Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 22

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Chapter Twenty-Two

BATTLE FOR OT

Luik stood beneath the Tree, gazing about the cave. The space was a flurry of activity, the atmosphere nothing like it was the last time he had been there. The methodical changing out of the Scriptorium and orderly filing of the Archives had been replaced by shouting as thousands of dwarves busied themselves with the preparations for war. The garden floor was already beginning to flood with water and massive wooden spikes protruded high into the air. The lavish beauty of the garden had been pushed aside to prepare for the inevitable atrocities of war.

Men spilled in from the corridors that led from the portals, stumbling into the walls and collapsing in the ankle-deep water. The anxiety of travel was a shock to them, most heaving the contents of their stomachs or holding their heads in pain. Luik remembered the feelings all too well and pitied them, but the truth was that their turmoil was nothing compared to what was to come.

As the wave of agony passed, each man looked up, gazing at the miraculous wonder of the Tree that towered above them. Their eyes followed the massive trunk up into the leaves that disappeared into the blackness beyond, everything below them cast in its mesmerizing glow. But their awe was cut short as they took orders from one of the commanding dwarves. The guardians of Ot helped each warrior to his feet and then pushed them along.

“You’ve done that before?” Brax asked Luik, rubbing his temples. He walked slowly to where Luik stood in the garden.

“Aye,” Luik said with a grin. “Too much for you?”

Brax just grunted and closed his eyes.

“Jrio and Fyfler?”

“They’re coming,” Brax said. “Just behind.”

Luik looked just in time to see Fyfler double over and vomit, holding himself against a pillar with one hand. Jrio followed a few steps behind but managed to keep everything down.

“Everything’s under way?” Brax continued.

“Aye, and moving along quickly. These dwarves are masters of efficiency,” Luik said.

“So it seems,” said Brax, observing the flurry of activity.

“Excuse me, King Luik?”

Startled, Luik looked down to his right where a small dwarf stood; he hadn’t even heard him approach. “And you are?”

“My name is Spidanu, of the Tribe of Loy.” He spoke very quickly. “Loy-Spidanu, really. But everyone tells me that’s a mouthful. It is, I know. So everyone here just calls me Spid. Instead of Loy-Spi—”

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Luik cut in, holding out his arm. The little dwarf met it before Luik could blink, shook twice, and withdrew his hand. It all happened so fast. The King was left still holding his hand in midair. “I see. Spid,” Luik repeated his name. He looked at his hand and then back at the dwarf. Unlike Li-Saide’s aged appearance, this dwarf looked incredibly youthful. His hair was short and spiky though he wore a similar robe as all the rest. “Well, what can I do for you, good Spid?”

“Your father summons you,” said Spid.

“My father?” Luik was surprised. “Lead the way.” And with that, Spid was gone, vanishing before Luik had a chance to see just which way he went.

Luik was astonished. “Well, I never—”

“You’ll have to forgive him,” came another voice.

Luik turned. A new dwarf stood beside him.

“I’m going to have to get used to all this commotion,” said Brax. “I don’t remember it being like this before. There are so many of them!”

Luik chuckled. “Aye, brother. That there are.” He looked down at the new dwarf. This one was more what Luik was used to, portly and with a jovial round face, one that always seemed to be smiling no matter the actual emotion. He had red hair and matching beard, not as old as Li-Saide, but definitely Spid’s elder.

“You’ll have to forgive Spid,” he said. “He is quite good at running errands—the fastest we have, in fact—but poor when it comes to having others keep up with him.”

“So I can see,” Luik replied.

“Ah, I digress,” he thrust a hand out. “My name is Bi-Bablar.” Luik smiled at the name. “I’ll lead you to your father, as you’ll surely find I’m a bit easier to follow than Spid.”

“C’symia, my friend. My legs thank you.”

Luik gave Brax a knowing nod and left him to tend to Fyfler and Jrio, who would then be helping assign the men to their posts. Bi-Bablar led Luik around through the garden in knee-high water and up one of the grand staircases that hugged the outer wall.

Luik could feel the tension in the air. The ground around them thumped and pulsed, a product either of the dwarves’ activity or of the presence of their enemies above. But in any case Luik knew a tremendous battle was about to ensue. He tried to make small talk to ease Bi-Bablar’s nerves. Or perhaps his own.

“So you like to write?”

What kind of a question is that? Luik thought. He’s a dwarf!

“I like to ride,” replied Bi-Bablar.

“Ride?”

“Horses,” Bi-Bablar replied. “I believe that’s what most people refer to when riding.”

“And you would be correct,” Luik nodded. “The error is mine.”

“And I like to tell stories.”

“Stories? Of what you write?”

“Of what I see,” he corrected.

“Very good.” The conversation wasn’t helping anything, especially me, Luik thought. He felt it growing awkward.

“You know, my King, you ask many questions.”

“It is my job to inquire, I suppose.”

“You have no reason to be nervous, you know,” Bi-Bablar added. Luik was surprised at his forthrightness. Can he see that easily into me?

“I know,” Luik said. “Yet I still am anxious.”

Bi-Bablar stopped on a landing that overlooked the garden. “But the Great God is with you, my King. You have nothing to fear.”

Luik stood thinking. All throughout the giant cave the dwarves were busy at work. Luik saw some of his men begin to integrate with them, lending their stronger arms to carrying supplies and readying the defenses, as he and the others had planned. “Sometimes all I can see is fear, Bi-Bablar. Sometimes I wonder if the Most High even hears my cries. These are—”

“Dark days. I know,” said the dwarf. “But if you could only know what we know, what we see, then you would understand that the Most High does indeed hear your prayers. But long before you were born, and long after you are taken home to the Great Throne Room, He will still be dispensing the means of His will upon Creation. Whether your life comes or goes, it does not matter, so much as you were included, incorporated into His will with each breath you took. That is all He seeks. To have you a part of His masterwork. And most often that requires a feat of daring against those who would undo the tapestry of His legacy. You never know when your hardship means someone else’s salvation.”

They both stood staring at one another for a moment. Luik took great solace in the little man’s words. He marveled at this race—so quirky and unusual—yet so instantly prone to being a friend. Thank You, Most High.

“Come,” Bi-Bablar turned. “In here.” He pushed on a heavy door, hinges fighting. They walked down a low, lengthy corridor lined with doors on either side. Thick candles fluttered in their wall mounts as they passed. The passage opened into a larger anteroom with a tall door set in the far wall.

“I will leave you here,” said the dwarf.

“C’symia, Bi-Bablar,” Luik said holding out his hand. “I trust we will meet again.”

The dwarf snorted, “In the throes of battle, to be sure! And then in Athera, should the time ever come.” He smiled widely and his round chest shook with a laugh. “Or I can just wait here,” pointing to a small chair, “as I’m not allowed to leave you, yet I cannot go further.”

Luik gave him a smirk. Funny, too, Luik added to his thoughts on the qualities of dwarves. He moved to the door and knocked with the heavy gold ring. The answer came as the door swung toward him and he slipped inside.

An attendant held the door and Luik thanked him before looking further into the room. It was decorated sparingly, as was Otian style, and was prepared for the Race of Men, as all the fixtures were much larger than normal. More relief pictures lined the walls, as Luik recalled were in his room when last visiting Ot, save that these were somehow much older. And this room, though Luik couldn’t place it, had a personality about it—something distinct and almost royal—yet not without a certain air of leisure.

“It was Ad’s room,” Ragnar said, standing beside the bed. “His escape from Adriel, as if one could ever imagine it being needed.” Ragnar was outfitted in full battle dress, a black tunic over his chain mail with a long sword strapped to his side; Luik knew it immediately as the Sword of The Lion Vrie.

“Father,” Luik said, moving toward him. They clasped forearms and embraced.

“It is indeed good to see you, my son,” Ragnar said, standing back to admire his appearance. “You look ready to slay Morgui himself.”

“As do you,” Luik replied.

Luik looked around the chamber.

“This room has been my home these many moons,” Ragnar said. “And I find myself in good company, for the Spirit of the Most High has not been distant as my presence remains a secret for a little while longer.” He walked over and touched the hard-packed soil beside a hanging picture. “Perhaps it is these walls, each one having sheltered my forefathers before me in times when they sought audience with the Tribes of Ot. Or perhaps it is the Tree without that reminds me of days gone by. But the time has passed quickly, and now you are here.”

“I am only sad we could not spend it speaking more, or planning what adventure awaits us next,” Luik replied.

“But what an adventure awaits us this day!” Ragnar spoke up. “Though my body is older now, my hand is still fit for the sword.” He strode in front of Luik and clutched his arms. “And to meet my enemy with my son beside me,” he sighed, “there is no greater day.”

“C’symia, Father.” Luik still felt that he wanted to know this man more. He knew him as King, yes; but as a father—that was something altogether different. Perhaps one could only know such a father as a boy, and so Lair would always hold that position. Luik felt that somehow this man, his real father, was much more of an acquaintance than an intimate. And while he pleaded with the Most High for the time to remedy such a circumstance, in his heart he felt that it would not be granted. Even worse, such an end meant that he would lose another father to battle—something he knew he could not bear again.

“What is it, dear boy?” Ragnar questioned. He looked deep into his son’s eyes.

Luik thought of a dutiful answer. “It is the weight of Dionia,” he replied, skirting the issue.

“Ah, a weight I know all too well.” He patted him on the shoulder. “But you bear it well. And your battle plans are well formed.”

“You have seen them then?”

“Oh, aye. And better than anything I could have ever fashioned. Your skill at kingcraft is equally fit to your skill in battle. It would seem that your tutelage under Gorn was well worth your absence from our world.” Ragnar looked longingly into his son’s face. “While I do not know you as I would, never doubt the investment made into your life. You are a Son of the Living God, an heir to His inheritance. And it was not I, nor the Gvindollion that chose you for such an errand. It was He, and He alone.” Ragnar smiled then. “And I tend to think that He knows what He’s doing.”

“Aye, but sometimes I—”

There was a heavy pounding at the door. Luik looked over his shoulder, and then back to his father.

“You’ll be fine, Luik. And remember that I love you. That’s all I wanted to say.”

“As do I,” he replied.

“Enter,” Ragnar called to the door.

“My King?” said Bi-Bablar.

Both Luik and Ragnar answered. “Ha, it’s your title,” Ragnar grinned at Luik.

Luik turned to the door. “Aye?”

“King Luik, the gate is breaching. Li-Saide has requested your presence immediately.”

Luik looked to Ragnar.

“Let it be done,” Ragnar said, picking up his shield and helmet.

They followed Bi-Bablar through the anteroom, down the corridor and out into the central cave. Once without, they passed up two more flights of stairs before stepping inside one of the lifts. Brax was waiting inside. No sooner was the gate closed than the lift lurched upward and sailed swiftly between the Tree’s trunk and the side of the cave. The ground fell away at a hurried rate, and soon the large green leaves were racing by.

“Everything is ready?” Luik asked Brax.

“As ready as it can be.”

“Good. Where is Li-Saide?”

“Waiting for you in the Surface Tunnel.”

“And the men?”

“All to their stations. The portals are closed.” Brax paused and looked down. “I’d say we’re ready for a fight.”

Luik took a deep breath. “We’d better be.”

“We are, Son.” Ragnar placed a hand on Luik’s shoulder. “We are.”

The lift came to a stop, and the gate was flung open. They were at the highest point in the cave, looking down to the Tree a great distance below. A low boom filled the air every few moments, and bits of dirt fell from the vaulted ceiling above.

Luik stepped onto the platform and looked up. There, just as he had drawn out, was an enormous net affixed to countless lift pulleys all over the cave’s ceiling. It stretched out like a tightly woven blanket slung between tree limbs, ready to cradle anyone who fell in.

“I can’t believe they made it,” Luik admired.

“These dwarves are industrious beings,” Brax said. “You said so yourself.”

“Aye, it’s just so big.” He looked back down to the Tree’s upper section. “And the archers?”

“Positioned and awaiting your command. Grinddr sent half of his men into the Tree as well.”

“Well done.” Luik looked to the tunnel. “Onward.”

They marched up into a wide corridor, the same that eventually led to the surface. It was filled with men and dwarves, each busy with preparing the defenses as prescribed. The booming continued, and more soil and rocks fell on their heads. Luik brushed his hair of the debris and continued on. Long wooden spikes lay on either side of the floor, waiting to be inserted into the angled holes along the path, walls, and ceiling. And then he started to see the giant leaves attached overhead.

“They’re bigger than I expected,” Luik expressed.

“Aye, and swollen with water, just as you noted,” Brax replied, moisture dripping down on their heads and sizzling in the torches. “They’ll let them down and cover the tunnel as soon as we’re done here.”

“Good. And Li-Saide?” Luik asked Bi-Bablar.

“He’s just ahead, my King,” answered the dwarf, keeping pace behind them.

They climbed up the path, passing more layers of spikes and leaves until Luik could see Li-Saide in the torchlight. Fane stood beside him, examining the tunnel, which ended in a solid wall. Li-Saide was instructing a group of dwarves, each focused on a number of small cloth bundles being pressed into the tunnel walls.

“Li-Saide, I am—”

But the dwarf raised a silencing hand without even turning.

Luik stopped, as did the others. Bi-Bablar tugged on the King’s tunic.

“They’re setting the charges,” he whispered. “One false move and…” the dwarf made an explosive sound with his mouth and spread his hands apart.

Suddenly the group of dwarves backed away from the dead end and Li-Saide turned to Luik. “It’s all set,” the Chief said confidently. “If they use the portal, they’ll think twice on their next attempt. And if they dig through, they’ll have a new mess on their hands.” Li-Saide winked and put a finger to the air. “More digging either way!”

“Marvelous,” Luik said. “I still don’t know how this powder of yours works, but when have I ever questioned a dwarf?”

“Well, there have been—”

“Don’t answer that,” Luik put in.

They all turned back down the corridor.

“Is everything to your liking?” Li-Saide asked.

Luik nodded. Li-Saide waved a hand as they moved by the first set of spikes and leaves. The dwarves and warriors leapt to action, lowering the layers of leaves to completely cover the mouth of the tunnel, followed by placing the wooden spikes in a circular pattern around the tunnel floor and wall, all facing outward. If the Dairne-Reih came this route, and did indeed manage to dig themselves out of the cave-in resulting from Li-Saide’s trap, the thick leaves would not only quench the fire of their enemies’ torches, but hide the mouthful of spikes waiting to devour them in their rush for blood.

The six of them emerged back onto the landing beside the lift. Luik noticed men sawing away at the joints where the platform met the wall.

“The last ones through will pull her down,” Li-Saide noted.

“If they get this far, they’ll have a long drop,” Bi-Bablar chuckled just thinking about it.

They stepped into the lift and descended.

“Only one question remains,” said Brax looking to Luik. “Where do you want to be?”

Luik glanced at Brax, and then to Li-Saide and Bi-Bablar. “The Archives,” Luik finally said. Li-Saide was all too proud. “If there is something to protect, it would be our world’s history. The Great Tree will take care of herself, and I am no use with a bow. But give me my sword and my heritage to defend, and you’ll have me in the right place.”

“Then I’ll join you,” said Li-Saide.

“As will I,” said Bi-Bablar.

“And I,” said Fane. Ragnar nodded as well.

“And you, King Brax?” Luik asked.

“Ah, you know me,” he said. “My men are in the garden and will tend to those who make it that far. With plenty of water to keep the fires at bay and spikes to welcome those who journey down? I’ll only get in their way. Consider my sword yours.”

Luik hit him on the back. “You are a faithful friend and a mighty warrior, Dibor. May our swords strike true.”

Li-Saide pulled the line for the lift to stop at the next platform. They slowed and then adjoined the balcony and slipped past the gate. The landing was already filled with warriors extending down and up the stairs that bordered it on two sides, one set coming up from below and an adjacent set that continued upward, wrapping around the curve of the cave wall, each set on aiding Luik in his defense of the Library. In front of them was the familiar door of the Great Library and, beyond, the endless records of everything the dwarves had documented from the beginning of time, including the other worlds that the Most High had fashioned for His liking. Most notably, Luik remembered, the first world—Earth.

The three men and two dwarves exited the lift just before it was hoisted back into the air and raced to the Surface Tunnel above. Luik then turned to address the men now under his command. “We’ll make our stand here,” Luik shouted. “If we should fail, then we’ll defend from within the Library.”

“Defenses have been readied on the other side of the doors,” Bi-Bablar reminded him. “As ordered, sir.”

“Very good. Thank you for your diligence.” He looked into the eyes of all those entrusted to his care. The loud thumping from far above grew louder. The enemy was near. “Meet your enemies with terror in your eyes and courage in your hearts,” he exhorted. “Let your spears fly swiftly and your swords cut unhindered. This is our greatest hour, and wemust—not—fail.”

“Hey’a!” the men let up in unison.

Suddenly a horrendous explosion sounded from far above. The men looked directly overhead to see a puff of smoke and debris fly out of the Surface Tunnel and spew into the cave. The warriors and dwarves had not even finished cutting away the platform when the blast came, the shock wave blowing them and the platform off the wall. The lift swung wildly…

And then the line snapped.

The wooden crate along with the platform hurtled downward, bodies flailing in midair.

“Against the wall! Now!” Luik ordered. The men spread out along the inside of the stairs and pressed themselves against the wall as best they could. They watched in muted terror as the first of the fatalities played out before their eyes.

Within moments the wreckage flew past them, men screaming as they fell. Parts of the platform slammed into the balcony where Luik stood, shattering into oblivion. The scream of a man was silenced as he crashed into the upper staircase and ripped a portion of it down with him.

A dwarf landed with a sickening thud at Li-Saide’s feet, appearing as a heap of robes and a smattering of blood.

A moment later the carnage met its end on the cavern’s floor, echoes extending back up.

Ignoring the trauma that had just played out, Li-Saide said, “They’re in.”

There was a heavy pause as everyone in Ot became silent. All waited, listening for what would come next. No one stirred, or even dared breathe for fear of inviting what lay above them. Just utter stillness.

Then the booming resumed.

The Dairne-Reih were back to work.

“They’ll be coming through the main ceiling very soon, I should think,” said Bi-Bablar.

“Aye,” agreed Li-Saide. And suddenly his eyes grew distant.

Bi-Bablar turned to Luik. “They’ve been digging down from the surface for three days. They’re using Hewgogs.”

Luik was confused, having never heard the word before.

“A giant Dairneag,” replied the dwarf. “I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Gruesome creatures, to be sure.”

Luik looked to Li-Saide. The dwarf was staring out into the distance, his eyes fixed on the Tree’s trunk.

“Are you all right?” Luik asked.

But Li-Saide didn’t move. Luik removed his gauntlet and placed a hand gently on his shoulder. The dwarf stirred.

“Where were you?”

“Something’s not right,” Li-Saide said quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“I feel something terrible is about to happen.”

Luik knew Li-Saide never let his own fears get in the way of reality; he was a dwarf, after all, and they were immune to certain human dispositions. The statement worried him greatly.

“To what effect?”

“I’m not certain,” replied the dwarf. “I just sense something in the spirit—” He squinted his eyes. Suddenly a look of great pain seized his face, and his eyes flashed back open. “O Great God!” he cried and fell to his knees.

“Li-Saide!” Luik knelt down next to him. “What’s happening?” But the dwarf only groaned in pain. Luik heard more groaning from his other side. He looked and saw Bi-Bablar also crumpled on the ground.

“King Luik!” one of the men cried. “Look!”

Luik glanced up and noticed that any dwarf his eyes could find was doubled over, many of them weeping openly.

“Great God, what is this?” Luik whispered. Just then he heard Li-Saide trying to speak. He knelt lower.

“What is it?”

Then Luik heard Li-Saide say something he found unimaginable. “All is lost.”

Boooom!

An explosion ripped through the cavern’s ceiling, blasting through the final layers of rock with a deafening sound. Sunlight poured in through a gaping hole, streaming through the clouds of debris. Rocks and dirt showered down, most caught in the wide net overhead; but the larger bored holes right through the tight weave.

“Shields!” Luik cried and raised his shield over Li-Saide and himself. In the same movement he capped his head with his helmet. Rock fragments rained down, pelting their shields with pockmarks. But some pieces were much too large to be stayed off by weaponry and tore through portions of the wall-mounted structures, crushing men whole. Just to Luik’s side he saw a man kneeling with his shield covering his head; one moment he was enduring the assault with bravery, the next he was pulverized, crushed beneath his shield, showering those around him.

The debris thinned, and the air was filled with men coughing, many groaning in their final moments of life.

“Look lively, men!” Luik hollered, standing to his feet. He glanced up to the massive hole above and the net filling with stone and dirt that seeped out like mud in a sieve. Then he remembered Li-Saide.

“Li-Saide!” he cried, kneeling back down. “Are you all right?”

The dwarf rubbed his head. “I’m no worse for wear.”

“You were right, something was indeed about to happen. You must get up quickly.”

“My King,” replied the dwarf, as Luik helped him to his feet, “I was not talking about Dionia.”

Luik paused as the dwarf brushed himself off; the comment disturbed him.

“O?”

“Something has happened on Earth.”

Luik was stupefied. He didn’t know what to say, although his heart was telling him something dreadful. Memories filled his head, images of what he had heard behind these very doors in the Library.

Images of a grave travesty…

…of the unexplainable.

For it pleased the Father to crush His Son.

“They’re coming in!” Ragnar shouted.

Luik looked up to see the first wave of demons fill the space of the hole and block out the fading sunlight. They climbed through the opening with their claws digging into the ground. But as it crumpled in their hands, they fell headlong into the net. It was here that Luik’s plans were set into motion. The Dairne-Reih scrambled over one another and tried to reach the edges of the net while others, toppling over on themselves, looked for places to slash through. But in either case, the demons were exposed and vulnerable from beneath. The archers throughout the Treetop and along the walls let loose a volley of arrows so thick they could be heard by the onlookers below. The missiles raced through the netting and found their targets, drilling into any number of the beasts caught in the net.

As the Dairneags continued to file through the hole above, the net filled with more and more victims, helpless as they tried to maneuver over the bodies. They growled and shrieked, filling the cavern with freakish sounds. Spotters continued to point out targets for the archers, shouting to be heard over the ghastly throes of death from above. Luik watched as the great net began to sag, filling with arrow-riddled corpses. The flow of demons was unrelenting, streaming in like giant spiders.

“It will not hold much longer,” Fane noted. He held firm to his rowan staff.

Soon the net was so full that the archers could spy no new targets. The cords strained under the weight as more and more demons stood on top of their fallen kind. They raced to the edges and hung from the sides. But this proved fatal, as the bowmen unleashed their wrath. The Dairneags were met with mortal wounds, their fingers slipping from the net, their bodies hurtling to the spike-ridden ground far below.

“She’s going to give,” Brax shouted.

As if hearing his admission, the main cords of the net began to unwind, their lengths spinning wildly, snapping under the increased weight. Like sinew popping from too much stress, the bonds gave way one at a time. The pulleys squealed as lines raced through them, smoke pouring from the blocks.

“Take cover!” Luik ordered. Once again the shields went up and everyone knelt against the wall.

Just then the final cords tore free and snapped back like whips. The net churned one last time and heaved sideways, spilling its contents out into midair. A black mass of demon corpses issued forth like a wave pouring over a waterfall. There was nowhere to go but down. Dairneags that still lived shrieked in terror as they flew through the air, hurtling to their end. Most seemed to pour into the top of the Tree of Life, careening into branches that broke their bodies further, many impaled on the smaller upturned limbs.

But now the message was sent to Morgui’s forces: only those demons with the ability to climb could come through the hole. Luik and his men stood closely against the wall as bodies bounced off and flew past them. Then his eyes turned to the Surface Tunnel entrance. He saw wreckage spill out of it, and dirt fling into the air.

“They’ve dug through,” he said to Li-Saide.

“Aye,” replied the dwarf.

Back at the main hole, demons crept down from the surface and peered into the vast cave. Their gathering forces pushed down from above, and a few unlucky beasts were shoved free, screaming as they fell. But most studied the cavern and plotted their course. They reached around the edge of the hole and climbed along the ceiling with their claws dug into the hard-packed ground. The archers had no problem picking them off, watching them climb along and then dropping them with well-placed arrows.

Again, Luik noticed movement from the Surface Tunnel. He pointed up as a Dairneag emerged and stepped out into the open air. The men watched it fall, flying past their balcony. It was large and, from the bloodied body, had clearly borne the brunt of the spikes within. The demon also released an extinguished torch as it fell; the damp leaves had served their purpose.

Another demon followed behind the first, stopping just short of a fatal fall, but the pause was temporary. The Dairneag coming behind it did not slow and shoved the first out into the open, following with itself and a few more. Luik could hear the horde still in the cave begin to click and chatter, certainly passing along a warning.

“The first wave is over,” Luik surmised. “They know they can’t just barge in.”

There was a lull in the commotion as the Surface Tunnel activity ebbed, as did that pouring in from the hole above. But everyone knew the battle was far from over.

The archers readied their next missiles.

Luik drew his sword, a sound followed by countless more of the same. He squinted up through the cavern, now filled with a dusty haze.

A single coil of rope, tethered from above, shot down through the main hole, followed by four of five more. They unraveled speedily and dropped into the canopy of leaves. A moment later, the largest Dairneags Luik had ever seen descended through the space.

“Hewgogs,” Li-Saide cursed.

“What?” asked Luik.

“What we were telling you about,” Bi-Bablar reminded him. “The giants of Morgui’s army.”

“I’ve never seen such creatures,” Luik mumbled.

“That’s because they are something new,” said Li-Saide. “Morgui created them.”

“But I thought he can’t make anything new?”

“Ah,” Li-Saide corrected himself, staring up at the rappelling giants, “he bred them.”

“Excuse me?” Luik was disgusted.

“Can we save the lesson for later?” Brax interrupted. “Look!”

The Hewgogs, riddled with arrows, dropped from the ropes and fell into the uppermost branches of the Tree. As they met the canopy, branches cracked and ripped apart, leaves flying out from within. To Luik and the others it looked as if someone had reached in and shaken a bush with their hand. Luik noticed the sounds of countless bowstrings thwipping through the air, followed by deep growls. More crashing and then screams—

—of men.

Bodies fell through the upper limbs, bouncing around like pebbles, and then appearing in midair underneath the canopy of leaves.

“Look out!” Brax hollered down below. But the first few bodies surprised the warband beneath the Tree and landed among them.

Just then another wave of demons slid down the ropes, but these were the typical Dairneags. Luik imagined them moving easily through the limbs and working in conjunction with the Hewgogs. Without adequate swordsmen to protect them, the archers would not last much longer. More of the Dairne-Reih filled the tree, and soon a full-fledged battle ensued within the branches. More limbs cracked and bodies fell out of the leaves. And the battle was moving—down.

Luik heard a great commotion in the lower branches. Men were shouting, dwarves barking orders. And just then a lift descended from the canopy, lowering swiftly to the garden below.

“They’re retreating,” Fane said.

Luik looked back to the hole. Not only were more demons descending through the hole, but the more agile had resumed their method of climbing down along the ceiling. So many came, in fact, Luik could not count them, the effort immeasurably overwhelming. Even from the Surface Tunnel they came, crawling out of the tunnel and racing down the wall—right for them.

The lanky, swifter demons moved with remarkable speed, covering the distance in no time, as if running on level ground on two legs. They seemed to defy gravity. Luik was astonished. But equally pleased.

“Ready the ropes,” he ordered. Li-Saide raised his hand and the warriors all around reached for any of the number of ropes that dangled against the wall. Farther up, the lines attached to the wall, linked to something fixed within.

Luik squinted through the slits in his helmet and squeezed the sword in his hand. The Dairne-Reih were picking up speed. And they could see him—Luik knew it. They wanted King’s blood. There was nothing better to them.

“Hold!” Luik ordered.

Dirt was raining down on Luik’s warband as the wall was eaten away. Like a black shadow spanning across the ground, the crawling demons spewed out from the two holes above and blanketed the entire ceiling, pouring down the walls.

“Hold!”

He could see their mouths flare, teeth exposed.

Luik held his breath. Eyes keen.

“Hold!”

There must be legions of them, he thought. And then he thought no more…

It was time.

“Pull!” he hollered.

Li-Saide lowered his hand, and the warriors heaved with all their might. The lines snapped taut. From above, more wooden spikes, hinged from their bases, angled out from the wall. The demons had no time to react and plunged into row after row of the deadly dowels, jerking back violently. The force was tremendous, many breaking spikes in half, only to fall into the next set. Those not impaled jumped out from the wall. They sailed over those hanging in the spikes, but tried in vain to pull themselves back into the wall and fell to their deaths in the garden below.

Wood and flesh drifted down on top of Luik and those around him. The first charge had been stalled. But those pouring in from the tunnel and the hole continued with a second wave. It appeared like a coating of black oil that oozed down from the ceiling, covering the cave entirely as it went. Those that could not climb slid down the ropes into the Tree. And Dairneags were picking through the spikes above Luik’s head, regrouping for an assault on his platform.

He looked across the cavern and slightly below to where the Scriptorium platform was. The warriors were just now releasing the wall spikes above their location with the same devastating effects. But as the countless beasts filled in from the sides, Luik imagined the entire balcony to be swallowed whole in a matter of moments.

But then Luik noticed something else even more disheartening, something that stopped the breath in his lungs, something he had not noticed before: the light of the Tree was dimming.

“Li-Saide, look,” he pointed to the canopy.

“I know,” replied the dwarf.

The Tree of Life was not as it once was. The mesmerizing glow that gave light to fill the cave, and eternal life to the dwarves, was diminishing.

“Swords ready!” Brax commanded. Luik glanced up. The Dairne-Reih were on top of them.

A Dairneag left the wall and sailed down, horns and teeth bared. He crashed into a cluster of men, chomping on their swords and exposed limbs. Another landed beside Luik, thrashing wildly. He met him with a powerful jab in the side.

Suddenly Luik was smashed to the ground, weight bearing down on his shoulders and chest. His head slammed against the platform, rattled in his helmet.

He looked up.

The grotesque face of a Dairneag growled just a hand’s breadth away, staring him right in the eyes. The monster’s hot breath stung his skin, drool slipping in through the helmet’s breathing holes. His body was on the alert and didn’t even notice the pain as the monster squeezed its claws into his chain maille. He tried to twist away beneath it, but the effort did nothing to deter the beast.

Time slowed.

Luik felt the Spirit rise in his body.

All his training flashed before him and then stopped with Gorn in the Lion’s Lair. The Tongues of the Dibor.

He glared back at the demon on top of him. This monster would not win. Morgui would not win. So long as Luik had breath to breathe, so long as the Most High still sat upon His throne…

He recalled Gorn’s words. “It is not an accomplishment you are looking for, but a flowing with His Spirit to arrive at a place within His Will.”

What came next was less than an action and more of a thought.

Die.

Luik grabbed the creature around its throat with his left hand and then brought his sword up into its gut with his right. He whispered the Sacred Tongue and, in one swift motion, drove the sword all the way through the demon.

The action was so devastating that the Dairneag was torn in two, exploding all over Luik’s body.

Luik lay there, the power surge still coursing through his veins. He caught his breath. He remembered how his sword had decimated the granite rock in the Lair, and it was almost as if he could hear Gorn speaking to him now. Well done.

Time raced back, and he looked up to see more Dairne-Reih besetting the platform. He pushed himself up and noticed more coming up from beneath them, climbing over the balcony.

“There are too many!” Brax yelled out, swinging at a Dairneag and wresting it of its arm.

Luik engaged another beast, this time the Tongue coming more easily. He brought his sword back and swept across the demon’s midsection, speaking the words as he swung. His sword cleaved the demon in half, the upper section toppling over and onto the floor. A demon nearby examined the severed corpse and then looked at Luik.

For the first time Luik could recall, the demon stopped—and looked at him with fear.

“Brax!” Luik yelled over his shoulder.

Brax disemboweled a foe and then spun to Luik’s aid. He saw the demon Luik was staring at and noticed its expression. Ragnar and Fane also stole a glance. As Brax drew closer the demon looked over at him, now taking a step back.

“What did you do?” Brax asked, and then he looked to the ground and saw the carnage.

“The Tongues of the Dibor,” Luik replied, eyeing his new opponent.

“Of course!” Brax brightened, slightly frustrated why he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Too much reliance on the natural. He spun and met his next adversary.

An agile monster leapt from the wall and drove at Brax. But he sidestepped, sending the demon off balance, and swung hard, willing the words to his mouth. But the lack of practice had a price. The Dairneag leaned away from the sword and jabbed a horn-knuckled punch at Brax’s head. He ducked, and then tried the words again.

Time slowed down.

Brax could sense the Spirit increase.

He drew his sword back and lowered his head.

Then he whispered.

The words boomed into a shout as his sword plunged into the demon’s armored chest, and then out as the beast flew clear off the balcony and far into the cavern.

Luik caught the motion out of the corner of his eye—his opponent did, too. And it was cause enough to take another step back.

Luik moved forward. The Dairneag looked back to him. Luik raised his sword, and the demon flinched.

“We’ve got them,” Luik said quietly, his words filling his helmet.

Suddenly the commotion on the platform ebbed as other demons noticed the standstill between Luik and the Dairneag. The beast was at a loss.

Luik began whispering the Sacred Tongue again. His hands tingled.

“O, no,” came Fane’s voice.

Luik glanced over. Fane was fixed on something high above…

…a glow in the mouth of the main hole…

…brighter than daylight.

There, issuing rapidly, came a river of fire, as if made up of thick oil or, worse, molten rock set aflame. Luik’s eyes widened. The flow cast an orange glow into the cavern, and all turned to watch it. The torrent was wide, catching demons around the hole and swallowing them instantly. It streamed down, filling the air with flames…

…and then, the unthinkable.

The liquid fire gushed onto the upper portion of the Tree, drenching the canopy and folding the leaves down. Instantly the branches were set ablaze, the greenery leaping with flames, white hot, leaf edges running with black lines. The lava cascaded downward, splashing off the Tree and showering the sides of the cavern.

Luik heard shouting and looked to the lower limbs. Men, dwarves, and Dairne-Reih alike stared up with terror, caught between the fire’s devouring appetite and a mortal fall to the garden below. While many chose the fall over burning alive, most did not have time to think. Luik watched in speechless horror as the liquid fire raced down the wood and poured over those in the Tree. His mind burned with the images of men holding hands up against the heat, dwarves covering themselves with their robes. And even demons who, consumed by the treachery of their own Lord, screamed upward into the flames, molten fire filling their gaping mouths. Even the mighty Hewgogs tumbled down through the flaming carnage, their bodies rolling through the mix and spewing out into the open air below the canopy.

The cavern filled with the scent of burning flesh and sulfur mixed with charred wood. The Tree limbs burst, propelling flaming fragments into the platforms around the cave. The entire space was cast in a lurid orange glow, a far cry from the once shimmering beauty of the Tree of Life. The demons around Luik and the others turned upon them with renewed aggression, feeling their victory now secure.

Luik forgot the words he was about to speak and was suddenly flung back against the cavern wall, his head slamming against the inside of his helmet with a jolt. Tiny specks of light danced across his dimming gaze. Sound was ebbing.

A sword flashed in front of him, and blood was spilt.

“Get up, Son!”

The words wafted toward him as if on a gentle breeze. Luik blinked, trying to clear his head. A strong hand latched under his arm and jerked him up upright.

“We must get out of here!” he heard the voice again.

Luik gained his feet beneath him and looked around. The sounds of battle returned, rushing at him full speed. There fighting in front of him was his father, Ragnar. He paused long enough to give Luik a wink and then continued slashing at the beasts nearest them.

“To your left!” Brax yelled.

Luik turned to meet an imposing foe, a Dairneag three times his size who, by the look of its hands and mouth, had already indulged in the flesh of numerous men and dwarves. Luik felt his sword strong in his hand and found the words of the Sacred Tongue without so much as thinking.

Kee a-tah shuhe tey ahm-a—” and then the blast of his sword interrupted the speech, boring a hole the size of a man’s torso in the creature’s chest. With no lungs to even issue a scream, the demon dropped to its knees and collapsed before him.

But it was replaced by three more. Luik looked around. The platform was assailed from above and below, and his forces were being overwhelmed. The demons were pouring over the wall spikes and converging too quickly. The stairs leading down to the garden were flooded, and in the distance far below he could see a black mass of Dairne-Reih scaling the walls and closing in on the lower ranks.

“I suggest we make for the Library, as you’ve prepared, my King,” Li-Saide yelled above the din of battle and fire. “It’s our only hope.” He turned toward the giant doors.

Brax and Ragnar drew near, as did the remaining men and dwarves, defending their retreat toward the Library. Li-Saide and Fane gapped only one of the heavy twin doors, hinges groaning, and slipped inside. It was just enough for men to slide through, but not enough for the demons. Luik heard something thud on the opposite side, presumably a beam to keep the door from opening farther.

Suddenly Spid’s head popped around the corner. “Varos, High King!”

Luik was surprised to see him but had no time to dwell on it. He grabbed the closest warrior to him and shoved him through the gap, prompting more to go as Ragnar and Brax busied themselves with fending off the encroaching demons.

Within mere moments the platform was overrun with Dairneags, and the three kings were tested by the role of being the last ones through the door. Over their heads a few demons scratched at the gap in the doors, reaching their arms in, trying to squeeze through.

“We need to clear some space,” Ragnar hollered. “We’ll never be able to close the door!” He parried a thrust with his sword and blocked a horned fist with his shield.

“When I say duck, do so,” Luik ordered. “But for now, cover me.” Brax and Ragnar nodded and took up a position directly in front of him, their backs to the door. It was two against a multitude, but their swords went right to work.

Luik brought his sword back over his head, hands twisted over and the blade pointing out in front of him—high guard. Normally, it was a poor defensive position.

But he wasn’t playing defense.

He closed his eyes and tried his best to quiet his spirit. Everything was so loud around him.

He could hear Brax grunting…

…his father’s sword striking bone.

Demons clucking and hissing.

The fire chewing away at the Tree.

Men screaming in the throes of death.

Most High, I need you now.

He searched his heart and looked for The Presence. He felt as if he was wandering in a solemn maze, each turn presenting more of the same barren corridors, more of the same prize-less dead ends.

He took a deep breath and waited for the Spirit to fill his hands.

The maze presented a new turn up ahead. He ran toward it, eager to pass the corner. He could feel it. He could feel Him.

“Any time now,” Brax yelled over his shoulder.

But Luik was not listening. He could feel the Most High—he could see his prize.

The Spirit touched his hands, and Luik felt warmth move in his stomach, like a river stirring deep within his gut. It was the Living Water. He knew he must yield to it—that is how it worked every time: to relinquish control and give himself over. Not in a passive, apathetic way, but in a deliberate invitation to move with it. To dance.

He summoned the Sacred Words again, whispering.

The river of water in his stomach suddenly turned hot, as if liquid fire like that which burned the Tree—save more intense. Invisible flames ate up his chest and surged down his arms. Fire shot up in his bones. His hands felt as if the flesh would melt right off them, but he could not let go of his sword. Suddenly the blade resonated, humming with the power he felt within.

He opened his eyes.

The Dairne-Reih moved slowly, unaware of his state. He had time to look from one to the next, taking in their features with ease, time all but standing still. Brax’s blade was inching through a victim in mid-stride; Ragnar was deflecting a blow and soon to jab upward. But time for Luik was fluid, his actions as if nothing hindered them.

“Down!” he yelled. But the response was slow.

Brax painstakingly dropped to his knees while Ragnar finished his thrust and rolled to his side. When they were clear, Luik drew in a breath…

He was suspended in the moment.

Inhale.

Everything froze. The Dairne-Reih were still, some glaring at him, others at the two men on the ground. His entire body was alight with fire, his very marrow set aflame.

Exhale.

The Sacred Words issued forth, drenched with the Fire of the Spirit. His sword swung across, sending a blast with it much like a wave that rippled through the water, but this through the air. The concussion careened into all those standing, passing through them and then suddenly obliterating them into complete carnage, their forms decimated into oblivion.

But time still lingered.

Luik’s sword finished its arc and still trembled in his hands. He looked up to see those demons scratching at the door. With both hands firmly on the hilt, he thrust it upward, still well below the monsters. But the distance meant nothing. Sent from the tip like a lightning bolt, a flash of light leapt into the cluster of beasts gathered atop the doorframe. Their bodies shot up and away, pulverized by the blast, and collided with those above them.

Seeing the platform was clear, Luik ceased the words. The fire deep in his belly suddenly withdrew, and time accelerated to the present. The force of the return sent him off balance and he caught himself on Brax’s shoulder. An echo of the blast still resounded off the cavern walls, sounding as if thunder just boomed in the space.

“W-what,” Brax stammered, his eyes surveying the platform, “was that?”

Ragnar pressed himself up to a knee and stood wearily; his ears rang. He looked at his son. “What did you do?”

“I don’t know,” Luik said, helping them both to their feet. “But we need to get moving.”

While Luik’s actions had certainly bought them temporary reprieve, the bloodthirsty Dairneags were already feeling the lust in their tongues and regrouping up the steps and down the walls. Ragnar slipped through the gap, and Brax followed. Luik entered last and gave a final look back into the cavern. The Tree was now completely consumed in flame, the intense heat burning his face even as he lingered. Charred corpses hung in the limbs, leaves now only embers drifting through the air. And all around the cave Dairne-Reih poured over the walls like a wave of grease glazing down the sides.

He couldn’t see to the garden floor, but he could imagine the carnage that his eyes would have met: mutilated bodies consumed in flame, burning on spear point, or floating in the flood waters. Those who were not crushed from falling debris and corpses, or burned alive by the fiery flow, were now fighting for their lives, surely running back toward their only means of escape—the portals.

Luik was pulled away from his vision and gave the order to close the door. The hinges groaned for a final time as the ancient wood locked shut. The scene was gone—though not from Luik’s mind. The Dairne-Reih clawed ravenously on the opposite side, their shrieks and clicking evidence of their frustration. Luik leaned in, his helmet against the door. It vibrated with the violence. Brax, Fane, his father, and Li-Saide were among the only ones he knew as friends—as brothers—who had survived. Where his other Dibor were, Gorn and even Grinddr, he could only guess. And the guesses were not pleasant.

His thoughts were quick and clear. The battle for Ot had happened swiftly, and ended even more so. Luik had fought many a battle against Morgui: Adriel had been slow but total; Somahguard had been swift but fought with the taken. But this—this had surprised him. He had thought they at least had a chance. It was, after all, the Tree of Life. Who could have ever imagined her succumbing to the hand of Morgui? Who could have ever imagined the Most High allowing her to fall?

A violent crash came from the other side of the door, and Luik’s head popped away from the wood.

“They’re attempting to breach the door!” Bi-Bablar exclaimed.

“Correction,” said Li-Saide, “they are breaching the door.”

Luik and the others turned to the Chief of the Tribes, now leader of a race of homeless dwarves. The High King took off his bloodied helmet, the metal slipping in his gauntlets. His eyes swept the corridor that opened up into the first of the Great Library’s countless vaults, stacked to the ceiling with their prized scrolls. Then it dawned on him…

Not only had they lost Ot, and soon the entire texts of their civilization, but they had absolutely nowhere to run. Morgui had won. And Luik had never felt so alone. It was, indeed, the end. A fear unlike any he had ever known laced its tentacles around his chest and squeezed. There was no way out. This would be his grave.

“We’re trapped.”

– – –
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