Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 15

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Chapter Fifteen

FROM WHENCE THEY CAME

Only two ill-tempered Dylaithlok remained to plague the skies above them in Mt. Dakka. Boran and Benigan had dispatched the previous number, only to be left with the keenest; these, the brothers noted, had grown perceptive, focusing their attack on the sections of the city farthest from the watching towers. Boran descended the tower and summoned Gorn and a handful of warriors farther up into the city, while Benigan rejoined Brax on the ramparts, busy with a new breach.

“How many remain?” Brax shouted over his shoulder. He surveyed a large tear in the wall below. A great number of men and beasts sought each for the lives of the others, swords lunging into the calloused flesh of demon-hide and horns piercing the fragile human skin.

“Just two, my King.”

“And Boran?”

“With Gorn in the upper city. The Dylaithlok have grown leery of the towers.”

Brax only nodded, his attention fixed on the losing plight of his men below. The Dairne-Reih poured in through the broken section of wall faster than the soldiers could stay them off.

“This is the third break in the line,” Brax said. “We cannot take another.”

As if summoned by his fear, a massive fireball slammed into the adjacent wall across the divide, exploding into a fury of molten shrapnel. Carnage strewn with bits of men and demon alike flew into the air. Brax and his brother shielded their faces. The thunderous explosion was followed by souls in the throes of death and the crumbling of rock. A moment later, stillness.

Brax looked down in horror; the gap had doubled in size.

Those men that survived the blow struggled to their feet. But the demon horde was not so merciful as to let them stand. Crashing through the smoke and dust came a fresh charge from the outside that shook the ground. The charred ravine was filled with the sights and sounds of men crushed. But the push slowed as it met fresh legs and arms further in, spears at the ready.

The damage had been done. The Dairne-Reih entered in far enough that they spilled into the unguarded side streets and over the low rock walls that separated highly-traveled thoroughfares from dwelling passages.

“Come, brother,” Benigan pulled at Brax’s arm. “You cannot remain. To the palace.”

Brax withdrew, but struggled to leave what he knew he must. The two of them joined the ranks of those retreating from the ramparts. With the wall breach now widened, the bulk of the enemy’s attack would center there, leaving only a handful of stragglers attempting to mount the siege ladders; those demons that did were met by a loyal few, warriors who would not abandon their positions on account of their immovable allegiance.

Brax and Benigan weaved their way up through the city streets, avenues now filled with chaos. Captains shouted orders, orderlies toted supplies, and all manner of weaponry clattered along the stone roads. As they fled further into Mt. Dakka, soldiers peeled off from their retreat to take up supporting positions along the side streets; if they could not stop the hemorrhage, they would at least try to contain it.

The sounds of war soon ebbed until Brax and Benigan were far removed, gathering near to the palace.  “Wait, Benigan,” Brax slowed and turned around.

“What is it, my Lord?”

“I cannot leave them. And stop calling me that.” He caught his breath. “If I am not able to stay with these men, then I am no King. I am a hireling.”

“But Brax—”

“You know very well what I mean, brother.”

Benigan was incredulous. “So you will meet the same fate as our father and bring this weight of rulership upon yet another? I don’t think so. Not here. Not today.” He reached for Brax’s arm, but the younger twin pulled away and unsheathed his sword. He was walking back down the track.

“Brax.”

The King stopped.

“Will you fight for a few when you are needed by many?”

Neither brother moved. The distant battle clash echoed up through Mt. Dakka’s heights, summoning a great many souls to death with every toll of its haunting bell. Brax lowered his head but did not turn.

“How does a King measure his life, Benigan?”

“What was that?”

“How does a King decide between the needs of two souls, pulling him in opposite directions, when both are his people?”

“That is only for great Kings to face, I suppose, and even greater Kings to decide.”

“Then I must confess I am not among them,” Brax said.

“Not among them? Why, brother, you define them.”

“Then tell me why I cannot decide which to favor?”

“Because a King who is not torn favors his own opinion rather than the needs of those before him.”

Brax turned and regarded his brother. Benigan placed a strong hand on his shoulder. “May all Dionia’s Kings be so fortunate to be watched over with such compassion.”

“C’symia, brother.”

Benigan caught a black smudge whisk across the night sky just above. Brax noticed as well and gazed skyward. “Dylaithlok.”

“Aye. It’s hunting,” said Boran.

It appeared again, racing between two tall buildings, this time its yellowed eye gleaming as it passed.

“Quickly! We must draw it out,” Benigan said. He and Brax turned and raced up the road into a spacious square. Dwellings bordered it on every side save for the gaps where the track led away in three other directions. A much taller structure to the left that served as a food storage building. Just then Brax spotted something unexpected: there on the roof…movement. As he peered more closely, Brax could see Boran lying hidden beneath a wool blanket, arm exposed and waving. Another similar lump just beside let Brax know Boran was not alone.

“Do you see him there?” Brax inclined his head but did not point.

“Aye,” Benigan said. “Gorn will be with him, too, I wager.”

A deafening screech seared across the night sky, and the brothers looked up to see not one, but two Dylaithlok dropping into the facing road and barreling toward them no more than a few spans from the ground. Their wings beat against the sides of the buildings as they tore up the avenue, a cloud of dust in their wake.

Both Brax and Benigan were stunned at the speed with which the beasts covered the distance. They barely had time to think as the next few moments played out. With swords drawn they took up position in the middle of the square. The two demon-birds opened their jaws and fixed on the pair, and then burst into the square. A moment later they surged forward, snapping at the two men. The brothers leapt to opposite sides, rolling out of harm’s way, but the Dylaithlok were swift to pull up and out of the square, clearing the dwellings on the far side and disappearing into the darkness.

“It seems you may doubt your own importance, brother, but they certainly don’t,” Benigan said. “They want blood.”

“Me?”

“Why pursue two when you could drink the blood of a host of men further below?”

“But I thought you said they were wary of the towers?”

“I know what I said, but they’re after you.”

Brax searched the sky in thought. Then he spun and looked at the storage building. Boran. “If I know him at all, Boran wants to fly a little himself.”

“You mean—”

“Why else would they be camped out on the roof? Stargazing?”

“But that’s impossible,” Benigan objected.

“When did that stop any of us?” Brax faced the building and raised his voice. “We’ll do our best to lure them down the road below you! Be ready!”

“You can’t be serious,” Benigan said. Then he noticed a number of other warriors emerge into the square, seemingly summoned by his brother’s call. They were those accompanying Boran and Gorn.

“Stay where you are!” Brax ordered them. “No distractions. Wait until we have them down.” He turned to Benigan. “Come on!” They raced across the square just under the storage building, standing in the middle of the lane.

 

• • •

 

The two huge Dylaithlok rose up into the night sky and circled around. The battle played out far below them, marked by countless fires and even more torches. The most intense fighting was now being played out in the three breaches along the southern and eastern wall. But that was of little interest to them now; they had found their target.

Centering on the meager square farther up Mt. Dakka’s peak, the enormous birds banked into a steep dive, plummeting recklessly into the city below. The ground was racing to meet them when suddenly they pulled up, leveling out in the course of a narrow roadway bordered by buildings on each side. As before they honed their senses in on the two men, now obviously trying to escape from the square down an opposing route. Bloodlust consumed them; they would not fail a second time.

The Dylaithlok crossed the square with one powerful sweep of their wings, now a breath away from their prey. Mouths gaping and talons spread, the monsters lunged, but retrieved only air. And a violent burning in the back of the neck.

 

• • •

 

Boran was the first to leap off the rooftop. Gorn followed, flinging aside the wool blanket and drawing the sword of the Lion Vrie. They fell, both hands on the handles of their down-turned blades, careening toward the road. Boran landed blade-first atop the first Dylaithlok, Gorn upon the second, and their swords plunging deep into the base of each bird’s neck.

Boran’s foe let out a sorrowful moan and rose out of the road at first, only to falter about three tree-lengths above the city. The bird struggled to lift in the air as Boran buried the sword deeper, now protruding through the bottom of the beast’s gullet. He could hear it straining against the pain, a rasping in the throat. The Dylaithlok lost flight and pitched forward. Boran was suddenly aware of the danger and held tightly to his sword’s hilt. With the massive bird above him he would be crushed on impact. The ungainly pair hurtled down, only moments remaining.

Boran thrust himself to one side, willing the creature to roll. Its wings beat wildly, flipping this way and that. He could see the tops of the buildings below, and he knew death awaited him.

Gorn’s efforts were met with more immediate results. He plunged his long sword in up to the hilt and then shoved it sideways, severing the spine and tendons to the wings. The Dylaithlok was instantly paralyzed and tumbled forward, slamming first against the side of a building and then into the road. Gorn tried to leap from the bird but a wing slapped him sideways into a stone wall. His body glanced off it and across the road and tumbled to a halt.

 

• • •

 

“Come on!” Brax yelled setting off down the road as the remaining warriors emerged from hiding and followed directly behind them. Just ahead was the lumbering form of the first Dylaithlok that Gorn had slain. Its chest rose and fell frantically, still trying to pump air into its lungs. The wings and legs twitched in the throes of death, breaking into wild spasms that kept either brother from getting too close.

Up ahead lay Gorn, silent and still.

“Gorn!” Boran shouted. They ran to meet him, prone in the street, blood pooling around his head. Brax knelt beside him and felt his neck for a pulse. “He’s alive.” He looked back over his shoulder to the warband. “Quick! Get him to the palace!”

“Where’s Boran?” Benigan asked.

“We saw him fall that way,” pointed one of the other warriors. “Just over that cluster of homes.”

“To me,” Brax picked out five of the warband to follow them and then set off down the track. They turned left down a side street, and then right onto a parallel avenue. Again, the band banked left at a fork and continued to veer south of the square. “Keep your eyes open for anything out of place.”

The team followed their current course until it opened into another square. A quick survey of the outlying streets still turned up no sign of the missing man.

“We’ve got to get up top,” Boran stated.

“Aye,” Brax agreed. “Split up. To the rooftops.”

The men raced to different dwellings, each searching for a stairwell leading above. A few moments later the band was again in the open air, now lightening in the west, a subtle sign of dawn.

“There!” came the call from one of the men. Brax was by the warrior’s side in a moment. He indicated a dark mound on an adjacent roof. A wide street separated them, and the gap was too far to jump.

“Down!” Brax waved.

The team entered the dwelling’s roof door and raced through the small living quarters, down the stairs, and through the gathering room. They burst onto the street and searched for a stairwell or door on the adjacent building.

“This way!” someone shouted. Brax and Benigan followed another warrior down a narrow alley and up a flight of stairs carved out of the mountain. They emerged onto the roof of a series of domed dwellings, chimney pipes protruding like tree stumps. And there lay a heap of deepest black, withered feathers scattered in all directions mixed with blood. Lying atop the dead bird with his hand still grasping the hilt of his sword was Boran, unconscious and bleeding from his mouth.

“Help me get him down,” Brax ordered as he and Benigan climbed up the bird-corpse. Men surrounded the crushed heap and helped them remove their kinsman. “Gently! Watch his neck! Watch his head—”

“They’ve got him, Brax,” Benigan said with a hand to his brother’s shoulder. They looked on as the warband laid him on the rooftop. The brothers knelt on each side, Benigan wiping the blood from his face with a corner of his mantle.

Boran barely opened his eyes. “Dih-ie kill ih?” he slurred.

“Thoroughly,” Brax smiled. A tear slipped down his cheek. “Rest, brother. We’re taking you back to the palace—” But Boran’s eyes rolled back in his head.

It was right then that something else happened. From deep within the ground, as if begun a long way off, a trembling arose that soon became a tremor, not all that different from those felt in recent days. Starting as a hum, the vibration soon became like the bellow of a ram’s horn, a great and ominous blast blaring over the city like an oppressive tidal wave. The sound was low and dissonant. Loose clothing wavered. Hair stood up on the back of the neck. Rocks shook.

Brax held Boran in his arms, but his mind was elsewhere. “What in the great name of Athera—” But the sound consumed his words. And it grew louder. The men put their hands up to their ears and held their heads, squeezing out the noise. It went right through the chest and buried into the soul. Driven to their knees, the men bent over, desperate for relief. Their heads throbbed, and they grew dizzy.

Then, as it had come, so it departed, withdrawing back into the recesses of the ground from whence it came. Brax looked over to Benigan, and then down to Boran. He remained motionless. Benigan asked without speaking.

“I have no idea,” Brax said without waiting. He turned to those men gathered around. “Let’s get him to the palace with Gorn. Quickly!”

They carefully picked up Boran and carried him off the rooftop, up the road, and into the palace. Just beyond the King’s Gate a runner from the battlefront stopped short.

“Lord Brax,” he said, panting for breath.

“What is it?” Brax turned, torn between following his brother and this inconvenience.

“You must come quickly.”

Brax noticed the concern on the errand boy’s face, mixed with a certain relief. “Why? What is it?”

“I think you should see for yourself, my King.”

“Go,” Benigan said. “I’ll stay with Boran. See what it is.”

 

• • •

 

As Brax followed the runner further down into the city, something marvelous met his ears, something he had not heard in quite some time…

Cheering.

He picked up his pace beside the boy and soon overtook him, running faster down the main track until he crested a rise in the street with a view of the dwellings and wall below. And at the sight he fell silent—awestruck.

There stood the entire army, swords and shields and spears hoisted high, shaking with the shouts of victory. From up on the ramparts men looked over the wall, shouting and mocking their foe. And nowhere—not in the streets, not on the ramparts, and not in the breaches in the wall—could Brax see a single Dairneag, unless it was being beaten down or already lay slain.

Brax turned to the boy beside him, eyes never leaving the scene. “How did this happen?”

“After that strange noise,” the boy replied in wonder. “They just stopped fighting and turned on their heels.”

“They retreated?”

“Aye!” he replied enthusiastically.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. First everything seemed to be falling apart, the walls broken, the enemy storming the city. Then they simply fled.”

Brax was elated. Yet still, something didn’t seem right. Why would you work so hard to overrun a city only to flee in the face of certain victory? He nervously massaged the pommel of his sheathed Vinfae.

“They ran before us, my King!” the boy added.

Brax stopped and looked at the boy. “What did you say?”

“I was just saying how they fled from us.”

“No, you said they ran.”

“Well, aye! Ran like dogs!”

“You don’t run when you’re winning,” Brax said more to himself than for the boy’s sake. He looked down at his men celebrating. Dawn would soon be upon them. And from the look in the sky to the west it might be the first day in many that they would actually see the sun. Something’s not right.

Brax surveyed the scene again, trying to sort out the inconsistency. Turning to the runner he said, “Thank you, young man. Return to your post.”

The boy departed, and Brax made his way down the track toward the main gate. Soon he was in the midst of the celebration, the men slapping him on the back and lauding one another. It was cause for celebration indeed, and Brax couldn’t help but smile with them, even laughing when the occasion pressed him. Yet a sense of great dread and foreboding still tugged at his spirit. I don’t understand.

He surveyed the breach beside the main gate, men pouring through it and onto the battlefield without. Rather than join them he turned aside and mounted the closest staircase to the ramparts above. As he peered past the crenellations he saw where the enemy had been but a short time ago. The ground was ravaged, a swollen and gory strand of muck. And further down, now well over the barren mountainside, the enemy horde ran. South.

He watched as the massive demon army drove up the side of the mountain opposite of Mt. Dakka. It moved like a black cloud, hovering close to the ground and leaving a dark stain wherever it went. He watched for a long time, the sky slowly becoming lighter, as the Dairne-Reih crested a final mountain peak that would take them over the horizon and out of sight. So quickly. Not like they are running away…

…but running to somewhere.

As the sun neared the western horizon on the Faladrial Ocean, Brax noticed that not every part of the morning sky shared the coming glow as it should. There to the south a dreadful blackness hung in the air, as if resistant to the sun’s glory. Strange that a section of sky should not bow to the all-powerful light of day.

As the first rays of sun emerged from the far side of Dionia, the rebellious mass on the southern horizon took shape. And in that moment Brax knew what it was.

“The Sacred City. Great God—they’ve found it.”

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  • Glade

    I enjoyed this part muchly! I like Brax; he’s one of my favorite characters, second only to Luik and Fane (or third?)!

    I do have one question: How do you go back to past posts/stories?