Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 31

MERRY CHRISTMAS DIONIANS! Lord willing you are enjoying this day close to the ones you love. I pray your lives are richly blessed, and my family sends you warm Christmas Day greetings.

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Chapter Thirty-One

FACE TO FACE

Luik had begged Anorra for an hour alone. As much as it pained him to leave her for even the blink of an eye, he had questions that could only be answered by One. Although he had hardly sensed the presence of the Most High since—well, since longer than he could remember—he reasoned that perhaps the White Lion’s presence meant a new dawn for Dionia. Perhaps, he hoped, even returning to the way things used to be.

Anorra eventually conceded but maintained that Luik was not to go beyond the King’s Gate but remain within the palace. So he took his leave in the gardens.

Despite the chaos that seemed to entwine its fingers into the fiber of the land, summer had returned in full force. The streams welled up from inside the mountain and fed all the pools and fountains in the gardens, the vibrant sound of water massaging the air. Birds added the much-loved melody of summer, and the leaves rustled in rhythm as the breeze coaxed them to song.

Fragrant flowers blossomed under Luik’s gaze, and all around him the grass was lush and green. He walked steadily down the pathways of his forefathers, feeling the cool stones underneath his feet. The track inevitably led him into the King’s Garden and along the ancient portico. He found a comfortable place beneath an aged ash and closed his eyes, allowing the warmth of the afternoon to soak his skin before the breeze brushed the heat away.

Luik’s thoughts swirled about him. The events of the past few days seemed surreal. Everything had happened so quickly. Dionia had deteriorated faster than he could cope with, and then had halted in a single moment. Haides itself had swallowed him whole, only to spit him out. And now everything felt so close to an end.

But what bothered him the most was the sudden appearance of the Most High. While his heart was grateful for the presence of their Mighty King, a deep emotion plagued him, one he was at odds with. And truthfully, he was afraid of admitting it.

His memories filled with visions of Adriel, once gleaming high atop the peninsula, now a charred pile of rubble, razed to the ground in a single, nightmarish day. So many had perished. So many had given their lives in a battle that would be but the first of many. The Kings of the East had been swallowed by Morgui’s power. Lair and Thorn had perished together. Even Hadrian had succumbed to evil over time.

Narin would forever entomb the souls of the children he had wept over. The memory was one of his most bitter and brought the taste of death to his mouth even now. He would forever curse the well in Trennesol and scorn the Somahguard Islands for taking Najrion and Gyinan from him.

Kirstell—his beloved Kirstell—had become a place of mourning. Once filled with the joy of his youth, the island was torn asunder and marred by the hand of the evil one.

And Grandath. What could be said? The ancient halls were now barren, their contents but dust. Thad and Thero had found their resting place in the flames above, and Brax was entombed below; the Tree of Life was destroyed, prostituted and then devoured by the hate of the enemy. The remains of so many were mixed with the ashes that covered her, their memories forever stained in blood.

So many questions plagued Luik’s mind. Unanswered questions that deserved replies. Demanded replies.

The White Lion had healed the wounds of his body, and those of Gorn and Li-Saide and the rest of the warband. Anorra’s eyes had been completely restored. Anondo had been touched even while lying in his bed high in Mt. Dakka. And countless more had surely found their healing in the night. Yet others had perished, his kinsmen fallen in battle. Would the White Lion bring them back to life? Was His hand short in that he could not restore life to the fallen? To Lair and Thorn? To Brax and Gyinan?

Luik had thought he had no more tears to cry, yet more came. For what he could not understand—what he simply could not wrap his mind around—was why, of all times, the White Lion had come now.

Why now?

“Why did You not come sooner?” Luik screamed. “How could You stand back and let this happen?”

Luik pounded the air with his fists, suddenly overwhelmed.

“Where were You? Were You not watching? Did You not see?”

The heat in his face was strong. Shame broke over his head. For the very thing he had admonished his men for was what he himself had hidden in his heart.

“How could You let so many die? You let them perish! And then what? You come at the end? For what?”

Luik curled up and fell to his side, lying on the ground. He sobbed, gasping great breaths of air only to loose a tirade of tears and mucus.

“Where were You?” He shouted. “I needed You! Where were You when I needed You?”

He beat the soft ground with his fist as the full extent of his desolation burst over him like an ocean wave.

We needed You…needed You…”

Soon his words became unintelligible. His chest heaved but all that came out were whimpers.

And of all things, he could not figure out why he was still alive. Why plague him with a dream that does not come true? What sick manipulator prophesies death only to take the lives of others but leave the subject untouched?

“I want—to die,” Luik finally said in a long, troubled exhale.

His body relaxed, and the torrent of emotion subsided. His chest rose, drawing in deep breaths that then left through clenched teeth and spittle. He moaned softly under the powerful wave that pressed him further into the grass.

He had seen more than any other before him. He had endured more than the Gvindollion could have ever dreamed in their worst nightmares. Had they foreseen this? Would they still have gone through with training the Dibor if they had? Luik had carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders and had seen her through her darkest hour.

Through it all he did not even see that the White Lion had slain him just as he had dreamed; not physically, as he’d presumed. But in heart. And in soul. And perhaps there had been no other way than this: that if the Mighty Father would not spare His own Son to accomplish His aim, how much less would He spare others for another pursuit?

Was it all for Luik? Perhaps not. But was Luik for the slaying? That is a more worthy question. A wounded man is of value to the Maker.

Such slaying of the soul does not come as man expects it. And it does not leave us in any condition we could have imagined. For surely any foreknowledge of such events would melt even the strongest heart, and any purported outcome would distract the most resolute will with its value. For it is the mind He longs to offend—not for hating it—but for revealing the heart. The heart, which He values far more.

“I am a dead man who yet breathes,” Luik said at last.

“And that is what I wanted all along,” came a powerful Voice from above.

Luik’s eyes spread wide, and he gasped.

The White Lion stood over him, gazing down onto his trembling form. Luik fought to sit upright, unsure if his eyes betrayed him. He squeezed them shut and then reopened them, wiping away the tears with the back of his hand. The Lion was real.

Luik’s heart thumped in his chest like a boulder careening down a mountainside. Had his King heard the animosity in his questions?

But it didn’t matter. He would know anyway. Nothing could be hidden from His gaze. Rather than hide, Luik fumbled forward, blundering headlong into the tumultuous issues of his heart.

“Where were You?” he asked in a strangled voice, the tears welled up his throat again. “When I needed You? When we needed You?”

A long silence filled the garden air, interrupted only by the fragrant sounds of summer. Luik knew for sure he had offended his Creator. Discipline would come. The White Lion sighed, heavy warm breath washing over Luik’s body. He shuddered. Finally, at long last—Luik hanging on every beat of stillness—the White Lion spoke.

“Where were you when I made the stars, Luik son of Ragnar?” The Lion’s Voice was firm yet not without compassion. Yet the question hung in the air like a gauntlet thrown.

Luik could not accept the challenge.

“And where were you when I created the land and filled the depths with water? Did I consult you for counsel or seek you out for instruction? Who guided my hand when I formed you in your mother’s womb?” He paused. A beat. “Did I ask you for your opinion when I knit your very soul together?”

Luik looked on, dumbfounded. He did not know what to say.

The Lion waited.

Luik finally looked away, shame heavy on his shoulders.

“I—I…”

The magnificent Creature exhaled again, something heavy on His heart. Luik heard through the action and looked up. “I plague You, I know,” was all he could offer. Words spoken in true humility.

“It is more than that,” the Most High replied. “It seems that My Creation forever asks me questions, yet never stops to answer those that I first ask.”

A surge of remorse spread through Luik’s body like ink, staining the far reaches of his conscience. “I am—forgive me.”

“My ways are not your ways,” the White Lion said, not yet acknowledging Luik’s apology. “And My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are above your ways.”

He lingered there. Then went on.

“But there is coming a time, very soon, when you will have My mind—My heart on the needs of your day. Forever changed, you will be. That is, if you remain in Me as I will be in you.”

His words were mysterious, yet Luik felt he discerned the meaning in his heart. He received the impartation.

As if hearing Luik’s true thoughts the White Lion said, “I am sorry for your losses, Luik, my son.” The kindness in His voice brought tears to Luik’s eyes. “It was never My heart for you to suffer. For any of you to suffer.” The Lion looked up then, a sense of regret in his tone. “Nor was it ever My will for you to choose as you have—you and those before you. Those beside you.”

“Your will?”

“My will is good. Pleasing. Perfect,” said the Mighty King. “I do not err and I do not change. And yet, I cannot create a man to love Me. I cannot make him do what I want.”

Luik thought. “I don’t understand.”

“Luik, you ask Me questions yet do not answer My own. In the same way, you question why I have permitted mankind to endure hardship. Why I have allowed hardship, even atrocities to occur. Why I have let men go down to Haides, even sent them there myself.

“Yet I want to know, was it I who welcomed evil into this place? Was it I who opened the doors for the enemy? Am I the one who controls man when I myself made him with a free will?

“Mankind speaks of control and blames Athera. Their pride causes them to point a finger at Me, when it is they that have chosen their own course.” The Lion’s voice suddenly grew louder and Luik shook. “Again, I say, answer My questions. Where were you, son of man?”

Luik quivered in his skin. He felt naked and open. There was no place to hide. He could not retreat nor fake a reply. The Great Lion would not move until Luik spoke.

He gave up. Who was he to question the Maker of All Things?

“I was not there.”

“Nay, you weren’t.”

And that was the truth of it.

It was then and there Luik realized his great misconduct. Of all those to blame, he had betrayed the One who least merited it…who, in fact, remained blameless. The actions of Creation did not warrant one act of grace, not one sole merciful deed. They had disobeyed. That they were even left to live was clemency itself.

“I am sorry,” Luik uttered, looking into the Lion’s blazing yellow eyes and then hiding his face in his knees, unable to match His gaze. Luik could only hear the pounding of his heart in his ears and the rustle of the leaves above. Time stood still as he waited for the verdict. The Righteous Judge had every right to slay him for his treason; Luik’s dream foretold it. The White Lion’s wrath was equal to the task, and Luik knew he had erred greatly. He had insulted the very One whose Name he had sought to guard. He had been weighed, measured, and found wanting.

He deserved…

“I forgive you, my son.”

A breath.

Those words…

…those amazing words…

…were all he needed to hear.

“And I love you. I have seen your every hardship. I have ever been near you. Yet now you know what it means to die.”

“I do?” Luik questioned.

“A man dies a deeper death by living with what he knows than dying with what he doesn’t.”

“So, You’re not going to slay me?”

The Lion looked as though he grinned. “Your dream was meant to serve one purpose, Luik: to bring you to a place of surrender, where it was no longer your will driving your life ahead…but Mine. And more than that, know this: that your dream was not meant to speak of your death, but of your dying.”

Luik grew puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

“You have come to a place of true surrender, to My life and will being accomplished through you. Even in you. But do not be deceived. For before you reach Athera, you will die many more times. Daily.

“In Dionia you began with Me in control. Yet over time you gave way to fear—to your own will. Control. You relied on your own strength and not Mine. And that is the tendency of all flesh: to do it in their own power.”

Suddenly all was clear. At last Luik understood. This life, every breath, was not even meant for him…for his own pleasure. It was meant for the Most High’s. Anything outside of that was an offense to the Great God.

“So then, what You’re saying is…” Luik mulled over his thoughts only briefly, “…that all You really wanted was me.”

“That’s all. In life or death. Just you. For he that finds his life will lose it, and he that loses his life will find it. For when you lost your life—there in that place—you found Me.

“I know how you have suffered, Luik. I was not far from you. And I have suffered in kind. Even today, I have known ultimate suffering. For one reason: to say that I have done everything necessary to win My Creation back to Me. I have suffered more than they ever will. I have taken their errors upon Me and thus also paid their penalty for their wrongs.”

“On Earth? Then Morgui killed You indeed?”

“Far from it!” replied the White Lion. “He stole nothing. For My life was not his to take—but Mine to give.”

“Then You did suffer?”

“At the hands of My Creation, aye. Morgui thought he had won. But he did nothing short of releasing Me to forever amend the breach between My Beloved and Me. Death has no more victory. I have stolen its sting.”

“Then You have come for the Keys of Life and Death?”

“It is as you have spoken. I have paid the price for them, something Morgui could never do. He was never a threat to My will, only to My Creation. And if they will die to themselves and find life in Me, than his roaring threats will be seen for what they truly are. Empty. I have made a way where there was no way.”

Luik hadn’t noticed, but his strength had returned. The deep sorrow in his soul had been replaced, filled in by an indescribable peace. He made to rise and stand before his King, brushing his tunic out and squaring his shoulders.

“So there remains the issue of these Keys. May I inquire of You, my Lord?”

“Morgui has taken possession of something of Mine. And I want them back. Adam took the Keys into his own hands, by his own choice, ultimately surrendering them to the enemy. I have paid the price for them by offering My own life for their return. But I want Morgui to remember who suffered the penalty for his theft. So I will not be the one to finish the battle here in Dionia.”

“You—you won’t?”

“You will, Luik.”

“I will?” Luik was dismayed, hand to his breast.

“I must make sure that all men know what has been done for them. No longer will death swallow them whole or keep them from My Father’s presence. To ensure this, I will prove that the enemy has no hold on Me, nor those who call upon My Name.”

“But the enemy wages war here, Most High. Here in Dionia. What better place to defeat him? Why leave?”

“My son, let Me ask you. What better way is there to defeat an enemy that has slain you?”

“Why, to defy him in death,” he thought aloud. “But is that possible?”

“For Me it is,” the Most High replied. “For I intend to rise from the dead.”

Luik felt the words shudder through his body; unspeakable power resided in them. “So You have been defeated on earth, yet You live here?”

“I live here only to secure the future of My Creation, your future and of those that follow. In two days I will return to Earth and do what the enemy does not expect. I will conquer death itself.”

Luik’s thoughts raced, trying to wrap his mind around everything. “Then, we can defeat Morgui without You?”

“You will hardly be without Me, dear Luik. Until now you have felt My presence around you. You have known Me daily, and I have filled your world with wonder and life. Yet you have not known Me to the fullest. Surely I walked with you. I have always been among you. But that Presence, even what you see before you now, can be taken from you, as you have felt…as you will see. But I must leave so that you may know Me in fullness. Before I was with you, but soon I will dwell within you.”

Luik hardly understood the full import of His words, yet he somehow took great comfort in them. He trusted whatever the White Lion said, though he did not understand it in the slightest. And he knew better now than to question Him.

“In two days time we will meet Morgui on the plains of Jerovah. There you will fight him.”

“Me?” Luik replied. “But I am just a man.”

“And he is just a fallen angel, one whom I have bested.”

“How long can You stay?”

“I will stay to watch it begin.”

“But, Lord—”

The White Lion growled with intolerance.

Luik stepped backward, almost falling over.

“My grace is sufficient for you, Luik,” the Lion uttered in a deep voice. “Did you not hear Me? I will be with you always, for when I leave I will be in you. And then, only then, will you be unstoppable. Unshakable.”

“I’m sorry, my King.”

“Do not be sorry. Be victorious. Give everything. Endure anything. Just as I have done. That is the way of my Kingdom, that is what I’ve called you to. Nothing less.”

“Aye. Nothing less.” Luik bowed.

“I will return to you tomorrow, to the Great Hall. We will discuss the battle plan together. I have some ideas. But I want to hear yours.”

Luik stammered, thinking he misunderstood his Maker. “You—You want to hear mine?”

“I did not create your genius for naught.”

“Right,” Luik grinned between red cheeks. He looked up longingly to the Lion’s eyes and noticed that, despite their strength, there was a deep softness there. “Tomorrow then.”

“Tomorrow.”

The massive Lion drew in a deep breath and then turned away toward the center of the garden, His fur rippling like a soft tide.

“Where will You stay tonight?” Luik spoke up, surprised at the sound of his question.

The White Lion stopped and looked back. “I have no place to rest My head tonight, Luik. But I have not seen Dionia in a time and look forward to roaming the lands I once made with Ad. As I recall, the starlight that soaks Bensotha valley is particularly lovely, is it not?”

All at once Luik was taken back to the days of his youth. He remembered midnight walks under the starlight with Hadrian and Fane and Anorra during Jhestafe-Na. Long after the festivities had subsided for the evening—participants exhausted from eating and talking and playing—he and the others would steal away into the cool night air and lie out, just watching the stars glimmer. Captivated by their beauty.

Standing there with the Lion, he did not remember the last time he had seen the valley, soaked in the blood of his countrymen, riddled with their corpses and bones; he did not recall the streams running red, or the trees hewn and burnt black; he did not feel the immense loss that bit into the flesh of his soul.

He only saw the magnificence.

“None lovelier,” Luik said distantly.

The White Lion nodded and then turned to leave once more, pausing a last time.

“I’m proud of you, My son,” he said. “Well done.”

The words had the effect of an ocean wave washing over him, and brought him to his knees. Emotion welled up from deep within. He sobbed for the ultimate fulfillment of all he had endured. Of all he had faced. The comment was so unexpected. So fleeting. Yet it carried the power of eternity in it.

The pride of his King. Of his Creator.

Well done.

Luik felt as though chains had bound him for such a great length of time that he couldn’t remember a day without them; now, in light of the King’s words, they were gone. Released from his neck, wrists and ankles, falling away to nothing. Nothing.

Luik was free.

It was all he could do to speak through the hot tears. “C’symia.” He looked up, but the White Lion was gone.

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