Sneak Peak At The Wildest Woods, Book #4 The Eden Chronicles S.K Munt

The Book Of Liberation

By Samuel J McIntyre

Chapter One

 

The archangel and his angelic daughter moved as quickly as they could once she had regained consciousness, but it still took them eight hours to make their way through the labyrinth of subterranean passages that were buried deep in the cliffs beneath Arcadia’s shoreline and up into The Wildwoods beyond.

It was a difficult journey for the girl, because not only was the path cramped, slick, cold dark and unfamiliar to her, but because there was nothing to do on that journey but reflect on all of the awful things that had happened to her, and dread all of the awful things that could potentially happen now that she was out of the Barachiel’s clutches, but in debt to Satan. In debt to Satan and apparently headed north to meet The Sequestered: a band of nomads, miscreants and law-breakers that were waiting for her to not only join them, but to assume responsibility for them all by becoming their leader.

The Shepherd swore to her that they were looking forward to meeting her and claimed that some of them had been anticipating doing so since before she’d been born… but the girl had a hard time believing that anyone would be happy to meet Satan’s spawn, especially once they found out how badly she’d already mis-managed her own life. And even without taking her questionable parentage into consideration, the thought of becoming a leader to anyone was an overwhelming prospect, and one that was completely impossible for her to imagine while she was still labouring to mentally process everything that she’d already endured in her short lifetime.

They think I can lead them all through to the northern part of the continent, but the only thing I know about the north is based on that stupid story my brother told me when I was four, about how a man had followed a stream to a great lake! It sounded like such a romantic notion back then, but… oh Satan! How am I to trust my instincts, when all of them are screaming at me to fly out of here and never look back?

That was another thing that was overwhelming her- the knowledge that Satan’s strength was completely dependent on her daughter’s loyalty now. Her dark mother had apparently exhausted the last of her power when she’d healed her, and so she had left her under her father’s guidance, ordering him to watch over their child until she could return… but the only way that she would be able to return was if the girl was able to convince others to have faith in them both- to turn their backs on God and embrace the devil and her offspring instead. Could the girl do that? Did she want to? Or was there some way that she would be able to guide these people while leaving both God and Satan out of it? She hoped that there was, but what did she know about anything? Her head ached just thinking about it.

Knowing that she would not be able to solve any of her conundrums while she was still so tired and frazzled, the girl quietly and obediently followed the shepherd like the mindless sheep that she wished she could be, watching the flames from the shepherd’s torch leap and dance towards the uneven roof of the cave’s ceiling in hypnotic rhythms that were soothing to her. Those flames were as responsive to her as the ones inside her were, she soon realised, because they dipped when her breathing was even and her mind comfortably numb, but flared angrily every time an unwelcome recollection reared its ugly head in her sub-conscious; as attracted to her as she was to them. And every time the prince that had branded her slipped into her mind, the flames roared so brightly that they endangered the shepherd’s eyebrows. The Nephilim girl didn’t know how she felt about the eldest and youngest Barachiel sons in that moment, but she did know that if given the chance, she would make the one that had branded her as a whore for life suffer for what he had tried to do to her that night.

Sensing her unease and clearly desperate to forge a bond with her after years of estrangement, her father filled the silence and the darkness with stories that he knew would feed her curiosity regarding the time before- stories that were hundreds or even thousands of years old and he hoped, impressive enough to grab and hold her attention, distracting her from her emotional turmoil and finally giving him the chance to do something right by her, however small. He spoke of great ships, ghastly wars, computer codes and rock music. He recounted a day when airplanes had crashed into the tallest buildings in the biggest city on earth, and of a tidal wave that had killed half a million people in several different countries in the space of a few minutes. He talked about the Wild West and the great south, of African plains and tropical rainforests and finally, he started talking about heaven- a place that he agreed was perfect, but flawed for its perfection.

‘I do not doubt that Heaven is the ultimate destination for a human soul, child of mine,’ the shepherd said quietly as they began to ascend after hours of what had felt like walking downhill in zigzags’ to his charge, ‘and I do not blame God for focusing on it so, because it is the only place that everybody is truly equal in the end. Equal, content, sated and at peace. There are no tears in heaven, and there is no pain. It is everything that he promised us it would be, and his most perfected creation yet…’

‘Then why are you here?’ his daughter asked him, bewildered. The cave was opening up, but she kept her voice as reverently hushed as she had all evening, shivering when she felt a biting breeze waft past her for the first time in hours. ‘If Heaven is so perfect then why have you, Miguel and even God returned here time and time again?’

The shepherd had smiled his golden angelic smile and then they had rounded the corner and had walked into a larger cave, one that was three times her height and thirty times the width of the one that they had commenced their journey within. It had a gritty floor that was covered with footprints and extinguished campfires, and a wide entrance that opened out almost directly into a growth of Devil’s Claw trees so thick and spiky and deeply ensconced in briar weed that they formed an impenetrable screen around the clearing in front of the cave, which was only three feet wide at its deepest point.

‘Because people aren’t perfect,’ the shepherd said sagely, indicating to the filthy crowd of people that were abandoning whatever it was that they had been doing- collapsing their camp, it seemed- and rushing at them while hooting and cheering and caterwauling in delight. They were so loud that the shepherd had to raise his voice to finish: ‘So it is not perfection that they crave above all else, Larkin of Eden, but life! Being in Heaven is like enjoying a wonderful dream, but nothing is like living a wonderful dream. God has forgotten that since he dispensed with his humanity, but I have not… and these people have been told they’ll never experience a dream come true here or in heaven by the righteous for so long, that they had begun to accept that as their fate! That was of course, until Satan told them that you could- and would- help them change that. That she would send her beautiful, golden daughter to them, and that you would bring hope with you. Hope like they’ve never known before.’

‘But I can’t make their dreams come true!’ the girl cried, ‘I wouldn’t know where to start!’

‘You just showed up as Satan predicted you would Larkin- and for most of these people that was the only dream they had, you know. That you would show up and here you are: golden, beautiful- and bringing them hope.’

And that was the last thing that the girl heard before she was knocked off her feet by the eager embraces of her people, and to her amazement, the hope in their eyes was blinding to her. Blinding enough for her to temporarily be infected by it too.

*

Screaming, crying, rejoicing and brandishing their babies high above their heads so that they too might witness this wondrous moment, the members of The Wildwoods branch of The Sequestered threw themselves at their new messiah demanding blessings and kissing her hands and face while the object of their affection gaped at them, a beautiful, sparkling and utterly confounded harbinger of hope, even if she wasn’t ready to believe it herself yet.

The shepherd wanted to watch that moment, and to drink in what good he and Satan had accomplished so far, but one look up at the overburdened grey sky above him confirmed that the brightness of the day was destined to be as fleeting as everything else wonderful could be, and so with a heavy heart he turned away and began to gather together what belongings he’d left behind when he’d gone to Eden, making his preparations to leave the moment that his daughter had had the chance to catch her breath. He usually only took the bare essentials, but this time was different because this time, he hoped that they would never have to return to this Godforsaken section of The Wildwoods again.

That was when a young man emerged from inside a tent to his left and looked from the angelic human girl to the Shepherd, and then back again. ‘May I?’ he asked, his cobalt eyes narrowing with determination as he reached out to the girl’s mind while he shouldered his black velvet cloak, which looked as heavy and overbearing as the darkening skies above. ‘I need the full story, you know, if I am to do this right. The sooner, the better.’

The Shepherd glanced back at his daughter who was now holding an infant and gazing down at it with wide, astonished eyes.

‘Lark?’ the girl demanded softly in a voice that was almost identical to Satan’s: low and velveteen and lovely but with a ring in the upper register. ‘You named him for me?’

The shepherd smiled gently, but then looked back to his new associate as his heart thumped happily. ‘Give her a moment of peace to enjoy this, son. She has earned that much, even if you don’t yet believe it.’

The boy turned his eyes back to him. ‘What about you?’ he asked, somewhat snidely, glancing down at the amber ring on his hand. ‘Would you like a minute to bury your most private thoughts too? It won’t do you much good, but I do enjoy a challenge…’

The Shepherd sighed wearily and removed the ring from his finger, stuffing it down into the bottom of his satchel and then stepping away from it, distancing himself from the stone’s power. ‘My mind is an open book- turn whatever pages you will and be done with it- we have miles to go yet today, remember?’

We is subjective to what I see, remember? And I won’t be going anywhere if I don’t like what I see,’ the boy reminded him, stepping closer to him and narrowing his eyes to slits, and then suddenly the shepherd couldn’t feel or think about anything for the pain in his head as the Nephilim boy raked through his thoughts and took what he wanted for himself. It pained him more than he would ever admit out loud, but he suffered it in silence and urged his assailant to take whatever he could if it meant taking less from his daughter- if it meant that the story that would be written about this time in history would be an authentic one that not only detailed God and Satan’s might, but the power of the human spirit, reflected in Larkin’s actions.

‘Well?’ the shepherd asked when he felt the boy’s power retreat, but when he looked at the boy, he discovered that an old man was now standing in his place. ‘What say you?’

‘I’ll follow you to the second camp,’ the man said gruffly, pulling his hooded cloak over his head, his expression giving away nothing of what he’d learned or how he’d interpreted it before he turned to collect his few possessions. ‘But whether I follow you beyond that will depend on what I find inside her mind, all right?’ He glanced over at the girl and then smirked. ‘And something tells me that her thoughts will give me as much of a headache as my inquest will give her. Honestly, couldn’t this have waited until she’d had time to mature? She looks as fragile as a porcelain doll- and as coddled as one.’

But the shepherd smiled, fairly certain that his daughter’s spine was made of steel, and that whatever was inside her mind would prove to be as radiant as her exterior was- and five times more brilliant than any test scores could ever have hoped to prove. She could lead them to safety, he was sure of it, and he would coddle her at every opportunity that she allowed him.

Now, he just had to convince her of that.

*

The time that they had spent underground had shielded the girl from feeling the shift in the climate, but by the time they’d trekked halfway through the densest part of The Wildwoods, she had become very aware of the fact that being this far north of Arcadia came with more than a drastic change in scenery- but with a drastic drop in temperature as well. Not only because the northern half of that continent had always been colder than the southern part due to its proximity to the north pole, but because they were slowly ascending the foothills of a mountain range, so the elevation was making matters worse.

The girl knew that in the time before, the country of Canada that they were now hiking through had been as green and lush in some places as it had been ice-capped and frigid in others, but that had changed during Armageddon and so now it was all ice frosted across a monotonous landscape of broken, grey things. Satan had reversed a lot of the damage that God had done to the earth after they’d argued over the fate of it… and yet she had left the northern half frozen over. Cleared of pollution, yes, but locked in an eternal winter- and now, the girl couldn’t help but wonder if that had been a strategic move all along- to save a large part of a continent for later by making it so undesirable that no one would think to stake a claim on it until now, when they (The Sequestered) were as desperate to distance themselves from the rest of human civilization as she was.

The girl had always been told that The Wildwoods were impassable- they all had- and although that had proven to be more or less accurate, someone had cleared a path through that hostile forest before them, and that was the path that the shepherd led them along that day. The Devil’s Claw trees grew branches like vines that strangled everything that they encountered, and in moderate climates, could actually be regarded as pretty and relatively easy to control because their branches tended to sag and coil neatly on humid earth like the fingers of loosely closed fists, proving that it was a relative of the weeping willow… But in cold climates, those vines quickly died and then petrified, turning grey and becoming as hard as steel, locking whatever it was that they’d managed to latch onto in an eternal embrace- usually the trunk of the next tree closest to it- and becoming as menacing as briar after, because every vine was encrusted with large, sharp thorns that could cut into human flesh like butter.

Though the girl was slightly built, she couldn’t see a single place that she’d be able to pass through two of those trees unharmed except for on the path, which she knew must have been painstakingly carved out of the forest with a sharp axe wielded by a mighty arm. But that arm would have tired quickly and as a result, the path was so narrow that there was no way to overtake anyone ahead of them without brushing up against the thorns or stepping into a patch of briar- a fact that proved very frustrating to her once she realised that by opting to go last, she’d inadvertently positioned herself behind an elderly man with a limp who travelled at half of the pace that the shepherd was setting ahead of them.

At first she was frustrated to know that they were falling further and further behind the others, but as the oddly-affected accents of the chattering group ahead of them faded more and more, she remembered herself and exhaled slowly, purging herself of her irritation, and knowing that it was unkind to resent an old man for not being able to move as fast as a young, healthy girl like herself could. Besides, if she was to be a leader then she was going to have to keep that fact in mind: a group could only ever be as strong or fast as its slowest and weakest member, and if that member was left behind in the name of progress, then that group had already failed despite what triumphs they might go on to claim, or what races they might end up winning. That was the Barachiel family’s problem, wasn’t it? The majority of their castes had been thriving, and so they’d blamed the minority that were flailing for their own problems- forgetting to acknowledge the fact that if you skimmed the cream off the top of the milk, then the remaining milk could not be faulted for being not creamy enough.

Keeping this in mind, the girl slowed her pace to equal the man’s and took the time to breathe in that frosty air, aware of the fact that this was the first time she’d ever gone on a journey without being ordered to. Yes Satan had pushed her to follow this path, and yes she still had the right to demand that her daughter perform two tasks for her in compensation for the wishes that she’d granted her without argument, meaning that she wasn’t yet truly free… but if she’d wanted to unfurl her wings and fly away on those northern winds than she could have, and the only person she’d have to answer to for that was herself and her guilty conscience.

I was always free, the girl thought then, and it was a sobering notion. If I’d let my rage and unhappiness rip out of me the way it had last night years ago, I would have realised that I had wings and therefore, the ability and the right to fly as far away from the Barachiels as possible! But no, I kept my pain and anguish bottled up inside me because I thought that I deserved that fate, and look what happened! Look at how limited an existence a powerful, intelligent human being can resign themselves to living if they believe that they don’t deserve any better! Oh, what good I could have done the people of Arcadia, if only the Barachiels had encouraged me to spread my wings and soar, instead of commanding me to grovel at a prince’s feet and be thankful for having the opportunity to do so!

Anger and resentment surged inside her again, heating her blood (she couldn’t bear to think of how happy she and Kohén might have been together if only he’d known that she was a more powerful Nephilim than he!) but aware that there was nothing that she could do to reverse time and change anything, and conscious of the fact that thinking about The Barachiel’s for too long brought on an instant migraine, the girl went back to watching her feet trip along that barren, hard-packed and frosted earth, resenting the fact that she was walking this path when she could have been soaring above it, but mindful that every step that she was taking was carrying her- and everybody that trusted her to be a thoughtful leader- one more step away from Eden and the so-called angels that lived within.

Away from the holy place and the pious people that had scorched her soul even more than Satan and her hell fires had.

Don’t worry, Larkin said silently to the man in front of her, I’ll protect you as best as I can, old timer. I know how it feels to be betrayed because you are considered to be worth less than others, and I’d sooner die then let that happen to another human being!

He did not answer of course, but he heard her. And I know this because, dear reader, I was that old man, and like that angelic girl, I had been charged with a mission by Satan- not to make history, but to record it with absolute accuracy.

I am Samuel McIntyre, and although this isn’t my story, I am a part of it now- as are we all.

Please- pray that it ends well for all of us. Just don’t ask me whom to pray to.

 

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