– – –
IN THE MOUTH OF THE ENEMY
The first thing Luik noticed was the heat, stifling and oppressive. Each breath of the caustic air proved a task just to draw in. And once within it caused the lungs to burn. If anything indeed lived in this place, he wondered how it survived more than a single night.
But worse was the smell. He had almost grown used to the stink of burning flesh and rot, yet nothing had prepared him for this. As the warband closed in behind him, tucked around a large cluster of boulders, he heard many a man issue the contents of his stomach up onto the scorched cavern floor.
Soft red light flickered on the rock walls around them, Luik acutely aware of voices up ahead. Voices of the tormented. It was then his heart went out to Anorra. Is this where she had been taken? How could anyone survive?
“So what’s your plan, Dibor?” Fyfler edged closer to Luik, wiping his mouth of bile.
“Not to stay here,” Luik smiled. He looked to Li-Saide and then to Gorn. “I guess I’ll take the first look.”
He held his sword up and edged around the closest boulder until he neared the wall of light coming from the large chamber up ahead. Then, ducking low, he peered around the corner.
A horrific scene of tortured souls played out in front of him. Their labored cries and flailing limbs met with the lash of whips and spears, answered moments later by a floor of molten lava. The heat was so intense against his face that he withdrew back into the shadows. His eyes simply couldn’t believe the atrocity they had just witnessed.
A hand met his shoulder. “It is great evil,” Li-Saide said softly. “It’s supposed to concern you.”
“Concern is too formal a word, Chief.” Luik gathered his thoughts and then gave the chamber another long stare, watching the entire drama unfold another time before returning to address the men, eager to know what foe lay beyond.
“Archers,” he pointed at six men. “There are two Dairneags, one on each side on raised ledges that overlook a pit. Unless there are other hidden eyes, which I’m sure there are, these two guards are our only threat.”
“That’s all?” Jrio asked.
“O, watch out for the lava,” Luik added. “I suppose that’d be unpleasant. I see another larger chamber beyond. We’ll take the demons one at a time.” His men nodded in reply.
The six men with bows stepped forward and paired off, the first set taking a knee, the second set hunched over, and the third erect, all with bows extended and arrows nocked and drawn. They remained in the shadow and waited for Luik’s command.
He listened for the wailing to be drowned out by the rising lava. The guards would be fixated on the swirling pool, and Luik’s men would have the least distraction. When the silence came, he lowered his hand, and the archers swiveled out into the room.
Each man picked his target, arrows impaling demon flesh at the neck. The nearest demon was carried clear off the ledge and sent sprawling into the molten pool below. The other fell backward against the wall and struggled to stay upright. It was clearly shocked beyond belief and looked around in wild confusion. Just when it noticed the six men standing in the cave entrance, a fourth shaft pierced in between its eyes and pinned its head to the cavern wall.
“Quickly!” Luik ordered and took off running along the perimeter of the room. The men followed him in short order as they skirted the pool on the narrow ledge above. The warband ran in single file, taking great care not to fall to certain death.
They passed by numerous iron-barred cells, each containing prisoners of uncommon quality: men and women whose faces were deranged with terror, some with limbs missing, most trembling in the corner.
One cell remained empty, the gate ajar.
“Anorra has been here,” Fane nodded to Luik.
“What?” He stopped and retreated to Fane’s side. He peered into the shadows, his stomach tight with anger. How much had she endured?
“She has been taken elsewhere,” Ragnar surmised.
“Or escaped,” countered Li-Saide.
Those gathered eyed the dwarf, only hoping it was true.
The lava began to recede back through the grates in the floor, and the men noticed hands emerge out of the flow.
“Don’t stop!” Gorn hollered. “Keep moving! Keep moving!”
The liquid fire emptied further, and soon the cavern floor was a mass of writhing hands and arms, made all the more furious once the men were noticed.
The hall erupted into a frenzied din, the captives’ shrieks ringing in the air.
“Keep moving!” Gorn yelled again, but his voice was drowned out.
One man stopped, terrified by what he witnessed, and was bumped carelessly by a warrior behind. The first man lost his balance; his foot slipped off the ledge. The warrior in back reached for his arm, but sweat made it too slippery, and the man tumbled over. His body landed with a thud on a grate below. Though he tried to stand, he was immediately arrested by a throng of grasping hands…hands that pulled him down through the bars in bloodied pieces.
“Great God of Athera,” Luik muttered in horror as the screaming in the cavern intensified. He looked back at his men, who had all stopped, and then began waving his arms frantically to draw their attention back. The warband regarded him with pale disbelief, but eventually heeded his desperate calls to move onward.
Surely the entire underworld had been alerted to their presence now. Luik knew they had precious little time to do what they had come to do.
The ledge curved along the hall before bending sharply into the next cavern, this one significantly larger. But their arrival was no surprise.
Four Dairneags stood on their ledges eyeing them curiously, having been warned by the commotion. But surely they had not expected to see a warband of men! And they were far from suited for the battle, as their whips and spears were no match for the far-reaching arrow shafts that found their marks in the demon flesh.
The corpses tumbled down, this time into the hands of the captives, eagerly devoured in a short-lived fit of vengeance.
Luik did not pause to watch but made his way onward, running through the room and toward what looked to be the opening of a tunnel. Soon the screams of the tormented were joined by other familiar sounds: the clicks and shrieks of the Dairne-Reih.
The ledge neared its end and soon spit the warband out into a long tunnel filled with jagged teeth of minerals and rock. And just beyond they could see movement and the faces of demons.
This is it, Luik thought. My last battle. Everything he had learned, all the lessons he had earned through failure, came down to this defining moment. How would he live this poignant flash of life? His body cried out for rest. He was bruised and broken. He was tired of spilling blood. Of war. He loathed the day that he had first drawn his sword and cursed those who had felled his brothers. He wanted no more. And he would meet his end here and now.
With battle-hardened determination and nothing left to live for, Luik tilted his head forward and began the charge.
The two forces drove at one another, racing past stalactites and bounding over rocks as if two opposing dams had broken, emptying into the same tunnel. Nothing could stop them. Legs pumped, weapons raised by one league, spikes and bared teeth by the other.
Luik held tight to his Vinfae and a spear, running up the side of the wall as the enemy neared. His brief moment aloft gave him a full view of his prey in the dim tunnel light: about three tens and four demons ran toward them, far fewer than he expected.
He pressed off from the wall and sailed overhead of the first line, driving and withdrawing his sword from the neck of a tall demon in one swift motion, and jabbing another in the skull with his full weight behind his spear. The spearhead popped through its target, and Luik landed nimbly on his feet, adrenaline now driving every trained motion like a precision dance of death.
He whispered the Tongues of the Dibor and swirled around, severing three Dairneags at the waist with his blade before leaping again to the curved wall of the tunnel, picking his way farther back into the fray. The shrieks of the dying monsters joined with those of the captives, a deafening sound that none of them would soon forget.
Luik continued to speak in the Ancient Tongue, his weapons charged with the endowment of power. He swung left and right as if clearing a wheat field with a scythe, hacking his enemies to their knees.
And then, all at once, she was there, slung like a bag over a demon’s shoulder, a man slung over the opposite shoulder. A soiled mat of hair swayed in the air, and her arms were limp and bloodied. But it was Anorra.
Luik’s throat squeezed shut, and rage overtook him, the kind only warriors feel in the most unjust of battles. Three more Dairneags stood between him and her captor.
He summoned a surge of power that shook his arms and then heaved the spear out of his grip with wild force. The oak rod quivered as it flew, stirring the air overhead. In the same moment that the spearhead impaled the face of Anorra’s subjugator, Luik tucked his sword against his side and leaned forward with all his strength. He barreled into the first demon and screamed in the Ancient Tongue, his words summoning the might of Athera itself. He passed right through the beast in an explosion of carnage that showered the walls. The next two foul monsters met the same end, and all at once Luik stood before his love, her body crumpled in a heap over the shoulder of the slain demon that carried her.
She was completely still.
He did not cry out her name, nor did he look to his right or left. What demons weren’t cut down by his following warband were too frightened of his manifestation of power to take another step toward him.
He dragged his sword in the rocky dirt, growing delirious with rage. Suddenly all was silent in his ears save for the pounding of his heart. He was infuriated, caught up in a frenzied state of hate and loss, now sure that his love had met her end here in this vile abode. He screamed out, but could not hear his own voice. Luik swung his sword around his head and then hacked the demon corpse as his body succumbed to utter exhaustion.
The handle slipped from his fingers as he knelt by the body of his beloved, his soon-coming bride. But she did not respond to his touch.
At least not that he could feel.
• • •
From far away she could hear screaming. But these were not the screams of the captives she had become so quickly accustomed to. Nor were these the eerie shrieks and clicks offered up the inhabitants of this realm.
Nay, this was something altogether different. And yet strangely familiar. There was defiance there, a cry that came from a thread of life she could follow…follow up out of her despair.
But it was so dark here. And alluring. Her body no longer hurt; she could feel it slipping away from her. She wanted to stay and rest a while. Just a while, and then she could go on.
But to what?
The memories swirled about in her mind like shadow paintings dressed with dim colors, each canvas whipping around in a fuzzy haze.
The darkness grew stronger then, willing her away from the sounds and the colors. Calling her to rest. To lay down her woes and give in.
But the screaming grew louder and louder. Somewhere, she was quite sure, a man was screaming. A man she may have known once. But that would have been so long ago.
Anorra shook when she heard it.
Fight, my beloved.
She could see the words drawn out across the blackness, a silvery ribbon that led forward. When she heard fight for the third time she decided to grab hold. Her hand shakily reached out and caught hold of the ribbon’s tail.
It was all she could do to hold on, her hand aching with the effort. But holding on was all that was required. For He would do the rest.
The silvery ribbon became a cord and matured into a strong rope that accelerated forward through the darkness. Light and color raced passed her as if she were traveling down a tunnel of brilliant clouds. Wind stirred her hair and made her eyes burn. The rope threatened to slip out of her hands, but He was there to make sure it wouldn’t. For He was holding on with her, one hand on the rope, the other wrapped with a Strong Arm around her waist.
Anorra turned then and noticed His strong embrace. She raised her chin and looked up into His face, searching for His eyes. She knew this One. Her Beloved. She had seen Him so many times in her heart. But somehow right now, right here, He was the most real. It had cost her everything to find this moment. But she decided that it had been worth it.
Her God had saved her.
In the blink of an eye, the vision was gone; and reality, a dimmer reality, came racing back to her. She did not want Him to leave.
But she knew He would never be far.
And then the scream. This time just above her.
It came from someplace deep, a heartache that she could not fathom. From deep within the soul of a man, a scream that stirred her immensely. She knew this man.
“Luik?” she asked weakly. But the Warrior King could not hear, too distraught himself. Battle still ensued, and beyond that the chaos of the captives echoed loud in her ears.
She made to move her arm. It seemed as if it were on fire. But she did it anyway. Her Second Sight became alive just then, but only in her immediate vicinity. There, not a hand’s breadth away, was a man her heart longed for, a man who owned what parts of her heart the Great God had allowed her to give away.
But he looked so sad. So defeated. But I’m here! She beckoned. “Luik!”
Still he cried out with his head lifted upward, mouth agape.
She willed her hand forward and, for what felt like the first time in her life, her fingertips touched the skin of his forearm.
• • •
Luik’s face froze, and he slowly lowered his gaze, letting his eyes rest on the distorted face of the princess he had loved as a boy. His heart all but burst when he saw the blackened spaces that had once held her beautiful blue eyes, now no more. She looked as one dead, her body beaten and maimed. But a hand hung on his arm, suspended by its own strength. Her fingers were cold and shaking, but were there all the same, holding to life by a thread.
Suddenly filled with a flood of emotions, he grabbed her hand, and then reached for her fragile form. He slipped an arm carefully underneath her head and another beneath her knees and cradled her against his chest.
“My Anorra, I have come for you. Everything is going to be all right.” Tears choked his next words. “I’ve got you. I’m going to take you home.” But he suddenly realized they had no home. And they were in no situation to make it out of here alive. But they had to try.
To his amazement her hand moved up and touched his face, hugging the contour of his cheek with the gentlest touch. Undeterred by her marred visage, he looked to her torn lips and kissed them gently. Though he could barely hear himself in the ruckus, he leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “I have missed you so.”
And words came back.
“Why did you come for me?”
Surprised by the power that her voice gave him—weak and frail as it was—Luik found some of his old spirit, if even for a fleeting moment. “I rescued you once; I can rescue you again.”
He watched as what resembled a meager smile crossed her face. Out of the corner of his eyes he noticed blood staining his arms. He thought it was from the demons at first, but quickly noticed Anorra’s tattered and red-stained clothes and assumed the worst.
“Hold on,” he said, summoning up a bit of renewed strength, “I’m going to get you out of here.”
Luik rose to his feet with Anorra in his arms and turned. His men had made quick work of the enemy host, and Luik thanked them silently with his eyes.
Fane knelt beside the man who had been on the demon’s other shoulder. He wiped his face with the edge of his cloak and spoke gently over him in the Tongue of the Mosfar, urging life back into the man.
“Who is it?” Luik asked.
“I know not, but he is on the edge of death.” Fane continued to minister the healing words.
“He is Tadellis, son of Trinade,” Anorra offered.
“Son of Trinade?” Li-Saide turned to walk toward the man. “Third son of Ad.” The dwarf’s mind raced. “Can it be?”
“You know him?” Fane questioned.
“He was the first to be taken more than ten ages after the Great Battle ended. We lost him in the Great Forest, right out from under us,” Li-Saide remembered.
“He is a Lion Vrie,” Gorn added. “One of the first.”
“I think you’ll know his horse,” Cage smiled.
“His horse?” Luik puzzled.
The ground beneath them began to tremble. The screams of the captives suddenly died away, overwhelmed by the thunderous approach of footfalls. Then heart-sinking shrieks and clicks.
“More Dairne-Reih,” Li-Saide said flatly.
“And from both directions I’m afraid,” Gorn added, looking farther down the tunnel and then back from where they had come.
“And from the sounds of it, we won’t have the force to fight our way out of this one,” Li-Saide conceded.
Luik looked down the tunnel one way, and then the other, and back again. He could see the distant outlines of the familiar enemy racing toward them. He looked along the tunnel walls for an opening, a small fissure—anything. But there was nothing. And he was far too tired to fight; any romantic heroics he knew would be just games at this point.
Had they come so far and achieved so much only to be defeated here like this? But he had found his love, and alive at that, which was more than he could have hoped for.
“If we perish, we perish,” Luik shouted back to Li-Saide and Gorn so the others could hear. “But they will taste our cold steel and the Spirit of the Great God long before our lives have been snuffed out. We lived together, so shall we die!”
“So shall we die!” the warband replied as one, swords and spears aloft.
“In the center, both of you.” Gorn drew Luik into their midst. “Circle!”
“C’symia,” Luik said, unsure Gorn could hear him given the noise. The demon host would be upon them in moments. The warband circled around Luik and Anorra, and someone slipped Luik’s Vinfae into his hand. It did him little good, but he would die defending what he had come for. Standing here. In Haides. Never thinking it would be he and Anorra in the middle of the war circle, the formation they had learned on Kirstell so many moons ago.
“I think they’re upset we broke into their house,” Jrio said to the side.
“Oh, aye, brother,” Fyfler replied. “Mightily upset indeed. ‘Tis an outright shame so many of them are going to have to die.”
“Hush now, boralee,” Gorn said. “Our end is upon us. Let us go down as the legends you’ve become.”
And without another word, every man raised his weapon and called upon the name of the Most High with a final breath.
– – –
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