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THE READING ROOM
“Reinforce the doors!” Luik ordered, standing with his back against them and sheathing his blade. The clawing and screeching increased as the demons without increased in their lust for a prize. Men and dwarves picked up the giant beams, anchored them in their newly-fashioned floor mounts, and let them drop into place, slamming them down with a heavy ka-thunk.
“If they don’t break through soon, the fires certainly will,” Ragnar pointed out. They could feel the heat penetrating even then.
“Come,” summoned Li-Saide. He ushered the men down the entry corridor and into the first of the large archival rooms, lit by only a handful of torches. Many of the warriors limped or carried wounded dwarves in their arms. More than half their numbers had been cut down in the short assault on the platform.
Luik leaned down to speak privately with the dwarf. “We cannot make a stand with so few men.”
Li-Saide regarded him.
Thud. A muffled blow struck the doors from the outside. Dust fell from the ceiling.
Bi-Bablar walked over, as did Spid. “What would you have us do, Mighty Chief?” they inquired.
Fane drew near as well. “Sir, we have a number of men who need attention.” Luik looked over to those indicated, studying their painful expressions. Blood already stained the wood and carpet, their moans mixed with the terrors outside.
Thud. It came again, followed by a crack!
“My Chief,” Bi-Bablar pressed. The doors were weakening. But Li-Saide was deep in thought, focused far away, as if searching the Great Library from within his mind, for something. Anything.
The sounds coming through the door grew louder, the shrieks of the demons now prodded by the flames that devoured the Tree. Luik looked over his shoulder, testing the integrity of their defenses with his eyes. Brax nodded. “She won’t hold much longer.”
Luik turned to Li-Saide. “My Chief? I need options.”
“We must make it to the Reading Room,” Li-Saide finally replied.
But Bi-Bablar looked to the injured. “Chief, that is a great distance from here. I’m not certain that—”
“Save it,” he glared. “They will make it.”
There seemed to be a small commotion among the dwarves, and Luik grew uneasy. “Where is this Reading Room?” he asked Li-Saide.
“It is the first room Ad had burrowed out for the Library when she was originally fashioned—the farthest away from here. It’s a long story. Must I?”
Luik shook his head.
“C’symia.” The dwarf turned to their small warband. “We have far to travel,” he announced. “But you must endure. It is our only hope of survival.” Everyone just stared at him. Survival by fleeing farther down a dead end? It was madness. For what, a few more precious moments of life?
“I trust you have a plan?” Luik asked the dwarf. He nodded warily. Luik sighed. “You heard him, men! On your feet! Let’s go!”
As if his words needed further backing, another thud-crack pummeled the doors, this time with a sliver of orange light seeping in through the middle. The warband glanced at it and leapt to their feet. Dead end or not, they were certainly not interested in being devoured here on the floor.
“Quickly now,” Bi-Bablar coxed, helping dwarves to their feet and pushing them along. “Heads up. Stay together.” Brax picked up a man who nursed a hacked leg, pieces of chain maille sunken in the wound.
“I’m not sure I can walk,” said the warrior.
“You can,” replied Brax. “You can, and you must.” The warrior limped awkwardly at first, wincing in pain. He turned to look back at Brax. The King winked. “You can do it.”
Luik glanced up at the doors now that most of the men were on their feet and moving. Li-Saide regarded the deepening damage as well. “How long do you think we have?”
“Only moments,” Li-Saide said. “Those are Hewgogs, infuriated and scalded ones at that.” He turned to Luik. “They can smell you.”
“Comforting,” Luik said.
Another blow to the doors sent the beams jouncing in their mounts. The crack widened.
“Come,” said the dwarf. “We must be off.”
• • •
Luik and Li-Saide easily caught up with the warband, half limping, half running down the dimly lit interior of the Library. Only the first room had been illuminated as usual; the rest were darkened, the wall torches and chandeliers extinguished for battle. Li-Saide, Bi-Bablar, Brax, and Luik carried torches now, with Luik and the Chief leading the way.
They moved between row after row of the legendary shelves, each at least five men high and crammed full of scrolls. But unlike Luik’s last time here, each enormous chamber room was as black as night, save for the fires in their hands. The orange glow reflected off the lacquered mahogany and shone only partially down the red-carpeted aisle before them. The warband skirted the meticulously-kept reading tables and passed underneath the low archways that separated each grand room from the next.
As the glow of the first chamber faded away behind them, so too did the sounds of the Dairne-Reih. The thudding was now a gentle thump and gave way to the warband’s patter of feet on the thick wool, as well as their labored breathing. The air grew cooler as they went, and the pungent smell of old parchment filled their nostrils.
A man stumbled; Luik caught him under the arm.
“I can’t go on,” he said, pleading. “May we rest?”
“Nay, brother,” trying his best to keep the man upright. “We must move along. There will be time for resting in Athera.” But as Luik said the words, he suddenly wished he hadn’t, implying that they were all headed there shortly.
Brax eyed him and then joined in helping the warrior to keep moving. “Couldn’t you have picked another location for resting?” he chided the High King.
Luik smiled, feeling the humor of the moment and allowing it to encourage him. “I was thinking of the beds in Mt. Dakka, but they’re much too hard.”
“Not as hard as the bread baked in Bensotha,” Brax added.
For that single moment, bantering back and forth, Luik felt like he was back on Kirstell, engaged in one of Gorn’s contests or sparring with the other boralee. It was a feeling of great comfort, one that he enjoyed so thoroughly, he grew sad when it slipped away into the blackness.
The sound echoed down the hallways, racing through each chamber. The warband stopped.
“They’re through,” Li-Saide offered.
The chase began.
The men took off at a run. Those who labored before now bounded down the corridors, defiant of their pain. Some carried a dwarf on their backs; others cradled one in their arms. Luik noticed the sweat coming down his forehead and struggled to carry his shield, helmet and torch. So he discarded his helmet and opted for his shield. It would be more useful.
They raced under an archway and into the next chamber, which appeared exactly as those before it. Their firelight danced across the rows of shiny cases and tables; their feet were cushioned on the lush red carpet. Halfway through the room the warband heard the shrieks of pursuing demons.
Luik shuddered. “How much farther?”
“A ways,” Li-Saide said.
“A ways is far?” Brax asked, panting.
“Aye,” said Bi-Bablar.
“We need more time,” Ragnar grunted.
“We need a diversion,” Li-Saide added and came to a standstill. “Keep going,” he ordered Ragnar, Fane, and Bi-Bablar. “Luik. Brax. I need you.” The advisor moved the group along, now under the light of a single torch.
Luik and Brax slowed and wondered at the dwarf’s choice of tactics. “What’s your idea?” Luik asked, mindful of their approaching enemy.
Li-Saide glanced upward and whispered under his breath. “Forgive me, O Most High.” Then he held up his torch. “We place one in the corner of the two rooms. Different spots.”
“Start fires?” Luik asked.
“Not at first, but they will catch quickly. And they’ll think we’ve stopped to hide, following the glow. At least for a moment. We’ll use the third torch, however, to set the scrolls on fire.”
“But the records?” Brax asked.
“They’re ruined anyway,” said the dwarf. “What does it matter if it’s by our hand or theirs? Luik, you run to the third room ahead. Light everything that will burn.” Luik just stared at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. But he knew it was the only chance they had to gain more time. “Brax, place this torch back in between the walls at those cases,” the dwarf indicated a tight grouping of tall shelves that would hide the torch, but not its glow. “I’ll plant the next one.”
They nodded, and Luik turned and raced down the room just as another series of shrieks echoed through the corridors. The Dairne-Reih had come much closer.
Luik passed through the next chamber quickly, ducked under the archway and bounded in. He stopped, torch flame flickering in front of his face. “Great God, forgive me for what I’m about to do,” he prayed. He ran to the first case of scrolls and held the flame to a protruding, ragged papyrus edge, yellow with age. Luik could make out ink marks and figures just within the first curl of the bound page. He cringed. The fire licked up the parchment and blossomed upward, casting light all around him. He watched as the ravenous tongues spread and within moments enveloped a wall of scrolls in front of him. He stepped back, horrified by what he had done, and then turned to run across the aisle.
His hands trembled as he held the torch to another bundle of scrolls. The shelf’s contents erupted in a wall of fire, and thin embers broke off and floated up around him. He heard the screams of the searching demons rip through the air again. He stepped back into the central aisle, observing how quickly the fire spread through the room. The heat increased, as did the smoke, making it harder to breathe. He covered his mouth and then turned to look back through the arch, eyes searching for his friends.
The flames spread to the remaining cases in the hall and forced Luik to retreat toward the next room farther in. He looked back again and caught sight of a figure running through the smoke toward him.
“They’re coming!” Brax shouted, one hand over his mouth, the other waving Luik on.
Luik caught him by the shoulder, “Where’s Li-Saide?”
“He’s not with you?” Brax looked around.
“Nay,” Luik said and then coughed.
The room roared with fire, torrents of spinning fury twisting off the shelves and consuming the ancient documents, now but ash flung in the air. The two kings ducked to avoid the smoke and winced at the extreme heat. The massive shelf nearest them snapped in two and one portion fell toward them. Brax pulled Luik out of the way as the wood slammed against the floor in a spray of sparks.
“We’ve got to move on!” Brax said.
“But Li-Saide! I will not leave without him.”
“Luik, we must go,” Brax pleaded, shouting over the noise of the fire.
It was then Luik saw something moving through the fire behind them. He nodded, and they both peered through the distorted air. Frantic hands waved in the smoke, and a billowy hat appeared, flames set upon it.
“Quick!” Luik shouted and sprinted toward the dwarf, Brax on his heels.
Li-Saide stumbled through the flames that devoured the carpet, his robe and beard on fire. Luik grabbed him by one arm, Brax under the other, and together they raced back down the aisle. Their exposed flesh smoldered, smoke bringing tears to their eyes. Li-Saide struggled against the heat that licked his face but didn’t so much as whimper.
Once under the arch into the next room, the Kings dropped the dwarf to the floor and smothered the flames about him with their tunics. They helped him to his feet and, seeing that he was able to stand, turned and watched the raging inferno in the room behind them. There was nothing but intense heat and a white-hot glow feeding on the legacy of written pages. Li-Saide bowed his head.
“We must move on,” Brax suggested as the heat stung their faces. “This will not stay them forever.”
“Agreed,” Li-Saide said, lifting his head. “We must catch up with the others.”
“And when we do?” Luik asked as he peered down into the dwarf’s face, his once regal beard now a charred thicket.
“A secret passage,” Li-Saide replied, still maintaining his ever-present sense of mystery. “If we make it in time, it will secure our retreat. Come.” With that he turned away. Luik and Brax followed, the light of the fire illuminating their path through the next room. And not too soon, as deafening screams chased after them, a multitude of Dairne-Reih infuriated by the delay the flames presented.
The three of them bounded under the arch and into the next room, and the next. Sweat poured down their faces and soaked their undergarments. Up ahead they could see the faint glow of flickering torchlight: the rest of their warband plunging through the darkness. Moments later they had caught up to the group, and Li-Saide pressed ahead to the front of the pack.
“This way,” he shouted and, once under the next arch, turned abruptly and ran along the inside wall. He grabbed a torch out of the closest man’s hand and raced ahead. He reached the side wall and then turned to run along its length as well, stopping halfway down.
Brax was right behind him. “What is it?”
“We’re here,” he replied and thrust the torch into Brax’s hand.
The dwarf knelt down and ran his fingers along the boards, searching for a seam. He summoned the torch closer and blew dust away to reveal a small aberration in the wooden floor’s pattern.
“What is it?” Brax asked.
As if to answer the question, Li-Saide’s fingers found a metal ring layered in dust and pulled it up. With a firm tug, the outline of a small door appeared. Brax and Fane helped him pull it back and made to toss it aside.
“Nay,” Li-Saide caught his arm. “We’ll need it to cover our escape.” The dwarf held the torch into the hole: a set of steep stone stairs leading down into blackness. “Get everyone down,” he said as he handed the torch to Bi-Bablar. “We’ll follow shortly behind.”
More shrieks filled the chambers behind them, but nearer. “They’re through,” Luik gasped, eyes alert and searching the shadows behind.
“Quickly!” Li-Saide took the last remaining torch from a warrior’s tense grip and raced to an adjacent shelf. He lit the scrolls in front of him then passed the torch to Luik. “Light those,” he pointed, “and then toss it across the aisle.”
Luik waved the flame across a broad section of the old parchment and then tossed it fluttering through the air, to land beside another shelf on the other side of the room. He watched as the torch flame seemed to ebb, flickering on the ground; but a moment later the carpet runner caught flame, as did the scrolls nearest the floor.
“Draw swords!” Luik ordered. The remaining warriors pulled out their weapons, blades running against scabbards. Spid helped the warband through the door, pushing their heads down as they ducked into the tunnel. More screams tore through the air.
The last of the dwarves slipped into the stairwell, followed by the other men. “Let’s go!” Li-Saide turned and slipped down the stairs followed by Brax and Luik, just as the heat from the shelves became overwhelming. From below Brax moved the lid back over the hole and seated it securely.
They stumbled blindly down the stairs, for only the one torch far ahead gave any light. The tunnel was dank and musty, unused for ages. Luik’s feet continued to miss steps. He put his free hand up to run along the rough walls. The light ahead disappeared around a corner, and their course turned to the right. Where is this taking us?
As they rounded yet another bend, a heavy thud echoed through the tunnel from above. The group stopped to listen further. It could be a collapsing shelf, Luik thought. Another impact. Li-Saide shouted, and they resumed running. Labored breathing, clanking metal, and the chaos of footfalls traveled with them…down…down into the tunnel. Was it their own, or that of the demons behind them?
No one dared speak, only descend hurriedly, taking three or four steps at a time. A few men stumbled, caught by those behind them and carried along until they could find their feet again.
The air was growing cold; Luik felt a chill move up his spine. Or was it that the enemy neared? He cast a quick look behind him, catching Brax’s eyes and then further past into the black.
The stairs ended and the path leveled. The warband raced along and eventually came to a wooden door as tall as a man. The group packed up close to it, everyone studying the intricately weaving knot work carved into its surface. Bi-Bablar held up the light and produced a small key from within his robes. He inserted it into a slender keyhole and then turned it.
The key snapped.
Bi-Bablar’s eyes widened. He turned, trying to hide his surprise, and looked for Li-Saide.
“What is it?” the Chief asked, noting his brother’s worried stare. Bi-Bablar held up the broken piece of the key.
“What does that mean?” one of the warriors asked, panic in his eyes.
“It means we have to break it down,” Luik answered, pushing his way amongst the men. Brax followed.
Another heavy thump echoed from above them.
“Defend our retreat!” Luik ordered those with swords. “They’ll be through sooner than later, I wager.”
Bi-Bablar stepped aside, and Brax and Luik both rammed the door with their shoulders. While it may have been old, it was far from weak; the door didn’t move in the least. They doubled their efforts but to no avail.
“It’s too strong,” Brax said, massaging his shoulder.
Everyone heard a muffled shriek go up from above. Then a loud crash! of wood splintering into the tunnel.
Luik held his sword in both hands and addressed the door. He gazed at the rich wood carvings that danced in the firelight. Then he closed his eyes and began speaking in the Ancient Tongue, his mouth finding the words afresh and anew each time. His hands tingled, and an inner prompting rose within him. He felt the climax burn within and released it, opening his eyes as he drove the sword into the door.
The wood filled with white light, cracks splintering through the surface. Everyone shielded their faces. Then the door burst into fragments, showering them with smoldering bits of timber. The remaining torch flickered, but did not go out.
“Everyone inside,” Li-Saide prompted.
The warband needed no further instructions and raced in, Bi-Bablar holding the torch. The illuminated room was a grand, circular chamber with a domed ceiling barely visible in the firelight. A large, round rug was centered on the floor, while lavish chairs were spread throughout; some were even elongated, able to hold many people. Luik had never seen such furniture.
Low tables sat next to each chair surmounted with large iron candelabras. And beyond, massive paintings hung along the walls, thick wooden frames bordering each piece of art.
Luik’s eyes searched the walls, scanning for a door. But instead they fell upon a startling image. There, hanging on the far wall, was a painting of a great white lion, paw outstretched and claws extended. Its fierce yellow eyes looked down upon a helpless man lying on a white marble floor, a starlit sky above him.
Luik walked toward it, taking in the man’s stricken expression…
…his sandy blond hair…
…the way the armor was worn…
…and the emblazoned mantle, markings of Bensotha, and then of Casterness.
Luik’s heart stopped. This man was Dionia’s High King. It was himself.
Chills ran down his arms and legs. He noticed he wasn’t breathing and stumbled back, unable to take his eyes from the painting. How could this be? Countless questions entered his mind. This painting was surely generations old! He bumped into someone. Li-Saide caught his hand and turned him around.
“It is as you have seen it?” the dwarf asked calmly.
Luik stared into the Chief’s eyes and nodded. It was him. “What is this place? How could—?” But Li-Saide only shook his head knowingly.
“Those are not the questions you should be asking, Good King.”
“How about the question of how we’re getting out of here?” interrupted Brax.
Shrieks and clicking raced down the tunnel and spilled into the Reading Room.
“Everyone to the center of the carpet!” Li-Saide shouted. Luik had turned and looked back to the painting, oblivious to the commotion. “Take a last look,” Li-Saide said. “We may yet have time for talking later.” Luik nodded, the image burning into his mind’s eye, mirroring the same image from his dreams.
The group stood in a huddle now, swords drawn and facing toward the destroyed doorway.
“That’s it?” Brax inquired toward the Chief, voice strained. “We make a stand here? Like this? That’s the plan?” He was incredulous. “You’re the Chief of all dwarves with the wisdom of the ages—and this is your plan?”
Li-Saide cast him a lethal stare, and Brax withdrew. The Chief walked to the edge of the carpet and reached out to one of the candelabras. He chose an iron stem and then pulled it down. It was then Luik remembered the entrance to the Lion’s Lair.
Li-Saide walked back to join the others. “We’ll be going for a ride,” he said casually. The group turned from the door and balked. But the distraction was short-lived. A ruckus drew their attention back to the opening.
The first Dairneag appeared deep in the tunnel, the torchlight bringing out its demonic eyes and gaping mouth. It raced forward and screamed with a twist of its head, rows of razor-sharp teeth displayed.
“Brace yourselves!” Luik readied them for the impact, swords lowering.
But it never came.
The floor dropped away beneath them. An instant later they were sailing downward, plunging toward the carpeted floor that seemed to float just below. They left the Reading Room above in blackness, and Bi-Bablar floated with the torch in his hand, the flame whipping about.
A scream echoed above, and Luik looked up. To his utter astonishment one of the demons was falling down with them, presumably the one in the door moments before. Its arms were tucked to its sides, diving headlong after them.
Accustomed to free flight from the Lion’s Lair, Luik reached over and took a spear from one of his men, the sorry soul tumbling about in midair. Then he looked back and pointed the weapon straight up toward the flying Dairneag.
“We’re coming to the end!” Li-Saide shouted above the whoosh of the air. “Watch for the floor!”
As the mechanical protraction of the floor neared its end, Luik could feel the carpet touch under his feet and his weight return to his legs. Likewise, Luik braced the end of the spear against the floor and aimed the head at the ever-nearing Dairneag. Without the aid of the floor to slow it down, the demon closed in, aware now of the spear shaft. It had nowhere to go, eyes terrified.
The floor slowed further, and the spear point penetrated just under its chin into the neck and then up into the chest cavity. The Dairneag screamed, arms and legs flailing wildly like a beetle slipping down the shaft of a pin. When the floor came to a jarring halt, Luik rolled away as the monster fully impaled itself on the spear and crashed into the ground.
“Well, that was easy,” Brax chided him.
But any joy in their escape was short-lived. Despite their rapid descent, they heard the frustrated wails of the Dairne-Reih closing from above. Those that could climb raced down the walls and would be upon them within moments.
“This way!” The Chief indicated a narrow gap in the wall, a crack formed in the rock just big enough for a man to slip through. The injured slid through first and then the dwarves. More clicking traveled down the cave. Brax and Luik looked up.
“My Kings!” Bi-Bablar called to them. “Your turn! We must hurry!”
Bits of rock and dirt showered down over them, dislodged from the walls far above. Brax went through, but Luik turned and noticed Li-Saide standing back by the candelabra; the Chief nodded to Luik knowingly. The High King slipped through the opening and heard the twisting and grinding of gears. With the system in motion, Li-Saide raced across the carpet and into the crack.
Then all at once the air was sucked out of the tunnel as the floor shot upward. Their ears popped, and they gasped for breath. But a moment later they breathed more easily and heard the distant sounds of bodies breaking against the speeding platform as it returned to the Reading Room.
Brax grabbed Li-Saide and stared at him in the torchlight. “That was a good plan.”
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