Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 16

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Chapter Sixteen

THE GREAT SHAKING

The terrible storm had indeed wreaked havoc on the lovely island Luik and the other Dibor called home. At least every other tree had been uprooted, torn from their ancient beds and discarded in careless heaps. The Great Hall had fared reasonably well, save for a collapsed roof on the eastern side; a tree had been thrown through it like a javelin, speaking of the storm’s terrible power.

It took some time for the warband to emerge from their subterranean shelter and find their way to the lift on the north side of the island. Dazed by the bright sunlight, they squinted hard at first, surveying the incredible amount of damage. Luik’s tree house was nowhere to be seen, laid waste in a swath of destruction all the way to the north shore. Seeing the central square now, without its leafy arbor and canopy of vines and flowers, was almost more than he and the others could bear.  It was as if the sacred space of their tutelage had never been at all.

Luik walked down the beaten steps of the Great Hall and knelt by the ruins of the fire pit. A light breeze sifted through the wreckage, water dripping from everything. He shoved a tree branch aside and picked up a handful of the ashes, swollen and lumpy with moisture. He massaged the mass until his fingers were black, soiled with the memories of countless stories. Everything seemed so long ago for him: his first journey to Kirstell, his first sparring session with Gorn. Now just memories held in black cinders, forever lost.

The only happy sight was that of the dawning sun in the west. Its warmth and glow was a boon to their souls, its simplicity, and its regular arrival now the only real sense of normalcy they could lean on. Luik stood and collected his thoughts, preparing himself for the next leg of their journey.

The Immortals, along with Luik’s strongest men, helped the wounded down in the lift and to the rocks below. Once there, they needed to wait only a short time before the tide revealed the sandy strand leading to the mainland. And by midday the entire entourage was securely encamped in a grassy plain, the outskirts of Jerovah.

As the sun sank to its easterly home, Luik and Grinddr, along with Cage, Jrio, and two more of the Immortals, sat around a meager fire, the driftwood crackling and popping from too much rain.

“Our journey will be long with this many wounded,” Jrio said. His discouragement was tangible and certainly not lacking company.

“Cage?” Luik inclined his head to the Horse King.

“On horseback, we could make the border of Tontha in little over ten days. But we’re on foot, and with many who are in poor shape.” He paused, thinking carefully. “Two tens and five.”

“That’s nearly a new liyde,” said Donalik, one of Grinddr’s men.

“Aye,” nodded Grinddr.

Luik lowered his voice and said, “I fear many of the men will not last so long without the care of Mt. Dakka’s hearth fires.” None of them wanted to agree with him, but they knew he was right.

“Perhaps you and Grinddr should go on without us,” Jrio suggested. “We’ll stay behind with—”

“I will not hear of it,” Luik interjected. “The Sacred Order is split up enough as it is. I honor you for your selflessness, brother, but it will not be done, not while I am High King.”

Jrio bowed his head slightly.

A little wine was drunk as well as a little bread eaten, passed out to the entire camp. They retired shortly thereafter, stretching out on blankets and furs brought with them from Kirstell’s underground bounty. The night was cool but gave way to a brilliant display of Athera, stars in abundance and the twin moons of Dionia elegantly drifting through their courses. Only twice was Luik awakened by the deep tremors that had been plaguing Creation. The ground shook, trembled with a jolt, and then settled back down. He wished Fane were there to explain it to him; surely he would know its cause. But, alas, Luik had made a mess of that, too.

His midnight thoughts began to drift into a sore state, doubting first himself and then, eventually, doubting the one person he knew he mustn’t.

Just as light began to fill the western sky with a pink and purple splash of color, another sound pumped through the ground and awoke Luik with a start. It was another tremor. Or was it?

The rumbling soon clarified into a beating rhythm, a cadence with a familiar melody.

“King Luik!” someone shouted. “Look!”

Luik sprang from his pallet of furs and looked to the east. There, but a lean, dark line on the horizon, rode a sea of horses, a rising cloud of dust in their wake. Cage was by his side in an instant.

“Our rides,” he said to Luik.

“Indeed,” Luik said. “Indeed!” He looked back at the men. They, too, were standing to their feet, eyeing the horses. Soon they were all up, cheering at the provision of the Most High.

“May the Great God bless the ten that ride with them,” Luik said. “I shall reward them richly.” For indeed, it was Gyinan who had ordered the ten to stay behind with the nearly five hundred horses that had carried them out of Tontha on their journey to the Somahguard Islands.

“And if I’m not mistaken,” Jrio added with a wide grin, “they will also be carrying our arms and armor.”

 

• • •

 

By late morning the entire camp had been struck and everyone mounted in the saddle. Those who were too injured to ride alone doubled up. For them it was a little more strenuous, as the use of litters would slow the advance. But the sight of their mounts brought such joy that no one scorned the inconvenience. Especially Luik. Fedowah was first among the stallions to reach him, as Luik sought his ride out from among the throng. He whinnied, and Luik greeted him with open arms, slapping his neck and blowing in his nostrils. The exchange was brief, and Fedowah shook his mane with heartfelt glee to be reunited once again. Luik kissed his nose, savoring the sweet smell, and examined his saddle, still snug on his mount’s back.

“It’s good to see you, my friend,” Luik said. “You up for a run?”

Fedowah neighed and stomped the ground.

The ten men left in charge of the horses had waited patiently on the shore, watching and waiting over the Somahguard Islands. The horses, while content to graze in the fields, never had settled down, presumably displaying their angst in the distant strife of their masters. It wasn’t until the herd had begun to press south and then west along the coast that the men had had any real inclination that Luik and the warband were on the move. At first the herdsmen had tried to round up the stubborn animals, but when the entire pack had moved as one, they had been forced to accompany them or risk being left behind all together.

“So really, it wasn’t our idea at all,” one of the herdsmen recounted to Luik. “We just followed their lead.”

“For once,” Luik chuckled. “Either way, we are indebted to your courage, my friends. C’symia.” The men received the praise and made the sign of blessing.

The warband rode hard, pressing along the eastern front of Grandath, rotating through the herd of horses in order to keep their legs fresh. The count was nearly two horses for every man. While this was indeed a great benefit, it was also a reminder to Luik and the others of their incredible losses. Less than half the men who left Tontha would return. This meant fatherless children would run to the Main Gate in tragic expectation, accompanied by women about to learn of their new status: widow. Luik’s heart sank at the thought. As the waves of despair washed over him, it was all he could do just to remain in his seat.

He was convinced that his leadership had wrought all this. It was his inability to truly lead that had brought so much harm. If only he were wiser, a better suited King. But with those memories came a new plague, one of the future. What would become of Mt. Dakka? How did his brother Dibor in Ligeon fare?

He began playing scenarios in his mind, setting himself up for any number of calamities, all with their own conversations and outcomes. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, his heart trembling with each new image. He was worried. Worried about what would happen. Worried about tomorrow.

“My Lord,” Grinddr rode beside him and pointed from his saddle. “Grandath.”

The sun was sinking toward the eastern horizon, but the western sky was still all too dark. A heavy black cloud shrouded the distant trees and seeped upward, enveloping more of the western sky as they rode north. The column of smoke that Luik had seen just two days before had now billowed into a gaping monster that consumed most of the Great Forest, at least as far as he could tell. “They are searching for Ot,” Luik assumed. “Morgui will burn it to the ground before he is satisfied.”

“Surely he won’t find it,” Jrio said, but it almost sounded like a question.

“No, my brother. I think he means to.”

“We can pray,” Grinddr put in.

“Aye,” Luik agreed. “That is all we can do for the time being.”

 

• • •

 

On the dawn of the seventh day the war band had journeyed well into Trennesol, Jrio’s homeland, and were in view of the western mountains of Tontha, still two-and-a-half days’ ride out. The mountain peaks were shrouded in cloud cover, hidden from the rest of the world. Luik wondered what remained of his countrymen high up in their reaches. His eye followed the base of the mountains back down into Trennesol, where a gentle morning fog hung low over the western plains and slipped into the Great Forest. From there, the fog turned into a dark cloud of smoke that consumed the rest of the woodland, casting it in an ever gloomy hue of black.

He returned to lashing his sword and pack to his saddle when he felt the onset of yet another tremor. It began like all the rest.

“Hold on, men,” he ordered. “It will pass.”

But this one didn’t. The ground heaved violently, a jolt that threw everyone off balance, and many right off their feet.

“Whoa,” Luik said, steadying Fedowah. The horse was uneasy. Ears up, Fedowah looked around frantically, dancing in circles as Luik tried to calm him down. “Whoa!”

The vibration continued until another heavy blow issued from beneath them, this one much more severe than the first. Luik actually felt himself lifted into the air before slamming to the ground. Horses fell, and not a few on top of their riders. Soon everyone was shouting. But the sound was drowned out by the roar of quaking.

“Stand away!” Luik shouted, waving his hands to get the men away from their horses. But he could barely hear himself. “Stand away! Look out!” Even as he tried to get their attention, more horses fell, crushing many of the men in the chaos. Luik attempted to stand, but the ground shook so violently it was nearly impossible to get to his knees.

Although the tremor lasted for only moments, it felt like an eternity, each event unfolding with a slow, daunting pace. Men fell backward, thrown against the ground with ease; horses stumbled and bucked, terrified by the shaking beneath them. Bodies collided, the greater mass crushing the lesser into the dirt. Mouths agape let out noiseless screams; hoofs flailing for solid ground.

And then it seemed to ebb, the shaking ceasing much faster than before. Vibrations still carried through the ground, but the jolting had subsided as well as the noise. Now the air was filled with the cries of men, many of them trampled and broken. Most of the horses had gained their feet and ran wildly, ripping through the tall grass, unable to be caught.

“Attend those men there!” Luik ordered, pointing to a cluster of his warband on the ground. “And there!” he ordered some of the Immortals to another group. “Jrio—”

He was cut off. Another quake started, but this a monstrous one, paling all previous. The violent heave threw everyone down, slamming them hard against the solid ground. And then came the thunder of rock and soil splitting from deep beneath them. It cut to the soul of every man who heard it, a tearing of the deepest sort. Deafening the ear and tormenting the soul, the violent shaking continued.

Luik’s head hit the ground, disorienting him for a moment. He rolled and then pulled his knees up under his stomach. With great effort he pushed his shoulders up and looked around. There, a great distance in front of him toward the mountain range, rock and dust shot into the air, flinging debris into the sky. The quaking continued, escalating as the ground began to contract against itself where he looked. Great segments of rock raised themselves into the air, protruding from the once seamless valley, now a disheveled battlefield of unnatural mayhem.

The ground was separating into a massive fissure that stretched from the Isthmus of Ninsessa all the way to Grandath. The ground tore more deeply with every moment that passed, the sound blasting their ears. Soon it incorporated a new sound: that of rushing water. Luik looked to his right. Flowing in from the north, like a wave from a broken dam, came a torrent of water pounding down the channel. It careened through the fissure with amazing speed, drenching both sides of the split, bursting over rocks and consuming mounds of dirt. The water was brown, carrying debris all the way from the Nollen Sea, blasting away at whatever was in its path.

And still the ground shook. Luik then noticed cracks appearing around him and his men, opening up into fractures large enough to swallow a man. Many did. And more than one horse tumbled to its fate.

“Luik! Help!”

Luik looked over his shoulder. Fyfler was slipping into a small fissure. He was grasping at tufts of grass on a section of tilting ground.

“I’m coming!” Luik scampered on his hands and knees, first climbing over the exposed plate of rock rising into the air. Then he slid down the other side, easing his way toward Fyfler. “I have you,” Luik said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him up. But still the ground trembled, making the work laborious.

“Pull!” Fyfler pleaded. Luik fought against the inclination of the ground, heaving with all his might, but Fyfler’s weight was too much. The grass in his left hand gave way, and the two of them slid toward the gaping mouth below. Just then, a hand caught Luik by the scruff of his collar. It was Kinfen.

“Need some help?” he hollered. Both men looked up into his face, a look of relief on their faces. Kinfen pulled them over the ledge and back onto more stable ground.

As soon as he could, Luik looked back to the valley before them, the crack now a growing, water-filled chasm. Rocks still shattered and moved wherever water touched the shore, sending up a spray of stone fragments. And in the channel, a maddening current churned, ever boiling in the rage of the quake. Soon the commotion ebbed, leveling off to a constant din, still loud, but manageable.

“The water is rising!” Quoin shouted, examining the growing body of water.

“Nay,” said Grinddr, “I believe the land is separating.”

“What?” Cage asked.

“That fissure is no mere crack,” Luik added. Those gathered around him looked on. “Dionia—she’s breaking apart.”

No one said a word. They just watched as the space between what was now the northern side of Trennesol and the southern side of Trennesol moved farther and farther apart. The trembling continued, grinding away in the ears. Water filled the cracks that ran around the warband and soon spilled all over the threshold of the mainland, creating shallow pools. The men found themselves wading up to their knees, leading the horses back up to dry ground. And still water rushed in to fill the increasing space between the two landmasses. Grinddr had been right. The ground was separating; Dionia was breaking apart.

Luik felt a nudge from behind him. It was Fedowah. He swung into the saddle, and the horse led him over to a group of men struggling to get up in the shallows. He dismounted and helped them up, loading them on horseback, and then sending them off to dry ground. After everyone was out of harm’s way, Luik led Fedowah to join the others, wringing out his shirt and running a trembling hand through his hair.

“You all right?” Cage inquired.

“Aye, given the fact that I just watched Trennesol get ripped apart.”

Jrio sidled up to them on his mount. “It runs all the way into Grandath. Look.” The small group followed the waterway south as it plunged into the Great Forest—now three times as wide as the Hefkiln River at its widest point. The massive trees that remained intact along the shore leaned over, dangerously low to the water, as if they would fall in at any moment. Beyond that, the men lost sight of the channel.

“Great God of Athera, help us.” Luik looked skyward and squinted his eyes. The trembling in the ground labored on as the two landmasses continued to drift farther apart. The far shore was now so distant that many of them doubted they could even swim it. Eventually the swirling of the water seemed to dissipate, and before long the entire scene began to look as if it had always been, as if there were some name to this waterway, one which they had all forgotten. Finally the grinding ceased, and the tremors grew weak.

“So I have a new question,” Cage asked, looking to those around him. “How do we get across?”

“I have an idea,” Jrio said with a grin.

“Don’t keep us in the dark, brother,” Cage ordered. “We’re all ears.”

With the tumultuous churning of the ground beneath them finally subsiding, Luik and his warband looked out toward Tontha. The span between the two landmasses was broad, far from being fordable by men or horses. They needed ships.

Luik surmised that he would eventually name the waterway, deriving it from one of his men or a memory or some such thing, just as Ad had done when Creation was new. But for now he was still in awe of what they had just witnessed. The only explanation he could come up with was that Creation was doing its best to purge the evil within it, yearning in agony to be relieved. That, or perhaps Morgui—

No, he thought. That is too grievous a notion. I will not think it.

Jrio turned to the High King. “You wish us across with haste, aye, my Lord?”

“Certainly,” Luik replied, only half paying attention.

“What about the dolphins?” Naron asked.

“They’re surely still in the south. Warmer waters,” Fyfler said. “No fish or animal could have survived that anyway.”

“Right you are. Any ships are well out of reach as well, perhaps some three or four days away. And even then they must be in working condition and sailed back here,” Jrio stated.

“Is this helping us?” Luik stared at him.

“Nay, but it proves we need a swifter method.”

“And you have one?”

“Really, brother,” Rab said. “Spit it out, man!”

“Aye, I do.”

“And?” questioned Luik.

“Give me three days,” Jrio asked. Luik looked at him. Jrio wore a curious grin, one which Luik knew all too well.

“Might I remind you that lives are at stake, Jrio? We have no time for reckless endeavors or faulty plans. This must be time well spent.”

“I give you my word, O King; you will not be disappointed.”

“Very well. Three days. Take what men and supplies you need. We’ll make camp and take care of the wounded.” Jrio nodded and turned to ride away. “Jrio,” Luik caught him. “Three days. And no more. It’s about lives.”

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