weight to be sure.
They spoke no words for Oiska. Though he was not forgotten in his death other matters came to the fore and caressed his memory into recesses of their minds. In future times he would come forth and be honoured and blessed and paid tribute and have tears shed upon him and have thanks to their God passed in his name for such a swift demise, in a world where such a thing would soon become a rarity indeed.
They passed through the clouds and into the light of the world. They basked in this light and took succour from it and the cool dry air of the blue within blue sky. They did not smile, nor did they acknowledge the change in their surroundings. The sun had passed the meridian long since and stood to bid them goodnight not long from now. But their surroundings had changed, of that there could be no doubt. They flew strung out in a line, a file, the cotton wool of clouds below and the blue of sky above. Up here lay a 'tween world where sound was rare, warmth very little and light eternally brilliant whilst day existed. Had they wished they might have glimpsed a star here and there, just one of the nearer lights, strong enough to make its presence known in the light of day. But there was no time for this. There was no time to waste. Now there were other reasons for their speed.
Whilst the Southerners' direction had become confused, Daldareth knew the course and distance to their objective. This was not a conscious knowledge. He knew the Heights as a Groundling might know a trail or path. He had only to close his eyes and forget their world and his track would become a tangible thing and his wings would become seekers reaching out to touch the edges of the invisible path. He was his own navigator and in this displayed the miracle of all the Winged. They could not only fly, they flew as well. The two were entirely separate, as different as male and female, as night and day.
Daldareth was sure of the way. He led them with strength and with purpose, always with regard for the weakest, Gabriel. Nor was Gabriel and his charge at the rear. He was now directly behind Daldareth and matching his wings beat for beat. Gabriel was drawing strength from the Northlander. His mind had locked out the pain, was ignoring his dead weight. In this state of limited consciousness he had the capacity to take in information he would have otherwise ignored. He began to notice the reddening of the sky as the sun began to set. At this altitude he noticed also the coming of the terminator, the coming of the night and with it, the chill of the night.
He knew that now, more than ever before, reliance upon the Northlander was all important. He didn't doubt that he would take into account the urgent need they had for rest and medical aid, but he could not help wondering how far away that rest and aid was.
Time had lost some of its meaning. This happened often during lengthy Crossings and usually meant little. However, this was no ordinary Crossing. Disorientation had set in early. The bolt of lightning, whilst only fatal to one of their number, had taken its toll of all its survivors and no matter how limited his consciousness became, fatigue and pain continued to eat into his system.
The stars were appearing now, glittering specks inset like snow crystals upon a blue-black sky. The sun hid its shame beyond the horizon as it fled the coming of night leaving the travellers to their efforts in the chill dark maw. The wind was almost non-existent, as if it had tired of distracting them. It had once caressed them and as it passed over exposed flesh had strangely warmed them. It was different now for their skin was to be attacked directly by the still and the cold, like the laying on of ice. But as the last light of day surrendered in a confusion of reds, blues and greys, Daldareth - still leading - smiled to himself. He saw the evidence that told him that the Crossing - despite its tragedies - was to be completed in record time. They were early, but the arrangements he had made were at that moment being implemented.
He glanced over his shoulder and whistled a single note of perfect pitch, long and hard. One of the young Winged accelerated to reach him. As he closed the distance Daldareth said, "Tell the others we have not far to travel. In a few moments we begin our descent!"
The younger was glad of that and said so before dropping back to join the others. He didn't wonder at the message for he had seen what Daldareth had seen, indeed, what they couldn't fail to see.
"Look beyond!" he yelled at Gabriel, pointing ahead and down. "The Beacon! Look to the Beacon!"
It was still some miles distant but that did not distract from its beauty for it was as white as could ever be and rose from the ground to travel beyond infinity. The vertical shaft of man-made light wavered not, but took on a quasi-solid appearance as if when reached one could slide down it to the welcoming centre of the town.
Welcoming or no, the people of the town were in for a shock. They already knew that something was wrong for not one of them had failed to see that morning's dawn, though they failed to understand it. Had they all blinked together...? The return of Daldareth and the others and the Southlanders presumably meant the coming of reasons and explanations, for Helios had blinked and not one had understood.
As they closed the distance to the Beacon they began to see the lights of the town as it readied itself for the evening as it had since its founding four hundred years past. Still closer allowed them to see the circling winged; circling for they flew around the shaft of the Beacon's light looking forever Southwards as an escort awaiting the travellers arrival.
Daldareth chose his moment to descend carefully. Tiredness was upon him although now that he was aware of the fate of the planet he would from this day forward begrudge the time he would spend at rest for it effectively cut his time by a third. Thoughts like these harangued his mind like bickering children devoid of common sense. It seemed that life had quickened his heart and yet at the same time slowed the actions of others to crawl. The frustration of these feelings weighed heavily upon him, giving him wings of clay and mud to fly through while death approached at a wicked speed unerring in its path to his being.
For no reason he looked behind and noted the position of his charges. They were out of danger now and only the exhausted collapse of a Winged could bring further casualties. He was relying on the sight of their destination to urge them through the last miles. Gabriel, he noticed, had begun his descent a trifle early, but then he carried the heaviest load. Soon others would join them to encourage and if disaster struck once more would strive to save them. Looking ahead now, Daldareth whistled to the distance and to the Beacon. They would hear him now, he was sure. They would come now, now that he needed them.
(Continued in Part 7)
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