Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 26

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Chapter Twenty-Six

INTO OBLIVION

Try as she might, Anorra’s pleas with the Most High went unanswered. Despite the urgency of His last instruction, she did not have the strength to rise, let alone come up with a way to serve Him in the requested task. Rescue him? How was such a venture possible, even with all her strength restored? Surely this was another of the enemy’s ploys to draw her into submission, to catch her in an act of defiance—an act surely punishable by death.

But was she not already on death’s door? If Morgui wished her gone, would he not have already sent his minions to dispatch her? Or even do the deed himself? The fact that he lingered so long disturbed her. Why wait?

Another searing jolt of pain seized her head. The ache was unbearable. Had she still had her eyes, she would have squeezed them shut. She pulled up her knees, but the movement pressed on her broken ribs and stole her breath away. Anorra gasped for air, and then choked on her own bile. She coughed violently, her poor form writhing on the stones. The pain in her head grew stronger, and her stomach retched though there was little enough to come up.

“Where are you, my God?” Just the effort to speak was exhausting. “Why do you not answer me?”

Then a voice spoke inside of her—less like His and more like her own.

But He has spoken to you.

Her body trembled from the recent outburst, but she managed to keep herself under control, preventing another wave of torment.

The question remains. Will you obey?

She shuddered. The stones were hot against her skin, yet somehow she felt so cold. So alone. Sweat soaked her skin, her torn clothing clinging to her body.

If it was Morgui that prompted this, was she not already dead anyway? Whether now or later, in an effort to defy him, it made no difference. But if this was her Maker—if this was indeed the voice of her Beloved—she must not keep Him waiting. And His Swift Sure Hand would supply for what His Voice had commanded.

“I am Yours,” she replied. “Always. And forever more.”

Lying there in her cell, nothing changed. She felt no warmth, no comforting shaft of light. No voice replied in recognition of her noble words. And for the briefest of moments she doubted if it was really He who had spoken at all—apparently failing to respond in kind. But she knew better. For even if it was the voice of the enemy that prompted her, she trusted His Hand to protect her in the midst of her ignorance. He was that good.

She strained to sit upright as the stones bit into her palms like thorns. Every muscle in her slight body ached, and it was all she could do to resist the urge to vomit once more. And then she focused on seeing.

Her Second Sight came more easily to her this time, the image of her cell snapping to life inside her mind. Her gaze wandered over the bars in front of her, searching for a gap. But she saw none. She turned around slowly and looked for some space in the rock wall behind her, a crevice in the floor. Anything. But the chamber was sealed up tight. She thought to look up, but that too was a thwarted idea as the ceiling was solid rock.

“Most High,” she said under her breath, “You know my heart. I am Yours. But I cannot go where You don’t provide a path. Help me. Please.”

Doubt filled her mind. Had He helped her at all since she had been taken into the bowels of death? Had He been there when she had stood before the Demon Lord himself? Had He been there when her vision had been stolen from her atop the wall?

“I believe,” she said. “I still believe.”

A subtle click shook in the lock casing on her cell door. She glanced toward it. The metal bars seemed to be slightly offset in their hanging. Could it be? Not wasting a moment, and not entirely sure she could trust her feelings, she scrambled forward, shoving the pain out of her mind. She stopped short in front of the gate and raised herself to one knee. Then, like a mouse investigating a crumb, she eased out her fingers and let them settle on the iron.

Then pushed.

The door swung open just a hand’s breadth. Anorra gasped and stole her hand back as if not believing it was true. But it was.

“O, Great God! You heard me!” Surprised by her own loudness, she shrank back and glanced sideways. She held her breath, waiting for something to happen. But nothing did. She was free.

She stood, pushed the gate open further, and then slipped out.

Glowing red light flickered against the rock ledges and cast shadows against the walls beside her. The stalagmites looked like teeth gaping for prey, and she edged around them cautiously. Just below she could clearly see the sea of liquid fire that continuously swallowed its victims, only to drain once more revealing the writhing mass of souls bound beneath the grates. And above them stood the guardians, spears and whips in hand, dispensing their wrath to restless sufferers.

She shrank behind a rock ledge just as a whip snapped, lashing out and producing a shriek from far below. She remembered her pain then and slid down the rock surface to her knees. Fear reached for her.

You will get caught. Turn back to your cell.

“No,” she pressed her hands to her temples. “I will not go back. If I perish, I perish. But I will not go back.”

She took a deep breath and found her feet again. She glanced down to the sights of the sea below and studied the demons who looked down from their ledges. None of them had noticed her presence. She turned back toward her cell. Nothing. Then she surveyed the path in front of her. A narrow escarpment climbed its way higher, hugging the rock wall of the cavern and moving into the next room. She waited for the chaos below her to escalate before making a move into the next chamber. Racing up along the path, she ducked behind pillars of rock, glancing quickly to make sure she hadn’t been seen, and then continued on up the track. Her body screamed for her to cease, to turn back. But she willed herself on. The sea below her had filled and receded twice before she summited the path and turned into the next cavern, this one much larger than the first.

Hanging directly in front of her, suspended over thin air, were the mutilated remains of a poor wretch, beaten to the pulp of his innards—yet still mumbling in a morbid stupor. She looked away, and this time her Second Sight obeyed, hiding in the cover of her arm. She moved farther along the path, now descending along the wide cavern wall. Once out of direct view of the living-corpse, she stepped inside a crack in the wall to catch her breath.

She could hear her pulse in her ears and sucked in deep breaths. Her muscles ached, and she knew she was losing blood from somewhere on her mangled body. The bruising internally was severe, and she was aware it wouldn’t be long before her energy was spent.

What will you do even if you reach this lost soul? came the voice in her head.

She hadn’t thought of that.

But her Maker would see her through, she reckoned. He had opened the gate, after all, had He not? Surely He of all people could see her through to whatever means He so desired.

Wouldn’t He?

Shrieking suddenly filled the cavern, and Anorra mumbled under her breath. She had been found out, surely. She waited there, hidden in shadow as the shrieking grew louder. Was she being pursued? She wanted to cover her ears against the terror, but she dared not make the slightest move for fear of being noticed. So she stood there utterly still.

When the screaming finally died down, Anorra edged closer to the opening and peered back down the path. She knew more guardian demons and tormented souls lay below; she had seen it in the vision. And if she remembered correctly, the long tunnel leading to the prison chamber lay at the end of this cavern.

She drew in a deep, caustic breath and then emerged back onto the path. The sulfur burned her nostrils, but she preferred it over the smell of burning flesh. She quickly moved down the sloping track and hugged the cavern wall as best she could. She stopped from time to time, hiding behind a rock outcrop and timing her movements with the rise and fall of the lava below. A few times she was sure she had been spotted, but then realized the demons had nothing else to do and were not accustomed to be on the lookout for princesses wandering through their lair.

Every step brought her closer to the far side of the cavern, and every movement sent pain shooting up her legs and rattled her ribs. If her eyes could have produced tears she would have been weeping. But she supposed not crying was one dignity she had been allowed to keep.

Eventually she moved out of the large cavern into the long, toothy tunnel. Happy to be beyond the lava pits, Anorra quickened her pace and moved more freely along the unoccupied corridor. The going was a bit more tedious, as this path snaked its way among the massive teeth that grew out of the floor. And it was clearly less traveled than the other.

More than once she tripped on a large stone, landing on her face and driving her hands into the ground. She winced in pain, but found that she was getting used to the constant agony that her body endured. That, or she was losing feeling.

One particular fall toward the end of the tunnel caused her immense pain, and blood flowed from a fresh gash under her chin. She hit hard on the rocky floor and felt a new wave of fatigue wrap around her body. It drew her into the darkness, and her Second Sight faded. She was so tired…

…so weary…

And then she was asleep. Blood pooled around her face as she lay on the jagged ground. She lay there alone and exposed, her broken body in the middle of the meandering path. She did not dream, nor did she get much rest, for not long after she was awakened by a piercing scream…

Anorra lifted her head off the ground, congealed blood clinging to her cheek. The deafening sound cut through the space like a sword, ringing throughout the caverns like a warning bell. It cut the air above her head and echoed out beyond into the prison chamber. And then, all at once, it ceased. And she was sure of why it had come. They had found her empty cell.

She pushed herself up and stumbled forward into a run. Her first few steps were too short and she fell into a large boulder, bouncing off to one side. She made a few more steps before hitting the left wall with her head and shoulder. A fresh cut opened on the side of her head. But she didn’t even notice. The Dairne-Reih were coming.

Moments later she moved out into the high-ceilinged room full of pigeon-hole cells. Heart beating quickly, she looked up, searching for the gateless cell she had been shown. After the fifth or sixth level, the wall was swallowed by darkness. She willed herself to remember the image of the cell. It had been very high up, so high that the ground below was swallowed in black. But lack of light was not an issue for Anorra. For with spiritual eyes, a soul can see in the dark.

“I’m coming, lost one,” she offered up.

The subtle sound traveled up the wall and rang through every cell. All at once there was a rustling from overhead. Something above her was moving. A great many things were moving.

She took a few steps toward the wall and then reached out, letting her fingers find their first hold on what would be a long climb. She stretched higher with her other hand and met a rock, and then her feet followed. In a few swift motions she passed beyond the second tier of cells, and then past the third and fourth. While her body resisted the expenditure of energy, she knew she had to keep moving. Her enemy was very near.

Anorra’s left foot slipped, and she let out a grunt. She heard her voice echo through the space, answered this time with more rustling. Movement. It seemed to be coming from within the cells.

She reached up with her right arm, her fingers searching for their next hold.

A hand grasped her around the wrist.

Anorra screamed.

Suddenly the entire hall burst into a cacophony of shrieking, arms straining out between the bars of the cells, grasping toward her. She screamed louder and tried to wrest her arm free. But the hand would not let go.

Another hand reached out and grabbed her left ankle from below. The jerk downward was sudden and tore her foot from the wall. Her right foot slipped away too, and she dangled five levels above the floor, held only by her left hand.

The hall was racked with another long, angry shriek from back through the tunnel. The Dairne-Reih were closing in. The outburst had a sobering effect on the prisoners, however, who darted back into the darkness of their cells in total silence. Anorra did not need another invitation to settle herself back on the wall and made quick work upward.

Moments later the lost souls braved the world outside their cells again and strained to reach her as she climbed. Hands brushed against her arms and tugged at her hair. But she managed to fend them away with a blow here and a sharp kick there. As demonic as it all seemed, she noticed that the hands reaching for her had strangely human qualities to them. Somehow, she felt, these beings were her kin.

Anorra kept moving higher and higher up the wall, making quick work of the heights and losing count of how many levels she had passed. The hands continued to search her out, but she retaliated as best she could and pressed on. Her arms and legs screamed for relief, so badly wanting just to stop and rest for but a moment. But she knew it would mean her death. She had come too far. She could not give herself any quarter—her enemy would do no differently.

When she reached the level she thought the gateless cell was at, she heard a familiar clicking sound fill the chamber floor far below her. They were here. The prisoners once more retreated into the safety of their rooms, and all was silent. She didn’t dare move.

Very slowly, Anorra peeked between the gap of her arm and hip, looking straight down to the ground. Five demons milled about, looking all around. Another three joined them, and then more spilled in from the tunnel. They began walking along the base of the wall, peering into the cells and jabbing prisoners with their long spears. The sorry souls bellowed and howled but did not produce what the Dairneags wanted.

Anorra glanced back up and searched for her prize. She allowed her mind’s eye to pull away from the wall where she clung and get a larger view of the upper cells.

There.

One more level up and three over to the left. She could make out a hole in the wall with no bars over it. That was her room.

Could the demons climb this wall?

Ever so slowly she reached for her next handhold and pulled herself up, supported by her feet. She passed over the next set of cells and then began the tedious lateral traverse to the open cell. She paused only once to spy on her pursuers, all of which seemed busy moving along the length of the wide-reaching wall, apparently not even considering that their prey would be high above them. What prey moved further into captivity?

A few moments later she arrived at the cell and paused, just beyond sight, to the right side. She took a deep breath, sure that the demons beneath could hear her shaking muscles racked with fatigue.

“Help, Most High,” she whispered, barely audible. “I need You.”

She reached a hand around the corner of the cell and, finding a hole for her fingers, brought her foot in as well. One more motion and she was standing on solid ground, now towering high above the chamber floor that crawled with a prowling host of bloodthirsty demons.

She stared into the darkness, and there her eyes made out the form she had seen in the vision…what seemed to be a man crouched at the far end, shaking, with an arm swung over his head. He wore a red tunic, torn and soiled, and the tattered remains of a purple cloak that hung lifelessly from his shoulders. His skin was scabbed and stained with grime, not a clean patch anywhere to be seen. And his hair was long and wild, as was his grizzled beard. When the man had enough courage to look up from his cowering stoop, he cast a fearful eye toward Anorra.

Unsure of how he’d respond, all Anorra could think to say was, “I am Anorra, daughter of King Thorn of Ligeon. I am here by the prompting of the Most High to rescue you.”

The man only stared at her with his one visible eye.

There seemed to be a commotion from among the demons below.

“I am here to rescue you,” she said again.

Tell him I am coming soon. If he wants freedom, it will be granted.

The words confused her greatly. Panic was squeezing in her chest. What could He possibly mean by that?

Do as I say.

“The Most High is coming,” she said, not quite convinced herself. “If you desire freedom, He will grant it to you.”

This time the man turned to face her and made to move forward. His fragile voice cracked in the air.

“Ife de veirsin ti leq shemaeh?”

Anorra froze. She was amazed he could speak.

“Leq shemaeh? Ife de veirsin ti leq shemaeh?”

She merely gazed at him, unsure what to say. Clearly he had something he was trying to tell her. But she couldn’t understand him. And his tone was growing more urgent. The Dairne-Reih would hear him.

The tongue he used was old, older than any she knew. Probably first Dionian, she suspected. Fane had taught her some words over the summers, as had Gyinan. She tried to work it out in her head.

Shemaeh—high mount. Her mind raced.

“Ti leq shemaeh?” He seemed to be begging her now.

Horse. Something about a horse. He was clearly mad.

“Ife de veirsin ti leq shemaeh unua meh frestehk?”

Have you seen my horse?

She could place it all. But he was getting more animated. She raised a finger to shush him and took a step forward.

Suddenly he lunged toward her and caught her by the wrists. Anorra made to step away, but the open air was all that was behind her. The man pleaded with her again, now louder.

“Ti leq shemaeh?”

“Hush, sir. You’ll get us both caught. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Ti leq shemaeh! Leq shamaeh!

“Nay, I haven’t seen your horse! Please,” she struggled against him. “Let me go!”

This wasn’t at all what she expected. This man didn’t want her help. He was crazy! What was the Great God thinking?

She leaned out and away from the man, though he was the only thing keeping her from falling back into space. She looked down and saw a Darineag stare up at her. Recognition dawned over its face, and it screamed out, drawing the attention of the others. The rest looked at her and immediately started up the wall with lightning speed.

“Sir! Please! The Dairne-Reih are coming for us both now! Please let me go!”

But his grip remained fixed. And his eyes were intent. She was aware of his stink, the foul stench of waste and bile and death.

“Tadellis,” he finally said, softening. “Ti ama pelleh Tadellis ap Trinade.”

Anorra was arrested. Her heart stopped.

The demons were halfway up the wall.

What did you say?” she cocked her head sideways in wonder.

“Ti ama pelleh Tadellis ap Trinade.”

“Your name is Tadellisson of Trinade.”

It was then she realized exactly who the Most High had sent her to rescue. And they regarded one another in silent awe as the first demon stretched out its hand for Anorra’s leg.

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