Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 25

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Chapter Twenty-Five

LEAVING ALL BEHIND

“Where are we?” Luik asked.

“Very close to the portals,” Li-Saide replied. “This way, but we must be swift. And quiet.”

The path they followed was much more a rocky trail weaving through a deep cavern than the hand-made tunnel leaving the Library. Water dripped from stalactites in the ceiling, pooling on the ground, each plop echoing softly in the warband’s ears. Their footfalls reverberated hollowly, and wind moaned up ahead like a melancholy lost soul. The walls closed in around them, jagged rocks reaching out in suspended motion. Then the path opened up moments later into a large thoroughfare. The team continued on, moving deeper and deeper into the cavern, skirting around boulders and massive chunks of rock that had departed from their roosts in the ceiling long ago.

They walked quickly, never uttering a word, until Li-Saide held up a hand. Luik could hear a commotion up ahead; the path forked and he could see a faint light reflecting off the ragged wall in the next turn to the right.

“What is it?” he whispered to Li-Saide.

“The Cave,” replied the dwarf.

“You mean—?”

“Aye,” Li-Saide nodded. “I said we were near the portals. But I need to see the garden…” his voice trailed off. “I need to see what’s been done.”

Luik swallowed, knowing how hard this could be. He turned to the warband. “Stay here. Ta na, Brax, Fane, Bi-Bablar, Spid—with us.”

The seven of them left the group and moved on up ahead. As they rounded the next turn, Luik and the others hid behind a rock outcropping. Luik peered into the main cave, and his eyes met a sight that stole his breath.

The focal point of the room, as always, was the Tree—or what was left of her. She listed completely to one side, leaning against the cavern’s wall and dismembered of her limbs, each one burned or ripped from the trunk. Her base had been completely severed, cut through by a massive saw that still lay upon the stump. The bark was a mutilated covering, one charred by ghastly gashes that exposed the flesh beneath. Demons crawled along her form, and Luik noted their utter satisfaction with their work. Her once magnificent shape was now a playground for the vile, the Dairne-Reih’s pride evident, their defiling complete.

In the garden beneath the Tree, Luik and the others were horrified to see not a man or dwarf among the living. Water and lava mixed together as smoke drifted upward, the smell of sulfur and burnt flesh filling the air.

“They’ve—they’ve cut her down!” Bi-Bablar said with tears in his eyes. Spid grabbed his friend as Bi-Bablar began moving from side to side with his eyes closed. “Nay, nay, nay!” he bellowed, and then repeated it over and over again as if trying to will the image out of his mind.

All at once the cave shook around them; dirt and rock fell from the ceiling. Luik braced himself but could not look away from the Tree. Soon the quake subsided and he turned to the Chief. But the dwarf was overwhelmed.

Li-Saide gripped the rock in front of him and pulled back from the scene, his knees weakening. “Luik, I—” he faltered. And then he looked up into the High King’s face. Steeling his resolve, he cleared his throat and regained his composure. “We must move on,” he said, looking back out over the scene and indicated the stone archway that led to the portals.

“It’s a long ways,” Luik stated, figuring they were on the far side of the cave. Things could not be worse. “I thought you said it was close?”

“Closer than we were before,” Li-Saide forced a shallow smile, trying to find some humor.

It was right then that Luik noticed a change in the dwarves’ demeanors; not only were they stricken with obvious grief, but something else had changed—something that foreshadowed their lives altering. Of their lives fading.

Li-Saide slumped back against the rock, holding his chest and gasping for air.

“What is it?” Luik pleaded. “Talk to me!” He knelt down in front of the Chief.

Fane looked to Spid and Bi-Bablar, also acting strangely, above and beyond any expected shows of sorrow.  “Something’s happening to them, Luik,” he said.

“It’s the Tree?” Luik offered, trying to get Li-Saide to look him in the eyes. The dwarf nodded solemnly, his brow furrowed in pain. The cave began rumbling again, this time more violently. They all reached out to brace themselves and shielded their heads from the failing debris. Then, as before, the shaking ceased.

“We’ll…be…we’ll be fine, my King,” said the Chief.

“Just wait here,” Luik offered.

“Nay!” Li-Saide held up a hand. “We must continue on. Morgui will destroy everything! We cannot remain. Lives are more important than scrolls or trees.”

“And the others?” Brax asked, noting the absence of the bulk of their fighting force.

“We must assume most of them made it out alive, pushed back by the lava flow,” Ragnar offered. “And that we will rejoin them in Mt. Dakka soon enough.”

Li-Saide reached for Luik’s hand; the King helped him stand. “Spid.” The little dwarf was still holding his head and weeping softly. “Spid, I need you to get to the other side,” Li-Saide ordered.

But Spid still didn’t respond. Luik stepped over to him and squatted, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Spid, listen to me. I need you now; your country needs you now.”

“She is lost,” he whimpered. “She’s gone.”

“I know,” Luik said. It was eerie how he heard the Tree’s end drawing nigh even as he spoke. “I know, and there is nothing you can do about her. But you can do something for us—for your people. They need you.” He paused. “I need you.”

The dwarf looked up, trails of water streaking down his cheeks. “You need me?” he repeated, surprised.

“Aye. I’ve seen how you move. I need to know what’s on the other side, in the cave to the portals. I need to know what enemies we face and how many. Only you can get over there. No one will ever see you. And even if they did, who could catch you?”

The dwarf grinned and wiped his face with the sleeve of his robe, smearing hot tears and mucus across his face.

“All right,” he finally said, pulling up his courage. “I’ll do it.”

“Right you are!” Brax said and slapped him on the back. The dwarf stumbled forward, and Luik caught him.

“Easy,” Luik mouthed to Brax, eyes wide. Brax smiled and apologized sheepishly.

“As fast as you can,” Li-Saide instructed. “No delays. Find out what lies in each of the corridors and who guards the pools. Then return here at once.”

“Very well,” replied Spid. He offered up a slight smile and then lowered his head.

The next instant he was gone.

The five of them leaned around the rock outcropping and watched as a faint wisp dashed along the raised ground and weaved between unsuspecting Dairneags. The men gasped as demons lumbered about, swinging tree limbs and wreaking havoc in the garden, sure Spid would be struck or worse. But the little dwarf never once faltered, able to move around the Dairne-Reih as if they were but statues oblivious to his presence.

And then he was gone, lost in the caves beyond.

“He made it,” Brax sighed and patted Luik on the shoulder. “He made it!”

“Aye, let’s see what he finds.”

They waited impatiently, counting the time that passed with unease.

“Well, it’s pretty much empty of demons,” came a voice behind them.

The group turned in surprise. Spid was standing right behind them.

“Hey’a—how did you—?” Brax was stunned, as were they all.

“Pretty much empty?” Li-Saide inquired.

“A few demons wander through the corridors, but they clearly don’t know what to make of the portals and appear very disinterested.”

“We have a chance then,” Fane put in.

“Li-Saide?” Luik asked for the Chief’s next suggestion.

“Crossing through the garden will be too dangerous. We’ll be exposed. There are many tunnels that the Tribes never developed. They should lead us to the portals.”

“Should?” asked Brax. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“But crossing the garden—it’s too risky,” Ragnar surmised. “We’ll be easy targets, and we don’t stand a chance against such numbers.”

“Aye,” agreed Luik, rubbing his temples. “And these tunnels?”

“Back where the men are waiting,” Li-Saide pointed. “The left fork takes us into the catacombs, an undeveloped network of natural tunnels we’ve used for burying the dead.”

“I thought you didn’t die?” asked Brax.

“We don’t,” he glared at him. “You do.”

“And all your animals,” Bi-Bablar added. “You think we leave them in Grandath?”

But Li-Saide raised a hand to his assistant. “It’s not the time. Come,” he addressed the group. “We must be moving. The cave won’t last much longer.”

 

• • •

 

A Dairneag busied itself with moving a heap of corpses, both demon and man, into a standing pool of liquid fire. It watched the bodies sizzle and pop, sending up thick black smoke that reeked of burnt flesh. Soon, however, its task was finished and boredom set in. Another creature bumped into it, carrying a load of bodies; the former lashed out viciously, shoving the monster aside, and the morbid load tumbled to the ground. A small skirmish ensued, but soon the first Dairneag left the other to collect its work and move on.

It looked around and studied the havoc encompassing the cave; the devastation was complete. Dairne-Reih scoured the walls, tearing at elegantly carved railings and porticos. They ripped doors from their hinges and threw furniture from the interior rooms, casting them down into fire pits. Anything they couldn’t extract, they burned. Columns of smoke emanated from doorways all along the cave’s interior like little chimneys that vented smoldering hearth fires.

Then the Dairneag detected a new scent on the wind…

…something still alive.

It turned its head to discern the source, and spied a small crack in the wall not two tens of paces from where it stood. Its eyes narrowed. Easing itself down from the small mound, it worked its way through the putrid liquid that now rose to its upper legs; the demon avoided the lava that glowed beneath boiling blood and water, swirling together in morbid beauty. Approaching the wall, it slowed and crept more stealthily. Hands wrapping around an outcropping, the beast glared into the darkness of the tunnel and inhaled. The long, cool breath brought the scent of warm flesh and sweat. It sniffed the rocks and touched the floor; the presence was but moments old.

The Dairneag spun around and clicked forcefully; five other demons in the immediate vicinity answered the call. It turned its glare back into the tunnel and moved forward to stalk its prey.

 

• • •

 

The warband weaved its way through the massive network of tunnels, Spid often running ahead to navigate the paths that Li-Saide had forgotten from lack of use. The speedy dwarf would return just as the warband came to a chamber that presented multiple routes. He’d indicate which route brought them closer to the portals and then vanish once again.

Not long after they set out, however, the quaking resumed. But this time it was much more forceful; many men were cast into the rock walls, others crashed to the ground.

“Watch yourself!” Ragnar shouted and shoved two men aside as a large rock dislodged itself from the ceiling. The warriors sprawled on their stomachs, and Ragnar narrowly missed being crushed.

A fissure burst open underneath them, and a blast of hot air sent rock shards bouncing off the walls. One dwarf screamed as the fragments stung his eyes.

Fane scooped him up, blood staining his cloak. “We’ve got to move!” he shouted.

The sound of rock grinding against rock was deafening, like thunder, boring into their heads.

Luik steadied himself, a hand on the wall. “Quickly, men!” He turned to Spid, the little dwarf sidestepping back and forth just to keep his balance. “Which way?”

“Through there,” he yelled, indicating a low passage up ahead.

Above the rumbling came another sound—one they could not forget. A series of shrieks bounced off the walls behind them.

“We’re being followed!” Fane hollered. “Biea Varos!”

“This is unbelievable,” said Brax. “Don’t they ever give up?”

Li-Saide helped a tribesman gain his legs and then plunged ahead. Luik caught up and aided two more injured men to their feet. The group bounced around and then started forward again. Spid stayed a few paces ahead, leading the warband through narrow turns and selecting the fastest routes. They ducked under massive boulders and squeezed between pointed outcroppings, Brax catching his shoulder for a moment and more than one dwarf hung up by their portly girth.

While passing through a large chamber, another fissure ripped open, and steam shot up from the ground. The floor heaved and tossed one man over, sliding down toward the opening.

Brax dove and grabbed the man’s hand. But the hot air scalded the warrior’s legs and he couldn’t hold on; he slipped over and was swallowed into the chasm below.

Brax lay there for a moment, struggling with the man’s passing so suddenly.

“Come, Brax!” He felt Ragnar’s hands around his ankles, hoisting him away from the fissure.

Another series of shrieks cut through the tunnel, and Luik stepped aside. “Keep going!” He shouted to Li-Saide and Spid, pushing men on past him. “I’ll meet you at the portals!” More dwarves and warriors passed, and then Brax and Ragnar.

“What are you doing?” Brax yelled.

“Defending our retreat! Quick now, draw swords!”

The three of them began covering the end of the line, racing forward but glancing over their shoulders every few steps. “Let me take the rear, Luik,” Brax said, letting his King pass by.

The walls continued to shake and rocks fell, slamming into their shoulders and denting their armor. More than one hit them in the head, bringing stars to their eyes and blood trickling through their hair.

Brax stepped over a newly-fallen rock and felt something dig into his back. He twisted away from the pain. But the pressure remained and then pulled him backward off his feet.

“Luik!” he screamed.

Luik and Ragnar spun around, shocked to see a Dairneag holding Brax up in the air by his armor. “Nay!” Luik yelled. He ran back, hands tight around his sword.

The monster glared at him, curious.

Brax struggled to get away, swinging his sword frantically behind him.

The demon eyed Brax…

…then looked back to Luik.

Naaay!” Luik shouted, running as fast as he could, mumbling the Tongues of the Dibor. It was then Luik could actually see the demon thinking

…and Luik realized he just wasn’t fast enough.

Eyes fixed back on Brax, the demon reached its free hand up to his chest and drove horned fingers into the plate armor, piecing metal and bone in a single plunge.

Brax’s eyes widened.

The demon looked for a reaction from the High King.

O God!” Luik screamed.

Brax tried to say something, mouthing empty words. He looked down from his lofty position and stared impassively at the hand dug into his body.

The cave rattled like a child’s toy. Luik tripped and fell to the floor. He glanced up.

Brax was smiling.

The rocks quaked violently, and then a huge boulder shook loose from the cave ceiling above.

Luik reached out as if to stop it—but its course was fixed.

Brax looked longingly into Luik’s eyes, and then he was no more. The boulder slammed down in a spray of rock and blood and sealed off the tunnel.

Luik could hardly see through the tears filling his eyes.

Brax had saved his life. Had nursed him back to health. Had been his closest friend in Mt. Dakka.

He was his sword brother.

Now he was gone. In the blink of an eye. There had been no time to say goodbye. No time to thank him. No time to tell him that he loved him.

Ragnar reached down and grabbed Luik’s shoulders, hoisting him to his feet.

“Let me be!” he sobbed.

“We must go, Son! Now!”

“I can’t believe it! I can’t leave him here!” The thought of Brax being buried in this tomb tore his heart.

Ragnar struggled to turn him.

“Son! We must leave!”

“Nay! I will not leave him here!” Blackness filled his heart. It was worse than fear.

It was dread.

“Luik! We must go! You have a people to lead!” Ragnar twisted him around, rocks crashing down everywhere.

But Luik resisted. Ragnar slapped him across the face.

Luik finally looked into his father’s eyes, stunned.

“You must carry on! There is more life to live! Let him go! There is nothing more you can do!” He paused. “But I can’t force you!”

Luik hesitated, and then relented, falling into his father’s arms. Ragnar turned him forward, and with one arm under his shoulder, helped him exit through the tunnel ahead.

They had taken no more than ten steps before a voice echoed through the tunnel. But not one they knew; it was louder and stronger than the men calling from up ahead. It was fuller and carried a dark emotion…on a dark wind…with a dark purpose.

Do you not know?

The voice hissed the words, sweet and slow. Luik and Ragnar paused. They looked ahead but saw no one. They turned to one another.

Do you not know that I have won?

It was Morgui.

“Don’t listen to him,” Ragnar said.

As if hearing the suggestion, the voice laughed slow and long, echoing throughout all of Ot.

Don’t you know victory is mine? Why do you even flee? Don’t you know?

This time Luik stepped forward and freed himself of his father’s assistance. “Let’s go.”

Don’t you know that I’ve killed him?

The two men stopped. Icy chills pricked across Luik’s flesh.

“Don’t listen to him, Son.”

“Nay,” Luik raised a hand. “I will hear him out.”

Don’t you know I’ve killed him? I’ve slain the King’s Son myself!

Ragnar meant to move them both forward, burying what he, too, had read long ago. “He couldn’t possibly—”

“Wait,” Luik thought.

He paused there amongst the imploding cavern, rocks bursting all about him. Time slowed, and the sound faded away.

He was with Li-Saide in the locked room of scrolls, poring over the pages. The story of Earth played out in his mind’s eye as he heard the ancient prophecies read aloud…

…the story of the King’s Son.

And of His death.

“He’s right,” Luik agreed. “The King’s Son is dead.”

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Read the blog? Like getting stuff for free? Consider a $0.99 donation to help me continue to create great content. Or if you want to read the book faster, try buying the print version.

  • Billy Jepma

    Man, this chapter just got me the first time I read it. I must say the writing was fantastic, really added to the impact it had on me. 🙂