– – –
THE PLAINS OF JEROVAH
Morgui strode out from the burnt ruins of Grandath with his entire host of fallen lythla. As far as the eye could see, from one end of the Great Forest border to the other, countless Dairne-Reih emerged from the wreckage like black ghosts resurrected from the ashes. Their grotesque forms moved in measured rhythm, beat out by some distant drum. They marched into the eastern plain of Jerovah like giant locusts trampling tall grass. Their line was unbroken and deep, not a gap between them, stretching endlessly back into the charred remains of Dionia’s Secret City—secret no more.
Morgui fixed his gaze on the massive army that lay across the horizon, a thin white line against the fading night sky. With every step he measured his opponent, seeing that they numbered far less than he had expected, a notion that pleased him. He counted the standard bearers and watched the small shreds of colored fabric wave against the pre-dawn sky. Men-at-arms stood in the front, mounted warriors behind them, and surely archers in the rear. It was poor judgment to let the men-at-arms lead. Ignorant. He would punch a hole through their center as if driving a spear through a corpse.
The commanders of Morgui’s army, his warlords and generals, flanked him on either side. Morgui acknowledged them with a nod, and they surged forward, running ahead. The mass of Dairne-Reih matched their pace and pulled away from their dark leader, leaving him in the rear.
Morgui stretched out his arms as wave after wave of his minions passed beside him. He could sense the power of his forces coursing through his veins. He could smell victory and the blood of flesh staining the soil of the ground. It would not be long. He had beaten the God of Athera once. It would end here. He would finish it today.
The gap between the two forces narrowed as the warm glow of the rising sun kissed the western sky. The enemy warband on the horizon was now a strong presence, the faces of men, half covered by their helmets and armor, eager for the battle clash.
The Betrayer exulted with expectancy, longing for the bloodlust to consume his head. He anticipated the sounds of battle as a child yearns for his mother’s evening song. War drove him. Possessed him. He had no deeper desire than to destroy. To kill and steal, aye, but even more to utterly erase the memory of his foes’ existence. To soak his fingers with their blood and hold their hemorrhaging bodies in his hands until their last breath was spent.
He had convinced so many that he did not exist, that he was not a threat. Some, even, that he could help them. Give them power. He laughed at the thought. What fools!
What ignorant fools…
When the last lines of his army passed him, Morgui began to run. He watched with insatiable greed as his demons spread out over the plain, greatly outnumbering the children of Dionia. And where was their great leader? Where was the Lion he had slain on Earth? Nowhere to be seen. A coward. Or perhaps dead in the spirit as well as in the flesh? Morgui could only hope as much.
As his Dairneags accelerated, anticipating the kill, the ground beneath Morgui’s feet trembled. Horned feet smashed the tall green grass and tore at the dirt. A wake of broken field was all that was left behind. Jerovah would be burned before the day was through.
The two forces neared each other, both picking up speed. Morgui could see the heads of his leaders lower, their spikes and horns lunging forward, unsheathed from their folds of calloused skin. The monsters shrieked and clicked, the air alive with terror. Only a few moments more…
Up ahead Morgui saw the men running to meet the enemy, spears lowered and shields up. The cavalry followed behind, weapons poised to finish what the men-at-arms started. As if their feeble weapons would be a match for the power of Haides. Had they not seen what he could do? Not only in brute force, but in deception; had they not understood they were inferior in every way? Morgui, the Prince of Darkness, would remain supreme.
Just then a brilliant white light flashed against the backs of his hordes, so bright he had to shield his eyes. Blinded for but a moment, Morgui reeled around. He looked back toward Grandath. All he could see was the sun breaking the horizon, countless times more concentrated than he ever remembered. When had the sun ever been so powerful?
• • •
Gorn gripped the reins of his horse with two hooked fingers, his feet swishing against his horse’s belly with ease. He held a long spear in his left hand and a sword in his other. It was not his custom to use a shield. Half of the other Dibor rode beside him, and the Lion Vrie led ranks of spearmen in front on foot. It was a good day to war.
As Morgui’s demons appeared out of thin air, materializing on the outskirts of Grandath like vapors, he heard gasps go up from his men. It was an unsettling sight, but nothing he hadn’t seen previously. He had slain them before; he would do so again.
Gorn had been given charge of the eastern flank, and he would not fail. As the demons formed up on the horizon, Gorn gave the order to march. When the enemy had spilled completely from the ash heap, he gave the order to run. The horses jogged slowly behind the men-at-arms, each beat of the hooves, each stride of the legs, bringing the warband closer and closer to the enemy host.
Gorn picked out Morgui at last, remaining in the rear of his hordes. The coward. The surge was led instead by Morgui’s warlords, each imposing in its own right. He noted the extra pieces of metal armor they wore, even dull helmets that covered their faces, metal ported for their horns.
Gorn glanced over his shoulder. Countless archers kept pace behind the cavalry, bows held ready. Before the spearmen killed a single demon, the archers in the rear would be his first line of attack. And it must be timed perfectly.
The gap between the oncoming force and his was narrowing with every heartbeat. He felt the weight of his weapons rest easily in his hands, the reins running through his fingers. This was his moment. This was what he was meant for. Had been bred for. Though Dionia was not his home, he was prepared to die for her.
He called for the pace to increase, and his warriors did not disappoint. The men-at-arms reached for longer strides, and the horses switched to a slow lope. The archers remained close behind, ready for the order to draw and loose.
The enemy hordes greatly outnumbered his force. But the battle would not be played out here. His was but a single part. And if he died this day, he would die a King of Dionia. He couldn’t have been more proud to breathe.
The warband was now at full speed. His timing was of paramount importance: too soon and the enemy would not be able to hear what was coming behind them. Too late and the plan would be wasted.
Gorn could see the horrific faces of the enemy, their eyes aflame and hungry for blood. They would spare nothing in the coming clash. They knew the White Lion would be among them. Likewise, their terror would be relentless.
Gorn braced for impact.
And then it happened.
• • •
Light consumed Luik’s entire being.
He could see nothing else. Feel nothing else.
It was as if he was caught up in a cloud, suspended in midair by an unseen power, floating in brilliant white with no sense of direction. He thought he could hear music, even voices. But as soon as he found the melody, it changed. Or moved on.
Then a voice saying, “I am with you, Luik. I will always be with you.”
He turned about, looking for the source. But his eyes met only a piercing bright light.
Just then his feet touched solid ground. It sloped away, and he had no choice but to run downhill or risk tumbling head over heels. He moved quickly and noticed the light betraying shapes up ahead, undulating forms in dismal hues of grey and black. He looked down. Long blades of grass were broken and trampled in dirt.
The thumping of his footsteps beat loud in his head, challenged only by his beating heart. Suddenly he was aware of others running beside him. Behind him. The ground leveled, but his pace increased in a strange exchange, as if it was no longer he that ran, but something beneath him.
The sound of the animal’s heavy panting filled his head, the rise and fall of the horse’s head plainly in view.
The light that had consumed him moved forward and now illuminated the dark figures up ahead.
A flash of radiance.
He would know them anywhere. And there in their middle was a being he had first seen only three days ago. He would never forget.
Morgui turned around. Luik noticed something amazing: a look of sheer terror.
Morgui was afraid.
The brilliant flash diminished, the light of the dawning sun taking its place. It cast a yellow glow over the demon horde and covered over the eastern plain of Jerovah.
It had happened in an instant. Luik and the majority of Dionia’s strength lay between Grandath and Morgui’s army…
…directly behind them, and completely unexpected.
Luik raised his sword and screamed with all his might. He kicked his legs against Fedowah’s ribs and the stallion lunged forward, reaching deep inside for each gain. The mass of mounted warriors to either side responded in kind and raced toward the back of their enemies.
They had them.
• • •
Morgui was furious. Furious that his enemy had tricked him. Furious that he had been caught off guard. Furious that he had been bested.
Furious that he was afraid.
Reacting more than thinking, he spun away from the advancing cavalry behind him and ran forward. He flung demons to his right and left just to make space, to advance farther into his pack and buy time.
The first battle clash was not the one he had been anticipating. It was not in front, but behind. The sickening sounds of metal slashing through flesh and bone met with the demonic screams of his minions as they were cut down in mid-stride.
Finally gathering his thoughts, aggravated that he had run, Morgui let loose a guttural command heard by all his forces. They slowed and looked to their leader. Then back to the ambush behind.
They were caught between two advancing armies of Dionia.
The next battle clash was Gorn’s. And it was devastating.
• • •
It couldn’t have been more precisely executed if they had practiced it a hundred times. Morgui’s outburst caused such a freakish amount of disorder in the demon host that even those in the front of the advance slowed, most turning to address their leader.
It was all Gorn’s smaller force needed to punch through.
The men-at-arms suddenly stepped aside into neat rows and allowed the skillful riders to slip by, horses reaching a full gallop with open space before them. At the same moment the archers planted ten shafts into the dirt and drew back their first arrow. They aimed high into the sky and loosed when the order came.
Thousands of black missiles sailed through the morning air with silent terror. They moved as one like a black cloud of death descending on the enemy. The projectiles found their marks, striking the heads and bodies of the Dairne-Reih with massive force. Demons were pummeled into the ground, shafts driving into skulls and pinning feet down where they stood. The monsters cried out in pain, only to find another shaft cutting through a gaping jaw or driving between a neck and shoulder. Joints split apart like eggshells, and bodies flew back like leaves blown by a gust of wind.
It was then that Gorn and the mounted warriors struck.
Their charge was furious, an attack without restraint. Gorn’s mare dove headlong into the fray, fearless and bold. As she kicked and reared, Gorn plunged and slashed. He became a madman, swinging his blade at anything that moved. He could not find enemies fast enough and demanded his horse move on. But she needed little encouragement.
His spear met the soft neck of a mammoth Dairneag who spun and threatened to break the shaft in two. But Gorn was quicker and replaced the spear point with a sword blade under the armpit. The monster cringed in agony and fell sideways just as Gorn’s mount brought him away from the fall.
Gorn heard the men-at-arms plunging in behind him, their polearms keeping the enemy at bay, gouging and slashing as they came. With each new foe the warband met, the demons seemed unsure whether to fight or pull to their master.
At last, Gorn thought.
• • •
Luik was surrounded by demons, but fear was nowhere in sight. Fedowah pressed forward through the crush as Luik hammered out blows with unrelenting tenacity. Most of the demons he met were terrified at having seen their warlord flee, so they emulated him. But when the forces became too compressed, they resorted to climbing over one another. It was here that the cavalry met them, dismembering them in their panicked attempt to escape.
Luik’s Vinfae severed spinal cords and gashed the backs of necks, leaving heads bending forward over the chest until the demons stumbled over their own body parts. Fedowah jumped over each mangled heap.
All along the rear, the cavalry drove deep, digging a wound that would never heal. Dionia’s warriors cut without quarter. There was no mercy in their blades. They had one chance and lived as if it was their last.
Luik heard another sound from deep within the pack—an order from Morgui. He could feel it.
He continued to serve his lethal pass to oblivion, catching even the swiftest demon with his whizzing blade. All of a sudden a face appeared between two demons in front of him. A face he did not know personally. But he didn’t need to.
It was a man.
Morgui was sending the taken.
• • •
From the center of his surrounded army, Morgui looked to his warlords and gave the command to release the taken. It was early still, but he could feel the enemy’s power dominating. He needed to do something. And quickly.
He would turn the tide.
Hidden in the initial emergence from Grandath, the taken had walked in the middle of Morgui’s host, out of sight from any angle but above. They had been given weapons retrieved from the massacre in Ot and were more loyal to the ways of evil than ever.
Luik would not know what to do. And when he finally figured out that there was no returning these souls to light, it would be too late. If Morgui could not crush their bodies, he would crush their spirits.
• • •
Gorn was in mid-swing, slashing at a Dairneag’s neck, when he spied the first glimpse of a man’s face somewhere in the tumult ahead. At first he thought it was one of his own men too far along in the advance.
But the man was not fighting. The Dairne-Reih ignored him.
Gorn’s hesitation gave the demon enough time to shield against the blow. His sword bounced off the bone-armor. He ducked as a horned fist flew over him and collided with his horse’s skull. The horse lurched forward, fighting the urge to slip into darkness. Gorn swung his leg over the side and leapt sideways as a second blow from the demon landed on the animal’s neck. The horse dropped to the ground, broken.
Gorn took two bounding leaps, one to the left, one darting back to the right, and then leapt at the trespassing Dairneag.
The beast reached for Gorn.
But Gorn was too quick, dodging the death grip and inserting his sword between two ribs. The monster screamed and grabbed at the sword—but it was gone, only to appear on the other side of its body between another set of ribs. A third and final jab from his spear completed the task, and the Dairneag fell.
Its life was not equal to that of his steed, but Gorn was satisfied and wiped the blood from his brow. All round him his men fought, slashing at their marks. Arrows continued to soar overhead, riddling their targets with death.
Gorn looked back to the taken he had seen earlier. The lifeless man stood five paces away, now with two other men beside him. Their clothes were torn and limbs muddied. Sunken yellow eyes, bloodshot from no rest, peered out from twisted faces.
These were once his brothers…
These men had once eaten at table together. They had drunk from the same goblets of Dionia’s choice wine. More, they had known the presence of the Most High.
Gorn had always been adamant about his stance against the taken. Destroy or be destroyed. They had forsaken grace.
But Luik had proved him wrong. And somewhere in his heart, Gorn wanted to prove himself wrong.
These were once his brothers…
Once, and perhaps again.
He lowered his sword.
“Come back!” Gorn yelled above the din. Battle raged all around him. “Come back to the Light!”
The three men stood as they were, their swords poised to attack.
Gorn tucked his spear shaft beneath his arm and stretched out his free hand.
“Come back, brothers!”
There was a pause.
Then the leader took a stride forward, sword listing to one side.
Gorn’s eyes widened. Hope kindled in his heart.
It was working.
These were once his brothers…
• • •
Luik finished off two more demons before stopping short of a man standing by himself, left alone by the retreating throng. From atop his horse Luik looked down at the man and eyed him narrowly.
He had been fooled before. He would not again.
“I give you quarter, my friend,” Luik hollered. “Come with us if you wish.”
The man did not move.
Luik looked up and noted that the retreat was slowing. This exchange was costing them.
“I ask you again, come with us and fight again for the Most High.”
Still the man looked as though he did not understand. He clutched a sword in his hand. Luik knew the blade.
Sword of the Lion Vrie.
It had been taken from their defeat in Ot, Luik surmised. Morgui had outfitted the taken with the spoils of battle. But how was this man holding it? It was meant only for the Great Warriors!
“For the last time, come back!”
Luik looked again to the churning mass of Dairne-Reih in the center. Something was happening.
They were regrouping.
Luik looked back to the man before him. The taken opened his mouth and tried to speak; finding the words seemed a task in itself. When he finally spoke, thick dregs of spittle dripped from the man’s blistered lips.
“I do not know the Light,” he replied and lifted his sword.
Luik watched as the man ran toward him, a strangled cry coming from his throat. He nudged Fedowah back in a turn, trying to avoid the wild attack. The man leapt forward, swinging his sword at Luik’s legs.
Luik kicked hard and landed a blow on the man’s shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Then Luik looked up to the army. They were coming: a slow advance now headed his way.
“Come on, man! Why do you resist the Most High?” Luik spun Fedowah around. But the man spit in the mud and struggled up.
“I do not know the Light!” he seethed. He swung his sword again, coming short of Luik.
“You are Dionian! You have tasted His Goodness! You have known His Love!”
The man swung again and again.
“Stop fighting!” Luik yelled. Can he not see?
The man stared up at Luik, rage twisting his face. His chest rose and fell in gasping breaths; blood dripped from the corner of his mouth.
Luik moved forward, the army marching toward him, more taken now in the front lines. This was insane.
“He’ll take you back!” Luik yelled.
But the taken man was possessed beyond understanding. He raised his sword and lunged forward. “I do not know the—”
An arrow shaft drove through his neck and stopped halfway, lodged in bone. The rest of the arrow’s energy spun the man backward off his feet and onto the ground.
Luik looked behind him. An archer waved, Fane standing beside him, guiding the shot. Fedowah reeled around, uneasy with the situation, and Luik nodded a doleful thanks to the pair behind him.
“My King,” Jrio cried, “watch yourself!”
Luik brought his attention back to the enemy’s new advance. For every two demons, he saw one of the taken between them. Another strange sound from the center of the circle, and the advancing line broke into a run.
Demons shrieked, men screamed.
He wanted to talk with each of the taken. To reason with them.
There was no time.
“Luik, give the order!” Jrio implored. “Now!”
The line of demons and taken was at full speed.
In that moment clarity came. The lives of those who still lived—those who had chosen life—were the ones he must reason for…the ones he must have the heart for. The taken had selected their path willingly. Despite his desires for them, their own desires were greater. The truth was, he loved them dearly. Each of them. They had been his people at one time. He offered them salvation if they wished it. But he could not force it upon them.
All at once he understood what the Mighty Father felt.
It all made sense.
He knew what must be done.
“Charge!” Luik bawled. His Vinfae lunged ahead, invisibly driving the line of warriors with it. The entire western flank bore down on the advancing enemy; within five strides the horses galloped at full speed.
They would not be stopped.
• • •
Morgui looked to the west as he saw the enemy line surge forward to meet his minions. All expendable. He had seduced them with power and ruled them with force. And they loved him for it. Or at least were fearful.
The sound of the battle clash was deafening, reaching Morgui like a thunderclap booming off a mountainside. Debris flew into the air above, cloaked in a crimson mist. While the taken had not delayed Luik as long as he would have liked, Morgui knew it must be killing him. Literally.
Morgui turned to his left. A man stood, sword in hand, surveying the progress.
“Are you ready?” Morgui asked him.
The man looked up. “As you wish, my Lord.”
“Go to him,” he gestured. “Win him if you can. Deceive him. Kill him if you must.”
“As you have spoken, so it will be done.”
• • •
These were once his brothers…
…but no more.
Gorn waded through the enemy masses, slashing with a grieved heart. The first man had come within arm’s reach, and at the last moment raised his sword to strike. Gorn deflected the blow, still not willing to retaliate before he had exhausted every option.
He did not know the man. But he was born of the womb. He would listen to reason.
“What has Morgui given you that is worth dying for?” Gorn asked, blocking a second blow. He took a step back.
“Do you know how it feels?” the man asked.
Gorn blocked yet another blow. The man was weak, but not inept.
“How what feels?”
The army was regrouping around him. More taken moved out from the demon ranks and confronted the warband.
“How it feels to be free to pursue your desires? No bounds,” the taken man slashed at Gorn. “No limits.” He slashed again. “To give in to power. To your lusts.” Three more blows rained down on Gorn’s blade.
“In exchange for what?” Gorn countered, shoving away the next blow with his spear shaft and knocking the man back a few steps. “Mortality? Death? Look at you!”
“You have no idea how it feels,” the man said.
“Oh, but I do,” replied Gorn. He stared hard at the man until the eyes averted from Gorn’s intense glare. “Come back,” Gorn said. “I know what it is to see the darkness of your own soul. The Light is stronger. But you must let go of your pride. Of your fear.”
The man’s mouth gaped open. Light flashed in his eyes. “I—I—”
“You can.” Gorn felt hope.
There was a beat.
“I won’t.” The taken man grasped his sword with two hands.
“Nay,” Gorn shook his head. “Don’t do this.”
The man did not reply. He moved forward and aimed his sword at Gorn’s face.
“Don’t…” Gorn whispered. He would fight for this man, but not more than he would fight for the innocent. “Please don’t.”
But the taken man disregarded his pleas and lunged forward.
In a single movement, Gorn bobbed his head out of the way and slashed the man across the stomach. Not enough to kill him. But enough to give him one last chance before bleeding to death.
“Come back,” Gorn said again as the man doubled over and fell to the ground, sword tumbling away.
“Nay,” he quivered, curled up in a ball.
“You can be healed. Forgiven. Life can start afresh for you.” Gorn stood over him, weapons at his sides. The front lines were almost upon him.
This must end.
“I will never come back,” the man spat. In a violent move, he leapt up from his cowering and slashed at Gorn’s face with long nails. The action was a surprise, and the fingertips drew blood from Gorn’s cheek. A flash of metal and a swift kuh-shunk sent a severed hand tumbling to the ground.
The man screamed, clutching his stub of an arm.
The taken man wavered on his feet but had enough strength to reach for his sword. Then he charged Gorn. The Teacher of the Dibor ended the exchange with a blow that could not be parried.
• • •
Luik and Jrio warred side by side. They fought mercilessly, dispensing wrath on any demon that dared raise a fist to them. Attacking the taken was a great deal harder, however. The pair killed them more slowly than they would Dairne-Reih; not that their deaths were more painful or drawn out—quite the contrary—but that they deliberated a beat longer when delivering the deathblow.
The added conflict meant the Dionian warband would hack through the Dairne-Reih more slowly and give Morgui an added edge. Luik congratulated his foe on a cunning tactic. But it stopped there. For everything else about it was offensive and made him want to vomit.
Though the eastern and western flanks warred relentlessly, each warrior hesitated before striking one of the taken. The error worked to the enemy’s advantage, and soon the killing came from both sides. Luik noticed the cries of some of his own men as they met their fates, gouged by the horns of the enemy and driven into the ground.
Allied arrows rained in from the rear like black clouds, showering over the enemy lines and striking those farther back. Luik wondered how many shafts they had yet to free. He was sure his warriors could go on fighting for days, even if their supplies ran out. This was the greatest battle of their lives. And they fought like it. Everywhere he looked his men worked valiantly at their craft, dispatching the enemy like a scythe through wheat. Morgui himself had come out to meet them and they did not disappoint. But the fallen lythla’s presence did not thwart their cause; they knew the White Lion was among them. Somewhere.
A thunderclap shook the air behind Luik, a flash of light turning the entire battlefield white. He did not need to turn around to know what it was. He could see it in his enemies’ faces. Their pupils tightened, and a white glow reflected in the black center. The Dairneags blanched and suddenly forgot where they were.
Luik did not hesitate, delivering blow after blow, hewing the demons where they stood, oblivious to their oncoming doom; what their eyes met beyond overwhelmed them past movement. Luik’s path became so crowded with corpses that he eventually dismounted Fedowah and sent him back toward Grandath. It was easier to fight on foot here. He swung relentlessly until a powerful wave knocked him forward.
• • •
Gorn continued to wade through the thick of battle. He stayed the larger enemies off with his spear and used his sword to parry and cut those closer. Fyfler and Cage had found their way to his side, working together as they carved a trail toward the Demon Lord.
A thick haze of dust hung over the entire field of battle. Morgui stood in the midst of his Dairne-Reih, surveying both fronts. He seemed to command them without speaking, turning this way and that, ordering them with silent power. His black body glistened in the morning sunlight, muscles flexing with every turn. Though his form was hideous to behold, there was a strange beauty about him. Something that lured—that played on the lusts of mankind.
Gorn studied his opponent and wondered what he was thinking. Feeling. And how what would happen next would affect him. Gorn stared westward when…
…a flash of light blinded them, arms raised to shield their eyes. As soon as it happened, they knew He had come.
A shock wave burst out from the epicenter of the Most High’s appearance and rippled out over the entire scene like a white wave cascading from the center of the ocean. Men and demons alike stumbled back, struggling not to fall. Even Morgui fought to keep his legs beneath him, shoving his generals aside.
“He has come,” Cage uttered in amazement.
The fighting ceased. All eyes turned.
The Great King stood on the field of battle.
Gorn gazed in awe at the majesty of his Lord. The White Lion stood, dwarfing all others, a white haze lingering over His form.
The yellow eyes stared directly forward, glaring at Morgui.
No one breathed. They just watched.
The din of war ceased, a long silence hushing the slaughter. Armor rustled and bones creaked as men and demons alike regained their feet, never looking away from the God of Athera.
Then a Voice boomed out over the entire plain…
• • •
“I have come for what is Mine,” the White Lion said.
A shudder went through those gathered: His authority demanded respect; His eyes never left Morgui.
“What is it you wish for?” came a snarling voice from the center.
“The Keys of Life and Death,” He replied.
Everyone looked to Morgui.
But the Demon Lord did not reply.
Suddenly there was an uneasy feeling in the air.
“Answer, you scoundrel,” Jrio said under his breath.
“Hush,” Luik insisted.
“But he is—”
The White Lion spoke again. “Do not make Me ask again,” He boomed.
“His patience wanes,” Quoin whispered.
“This is not patience,” Fane put in. “It is anger held at bay for but a moment longer.”
Finally the Dark Lord’s shrill voice replied.
“If you want them…”
Nothing moved. All was completely still, awaiting his reply.
“…then come and get them yourself! Attack!”
His last command ripped through the air like metal screeching on stone, sending his minions off into a frenzied drive toward the White Lion. Massive Hewgogs erupted from underneath the ground, and made their way forward as well, the land shaking with every step they took.
“Is he mad?” Jrio spat, the front lines now turning on them with intense aggravation.
“Aye!” Luik replied, raising his sword. “Mad and about to die on the point of my sword!” He uttered the Tongues of the Dibor, a brilliant glow emanating from his blade.
The first Dairneag he met slashed left, and then right. Luik ducked, and then brought his Vinfae across the demon’s chest, disemboweling the monster and lighting it on fire. Its entrails burst into flames and black smoke poured out.
“Back to Haides!” he screamed and stepped around the burning corpse to his next victim. He felt the ground rumbling. Just as he raised his sword, he heard a voice cry out.
He spun around and looked to Fane. The ground shook even more.
His finger was pointed.
By the time Luik spied the Hewgog barreling down on him, he knew it was too late.
• • •
Anorra stood beside the White Lion, hardly able to contain her excitement.
When the flash of light faded she found herself standing on the mangled remains of the Great Forest’s edge. Charred tree stumps and ash heaps spilled out into the marred fields of Jerovah. Ahead of her she saw the armies of Dionia and Haides pitted against one another. But their lethal conversing had ebbed. They struggled to stand erect as all eyes turned in absolute awe of the White Lion.
She felt so proud in that moment, standing beside Him like that. Despite the terror beyond her, she knew she was safe. Nothing could touch her as long as she remained beside Him. As long as she obeyed His orders. She would never disobey again.
The scene before her was so magnificent, she hardly listened to the replies of the enemy. That Morgui would ever disrespect Him to His face had never even crossed her mind. Yet when the Demon Lord finally defied her Master, and further sent his legions of demons bounding toward Him, she unconsciously withdrew an arrow shaft and snapped back to reality.
“Prepare for battle,” the White Lion said.
“Anorra,” he turned and gazed down at her. “You will be safe here. Remain here even if I move forward. Keep the women with you. Understood?”
“Aye,” she said.
“Now, defend your man,” He ordered.
With that, Anorra looked out to the sea of warriors engaged in combat and searched for her love. It was easy to find him, right in the center, sword clashing.
She spied a Hewgog racing toward Luik, bashing Dairneags out of its path.
Luik dispatched a demon, lighting the wretch aflame, smoke floating upward.
Luik was unaware.
She saw Fane scream.
Faster than she could think, her arms pulled the wood and string apart. Her fingers relaxed, and the arrow was away.
It raced across the tops of the warriors’ heads, parting hair and skimming helmets. Swift as a diving falcon, the arrow slammed into the forehead of the massive Hewgog and snapped its neck backward.
• • •
Luik was trapped, unable to escape the onrushing foe, sure he was breathing his last. He looked up at the racing giant that loomed overhead, towering above, when a thin dowel cracked through its skull. The demon arched backward while its legs continued forward, kicking out from underneath it. All at once the beast slammed into the ground, crushing two of its lesser cohorts beneath it.
Luik felt something wet spray across his face before spying the arrow shaft protruding from the Hewgog’s forehead. Three red stripes on the feathers.
He spun around and saw Anorra in the distance, standing just to the left of the White Lion. She was already aiming at another target but cast him a quick nod and dispensed wrath on her next victim.
“Luik!” a voice cried out.
Luik spun again, anticipating another giant. But he was in no immediate danger; the warband was holding the enraged enemy at bay. He searched the throng for the voice.
Luik saw a warrior dressed in fine clothing, face sallow and strained, black hair slicked back.
Luik’s heart raced.
Hadrian walked toward him, hands to his sides.
“I should kill you now,” Luik said loudly.
“After all we’ve been through? Please.”
“Do not patronize me,” Luik replied, bringing up his sword. The shouts of his men met with those of the Dairne-Reih. Metal and bone struck one another with measured rhythm.
Hadrian raised a hand against Luik’s bloody blade. “Luik, I’ve been working on your behalf. I want to help the White Lion obtain the Keys.”
“Then you would have brought them yourself.” His muscles tensed. He did not want to do this…
“I had to speak with you first,” Hadrian replied.
“Speak with me?” Luik wanted to believe him. He loved this man. His friend. Everything in his head screamed danger, but everything in his heart longed for forgiveness. He knew he had betrayed Fane’s confidence. Not to mention Anorra’s trust. Yet he knew there was something inside of Hadrian. Something worth fighting for. Something true.
“What would you speak with me about?”
“Why I have done all that I have,” Hadrian said.
“Here?” There was something off. “Now?” This was not the real Hadrian speaking. He would not seek forgiveness this way.
“Aye, I was wrong in how I went about my return. It was poor judgment on my part.”
“Poor judgment? Hadrian, do you confuse me with a fool? What are you talking about?”
“I speak of repentance. I want to make things right.” He took a step forward.
Luik countered with his blade.
“Look, I carry nothing,” Hadrian held his hands out.
Luik hesitated. He wanted to forgive. He wanted restoration with his childhood friend. Nothing would make him happier.
Hadrian held his hands out to embrace him.
Luik lowered his sword. He would forgive.
The two stepped near. And embraced.
A knife slipped from Hadrian’s sleeve and into his palm, fingers enclosing the handle, arm swinging in over Luik’s shoulder blade.
The metal found its way between the rings of Luik’s shirt and glanced off bone before sinking into the back of his lung. He gasped, pain seizing his chest like a horse standing on his ribcage.
Luik gazed into Hadrian’s possessed face. “What are you doing?”
Hadrian leaned closer. “Exacting payment,” he seethed into Luik’s ear. Unlike Morgui, Hadrian knew Luik could never be won, lulled to the ways of evil. He was too distracted, too blinded. So Hadrian forewent his master’s first command, and went straight to the second. He would finish him.
Luik felt his muscles spasm. He tried to order his Vinfae up, but his arm wasn’t responding. The knife was wedged in such a way that any movement on Luik’s part brought excruciating pain.
“Luik,” Jrio yelled over. “You all right?”
To anyone else it looked as though the two were embracing. Reconciliation in the midst of battle.
“Oh, c’symia, Luik!” Hadrian hollered, trying to put Jrio’s worries to rest. Jrio nodded, not wanting to interrupt the reunion.
“Why?” was all Luik could think to ask.
“You took my father.”
“Took your father?” He coughed and tasted blood in his mouth. “That’s what this is about?”
For a moment, Luik’s head cleared. He needed to speak to Hadrian. His friend, Hadrian, not the possessed.
“I followed him,” Hadrian finally said, driving the knife in a little deeper. Luik gasped. “He led me to power. Deep within myself, I found true power.”
“True pow—Hadrian. Listen to yourself.” Hadrian did not reply. “Hadrian, you have become like them. A monster.”
“Be that as it may, I am exacting vengeance.”
“But we did not take your father!”
“Aye, you did!”
“He came back, Hadrian.”
“He came back!”
Hadrian shook the knife, and Luik’s knees buckled under the pain. “Naaaay!”
Luik whimpered, losing strength. “He came back…his own choice.” He could not say it any other way. He felt heat traveling down his back. His vision was blurring. “Hadrian…he loves you.” Luik was losing consciousness, but felt Hadrian wince at his last statement. He would press it further. “I love you.”
Hadrian jerked away. He let go of the knife and moved back. Luik slumped forward and fell to the ground.
In the space of two breaths Hadrian was surrounded. No more than ten and five men-at-arms, as well as Fane, Jrio, Rab, and Li-Saide, pointed weapons at the man who had mortally wounded their King. Even Anorra, watching from afar, had her bow trained on the traitor, having never believed his approach genuine in the first place. And now she scolded herself, her desire to preserve the lives of those tending to her love—should she miss—her only reason for not releasing her arrow at present
Fane and Rab made to help Luik up, but Li-Saide cautioned them. “The blade is poisoned.” The pair looked to the knife and then looked to Hadrian.
“What have you done?” Jrio blurted out, glaring at Hadrian.
Luik raised a hand toward Hadrian. “Do not harm him!” he shouted with his last bit of strength.
“My King, do not speak,” Fane said.
“Nay,” Luik slurred, head drooping. “There is still greatness in him,” and then slumped into unconsciousness.
“Hush,” Li-Saide added.
“What have you done?” Jrio demanded of Hadrian again, getting in his face.
Rab dropped Luik’s shoulder and aimed his sword at the traitor. “You shall die!”
“Do not dishonor our King’s word,” Fane called after him.
“There is no greatness here!” Rab retaliated. He had fought many times for Luik’s life; to see it end here and now—not by the hands of Morgui, but by the hands of a childhood friend—was more than he could stomach. His sword point was pinned against Hadrian’s throat, a bead of blood appearing on the flesh.
No one moved, nor did they blame him for what he was about to do.
“Stay your sword,” came a new voice from behind the crowd. “Luik is right.” The men turned to see who spoke. “There is still greatness in my son.”
• • •
Gorn made out the exchange between Morgui and the Most High with baffled disbelief. How could the Great God tolerate such arrogance? Such audacity?
The demons turned on him with renewed animosity. They tore into the warband’s lines, spurred by the rebellion of their leaders and the sudden emergence of the Hewgogs.
“Hold the line!” Gorn shouted, ducking under a swinging arm. He answered the over-eager attempt with a swift attack to the demon’s midsection, breaking ribs and gouging the flesh. Three more filled its place, however, and soon he was fighting for his life.
He wondered if the opposite side was faring as they were. Was the White Lion helping? How were Luik and the others?
Gorn glanced beside him, dispatching yet another Dairneag. Cage manhandled a downed foe that fought to wrest him of his sword, kicking the beast in the eye and then cutting into its hand. Others fought against the mounting attack, fending off encroaching demons from every side.
“Hold the line!” he ordered again, if nothing more than to let the men know he was there. Keeping their morale up was vital.
Two Dairneags in front of him suddenly flew aside.
Gorn ducked as a stray leg nearly took off his head. Before him was one of the Hewgogs, enraged with the scent of blood. It focused on Gorn and barreled forward.
Gorn spoke in the Tongues of the Dibor and ran forward. He met the giant in a small clearing and leapt up…
…the monster’s arms reached for him…
…Gorn lunged, both spear and sword points driving through the beast’s palms and into the bones of the forearms.
The Hewgog screamed as it watched its hands glow a brilliant blue and cracks of white light splinter across its skin toward the elbow.
Its arms were obliterated, the body tumbling backward. Gorn landed and rolled to one side. He dealt the deathblow to the neck and then looked up. A wide path had been cleared by the advancing Hewgog, leading to within a few paces of Morgui. And then he saw it. Opportunity.
“Men of Dionia!” he rallied with a wave of his sword. “To me!”
A moment later he plunged down the narrowing alley flanked by Dairne-Reih, aimed for the Demon Lord.
• • •
Morgui looked on as Luik was carried back to where the White Lion stood. Hadrian had done his job. The young man was more useful than he had anticipated. Morgui figured the White Lion would most likely heal the poisoned king. If they got to Him in time. But even still, the wound had been delivered. Betrayal was complete.
He glanced up at the White Lion who stood watching the battle. Look at him! Would he not dare to venture out to help his men while they sacrificed their lives for him? Would he simply stand there in complacency? Not willing to mar his lovely white coat? He was a coward after all.
Morgui compared himself to the Almighty. He scorned him. At least he was in the midst of his army. At least he was not afraid to go into battle with his forces—
“Face me, enemy of the Great God!”
Morgui turned in surprise. A dark man clothed in armor stood behind him, sword and spear in his hands.
Somehow Gorn had run right up into the center to meet him, a sizable force covering his advance and warring against the Dairne-Reih in the open path. Morgui smiled at his boldness. At his ignorance. He could use a man like this. There were other worlds to conqueror, other Created Peoples to deceive.
“You have tormented Dionia for long enough,” Gorn declared. “Your tyranny ends today.”
Morgui chuckled. “Does it now? And who ends it?”
“The Most High.”
“Ha!” Morgui jerked. “The Lion? Look at him,” Morgui pointed a finger behind himself. “He stands when He should be charging, letting His lessers spill their blood for His cause.”
Gorn did not flinch.
“Even Luik is carried back to Him, wounded,” Morgui added. He could see Gorn’s eyes flicker then. He had touched him. He knew Gorn wanted to look over the heads of the Dairne-Reih and prove the Demon Lord’s words false. But it was impossible. It was a battle of wits, and Gorn had taken the bait, struggling even now with the truth of the matter.
Morgui towered over him and took a step forward. The hook was set, now it was time to bring him in. “Why serve a leader who allows His subjects to perish on His behalf?”
Gorn’s eyes flashed, and Morgui suspected he had won.
“My King does not need to fight,” Gorn paused, “when He can send me to fight for Him!”
Gorn bared his teeth and lunged forward. Morgui was surprised at the tenacity of the warrior but saw defeating him an easy chore. He extended his right arm and opened his hand. A blast of energy emanated from his palm and sent Gorn flying backward, tumbling into a heap of dust.
“Do not think you can best me, Gorn. You have no idea whom you are dealing with.” Morgui laughed as Gorn struggled to his feet. The demons stayed back with a wave of dismissal from their master.
“Need I know anything more than you are a traitor?” Gorn replied, and then charged again.
Morgui watched as Gorn made up the distance between them and once again extended his arm. As the wave came, Gorn rolled sideways and dove behind a Dairneag. The energy slammed against the monster and sent him tumbling to the ground.
Morgui looked for Gorn but he had vanished, only to appear a moment later on his left, barreling toward him with weapons poised.
Within striking range, Gorn jabbed with his spear at Morgui’s face. The Demon Lord leaned away and responded with his own attack, grabbing Gorn’s head in his fist. He used Gorn’s momentum to pull him forward and threw him, slamming his head into the ground.
“Join me,” Morgui offered. “I have use for one as tenacious as you.”
Gorn once again found his feet, shaking his head.
“I will make you powerful and wealthy! Surely these are things you desire?”
“Is this how you woo all your lovers?” Gorn spat in contempt.
Morgui did not reply.
It was then that Gorn saw Hadrian walking to a cart just behind Morgui. Morgui noticed the shift in Gorn’s eyes and made to move.
• • •
As Gorn was tossed aside and rolled in the dirt, he glanced back and saw Hadrian approaching the cart. Morgui turned to look at the dark-haired young man he had lured to his side. Hadrian, however, looked up in panic, one hand on the cart, the other hand fumbling with a lock of a wooden chest.
Gorn was confused. Morgui seemed to be eyeing Hadrian with contempt. But Hadrian was…
…perhaps no longer one of them?
…perhaps he had returned?
Suddenly Gorn felt he understood. At least a little.
He reached to his side where Morgui had tossed his spear. He grabbed the ash pole and called out, “Morgui!”
But Morgui was walking toward Hadrian.
“Blast!” Gorn said to himself. He hefted the spear once in his hand to feel the weight, gauged the distance, and then heaved the weapon through the air.
• • •
Hadrian didn’t know how to respond when he saw his father standing there outside the circle of men—men surely about to kill him for what he had done. He had been sent to lure the King to the darkness, and if not that, kill him. He thought he would make his master proud…
…but would it make his father proud?
It was a question neither Morgui nor Hadrian had thought he’d encounter.
“I see greatness in you, my son,” was all his father had said. That and, “I love you still.”
There was something about those words. Something that made him feel…
…like a child.
He was taken back to the days of his youth. Before he knew of evil. Before lust.
Things were simple again. It was all about him…
…and the Most High.
Visions of how things used to be flooded his mind, cascading over him like a torrent of rain, each drop a memory. He was bathed in a deluge of pictures.
Hadrian longed for those days again. How far away they seemed, no one but Hadrian could tell. If he could get them back, he would.
But it was impossible.
It was, at least, until his father stepped through the throng of warriors and stood before him.
“My son, come back.”
Hadrian just stared. His father did not look like usual. He looked more like…
…what he used to look like. Whole. Healthy. Full of life.
“Aye,” Jadak replied. “’Tis I, and I alone.”
Hadrian knew his father had returned to the Light. And he had scorned him for it. Yet he did not anticipate what he saw now. He did not anticipate life.
His father stretched wide his arms. “Come.”
In that moment Hadrian made a choice. The one he wanted to. The one he knew was right. His father drew closer, and Hadrian fell into him, throwing his arms around him.
“Oh, Ta na!” he said into his father’s shoulder, his chest heaving with great sobs. “I’m so sorry! What have I done?”
“There, there, my lad,” said his father.
“What have I done?”
“Nothing that cannot be undone,” his father said. “All is forgiven.”
Hadrian wept deeply. To hold his father once again in the face of all he had done was overwhelming. He had betrayed Luik, tortured Anorra’s sisters, and conspired against the Tribes of Ot. It was too much to be forgiven.
“Nay, Ta na. There are some things that cannot be undone,” Hadrian said, pulling away.
“My boy, all is well. You are back!”
“I have done many things, father. Things which I can never return from.”
“Nay,” he lifted a hand. “There is too much.”
His father made to speak, but Hadrian stared him down. Silence passed between them, and the warriors were growing restless.
“I know what I must do,” Hadrian finally said. He turned to Li-Saide. “I know it will be hard to forgive me for what I have done,” Hadrian said. “It was I who kept the roots alive, not Fane.” He looked to Fane and then back to the dwarf. “But perhaps what I am about to do will ease your bitterness.”
“I hold nothing against you,” Li-Saide said solemnly.
“Nay,” Hadrian winced, holding up a hand. “Just—please. Nothing more. Morgui still has more to his plan. Send axmen and torches back into Grandath.”
“Grandath?” Jrio wondered.
Li-Saide silenced him with a look.
“The other Tree lives, and Morgui will use it before this day is done.”
“Very well,” Li-Saide said. “But what are you going to do?”
“I am not so ignorant to think I can atone for the wrongs I have done.” He looked back to his father and mouthed the words I’m sorry. His father smiled. “But I can still make my life count for something.” He addressed all those surrounding him, weapons poised. “If you will allow me, let me go.”
The men mumbled to one another and looked to Li-Saide. This was foolishness!
“Please,” Hadrian turned to the dwarf. “Let me go back to Morgui. Give me one more chance.”
The dwarf thought hard. He looked to Hadrian’s father and then to Fane. He looked over to the White Lion and the women attending to Luik; Anorra was right beside him.
“I will not fail,” Hadrian said at last.
“For your own sake, you had better not,” Li-Saide answered. “Varos!”
“What are you doing?” Jrio yelled.
“Peace, Dibor!” Li-Saide pointed a finger. “Have you learned nothing of grace?”
“Grace? This is madness!” Jrio contested.
“Madness?” asked the dwarf. “Is it truly? Or is a man asking to walk back to the Lord of Darkness himself greater madness? You know as well as I that Morgui will kill him. It is a death sentence either way.”
Jrio had nothing more to say. But the dwarf continued.
“So if he is to die, let us think the best of our brother and only remember him under the anointing of the Most High.”
The last word made Hadrian turn. “C’symia.” He looked back to his father and embraced him a last time.
“Go,” Jadak said. “Make me proud.”
“I have stolen your pride, Ta na. But I will bring Him glory with my last breath.” He eyed the White Lion in the distance. To Him he whispered, “I will see You in Athera.”
• • •
“What do you think you’re doing?” Morgui asked Hadrian.
The words had no sooner left his mouth than a terrible pain ripped through his abdomen. Morgui glanced down and saw a spear protruding from his belly. He spun back and saw Gorn running forward.
“Fool!” Morgui shrieked. He raised both hands and filled the air with a shock wave that hurtled toward Gorn. But this time Gorn was prepared, and the Ancient Tongues were already in his mouth.
Morgui’s attack rippled through space and suddenly split apart, diverted like a river around a boulder. Gorn was still running ahead. In three more steps he leapt at Morgui, his sword driving for the demon’s head.
Morgui was late in reacting and just barely avoided the point, but not before the blade carved a line across the side of his face. He screamed and whipped his arm across Gorn’s body. Gorn grunted against the blow that sent him flying off into a mass of demons. As he rolled to the ground, he looked up to see Morgui looking for the traitor.
But Hadrian was gone, the wooden chest left wide open.
• • •
Hadrian ran for all he was worth. His legs pumped, and his heart beat loudly in his ears. He didn’t dare look behind him. He was too terrified.
The demons he squeezed between were far too consumed with the battle to even notice him. But still he felt as though the entire world was watching him. He had resigned himself to the fact that he would surely lose his life with this action, but for a moment he almost felt like he would survive. Like he would live.
His lungs burned, and his legs were tired. He could hear the sounds of battle up ahead, the front lines drawing close. Could he make it?
The Keys in his hands were heavy and far larger than he had expected. They shone a brilliant gold in the morning light, and while he wanted nothing more than to return them, he was tempted to sit down and admire their beauty. These were valuable, he knew. Why, exactly, he did not know. But they were worth living for.
Worth dying for.
Almost there, he thought.
Up ahead he could see demons engaged in mortal combat, exchanging blows with armored men. The eerie clicks and shrieks he had grown accustomed to suddenly seemed repulsive and detestable. He wanted nothing more than to burst through the lines and head to safety. To return these keys to their rightful Owner. He wanted to live.
A few more strides and he was against the backs of the foremost Dairneags. He ducked to avoid their swinging elbows and arms and searched for a gap to slip through unnoticed.
He spied a beast just cut down by the sword, stumbling backward and pushing those away that vied for its place. Hadrian was there in an instant, thinking only of escape, and bounded over the demon’s corpse.
The group of men on the other side were quite surprised to see Hadrian and raised their weapons, thinking he was one of the taken. But Fane shouted an order Hadrian could not make out. The men stood down, and Hadrian was through. He had done it!
But the same men who had watched him pass through suddenly grew pale as their eyes filled with terror. Hadrian looked in their faces and turned…
Racing forward was the pent-up fury of a legion of Dairne-Reih in the form of one demon—Morgui. He strode with lightning speed, smashing Dairneags on either side and flinging them high into the air.
Morgui’s eyes were fixed on Hadrian. The men around him backed away, stumbling in fear, until Hadrian stood alone.
But he was not finished.
Realizing he would never make it to the White Lion, Hadrian looked to Fane and threw him the Keys.
• • •
Everyone watched as the dazzling ring of golden instruments glittered through the air. Fane reached out his hands and caught them, eying the Keys in amazement. He looked up and saw Hadrian’s face, now adorned with a brilliant smile.
Hadrian had succeeded, just as he had said he would.
Fane smiled back, a look replaced a moment later with a look of terror as Morgui set upon Hadrian from behind.
One moment Hadrian was there, smiling at Fane; the next he was pummeled into the ground with one thrust of Morgui’s palm, the air filled with dust and blood.
• • •
Morgui stared at Hadrian’s remains with pleasure. But a moment later his lusts were craving again. He looked up and saw Fane.
Men fled from Morgui in all directions, scattering like ants in a rainstorm. Fane did not move, however, and stared back at the demon with defiance.
Morgui began stepping forward, his breath heavy.
“Give me the Keys, weakling,” Morgui demanded.
“Did someone make you the owner?” Fane replied.
Morgui stopped, appalled with this little man’s audacity. “I will pretend you did not say such a thing and tell you again. Give me those Keys.”
“Last I knew, they didn’t belong to you,” Fane said as Morgui marched forward. “You see, Someone else bought them. Apparently His offer couldn’t be matched.”
Morgui was seething now, words slurring in his mouth. He drew closer and closer to Fane. But the red-haired man did not move. Not in the least.
At last Morgui was upon him, and warriors were shouting for Fane to run. Morgui was waving off flying spears and deflecting a barrage of arrows. Nothing would keep him from his prize, certainly not this puny man before him. He towered over Fane and drew his arm back to strike. Strangely, Fane still did not move.
“Die!” Morgui screamed.
The blow came…but was stopped short. Morgui’s hand slammed against an unseen barrier just above Fane as if driving into solid granite. The concussion sent a wave of agony rippling through Morgui’s body. He let out a deafening yell, more from frustration than pain, and then looked down at Fane.
Fane, on the other hand, remained calm and stared up at the Lord of Haides.
“Didn’t you know I was a Mosfar born of Ad? I thought someone would have told you by now. You can’t destroy me so long as He is alive,” Fane pointed over his shoulder to the White Lion.
Morgui was furious. “Give me those Keys!” He shook with rage and started slamming his fists at Fane. But each blow came only so close before bouncing off the invisible shield around him.
Fane then turned and began walking toward the White Lion, Who yet remained away from the front lines. Morgui followed each step, breaking his hands in midair above Fane’s head. Nothing he could do allowed him to touch Fane in the least. He followed the little man blindly until Fane held fast.
Morgui looked up and all at once found himself standing before the Great White Lion. The battle stopped.
“I believe these belong to You,” Fane said and offered up the golden Keys to his Master.
– – –