– – –
Just when Luik and his men were sure their destruction was imminent, the charging mass of Dairne-Reih slowed and held short. The change of intent was baffling but didn’t keep a few of the archers from loosing a number of well-placed shafts into the advancing masses. Even with this taunt, the demon army remained in check and stood but five paces away.
Their jeering calls and noises also subsided. The last echoes faded out to the ends of the tunnel, and the entire length of the corridor was filled with an eerie stillness. The warband stood ready to defend, hands shaking with the expected clash of battle, now absent, most likely only delayed. Why did they tarry?
The closest creatures loomed twice as high as any man, leering down at the warband, pure hatred in their eyes. Luik could feel his arms burning, Anorra growing heavy in his grip. But he would not let her go. Not this time, not ever again. He turned slowly to eye the demons on the other side. They were surrounded, yet not overcome. What strange turn of events had merited this?
A murmur arose from somewhere far back toward the main cavern they had come through. A cloud of swirling black blotted out much of the light at the tunnel’s mouth, and an ominous figure crossed within it. The being stood three heads above the demons and made its way slowly down the tunnel. The Dairne-Reih parted and bowed to let the newcomer through.
“Morgui?” Gorn proposed.
“Aye, I believe it is he,” Li-Saide replied.
“Funny, I’ve been wanting to meet him for some time,” Kinfen laughed nervously. “Just to tell him what a thorn in our flesh he’s been.”
“Hush now,” Li-Saide motioned.
The fallen lythla seemed to float down the passageway accompanied by the swirling black fog. Not a sound was heard except the labored breathing of the host of demons and the beating of each man’s heart, the blood pounding in their ears.
The final rows of demons stepped aside, and there stood the fallen form of Morgui, once Prince of Athera, now an eternally tormented being.
The warband stared up into the creature’s expressionless face. Two holes for eyes, a toothy, gaping mouth, and black flesh that more resembled roughly polished stone than anything human. His body was black as well, rippling muscles displayed in some show of prestige. Yet Luik and the others noted how distorted his form seemed, uneven and lopsided in parts. Massive leathery wings were folded behind him, poking beyond his shoulders. But they, too, were a shadow of their former selves, now torn and tattered.
The Demon King, the Dragon of Haides, took a step beyond his cohorts and looked down into the center of their cluster, eyeing Luik and Anorra—that is, if he had eyes.
No one stirred.
They simply waited for whatever would happen next.
A long, strained, and uneasy silence passed. Then, startling them all, Morgui threw back his head in laughter. The sound was thick and loud, like massive boulders dragged slowly over one another.
Luik’s flesh prickled. He hated standing here doing nothing. But he had nothing left in him. Empty. Tired of battle and weary of games, he just wanted to die. He wanted to see Athera’s Great Throne Room and leave all of this forever. He knew Anorra would join him, and together they would dance in the Great Hall of the King. Brax would be there. As would Thad, Thero, and Najrion. Dear Gyinan would welcome them, as would Lair, the beloved man who had raised him, and Anorra’s father, too.
Luik could not take any more and resigned himself to the fate that awaited him. He would not be robbed of one more moment of his eternity by this thieving, lying excuse for a leader. Luik spat on the ground. Morgui had already taken everything else. What more was his life? Luik realized it was indeed nothing. His life was nothing. And Morgui could have it. All the sooner he would be in the presence of the Great King.
“Let it be done” he said to Gorn. “I’m sick—”
“So this is who has come to rescue the Princess?” Morgui’s tone was incredulous, each word low and twisted, filled with spite. He turned his head back and forth, studying each of them carefully. “This is the mighty Luik, High King of Dionia?”
He let the last word hang in the air before another laugh issued up from within. Suddenly he raised his head and looked up. Screaming at the ceiling he said, “This is all you have to pit against me? You send me this?”
Then his laughter grew to its height, shaking the air around them. Luik saw Anorra shrink back, face contorted in agony. He would have covered his own ears but for holding her. Morgui howled and bellowed, shaking a hand toward Athera in defiance. Then he returned his gaze to the trembling throng.
Luik waited, ready for their fate to be delivered without quarter. He looked to his men, each standing with their weapons poised. He had never been so proud of any warband in all his life. Here they were, standing before the face of greatest evil, ready to lash out and go to their deaths with kingly valor.
Morgui made as if to open his mouth to speak…
…but nothing came.
Luik remained calm, looking intently to the Traitor of Athera. But still the wretch said nothing. For his attention had shifted slightly…
…to something beyond them. Farther down the tunnel.
Luik made to turn, but to his surprise, demons were backing up into him, completely unaware of his presence. He stood then, lifting Anorra with him. More demons bumped against him, backing up toward Morgui, their heinous gaze fixed on something far away.
What was happening? Luik tried to seek out Gorn in the mess. Jrio was also being jostled, and Li-Saide was trying to avoid being stepped on. A breath later the entire rear guard of Dairne-Reih was making for cover, now shrieking and utterly terrified, as if startled by…
Luik and the others did all they could not to be carried away or crushed by the retreating throng as the last demons fled down the tunnel and left the warband alone. A brilliant shaft of beautiful light met their faces and blinded all but one of them; Anorra lifted her head then and stared down the tunnel, seeing easily into a light far stronger than the sun.
“He is here,” she said.
Could it be?
Anorra spoke again, “And He is beautiful.”
In that single moment, awe and wonder completely overtook them. Intense feelings, indescribable then or ever after, rose in their hearts and moved them to their knees. The action was natural, uncontrived, and easy to do. Luik felt tears well up in his eyes. He was exhausted and facing death itself. He had been fighting for so long, not knowing peace since the rule of his father. And he had seen no hope.
The Mighty King had come! He was here at last to save them all. And it was too much for his heart to endure. He held Anorra limply in his arms and wept openly.
It was over.
All the sleepless nights, all the crying out to the Most High. All the unreturned cries for help and the lonely battles fought without His presence.
None of it mattered now. In one instantaneous, unexpected, glorious moment, the King had returned.
Luik could hear the sobs of his men beside him, their bodies racked with pain and exhaustion as was his, their hearts overwhelmed by the silent presence of their King.
Luik squinted against the light and looked down at Anorra. A tiny hand reached out and touched her on the forehead. Li-Saide said, “Everything will be all right now, Princess. You have nothing to fear.” Luik heard the dwarf sniffing back tears as he spoke.
“Aye,” Luik joined, “there is nothing to fear now.”
The warband knelt there together in the tunnel, hidden in the very bowels of Haides, but now not alone. Abandoned no more. Luik was aware of the Great God’s presence as never before. As it had always been in the times before Adriel’s demise, but even nearer.
He attempted to open his eyes, wincing against the overwhelming light. And there, directly in front of him stood a magnificent white Lion, head touching the tunnel’s ceiling.
It was the Lion from his dreams.
His yellow eyes burned as if on fire, and His lush coat gleamed with the light of the stars. He was not intent on His enemies, staring down at Morgui or the host of Haides. Instead His eyes were affixed on Luik and the others, kneeling in His majestic presence.
Anorra was the first to speak. “You came,” she said weakly, barely holding to her life.
The reply, as if making His presence felt all the more, was the most thunderous roar ever given up in any realm of Creation. His massive mouth gaped open, teeth sharp as razors. The air rippled in front of Him, unable to withstand His power.
Luik’s chest trembled, and every muscle in his body threatened to give out. Yet somewhere deep within, the sound gave rise to a newfound strength. It was the roar of hope. The roar of destiny.
It was the roar of victory.
And though Luik could not see it, every demon knelt, some collapsing and toppling over, all others willfully resigning themselves to the superiority before them. Even Morgui himself, the defiant blasphemer of Athera, was forced to bow his head and kneel.
The roar continued, as if threatening to crush each man’s chest beyond endurance. Every breath that Luik managed in the wake of the roar brought renewal to his spirit. He remembered his dream then, and wondered as to its meaning. He stood atop no gleaming white pearl here. No open sky full of stars. Quite the contrary. And he held his love in His arms; would the Mighty White Lion slay her, too?
Truth be told, his whole life had been lived in fear of this moment, yet he did not feel afraid. If visions were true, then he would breathe his last in but a moment, the Lion’s paw gouging deep across his breast and slashing through his heart. But to prove what point? That his life belonged to the King? Had that not already been displayed in every battle where he risked life and limb? Luik did not understand.
All at once the powerful roared ceased.
No one, not man nor demon, dared to move.
When His Voice spoke, it was warm and strong, beautiful in every way yet commanding the highest respect. Luik and the others had heard it before…
…but never like this.
“My Name is The Lion of Judah, the Redeemer of all Creation.” His words shook the walls of the tunnel, and every heart quaked in kind. “This day you shall know that I Am.
“My enemies have long tormented My people and I have heard their suffering. I have come to be their Deliverer and never again shall they be without Hope. For all who call upon My name will be saved. And I will make My enemies a footstool underneath Me, and their plans will be brought to nothing. So it has been said; so it is done.”
His words reverberated down the tunnel and into the caverns beyond, through every prison cell and past every grate. The lakes of fire were stilled, and every ear heard clearly what had been declared.
The White Lion cast his intense gaze upon the quivering form of Morgui.
“Fallen One, I have come for what is mine. You know of what I speak.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Morgui replied, not daring to look up.
“Bring them to me in three days’ time. On the dawn of the third day we will meet on the plains of Jerovah, and you will hand over what is mine. There you will do battle against the Children of Light, and they will exact the recompense they deserve from you for your atrocities, and take back what is rightly theirs.”
“As it is declared, so it will be done,” the demon replied, a pained expression on his face.
“Today, I will take all those who belong to me. And to all those dead who wish to live once again, today I give you Life.”
At His Word, the ground beneath them shook. So violently, in fact, that all fell to their faces. Metal strained against rock, and bars burst from their hinges in the distance. Voices yelled and began calling out to one another.
Luik held Anorra tightly as the ground jostled them back and forth. He stole a glance upward and noticed that the Lion was looking into the distance. He was watching.
Watching for who would come.
The quake subsided, and peace fell over the scene again. Luik got up on all fours.
“Sons and Daughters of the Most High,” the Lion finally spoke, “gather yourselves.”
Luik looked down to Anorra and then cast Fane a sideways glance; Fane merely raised his eyebrows in wonder. They stood slowly, their bodies sore and battle weary.
Demon movement caused them to turn around. The entire enemy host parted, Morgui included, and there walked a line of men and women, streaming in from the network of caverns beyond.
“Look,” Anorra said, staring back behind the Lion. Luik turned. More people were streaming in from the far end.
“He’s setting the captives free,” Luik uttered in amazement.
“They are free to go if they want to,” Li-Saide said. The Lion looked down to confirm the dwarf’s statement.
“If they so wish,” the Lion added.
“But who would not wish to?” Li-Saide said, voice cracking.
Suddenly the Lion’s face saddened. “There are some. And there will be many more.”
Li-Saide saw the White Lion’s eyes, staring off into the future. Many summers into the future, he could see. The Lion whispered as if to Himself, tone full of a strange sadness, “There will be many who do not want my Life.”
“Then why offer it at all?” Morgui dared to speak up from down the tunnel.
The Lion rose up then, eyes snapping back to the present, and glared hard at the fallen lythla. “Because it is Mine to give and not yours to take, wicked spirit! It never was! For I gave it freely! Are you so foolish that you could not see My power? And have you so quickly forgotten the power of my Father? Death cannot hold Me!”
With that He issued another roar to conclude the argument.
“You have defied me for the last time, traitor. And I have come to answer your pitiful question. Are these all I have to send against you, you ask? I do not send My Creation to do King’s work. So I have come Myself. And the host of Athera is at My command. You will mock Me no more. Three days, Morgui. Then My work here is finished, and you will be one day closer to your imprisonment.”
Luik and the others looked on in amazement. Not in their wildest dreams could they have foreseen such an encounter.
“Come,” the Lion said then. “It is time for us to go.”
“Go? Go where?” Luik asked.
“You have an inheritance waiting, and a people who need your guidance, Luik,” He replied. “You should not leave them waiting any longer than they need to.”
As Luik gazed up into the mysterious eyes of his Lord, the light around him grew more intense, steadily increasing until he had to look away. Even through his eyelids the light grew. It was inescapable. He was wrapped in pure light, swept up into the presence of the One his heart longed to see, and he left Haides far behind.
– – –