Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 27

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Chapter Twenty-Seven

HAIDES CALLING

“We are leaving now,” Luik stated firmly. Fatigue and sorrow seeped from his eyes, his losses now far outnumbering his gains. The others gathered around the council table shared his woe. But never the same gravity. And they knew that standing up to him was pointless, yet they had to try. A good friend would.

“My King,” Gorn spoke up, “I think I speak for all of us when I say you’re in no shape for another battle.”

“Blast it, Gorn!” Luik slammed his fist into the board. Luik cast him a hard stare and then withdrew it, regaining his composure. Did they not see? Could they not understand? “What more do I have to lose?” He looked in the faces around him, searching. No one responded. “The fact that I still cling to my own life humiliates me. I have offered it to the Most High countless times, and yet He has not taken it.” He grew cold, recalling his bitter dream. “Instead he bids my brothers to die and my love to torment.”

“Luik, that is unwise talk,” Li-Saide said.

“Is it?” Luik’s temper rose again. “Is it truly, dwarf?”

“Son,” Ragnar raised a calming hand.

“I can’t take this!” Luik stood to his feet and cast his chair back.

“We cannot ask the men to go on another errand,” Jrio spoke up, ready for Luik’s retribution.

“I’m not asking them to go!”

“But you cannot go by yourself, brother,” Fyfler added. They had been over this already.

“Then the onus is upon you and not me. Why is this so difficult?”

“Because, Luik,” Li-Saide said, louder than he had ever spoken before, “we have already lost many kin today and cannot bear to lose you, too. To think you are alone in your grief is pride that I dare not have to point out. You know what I speak is true.”

Luik looked to Benigan. Uncomfortable, he turned away, sought to right his tumbled chair, and then brought it back to the table, sinking heavily into it. He blew out a mouthful of air and laid his head on the board.

“Forgive me,” he said to one and all, looking up.

“It is well received, King,” said Fane. “And understood among us all. But you are but one man, and spent at that.”

Luik’s desire to fight this through ebbed, and his thoughts went to his beautiful Anorra. He wanted nothing more than to see her again, to hold her and breathe in the smell of her hair. The thought brought tears to his eyes—even more so the thought that she would be suffering this very moment. He knew she was alive. He could feel it. Barely.

Luik looked up and stared his father hard in the face. “Would you sleep if you were me?” He turned to Gorn. “Would you waste any time?” He looked to Boran. “How would you eat a meal?” To Li-Saide. “Or drink a draft of mead?”

A long silence followed. Everyone contemplated his words and knew they would say nothing to the contrary if in his position.

It was Benigan who first stood to his feet.

“If it is Anorra you wish to save, I have already lost my life once today and fear not losing it again.” He laid his sword upon the board.

Luik lowered his head as tears welled. He looked up and mouthed the word c’symia.

Fyfler stood next, drawing his sword, laying it on the table without a word. Jrio unsheathed his blade, and Fane laid his staff flat. Gorn shook his head but stood nonetheless. Li-Saide followed, and before long all those at the table were on their feet. Although a great many men had been lost in Ot, only Brax’s seat at the table remained vacant. Tontha was without a king, and before the end of this day Luik feared the rest of the realms would be no different. He was not asking them to go with him, but he knew he couldn’t go alone.

Morgui had destroyed the Tree of Life, razed Grandath to the ground, and surely killed the Great King’s Son, just as he had boasted. Dionia’s way of life was forever changed, and they could not go back to what had been, or expect it to return to them. And Luik simply could not allow the last remaining passion of his life to go unsought. He had to find her—even if for one last look. Even if only to bury her.

“Well,” Jrio spoke up. “When do we leave?”

 

• • •

 

The battle for Ot had ended far worse than anyone cared to recount. So it was understood that the carnage witnessed and the suffering endured would not be spoken of…not for a very long time.  Suffice it to say that those who had battled in the garden beneath the Tree had been forced to retreat through the caves and press into the portals, returning to Mt. Dakka. A great many of the dwarves had been lost, however, choosing to stand against the molten lava to their own destruction. Those who had seen it would be forever haunted by the image of the noble race, unwilling to leave the treasures they had sworn to keep. But many of the ill-fated dwarves had been pulled from their posts by warriors not willing to see them perish. The men had dragged them away, the dwarves flailing their hands and feet all the while, demanding to be released, constrained to die for Ot.

The warriors had defended their retreat back into the pool to Mt. Dakka, throwing the dwarves into the waters and beating off the Dairne-Reih. When all were safely through, the demons had lingered, batting at the water but never entering. They eventually had grown bored and returned to the main cavern, joining their brethren in destroying the Secret City. When Luik and the others had finally managed to connect to the portal caves, the pools had been empty, and their escape had gone unnoticed.

The High King’s return to Mt. Dakka was met with both sorrow and rejoicing. It was the strangest mix of emotions any of the Dibor had ever experienced; they were overjoyed to know that so many had survived, but Brax’s death and the destruction of Ot was more than they could bear. Any embrace of welcome was quickly stalled by weeping.

The council meeting over, each man was off to solicit the help of those willing to join their lost cause. Luik checked in on Boran, still nursing his wounds and barely able to stand.

“You will be of more use here to lead the city’s defense when you are well, than to needlessly perish with us in the fires of Haides,” Luik said, dismissing Boran’s adamant plea to join them with a wave of his hand. The Son of Tontha would have argued more, but it took too much strength even to talk.

Luik wandered through the halls then and out into the garden, needing time to think. To clear his head. He had yet to change his clothes, gore-smeared and blackened with soot and sweat. He paused only to take a drink of water and steal a hunk of warm bread from the refectory. He ambled down the stone paths, his legs and back weary from fighting, chain maille slinking over his shoulders.

The flowers tried their best to smile at him, but he was sore with the memories they stirred up. Just there he and Anorra had lain, gazing at the starlight and talking of the future. And beside that fountain they had sat, their fingers entwined, the murmuring of the water soothing their fears.

He passed through a wrought-iron gate and into another larger garden, dancing with the scents and smells of summer. The deep longing in his heart was overwhelming. The silver-green leaves fluttered in the light breeze, and tall grasses swayed back and forth in lazy rhythm. He remembered this space all too well: snowball throwing in the winter, meetings with the Dibor late into the warm evenings of summer.

The sun beat down on his head and forced him to find shelter beneath an elm, the cool shadows revealing just how tired he was. He sat down then, his back against the tree, and closed his eyes. The leaves rustled each time the wind picked up, air kissing his skin, hot and bruised from war.

“Is this all?” he whispered. “Is this all, Most High?”

A single tear seeped from between his eyelids, starting down his cheek. “You made me for this? To be born? To live? To suffer and then have everything in my world taken away?” He inhaled deeply, a tremor in his chest. No answer. “So this is it.” The breeze picked up. He paused and took a defeated breath. “Then I accept it. Just give me the strength to do what I must. To see this to the end.”

He waited then, thinking he might hear the voice of the Great God reply. Thinking He might speak. But nothing came. Only silence. Silence that mixed with the leaves, the babbling fountains, and the singing birds…silence that wooed him to sleep.

 

• • •

 

“My King,” a familiar voice called from far away. “The men are ready. We leave at your command.”

Luik looked up. His slumber hung heavy on his eyes, and his head was thick. Jrio was standing over him, a hand on his sword, the other behind his back.

“The men,” Luik repeated, remembering. He ran a hand over his face, blinking. “Then we shall leave at once.” He made to get up, and Jrio helped him to his feet.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Luik asked him, holding fast to Jrio’s forearm.

Jrio smiled. “As sure as I am living and certain I won’t see another sunrise.” Then he chuckled. “You know, I’ve been asking myself, ‘What else is there to live for?’”

Luik thought the question oddly familiar. “And?”

“And I haven’t thought of anything. To live for this beautiful thing called life, or to die trying to hold onto it. Either way it’s meaningless.”

“Meaningless?” Luik eyed him narrowly.

“I mean, without Him. Without His love. And without people to love as He loves us.” Jrio looked up into the brightness of the afternoon sky and then back to Luik. “You know, Luik, my life used to be so simple. I mean, as boys. You remember?” Luik nodded. “Working our lands with our parents, dancing in the festivals, and playing rokla whenever we could steal away from sight of our mothers.”

“I have many such memories.”

“As do we all. But the thing I miss most—the thing whose absence haunts me in my sleep—is not the sorrow of those past times long gone. I thought it was. For a while, I did. But nay, it is meaningless in and of itself. My parents, bless them, were meaningless. My friendships, including yours, are meaningless. Then it hit me. Whom have I but the Great God? If He is not, then what is? Without His voice, without His presence: is there really anything more satisfying? More worthy to die for? If He betrays me, though I have my life, I have nothing.” Jrio took a deep breath, his eyes settling on the grass between his feet. “So you see. What does it matter that I lose my life this night? If I remain here to endure the absence of His voice, I will fight for its return. And if I am taken away, gored on the hands of my enemies, then I speed to the Great Throne Room and see His shining face for myself.” He looked back to Luik. “Either way, I live for no other. I live for Him. And if it’s love you long to rescue, may we demonstrate the power of His love which He is about to reveal.”

Luik was moved by his words. He admired this man…this friend. They had walked together from the beginning, from leaving the Gvindollion to this very moment. Faithful. And now his words spoke of something yet to come, of something eternal. And Luik knew each word he spoke to be true.

“Whatever love we have, whatever we feel, it can only be from Him,” Luik said. “The very fact that we, flawed and abandoned, should be able to partake of it in this, our weakest state, only speaks of His mercy. For though I cannot hear His voice I cannot deny love. And somehow, dear friend I see it in you. Now. I see Him.”

They embraced there in the garden as warriors do, but even more as friends.

 

• • •

 

The hike south was swift. No provisions were needed, as no one intended to stay long, nor ever to return home. They brought a few skins of fresh water and only what they could carry in weaponry: swords, shields, spears, bows and arrows, and polearms.

They ran most of the time, single file, moving along the craggy trail that dipped from one mountain peak to the next. No one spoke. The only sounds were those of heavy footfalls beating against the ground, adorned with the clink of metal and tap of hardened leather.

Two hundred men in all made the journey…two hundred who harbored no illusions about returning. It was a death errand that no one had ever done. But with everything already lost, even the defending of Mt. Dakka seemed a failing chore. So most who had the heart and energy reasoned it would be better to meet the enemy face to face than to die with their backs against a wall. And so they joined Luik and the others, devoid of fear.

By the time the sun dipped low toward the eastern horizon, the Sif Gate appeared on the peak of the next mountain. The warband picked up speed, raced down the narrow track and then wound back up the opposite side, pressing toward the monolithic stone structure that rose above them.

“It still stands,” Fane said as they neared.

“And looks intact,” replied Li-Saide, moving closer to the aged stones.

Fane knelt to examine the dirt on the north-facing side. “It’s been used recently.”

“A good sign,” said Gorn.

Li-Saide stretched out his hand and moved it slowly toward the structure. When his fingers touched the cold stones, he jerked his hand away. The men nearest just stared at him.

“What is it?” Luik asked, doubt suddenly filling his chest.

“Evil,” the dwarf said. He reached out to touch it again.

Fane moved to the opposite column and applied his hand. The stones were cut at right angles and bore strange markings as if etched by the hand of a tormented writer. Demons most likely, the warband thought.

Fane could feel the power, too—a dark, foreboding mood sweeping over his spirit. He closed his eyes and fought to stave the force off. But the cloud edged closer and closer. Try as he might, he could not keep the impending evil at bay.

“It’s too strong,” he called over to Li-Saide.

“Remain focused,” the dwarf replied, eyes also shut. “The power in you is far greater. Remember.”

The evil seemed to be surrounding Fane now, coming at him from all sides. He wanted to pull his hand away. He wanted to run.

Suddenly he felt a hand on his back. “Remember.”

It was Luik.

And then another hand. “Remember,” Gorn added.

All at once the burden was lightened. Not eliminated. But lessened. In his mind’s eye he could see the black clouds halt that loomed over him, their progress arrested by a contrary wind. Lightning flashed. Something was moving them back…something was scaring them.

“It’s working,” Fane lit up. “It’s working!”

“Aye, now stay fixed,” Li-Saide ordered.

Together they worked, their hands on the columns, willing the wicked to bow. Li-Saide squinted with the effort, and Fane’s brow glinted with perspiration. They pushed their spirits forward, interceding with all intent to win. To overcome. To reveal.

While no one else heard anything but the evening air washing through the mountains, Li-Saide and Fane heard the crashing of thunder and the howling of violent winds.

They watched as the death clouds gave way to a rock wall adorned with a single hole. Li-Saide knew it at once.

“The key hole,” the dwarf shouted. “Do you see it?”

“Aye!” said Fane. Then paused in frustration. “But where’s the key?”

“Reach for it, with me!”

Fane strained in his spirit and there before him appeared a black key, deathly ominous, intermittently illuminated by flashes of lightning. It was suspended in the air, held aloft by an unseen force. But as he willed it forward, the key did not disappoint.

“Keep going,” Li-Saide urged. “Guide it in to the lock!”

The clouds rumbled overhead, threatening to swallow Fane whole at any moment. But the key was so near, edging ever closer. He felt more hands on his back and then Li-Saide’s voice in his ear.

“Insert the key, and twist. You can do it.”

Fane was startled by the dwarf’s being so near. Perhaps that was only in his mind. It made sense. But they worked together, forcing the black key into the hole and then with a sudden jerk, twisting…

Fane fell back from the columns and gasped. The others caught him and he looked around. There beside him was Li-Saide.

“But I thought you—”

“Nay, you didn’t need me. In fact, I couldn’t help.  Only the pure Mosfar born of Ad, Keepers of the Sacred Words, can open these gates.”

“Then why—”

“Hush.” Li-Saide motioned toward the gate.

A white spark flickered in the center of the space between the stones. A chill prickled everyone’s spines. Then a loud pop: and a thin, transparent wall of brilliant blue appeared that stretched from column to column, from ground to spanning arch above.

“Well done,” Gorn said, hitting Fane on the back. Those nearby congratulated him in like kind.

“Why so eager to thank me for your deaths?” Fane inquired. The congratulating stopped.

“Come,” Luik stepped up. “Li-Saide, how does it work?”

“Honestly, I’ve never gone through. But I would imagine it is a portal into the second natural state, the supernatural as some would say. We simply walk through.”

“Like the Sea Caves?” Fyfler asked.

“Hopefully not as painful,” said Jrio.

Benigan pushed everyone aside, his imposing size making ample room before the gate. “Nothing’s going to be as painful as being run through by a Dairneag. So let’s get on with this.” He looked to Luik.

“After you,” said the High King.

Benigan drew his sword and lowered his head. “For Dionia,” he said softly.

“For Dionia,” they all replied.

The hulking man strode into the blue wall. The edges of his form caused ripples like those in a pond. A moment later the shimmering wall enveloped him and he was gone.

“Great God of Athera,” the men muttered.

“Next?” Luik piped up.

“Well, I’m not letting him win my kills!” Kinfen pushed past everyone. “Let me through.” And without another word the blue wall closed in around him.

The rest of the men formed up and drew their swords. Luik eyed them all and thanked them for their bravery, their steadfast resolve. Then he turned and led them through the Sif Gate.

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