Epilogue (Book 1): The Half-Men

The Forest of Kilrane was inhabited. Not just by mankind, but by others of a sort that fit neither fully into the races of men, nor in that of the animal kingdom.

The eyes of these inhabitants watched the progress of unwary travelers moving up and down the winding turns of the forest road from the darkness of the deep woods. These beings were not born of any natural order but existed under a curse that they themselves had brought upon their variant kinds by invading the Mid-World, in an ancient act of defiance.

These were the Half-Men. They had once been men and women of old, walking upon the Surface World in the days when the land was still young. Before they misused the knowledge given their patriarch to establish dominion over the earth and all its living creatures. Before they took the power of names and twisted it to perform abominations and perversions.

They were the direct descendants of Cain. Those who, in their desires to become gods, had given their daughters as wives to beings never meant to mingle with humankind in such ways. They were the ones who thought to bring their abominations and debaucheries into the pathways extending towards the Holy Mountain and offer their own sacrifices to The One who had decreed the curse. To appease the Holy One. To rectify their grandfather’s rejected offering of the bounty of the field with sacrifices of things that would bleed upon the altar of Heaven.

For each of their abuses in seizing the summoned animals and passing with them through the oculus gate into the Mid-World, these cursed men and women were ripped apart and remade into creatures that were no longer completely whole, either in body, mind, or reason.

For this wickedness, they were banished from the face of the earth, confined to the Mid-World, and would find the door of Heaven forever shut. By their insolence, they were cursed again to eternally age with the ravages of sin working through their hybrid bodies without the respite of a natural death that would free their souls from their corrupted bodies. And to their posterity who still remained in the Surface World, they left behind only the bloodied vestiges of what they once were when they dared to traverse from the land cursed by the sins of their patriarch to a place that existed outside of the lands deemed to mankind.

And when, in time, the sins and curse of their fathers reached maturation in the line of their children and the sickness had increased by each of their successive generations, the world was reshaped by water, upheaval and global cataclysm and all passages between the two worlds went dark.

Like the children born into the rebirth of Lamb are made citizens of and yearn for a Heavenly eternal realm, these cursed half-men lost in their depravity were displaced citizens of the buried world that had gone down into its own grave and they longed to return and die with it. They were witnesses to its destruction through mysterious mirroring waters that collected in pools within a mystical woodland. A Holy Wood.

But rather than repent of their evil, they fell even deeper into the darkness of their hearts. And in that apostasy, they heard, through the waters of the wood, a voice coming from a pool that also railed against The One as they did. A voice like that of an ancient serpent, back in the days of the First Garden. And they took up the voice and repeated its words in a mantra that gave succor to their anger. And they made that voice their own, joining its call to engage in a war against the Hosts of Heaven, and against the Promised Seed that would one day restore all authority and dominion to their rightful owners.

***

The first of these accursed apostates to follow “The Nomad” into the Mid-World was a man named Lamech, from among Cain’s lineage. He had followed the Way of Cain, a path of deceit and violence. When he found the place populated by a small family, he took from the Mid-World a wife out of time, named Zillah, whose name meant “buzzing shadow”.

He brought her to live as his second wife into the city of stone called Enoch by the one who had built it. And in time, she bore him a child which they gave two names for they believed he would be a man of two destinies. His first name was Tubalcain, for they believed he would serve to redeem the legacy of Cain. And for his second name, they chose the word “Pan”. Which meant “All”. For they believed that when he came of age he would with might and strength make all right again and break the curse that had hardened all the world against them. They believed he would be to the one to ultimately crush the head of the serpent.

And they raised him to believe it as well.

But his rise to power brought only desolation and the very judgments of heaven down upon all who followed him and all who would follow in his legacy.

As a young man, Tubalcain learned to harness the power of fire in the melting of ores and he fashioned the first forge of stone for pouring and shaping metal. And with that skill, he fashioned the first weapon designed to pierce and cut the flesh of all living creatures. And he taught others of his craft until he had gained a loyal following of both men and women committed to finding the hole in which the serpent had crawled through to escape the consequence for its ancient deception.

Eventually, Lamech, seeing that his son had grown into a man of influence, might, and power, took his son aside and told him of the secret paths he had learned were still in the high hills secretly following his grandfather in his mysterious nomadic wanderings. And of the mysterious place between the seen and unseen realms where he had taken his mother, from beyond the world of their fathers.

***

“But be very careful! You did not see the LORD’s form on the day he spoke to you from the heart of the fire at Mount Sinai. So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form–whether of a man or a woman, an animal on the ground, a bird in the sky, a small animal that scurries along the ground, or a fish in the deepest sea. And when you look up into the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars–all the forces of heaven–don’t be seduced into worshiping them. The LORD your God gave them to all the peoples of the earth. [Deuteronomy 4:15-19 NLT]

Epilogue (Book 2): The Fade

The woods were engulfed in the rage and roar of the fires burning and erupting from all around fastly encroaching upon the site of The Faerie Fade.  Two men were left standing in swirling hot wind amid thick clouds of smoke.

Jeremiah knelt down weeping over the body of Captain Lorgray, another dear friend lost to him all in pursuit of the dream of Excavatia.

“What do we do now?” Jeremiah asked Hanokh.

It had only been a few moments since O’Brian and his party of travelers vanished—drawn through the opened doorway into the sea of eyes.

“How do I get back to Azragoth to retrieve the Cordis Stone?  How do we take him back to his people?”

“Just wait and watch there,” Hanokh raised his massive arm, pointing to the fiery orbs hovering over the four posts of the now-empty Faerie Fade enclosure.

The living orbs moved in towards the four tree-posts, and the tops of the trees swayed as the circles of light burned into their trunks extending along and through the roof of the canopy.

The structure began to become effused with golden light as the rustic wood gave way to a golden structure beneath its woodland exterior, revealing its true form.

The gnarled twisted saplings forming the shapes and edifices in the ceiling and walls of The Faerie Fade began to be smooth tracery of ornate metalwork, keeping the same pattern and design, but exuding a polished and clean translucence, like that of molded glass.

“Stand back,” Hanokh warned, helping Jeremiah rise, and kneeling to lift the body of Captain Lorgray onto his broad shoulder.

The tops of the trees, comprising the four posts of The Faerie Fade began to sway and then lean outward away from the central covering.  Then with a mighty crunching and crackling noise the four tops of the trees crashed into the surrounding treetops and fell away from the structure, their trunks cut smoothly from the top of the covering and down into the ground surrounding the shining structure emerging from within.  It was almost as if the fallen trees were bowing in the four cardinal directions of the land.

Then the structure began to rise, underneath the four glowing orbs as if it were being lifted off of the ground where it had been rooted for so long.

The rising structure began to lean and roll before them, but the four orbs set at the tops of the four ceiling posts did not appear to turn.  The two on the left lowered, tilting and the other two on the right rose above, inverting the floating structure until what was once the ceiling was now the golden floor swimming with dazzling flashes of light and power.  The opposite wall remained only the central doorway was righted, rather than inverted and the whole of the structure rested upon the four orbs of light.

The Pan and the dryads and satyrs crawled and cowered in the periphery, away from the mysterious structure, terrified of the four Faeries that seemed to comprise the living wheels of the shimmering structure.

Hanokh supported Jeremiah, whose legs and knees were still weakened, not so much from their grueling strain but also from his own fright and awe of what was happening with The Faerie Fade and its joining with the four guardians below it.

“The chariot awaits,” Hanokh said, moving forward towards the dramatically revealed carriage.

“How can this be?  We cannot go into that.  It is too dangerous.  No man may touch the Faeries,” Jeremiah stammered.

“Then how do you explain how the prophet Elijah came here to the Mid-World?”

“Then this is the…?”

“The very same.”

The Bloodline – Chapter 70

The Pan rose to its full height and roared, “Very well!  If you will not come out of there or send the young girl out, I will kill these men before your very eyes!”

The threat horrified them into terrified silence, as the massive beast-man turned to see both Jeremiah and I standing and his guard satyrs lying dead at our feet.

Enraged, he began to lunge forward, then stopped short, seeing the large and imposing mountain of a man standing just behind us.

The creature roared in frustration, its veins standing out upon its brow, its arms flexed and powerfully throbbing with its pulse-pounding rage.

“Uncle!  Why are you here?!”

I turned and stared at Hanokh in shock, but the man was unfazed by the kinship reference.

“Pan, son of Lamech, you are standing against the will of the Almighty.  These men and their calling will not be stopped by the likes of you or your kind.  If you strike the Lord’s anointed, you will be recompensed blow for blow.  Now stand aside and let these men through to the chariot.”

“NO!” he raged, raising both of its clenched fists to the sky, and the ground below trembled with the sound.

“I am cursed already!  What more can be done to me?!  I defy The One, and all who would follow in His name or His call!”

And with that bellowed declaration, he grabbed one of the dryads standing next to him and lifted her bodily up and strode forward towards enflamed brush twisting and roaring with crackling fire.  He slung her screaming, head and hair into the flames, igniting the top half of her writhing body and brandished her defiantly before us like a blazing torch.

He tore up some dried brush and pushed a mound of fallen leaves towards us igniting them with the burning, writhing dryad.

The leaves burst into roaring flames creating a wall of fire between us and The Pan, further separating us from The Faerie Fade covering my friends.

I had heard that The Faerie Fade offered some kind of supernatural protection.  That it was rumored to be a portal and housed some unseen gateway within, and I hoped the stories had been true for now the lives of my dear friends depended on it.

For some reason, neither The Pan or his followers were rushing in to snatch them and drag them out from under the strange covering.

Over the rumbling of the flames, I heard Miray wailing and the others shouting to us, and I shouted back.

“Go in!” I yelled to them, “Go on without me!  Save yourselves!”

“No!  We are not going without you, Mister O’Brian!  We’re not leaving!”

The Pan turned and directed the satyrs and the troll, barking commands I could not clearly make out.

The satyrs scattered all around the canopy, but it was growing more difficult seeing them clearly through the rising wall of fire and shimmering heat vapors.  They were up to something terrible and then the Honor Sword flashed with light in my hand.

Words of the Ancient Text arose from the blade, shining in brilliance.

10 Who among you fears the LORD and listens to his servant? Who among you walks in darkness, and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD; let him lean on his God. 11 Look, all you who kindle a fire, who encircle yourselves with torches; walk in the light of your fire and of the torches you have lit! This is what you’ll get from my hand: you will lie down in a place of torment.  [Isaiah 50:10-11 CSB]

Hanokh clapped his hands on Jeremiah’s and my shoulders, turning us away from the fire to face him.

“Why are you both here in the Mid-World?  What is your mission here?”

“We were called here.  To find and bring the keys to the gate in the far mountains.  To allow the kingdom of Excavatia to flow into the Mid-World,” Jeremiah answered.

“And why is that important?  What do you hope for in pursuing such a dangerous quest?  Why is what happens here in the Mid-World of the Soul so important in the Surface World of the flesh?  Why is the Kingdom of Excavatia so important that it must be opened, by carrying Faith, by Love, towards Hope to bring forth the Light and Life of The One into and through each of you.”

A clarity struck my heart and I answered him, “Because our world has grown so dark.  It has become harder to find the Light of Hope.  We’ve allowed so many other things to preoccupy our lives that we lost sight of the most important things, and all our dreams are dying and turning into nightmares.   Our stories are being put out because the Flame no longer reaches us.  The Word comes through so many other filters that it only reaches us in a diluted glow.”

Hanokh stood and smiled, “So then, Brian, I will ask you as The One asked Moses as he stood before the flames of a burning bush.  What do you have in your hands?  What possessions do you carry?”

I unwrapped and pulled the cinched bag from my waistband and held it up.

“I have this stone and this sword.  Nothing more.”

“In those two things you have symbolized everything that is required of you to lead this mission and fulfill your calling.”

“I do not understand.”

“Show me the sword.”

I began to unwrap the bloodline sash from my forearm, but he stayed my hand.

“Keep that secure.  You do not wish to remove that.  Do you not understand why this crimson material is joined to the blade and to be joined to you?”

The red sash was wrapped and crossed at the nexus of the hilt and the crossguard and left to hang and flow loosely until it was fastened to the hand of the bearer.

“I thought it was to symbolize my commitment to the quest and to keep me from dropping it in a protracted fight.”

“It is much more than that.  Every time you take up this Sword, you may wield it in a fight, but when you join yourself to it, by wrapping this Bloodline around your arm you are acknowledging that you have become identified with the family and the purpose for which this blade was forged.  You are grafted into the family line by blood.  You are a part of it, even as it becomes a part of you.  When you say you follow The One, you do well, but when you show that you are of the Family and Bloodline of The One, you are identifying as something much more.  You identify with His Sufferings, His Scorn, and the world’s rejection of Him, but you will also identify with His Ultimate Victory.  Now show me the blade.”

I held it up for him to see and he pointed me to the center of the blade shining in the firelight.

“Do you know the metal of the blade in your sword there has a deep groove down the center?  Do you understand its purpose and the reason it was forged and hammered there?”

“I have heard it called the Blood gutter.  That it channels the blood of an enemy down to the end of the blade to be slung away when it is withdrawn from the wounding.”

“That is not the reason, nor does it do what you have assumed it does.  The groove is there to both strengthen the blade and keep it lightweight enough for the swordsman to wield it.  A swordsman cannot do battle if the blade is too heavy to bear.  That is why the metal is reduced in the center, and the weight is made lighter so you can bear it and it extends downward from the crossguard.  Your weight, your calling is made lighter to bear because it extends outward from the cross.  The Pearl you carry–the Fidelis gate stone–all that you value, belongs in the fuller of the blade.  The weight of your burdens, your failings, your feelings of loss, were handled at The Cross.  Your Faith, your Fidelis, and Fealty begin at The Cross where the Eternal Covenant was brokered.  The weight of your life debt and the burden of your calling has been taken out of The Honor Sword and in the cavity of the groove, you will find the Living Word written there giving you the direction you need for the moments in which you need them.  If you want to find a way to save those you claim to love, to lead them, you will find The Way to them written there.

“Now show me the stone you carry.”

I let the sword dangle from my hand, affixed to the Bloodline, and together with my other hand, I pulled out the Fidelis Stone from the leather pouch.

“What have you been told of this stone–this pearl of great price?”

“That it has no power in and of itself.  That the power of The One comes through it, in service to the calling.”

“You have been told the truth.  But there is more to it.  What is this stone called and why do you think it is here in the form of a pearl?”

“We were told it is called the Fidelis Stone or the Faith stone.  I do not know why it is in the form of a pearl.”

“It takes the form of a pearl because it is forged in trial and adversity.  In the Surface World, a pearl is formed around a single grain of sand which irritates the soft tender part of a mollusk.  The sea creature struggles to eject the thing that is causing it such discomfort.  Through its struggle, the grain of sand repeatedly scrapes the interior shell of the mollusk, as the tender muscle strives to push it away from its tender lining.  Eventually, with time, the grain is coated with the smooth inner polish of the shell that was used to guard the most tender parts of its being.  It is the same thing with mankind.  Faith is born in adversity, its gloss, and unique opalescent shine comes within the difficulties that make us uncomfortable.  We keep our struggles within, under the exterior of an outward shell meant to protect us.  Each covering of the irritant, each layer smoothed through difficulty adds dimension and increases the diameter of the pearl that is formed around a simple grain of sand.  And, by degree, it also increases its value.  The layers covering over a man who learns to deal with adversity which takes a part of his outer shell away to make its way smooth is his story meant to be shared to encourage others, harboring their own pain.  That is why a pearl is its most appropriate representation in the Mid-World.  It is important, for you, and for those you lead to feel the liberty of sharing and owning their own stories.  As they join you in this seeking of the hidden kingdom, their lives, their contributions, and the importance of their stories will be made more clear before the journey’s end.  You will grow to love them more as each of you are more willing to share these gifts with each other.”

Tears fell from my eyes as I nodded in understanding at last.

“And what do you place your faith in?  How do you propose to use this stone for the quest?”

“I carry it in this,” I said raising the bag and starting to pick at the thread along the edge intending to show him the hidden map inside.

“I do not mean that,” Hanokh said, placing his massive hand over mine.

“I asked you in what you place your faith,” he said looking directly and intensely into my eyes, “The stone is a symbol and a lesson.  Here in the Mid-World, the concept and the form are made into one to teach you to see the truth of your own condition.  A person may put their faith into many things, but only one pursuit and one way matters enough to make a difference for seeking the promised realm of Excavatia.  You bear two symbols of your quest and your calling in your hands.  Think about how you will join them.  What did you do with the Pearl thus far that has shone you how to use it.”

“I do not know how to make it work.  I only released it into the waters of the Trathorn, and there it moved and froze the surface of the waters.”

“And that is exactly how meaningful faith is to be applied.  It is not possessed but must release to accomplish its work.  You do not own faith.  You give it for a purpose.  You set it free in the direction of hope.  That is how you place your faith.”

“So should the sword and the pearl be used together?”

“Yes.  Kneel before the rising flames ahead, and set your sword flat on the ground before you.  Take the Fidelis stone in your other hand and set it along the fuller groove of the Honor Sword, beginning at the Crossguard of the weapon.”

***

The Pan and satyrs scurried about collecting brush from the woods where the fires had not yet reached.  With their sickle and scythe weapons, they tore up brambles and cut dried brush and swiftly carried and dragged their kindling to the sides of the Faerie Fade.

“What are they doing?!” Laura asked, terrified.

Tiernan answered, “They’re building a bonfire around us.  If they cannot come in, they will either smoke us or burn us out.”

Matthew responded, “We’re gonna die if we don’t go on like Mister O’Brian said.”

Miray was weeping into Nell’s neck, “No, no, no!  We can’t leave him.  We can’t!”

Mason patted her back, unable to offer her any words, but his hand was reassuring.

“He’s right,” Maeven said, “Much as I hate to admit it, we have no choice, but to go on without them.”

Begglar jaw was set as he squinted out beyond the fire to the sight of Hanokh standing above the heightening wall of fire.

“Ah, Lad,” he muttered, “I so wish it hanna come ta this!  Nellus, is there any way your grandfather might be able to get them through to us?”

“Dear, I do not know.  He is ancient and wise, but this is beyond human help.”

***

I approached the rising inferno as instructed, as close as I could, without standing directly in the fire.  The hair of my head and beard curled in the intense waves of heal pushing me back farther away from my friends as the burning swath widened the gap between me and The Pan and The Faerie Fade.  I knelt before the crawling flames, surrendering my safety and trusting only in the words that stirred my heart to action.

From behind me, I heard Hanokh say, “Now raise the Cross and release the Pearl of Faith from your hand and you will see what you must do.”

As I raised the hilt of the Honor Sword, effusive light pulsed from my arm, through the Bloodline and the Pearl rolled down the Fuller groove of the Honor Sword towards the bare ground.  As soon as it touched the ground, clearing the tip of the blade, it ignited in a blinding light.  From the glare, I could not tell by sight if the Pearl continued to roll forward, but in my spirit I sensed that it did, moving on up the hill and into the wall of fire towards The Pan and The Faerie Fade beyond him.

***

The flash of light leaping up from the ground startled the satyrs and The Pan from their furious labors.  They turned to face the firewall, but with The Pan’s newly restored sight, the blinding corona moving toward him was unbearable and burned retinal ghosts in his vision flaring pain that caused him to dive away.  From all sides, the satyrs scattered, turning away, the dryads curl in on themselves, twisting and torquing away from the rod of light extending towards them through the fire.

Much as The Pan wanted to it could no longer stand in its path.  It stumbled and fell to its knees before the light as four large glowing orbs descended from the top of the forest above, vibrating with energy and light.

The guardians of The Faerie Fade had returned to the gate within the forest of Kilrane.

***

I could not see.  The white light was too intense.

“Now walk forward, following your faith,” Hanokh said.

“But I cannot see,” I protested, “How will I…?”

“You do not have to.  Close your eyes.  Walk in the light.  Do not turn to the left or the right.  Move forward.”

I stepped forward and felt a calming and the grasp of the Honor Sword in my hand.

A resonance of the Word spoke in my heart, and I spoke those words aloud as I walked blindly through the rising flames.

105 Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path. [Psalms 119:105 CSB]

I thought of The Pan waiting to grab me on the other side of the wall of fire, building an inferno around the Faerie Fade sacrificing my friends to himself upon an altar he built for himself.  And the Word arose again in my heart.

20 “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his estate, his possessions are secure.  [Luke 11:20-21 CSB]

A strong man, fully armed.  Those words stuck in my throat and I could barely breathe.  I was carrying a Sword of Honor, in which The Words of Truth moved mysteriously in and through my mind and my heart.  I was shielded from the surrounding flames of a raging forest fire, walking under the protection of faith quenching those flames from destroying me.  Strong man.  I had always believed myself to be weak, but I was being reforged and lifted up to the meaning of the name by which I was called.  Brian.  A name meaning–Strong.

This quest, this journey, this walk by faith was changing me in ways I never would have believed were possible.  This call by The One was making me into who I was always meant to be.

My name is Brian.  My name means Strong.

***

Whirling and dangerous flashes of light hovered at the four corner posts of the Faerie Fade waiting as I emerged blindly from the light caring the Honor Sword before me the mysterious Pearl at my feet.

“Hurry!  There is no time to waste!  Hold hands quickly!” Nell admonished, her breaths coming shallow and fast.

“You might not want to look through the door.  It is…  Well, just hold tight to each other and make sure the kids close their eyes.  That means you too, sweet Miray!  Trust me.  Laura, Christopher, Tiernan, you too.”

“Just what exactly could be behind there?!  There’s nothing beyond this flimsy wall!”

“There is, but it is for us and not against us,” Begglar said, “Grown men–battle-hardened warriors–quake in fear of it.  If you are squeamish at all, you might just close your eyes until we’re through the portal.  If we open this door, there is no going back, no matter what you see and are tempted to do.”

I caught Begglar’s eye and we exchanged a knowing look.  We’d seen what was on the other side in a different context and place than in this arboreal setting.  We know what it was capable of, and the terror it could bring to enemies of The Most High.
It wasn’t easy to describe even by modern standards, and its descriptions in the Ancient Text were confusing at best, though the Surface World prophets Ezekial and Elisha had done a good job of what they had observed, as had John the Revelator.  Elijah had been probably one of the few to ever encounter it directly and survived to tell the tale, but he was so shaken by the experience that he was silent for a good many days afterward.
Begglar put his hand shakily on the door handle and took in a deep breath.  Nell and Dominick embraced him under his large free arm and Maeven held Laura and Miray against her, feeling Nell’s arm encircling her as well.  Matthew, Mason, Tiernan, and Christopher were encircled by James who also held fast to the back of Begglar’s arm.  Lindsey pressed in among the gathering, enclosing the circle of Maeven’s arms around the others but still struggling with whether or not to close her eyes or try to keep them open.  She so wanted to be brave enough, but Begglar’s statement about “battle-hardened men”, had made her doubt the wisdom of her choice.  Christie thrust her arm into the circle, hooked her elbow around Jame’s tense bicep and held out her hand to me.  The look in her eyes was a mix of fear and bravery swirling within a brothy stew of courage and determination.  A look I had come to call her “She-Bear” look.
That was my cue.

I turned back to the wall of a man standing between myself and Jeremiah.  The area in which I had walked through the fire was cleared of debris and only bare ground separated me from them.
“Don’t worry,” he rumbled, “I will ensure he gets back to Azragoth safely, and I will find the boy and the others.”

The firelights rose and vibrated in a strobing flash of white light that caused everything around us to dim in its intensity.  The Pan and his crew of halflings covered and bowed low, covering their head and face with their arms and hands trying to hide from its piercing light.  The way was open.  A path between the cowering creature abominations and the front of the Faery Fade canopy.  So I ran as Begglar turned the handle on the inner door portal.  I bounded and leaped across the threshold, catching Christie’s hand as I skidded under the covering.  As the door opened, those of us facing it, daring to look at what lay beyond gasped collectively as the gap widened.  We saw through the portal as if strangely peering into our own fragmented reflections.

Beyond was a virtual sea of wide-opened-eyes, moving, floating, fluttering…

As we were swept into the portal, I could see that these were not eyes at all.

They were oculus.

*** End of Part 1 ***

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.” ISAIAH‬ ‭43:2‬ ‭AMP‬‬

Author’s Note:

The canopy of the Faerie Fade represents the shift from a committed relationship into a covenant relationship which has greater roots than hills and mountain and will endure.

“For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, But My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, Nor will My covenant of peace be shaken,” Says the LORD who has compassion on you.” ‭‭ISAIAH‬ ‭54:10‬ ‭AMP‬‬

Commitment is based on our efforts and will.

Covenant is the enjoining of those under God’s holding and empowerment making Him central to the relationship.

Join us to see how that unfolds in Excavatia Book 2: A Swirl of Embers.

Miray’s Memories – Chapter 69

Her memories came forward, like ancient ships emerging from a sea-borne fog.

Miray could see again, in the way she had been able to before finding herself upon a beach in this strange and lonely place.

She had gone to sleep, surrounded by her mother and father, and the nice nurses and Dr. Benton.  She had tried her best to make sense out of what they were saying, but she only caught bits and parts of the conversation.

The small tubes taped to her hand and the pinching stick, the curly-hair girl with the pretty eyes poked her with, made her arm feel so cold.  The liquid moving through the pipe, from the water balloon hanging on the beeping robot pole, made her so sleepy.

“She is such an extraordinary little girl.  A statistical phenomenon.  If it weren’t for this tumor…”

“Please, doctor.”

“Yes, of course.  She is such a brave little girl and she is strong.  We’ll keep her constantly monitored.  There has to be some reason that sedation is affecting…”

Her father pursed his lips and the doctor went silent again.  It was very hard for him.  Miray could sense his struggle, trying to remain dispassionate and retreat into the science, but it was hard shutting down the capacity to feel both fear and anger.

When others viewed Dr. Benton as cold and judged him to be unfeeling, they just did not understand the man.  Being a pediatric brain surgeon, a good one, required the ability to separate the complexity of the condition from the fact that this aggressive threat was coming against a young and defenseless child.  He hated sounding removed from the parent’s pain, but he had to remain calm and methodically confront the terror of untenable outcomes.

He wished he had a way to entirely turn off any distractions and hyper-focus on what might be accelerating the growth of the mass in her diencephalon pressing against her epithalamus, causing the hyperactivity in her pineal gland.  That could explain how her eidetic memory shifted and expanded to the rarer form of photographic memory, but there was something much more going on.  Something esoteric.  The visions were beyond current scientific explanation and defied statistical probabilities.  He had many heated debates with his colleagues over the existence of this phenomenon.

Even among those who believed it was possible, there was division over whether or not this condition was linked to high intelligence or the cognitively impaired as there was well-reviewed, published and corroborated research that blurred those correlations.

Benton was of the opinion that the human mind had the ability to adapt given the circumstances and that the survival instinct and will set off a series of chemical and hormonal reactions, which could create these types of phenomena in certain subjects receptively and morally conditioned to receive and believe in the possibility of hope.

The induced coma only bought them some time.  But it was no solution.  There had to be a link between her melatonin production and her body’s immune system impeding the growth rate.  As long as she slept and her pineal gland naturally produced the increased level of melatonin, the tumor ceased growing.  Why that should be was unclear.  There had to be a link somewhere further down the line, specifically in the resulting increased production of serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter.  In short, she had to sleep to activate her own healing.  And not just sleep but fall into the deeper REM state for as long as possible without interruption.

The lights in her room were kept low.  All visitors to her room were encouraged to put away their cell phones or put them on airplane mode to reduce the electromagnetic frequencies that could inhibit the full endocrinal function of her pineal gland.  Scientific strides had been made, but there was so much still unknown about its higher functions.

That tiny mysterious organ was what even the philosopher Descartes called the “principle seat of the human soul”.  Pine cone-shaped, reddish-gray and averaging about a third of an inch long, this tiny organ was suspected by some to hold the key to unlocking some of the mind and body’s most mysterious connections to the supernatural world.

Modern mystics believed it was the key to self-healing and realizing psychic powers such as clairvoyance and transcendental meditation.  Ancient Hindu mystics characterized the pineal gland as the inner third-eye, a mystical chakra traditionally positioned behind the occipital brow in the center of a person’s forehead.  The gland was in part comprised of optical tissue linked to the retina lending certain credence to the religious characterization of it.

A lot of what the doctor said and tried to explain to her parents did not make much sense to her, but she could reproduce the conversation verbatim if asked.

Here in the Mid-World, however, she knew that she had to expose this monster for who she really was.

Becca was dead.  She knew that now.  Becca was lost at sea.  Drowned.

They should have never played with those lifeboats.

Their parents had warned them not to get into trouble, while they played on the deck, but Becca loved climbing and getting into places she was not supposed to.

When the lifeboat fell from the ship, both she and Becca had been rocking it side to side, laughing and scaring each other as the small boat swayed in its deck harness.

When it dropped, they had been trapped in the canvass cover and knocked unconscious when the boat slammed to the water, twenty feet below.

The back of Miray’s head still bore the knot of striking the hard seat, and the headaches had started shortly thereafter.

She had received medical attention aboard the cruise ship, but she had to wait until they returned to the mainland before she could have a full cat-scan and MRI done.

What they found was a high threshold of neural activity and the presence of a dark mass that prompted her referral to a specialist at the Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, Dr. Ralph Benton.

***

My fingers found the hilt of the Honor Sword.

The moment I touched the crossguard, the blade flashed as if ignited by an arc welder’s flux-covered rod.  The runes on the blade became spinning symbols of words and letters of light that signified an ancient language and then clarified into letters I could understand and comprehend.

All this time I had carried a sword of the covenant by my side and never realized that the words stamped upon it were alive and resonating with a message pertinent to me.  Ancient words, from the Ancient Text, written upon the blade even as they were written in my heart.

The swirling ash grit, stinging smoke, and white flaring spots of having been struck multiple times in the head blurred my vision and a part of me wanted only to give up and await what long darkness would soon follow.  The pulsing light on the blade hummed, growing from a low decibel thrum then rising to a sweetening, softer note as if a chord set of piano keys had been lightly struck and emanated a harmonious vibration.  I blinked away the wetness of tears, surrendering to the message in the lights and in the vibrating notes that, in spite of everything, worked to calm my inner spirit.

My vision cleared as if my head surfaced out of a deep lake, allowing me that first and vital intake of air, clearing my mind as well.  The words rose before me, mirroring a calm and gentle voice within my heart, and I read them aloud to my very soul.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. [John 15:5 NET]

I heard the pleading voice of a child calling to me in the distance.

A simple shift in thought caused me to remember what I had said to Jeremiah along the road in affirmation of what he had been telling me.

“Connection is key.”

The key to all of it was Connection.  All things severed from connection to The Source, The One, were in death throes.  Life comes through connection to The One and through direct fellowship with The One.  The Honor Sword exhibits the power of the quickening when it is bound to the arm of the one called to lead, and by their connection to obedience to The One.

I had admonished myself with those words in concept but had failed to grasp them in practical terms.

The runes flashed and rose again, continuing in gentleness to teach me.

“6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.”  [John 15:6 NET]

Just like the dead leaves, on the ground before me, had fallen because they lost their attachment from the tree, torn asunder by the buffeting winds, I could no longer lead these others to live out this quest without the Life being allowed to live in me.

The fires of the forest around us threatened us physically, the same as they did spiritually from within each of us.

The runes on the sword flashed and changed once more.

“7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.”  [John 15:7-8 NET]

His Words, His Person, His Being, His Name and His Life.  All were synonymous with Who He is.  Of all my struggles to know and understand what was being asked of me in my calling to a place of leadership, I had failed to grasp the singular, most important part of all.  The symbol of the stone I had believed to be lost, was elsewhere and had never been lost.  Only my presumption had assumed it so.  The runes rose again, this time reminding me of the truth of the One’s call and the reason for it, and the protection promised within it.

9 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. 10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. 12 My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.  [John 15:9-13 NET]

I spoke quietly to Jeremiah who lay to my left.

“Jeremiah?”

He huffed a breath, wheezing in pain, his body bruised and battered, his legs throbbing in pain.

“What does that golem have in that bejeweled case, if it is not The Cordis Stone?”

Jeremiah attempted to pull his arms up, rising on his forearms, but his strength failed.

“She has an Aspect stone only.”

“What does that mean?”

“There are three Aspect stones related to The Cordis Stone.  If they are removed too far from it, they will harden and become only dead stones again.  Gravestones.”

“Then why do they shine and glow with a red light?”

“They are responsive stones, that shine because of semblances, but they are not themselves the heart.  That is The Cordis Stone, and The Cordis Stone does not shine with its own light.  That is how I knew the golem girl does not possess it.  She holds an Aspect stone only.  When she takes it away from here its light will go out.”

I thought about this a moment.  The Pan had turned its back on us for its interest lay in what was happening around The Faerie Fade.

“Then the stone Caleb and I took was an Aspect stone.”

“Yes.  The three Aspect stones are éros, philía, and storgē.  The two of you, my brother by blood, and my brother by covenant took the philía stone.”

“Then which one does the Torlah creature have?”

“The storgē stone.  The empathy bond.  She and The Pan will twist it to their wills, to cause great deception, if they ever realize its significance.”

“Will it not harden and lose its significance when they take it?”

“When they kill us, all of these stones will go dark and silent.  As I told you, the power of the stones is not coming from within but through them.  We are the called of The One.  It is His Life and His Power actualized within our connection to Him, that causes these stones to bear the signs of that witness.  Our deaths will deny The Pan and his cursed Half-men the ability to get what he wants most.  A way back into The Surface World.”

“So one Aspect stone remains if the other two in The Pan’s collection go dead.”

“Yes.  And it is perhaps one of the most deadly of the Aspect stones.  The éros stone.”

“Eros.  Doesn’t that represent sexual love?”

“Yes, and that is why it is so dangerous if it falls into the hands of the kingdom of the Half-Men races.  Even though they have unnaturally long lives, they can be injured and killed.   If they gain the éros aspect stone and remain within proximity of Azragoth to prevent it from dying, they will become fertile again and eventually overrun The Mid-World with their savage brood, killing every last human that remains, ensuring that no future stone quest for Excavatia will survive the journey to the far mountain.”

“How far do the Aspect stones have to be from The Cordis stone to remain viable?”

“As long as you and I breathe, we carry within ourselves the Light of the Worlds.  The distance is in relation to us.  It only matters in relation to The Cordis stone if we are dead.  If The Pan kills us and takes the Aspect stone out of Kilrane, which it will have to because of the fires, the storgē stone will die and those Xarmnian soldiers will most likely kill them.  It is my hope anyway.  Maeven and her Lehi rescued Corimanth out of Xarm City, but Jahazah has not forgotten that insult.  And now with their Builder stones, being torn from their fortified holds, it gives him the excuse to track and hunt down the Lehi and Storm Hawk.  And someone from within the resistance has been sending them letters of just where they might start looking to pick up the trail that ran cold.”

“Where is The Cordis Stone?  You said it was under Azragoth.”

“It is safe enough from golems.  They are not of this world and even they have their limits.”

***

The Pan and satyrs encircled the Faerie Fade covering moving around it, cutting off all possible means of escape.

Miray ducked her head into Nell’s shoulder, terrified of the cruel and massive form of The Pan.

Begglar had succeeded in drawing the group back up under the canopy before the dryads, troll, and menacing golem could cut them off from retreat.

Begglar stood defiantly, blocking his wife, the small child and other women from the black-eyed glared of The Pan, shielding them from whatever attack was to come.  The young men, Dominic, Matthew, Mason, James, Tiernan, and even Christopher, nursing his wound but leaning against the right-front post, joined Begglar in forming a protective shield of their bodies around the women.

“Do you think, foolish man, that this flimsy structure will protect you from me?” The Pan laughed, and the company of dryads and satyrs laughed in response.

“What is this collection of twigs and sticks that you would wager your pathetic lives on?  Do you not know what power I have over all things that grow from the ground and crawl and skitter upon these lands?  I am a god here.  Your lives are mine to dispose of or to show mercy to.  Come out from under there and beg me now for your lives and I may yet let you live.”

Beyond the top of the hillside rise, the glow of the fires and the forest rose, sending waves of shimmering heat down through the trees and woods.

“The fires are coming,” The Pan raised his dark arms expansively, “and yet you outworlders cower beneath the kindling for a bonfire.  Do you not know that I have the power to save you from what is coming?”

Miray had, at last, turned her face back towards the gathering and took in a deep breath, “You let Mister O’Brian and Jeremiah go!  They did not do anything to you!”

Torlah moved towards the canopy, her face aging and her stature elongating to resemble that of the elderly Noadiah, that Nell had recognized.

“Give me the child, Nellus,” she said, “and we will let you all go free.  Her life for all of you.  Your son, your husband who I seemed to remember now from days gone by.”

She moved closer, staring closely at Begglar, just feet away from the edge of the canopy, “A sea captain, was he not?  Or, rather,” she chuckled, “a pirate.”

“You are not Noadiah, creature,” Begglar growled, “Noadiah died at sea.  She drowned.  Her body was never recovered.  I do not know exactly what you are, but you are not her.”

The form of the old woman cackled and spun herself around, opening her arms and then drawing them in fisted.

“I was Noadiah for a time,” and then she turned abruptly, her eyes feral and angry, “and then…your quests threatened everything in our world.  Your presence drew the Xarmnians into our towns, gathering our people and marching them up to that terrible place of the Bloodstone Marker, where our people were slaughtered by the thousands because they dared to believe in the Hope of a fairy tale your kind spread like an infection into our world.  It is not enough that you wreck and destroy things in your own place.”

She raised and stabbed an accusing finger at him, “Oh no!  You had to stir up trouble here.  Thousands have died because of your kind!  You have meddled in our affairs long enough.  The skull mounds piled upon that death site were the family and friends, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons of the native people living here, long before the Xarmnians and Capitalians came.  Now give us the child and return to your lands and you will live.”

Nell hugged Miray and then set her down, holding her hand, yet freeing an arm to lift a sword defiantly, “You are not taking this child from us without a fight.”

“Then you will die!” the Noadiah faced golem hissed and turned.

“Why do you want this girl?!” Laura yelled at the golem, “You can take me!  I have very little to live for, anyway.  I am useless here.  Let these others live!”

Lindsey grabbed Laura’s arm, “No Laura!  Don’t do this.”

But Laura struggled to get free and break through from behind the protective circle of the men.

The golem creature tore at her hair spitting at them in hatred, “Because she has the ability to remember it all!  No one will believe her as a child, but she will remember long after that!  She must die here to forget it all!”

“No one has to go,” Christie said quietly, joining Lindsey in holding Laura back from what she thought she wanted, “Stay under the canopy.”

Grum-Blud pushed himself into the circle between the wooden legs of a tall dryad.  A low-lying tendril snaked along the ground under the rolling steps of the squat man, earnestly seeking a much smaller foot to snag.

“Master, send me in there,” Grum-Blud growled, striving to make himself useful, “I will flush these quivering quail out for you!”

As he approached, Laura saw the creeper vine, slithering across the leaves, winding its way towards Miray’s tennis shoes.

“Look there!” Laura shouted pointing and the twisting green vine moving beneath Grum-Blud’s feet.

All saw it snap forward, extending like a lunging viper, between the troll’s short legs, and Grum-Blud reacted in fright, skipping away from it, no doubt believing it to be one of the slithering serpents that had so traumatized him when he had fallen into the swampy waters of the woodland slough.

As soon as the vine touched the threshold of The Faerie Fade’s dirt floor, however, the green shoot burst into white-hot flame.  The length of the vine, extended from one of the dryads blackened and curled into smoke, and the dryad quaked violently and twisted in roiling agony letting out a shriek, as it crumbled and crackled from within.

In the distraction of the moment, the golem rushed the canopy and growled, “Give me the girl!”

But her forward momentum and reaching arms suddenly solidified as her clawing fingers crossed the invisible threshold above the dirt floor and beneath the edge of the canopy.  A crystalline white and yellow powder hardened and stretched over the semblance of malleable flesh that made up the body of Torlah.  Her stricken and angry face hardened into the yellowish-white crystal, sparkling under the gathering firelight that grew to a flaming height around them.

Something really was protecting the strange structure, and The Pan and satyrs and other dryads jumped back from the suddenness of the turnabout of events.

***

Maeven had held her bow taut, wanting to pierce the impudent taunting shape-shifter with a piercing arrow, but she had seen what had happened with the other golem harassing O’Brian, Jeremiah and Captain Lorgray at the base of the hill.  It had wanted to be pierced and when Lorgray had complied, it had dissolved and its essence was taken in by The Pan, restoring to it the use of its eyes.  There was no telling what advantage shooting this one would also give back to The Pan, so much as she had wanted to, she stayed her hand from making that shot.  The troll, however, was another story.  She could kill him.  But for some reason and with the turn of events, she waited to do so.

“What has happened to the sand creature?” The Pan growled, “Frog-man, go see what is wrong with it.”

“Grum-Blud,” the troll mumbled, pushing himself up again after having taken a tumble backward when both the dryad and the golem creature were repelled by the strange structure, “I am not a frog.”

Grum-Blud looked up to see The Pan fiercely glaring at him with angry and unclouded black eyes.

“I’m going.  I’m going,” he whimpered, and knuckle cantered back up the hillside.

Grum-Blud cautiously approached the solid, statute of what had been the golem creature bearing many faces.  He reached out and cautiously extended a stubby finger, stopping short and retracting it instantly, lest the same transformation should happen to him.  The fingers of the statue had been cut off where they would have extended over the threshold of the canopy, their dissolved substance puffed back and forming a powdery line at the edge of the structure.

With the alternative not to touch the golem statute, he crouched down and dipped the tip of his finger into the crystalline powder.  Tiny grains of it stuck to his sweaty, blood-stained fingers.

He brought it up to his bulbous nose, but could not smell anything of an odor, so he touched it to the tip of his tongue.

“Salt,” he grunted, then turned to The Pan, “It’s been turned to salt.”

The Pan roared in frustration, striking the surrounding trees with its powerful fists, raking at its head in frustration.

“Then it has lost all of its faces.  It is no longer useful to us!”

The dryad, standing in close proximity to The Pan gave it a wide berth while it raged but timidly asked, “Why should that be, my Lord.  These wind spirits remember whose blood has been given to their dragon.  Why not free it from this statute and let it serve us again.”

“Because of the salt, you fool,” The Pan grabbed her as if she were a mere branch in its powerful hands.

“Blood is removed from flesh using a salting process.  The faces, the images and the construct of the beings these spirits mimick require a memory coming from their shed blood at the time the dragon kills them.  Salt never decays.  It is a sign of a covenant with the hated One, these beings serve.  It is a sustaining savor.  This golem is trapped within.  It will never emerge, and it is lost to us!”

He tossed the dryad away, but she caught herself before falling into a smoldering bush.

***

“Captain?” I whispered.

There was no response.

I turned my head and saw that the top head was matted with blood and he was unmoving.  I reached over to shake him, trying not to rouse the notice of the distracted satyrs standing guard over us.

I pushed him onto his side and saw what I had hoped not to ever see again.

His eyes were open and unblinking.

A trembling “Ohhhh” sound escaped my lips, as I released him and turned away, my hands clenching.

“What is it?” Jeremiah whispered.

And with clenched teeth, and tightly closed eyes, I told him the words I had never wanted to hear myself say again.

“He’s dead.”

Another one of my friends was dead.

“Get up quickly,” a voice behind us said, quietly, “You only have a moment.”

And suddenly we felt the strength of two powerful and massive hands lift us from the ground to our feet.  Our captor satyrs lay dead and twisted upon the fallen leaves, their spines snapped, and necks bent at odd angles.

We turned to see who it was who held us up.

It was Hanokh.  Known in the Surface World as Enoch, the seventh patriarch from Adam through the line of Seth.

A man who walked with The One upon the Old World for 365 years, exactly a year of years, before he vanished with this singular and mysterious testimony…

24 walking in close fellowship with God. Then one day he disappeared, because God took him.  [Genesis 5:24 NLT]

Sight to The Blind – Chapter 68

“Hand me the bow,” Maeven said quietly, just loud enough for those beneath the canopy to hear.

Mason reached down and picked up the weapon that had been leaning against the post of the structure and brought it over to Maeven.

“We’re exposed up here on this hill.  What’er you gonna do?”

Miray came over following Mason and scrunched her eyes looking out into the rising smoke of the woods.

“There’s another one of those little men out there,” she pointed, “I can see him hiding.”

A gruff grunt came from the brush and Grum-Blud emerged from his erstwhile hiding place.

“And I see you too, little red-headed piglet,” he sneered wickedly.

“Spied me out, did you?!” he lunged forward in a kind of frog-hop at her, making her squeal and run back behind the legs of the others.

He grunted again, chortling in a nasty sort of way, rubbing his chubby hands furiously as if warming them.

“What do we have here?” he strutted mockingly before them, still keeping his distance, “Birds in a nest or rats in a briar?”

Maeven had an arrow drawn, the point tracking its impudent progress.

“Mustn’t bristle now…Storm Hawk, is it?  And let’s see what other casts of fools are there with you, huh?  An Innkeeper who forgot his place now.  Keeping company in new digs are we?  Too bad.  Too bad.  I doubt if you’ll get many offers for this new place you’ve got here.  Such a nice little Inn the other was.  Pity, it was burned to the ground.” And here his voice took on a lower guttural growl, “Burned like was done to my brother!  You were warned, you old dotard!  And who is that with you, hmm?  You and your old sow and your very own piglet.  Old enough now for the war that is soon coming isn’t he?”

Begglar bristled and gripped his staff, starting to move forward towards the vile creature.

“You will eat those words, frog-pod!”

“Oh, I think not,” Grum-Blud glared at him, his eyes blackening with hatred and rage, “It is you who will be eating a great many things, but nothing you have baked or cooked, dear dough-boy, baker.  No, the things you will be eating is the quivering, bleeding pieces of your own flesh and blood.  Bite by delicious bite.”

Grum-Blud had used the taunt to distract them from his hand easing back to clasp the throwing knives he had in his waistband.  The words had infuriated Begglar, but Maeven’s gaze remained fixed and unwavering.

“Lay a hand on that knife, troll, and you will find an arrow piercing it,” Maeven said calmly in a low tone.

Grum-Blud’s darkening eyes shifted towards her.

“Wanna see and hear your own demons more clearly, dearie.  I can make that happen for you.  Just draw that shaft back slightly once more.”

They stood poised, each ready and waiting for the slightest movement.

***

Dellitch swooped over the treetops, gliding through a haze of rising smoke from the burning below.  Once she and her captive cargo had cleared the taller trees and approached the clearing, they glided down into the glade in an area of dried grasses and thinning brush where The Pan held temporary court, upon a collection of granite stones half-buried in the ground forming an odd semi-circular formation.

The dryads had resolved into their feminine forms, passable as humans, however, their fair skin bore a greenish cast to it.

The golem, brought by the dryads, stood before The Pan, attempting to explain herself.

“But my Lord, it was not I who was to do this for you.”

It was clear The Pan was becoming agitated, his massive fists clenching and unclenching.

“It is not wise to play me for the fool, Sand-Sifter.”

If ever there were a more opportune time, it was now, Dellitch thought as she interjected, releasing the golem in her charge just fifty feet from the audience circle.

“My Lord Pan,” Dellitch called in a croaking voice, still raw from the smoke, “I believe this is the creature you were promised.  It says it has a message for the Queen.  Once again, these foolish dryads have failed to bring you what you asked for.  Please honor your faithful servant and allow this one to commune with your In-Dwelling, if it so pleases your majesty.”

The dryads hissed their displeasure at the interruption and the slighting implication.

The Pan looked up and blindly scanned the area for the voice addressing him.

“Dellitch?” he growled, “You are late.  How is it that you come to also have a golem under your charge?”

“A fortuitous happening, my liege.  You asked for our assistance and we, of the feathered-kind, have delivered upon our word.  It seems we, in just a few days, have come to know more of the goings-on within the forests of Kilrane than these Leaf-Twisters residing here for months who also purport to serve you.  I would suspect they are either withholding their own subversive secrets or too oblivious, self-absorbed and naïve to be given the management of such forested lands.”

Here, she turned spreading her wing skyward toward the towering columns of black smoke darkening the sky, “Is that not considerable mismanagement I smell, burning upon the breeze?”

“Blasted hag!  You know very well…!” an incensed dryad broke in, starting to lunge forward towards Dellitch, her body bristling with curling sweeps of thorns, but another held her back, gesturing towards The Pan, cautioning her not to overreact in his presence.

The Pan was silent and seemed to be quietly considering the import of Dellitch’s words, making the attendant dryads very nervous.

At last, The Pan spoke again.

“I was told that the golem meeting me would be one I would recognize.  I have wondered upon what basis that would be since these eyes have not yet been restored.”  And with that, he raised his head and gestured.

“Golem of Harpy Dellitch, what do you have to say to me that might cause such recognition?  Speak.”

The golem that Dellitch released quietly stepped forward, entering the ring of stones, approaching The Pan seated upon one of the large monoliths.

It stood off to the left of the golem inhabited by Torlah who had been given the two death images and the half-image of O’Brian.  As it stood, its own form and visage began to change as well.  And when it finally spoke to The Pan, it did so with a voice The Pan recognized immediately, with a face The Pan would soon recognize once his eyesight had been restored.

For now, though, the familiar timbre and pitch of the golem’s alternate voice were enough to cause The Pan to rise up slowly and then to command the gathering to lead him to the sacred site where the restoration was prophesied to take place.

***

In the small community of Sorrow’s Gate, beyond the river and in the descending lands below the highland escarpment there was an old Inn and Tavern that had once, very long ago, served as a community meeting place in more convivial times before the coming of the Xarmnian oppression.  The Inn was also a home and workplace to a generation of families, all of which were now long dead.  The management of the Inn, known as Geruth Chimham, fell to the business partners of the late owner who had mysteriously disappeared approximately twenty-one years prior.

The new managers where local merchants of the town and prominent with the town of Sorrow’s Gate and in the towns of the surrounding communities.  The amicable ambiance of the Inn was greatly lacking since few of the town’s residents ever ventured into the place after its prior owner had quitted it.  Noadiah was sorely missed.  She had brought all of the warmth and charm to the place, far more than the large central stone hearth or the bustling kitchen serving the local diners and travelers alike with warm comfort food, bright brimming pitchers of sweet-brown ale and large loaves of oven-fresh bread.

Since the coming of the Xarmnians who took up residence within its rooms, however, the locals gave the place a wide berth and shunned it for fear of its rougher and seedier clientele.  Fights were common in the banqueting hall.  Plate-ware was smashed, stools were broken, sconces were torn from the wall and only the sturdy benches and tables were preserved since they proved to be more unwieldy as weapons employed within a brawl.

The ale no longer bore its bright brown quality but was frequently watered down by rinse water from the kitchen to make it last longer.  The food was often scorched and tough, the vegetables stale, the soups briny and thin.  The lighting in the place was much darker, as many of the hung wall-lanterns been smashed over one or another patron’s head or back.

In the darker corner of the place, the present proprietor of the Inn sat brooding over his evening meal.  The place had not been as profitable as it once was under Noadiah’s care, but the income from the Inn was just a sideline.  He had other means of enrichment already in the works.  Dealings with the new powers ruling this land.

The man’s name was Sanballat and he was presently occupied writing a letter.  In fact, he had been writing several letters of late to some very powerful people in strategic places.

The letters had been quietly sent planting seeds of suspicion throughout the occupied lands and drawing the attention of military interests as well.

Few knew that he had dealings with the loyalists and with key leaders within the heart of the secret resistance.  He’d served both sides at certain times, as the profitability of each venture presented itself.   Fewer still knew where he’d originally come from, but some had often wondered since the name Sanballat was unusual and not at all common in the western part of the Mid-World.

If any within the resistance had known the meaning of his name, they might have much less reason to entrust him with anything, and they might even suspect where he had originally come from.  A place that was at home within the darkness of the world among small ponds called “the 30 pieces of silver”.  Each one a reflective pool within a dark deadened forest of blighted and twisted trees once called “The Holy Wood”.  A place where the night ruled in perpetuity under the baleful light of a silvery moon.

And the man’s name, which was more of a title really, bore witness to that place, for in translation the literal meaning was “the moon-god gives life.”  His former service as high priest to the ghost pools under the Trathorn Falls had ended when the backend passages had been sealed, and he was forced to find other work and a new “respectable” identity.

The black pool rituals were only intended to keep the mystical transformative waters flowing.  The barrels of the waters sold to the Xarmnians was a mere sideline business.  He had had no idea that mystical ritual revealed to him would summon such…otherworldly monsters.

***

“That kid!” Jeremiah struggled, trying not to say something worse and let his anger rule him again, “We should not have untied him.”

“He is full of fear and rage, that one,” said Captain Lorgray, “Too much trouble to deal with.”

“If I don’t survive this, Jeremiah, I need to tell you what I saw in that tree before you helped me down.  That kid is going to run head-long into trouble whichever way he goes, but it is going to stir up more than just these Half-men.”

Jeremiah winced as we bore him up between us, moving as quickly up the trail as we could, following Jeremiah’s guidance.

“If you don’t survive, I doubt either one of us will either.  Those satyrs will not relent until they have run us all to ground.”

“There is a Xarmnian encampment, not more than half a mile from here.  I could see it off to the northeast, probably accessible along the road.  Looks like they were positioned before the fire began.  I think the men are in league with the Harpies, but it is hard to think that The Pan would sanction that.  It distrusts the Xarmnians and the truce between them is at best tenuous.”

“The Eagle is aware of them,” Lorgray interjected, “Someone from within the resistance movement has a stake in stirring up conflict between them.  We hear rumors that letters are reaching the area regents.”

“Something or someone very devious and well-connected is coordinating all this, causing these conflicts to converge.  Mattox and I spoke of this.  They want war and division.  Somehow they mean to profit from it.”

That brought a moment of silence.

“There are factions within the underground who are threatened by the resurrection and restoration of Azragoth.” Lorgray added, “Nem and Erza are mocked and ridiculed by some as being subversives.  It is getting harder these days to distinguish between friend and foe.”

“I suspect there is an agent of this chaos within Mattox’s company of guards.  I was called to meet him, upon the field, but I think I was lured away from my post within the outer forest.  Did I mention what I found when I saw Azragoth burning and rode to the hidden cache?” Jeremiah asked his voice lowering due to the graveness of the news.

“What did you find?” I asked.

“The cache and all of the hidden supplies were stolen.  Moved out quickly, while I was conferring with General Mattox.  When I went back in after our meeting, I was set upon by a band of roving satyrs.  They have not been this bold in years.  The presence of The Pan in these woods explains some of it, but they were not equipped to have stolen and carried out what all weaponry and supplies were kept there.  They were meant to ambush me and kill me, I am certain.  I was never meant to have survived the attack, much less returned to the cache and find it empty and the wagons kept there all gone.”

Lorgray rejoined, “The men of the lower country have lost their will to fight, and they used to be the ones we could rely on.  Maeven has been a galvanizing symbol of courage among us, shaming some of the cowardice out of the reluctant men.  Much like the biblical Deborah, she was as Storm Hawk leading The Lehi with the raids, but now…”

Jeremiah took up the thread, “Now that she travels with you on a Surface World stone quest, she leaves a vacuum of leadership in serving as that courageous symbol.”

“How much further?” I asked as we moved through the brush like a band of drunken revelers, trying to help a friend.

“Not much further now,” he assured us.

Lorgray looked over his shoulder and back down upon the firebreak we had hastily set ablaze.

“They’re through.  They’re coming.”

Just ahead of us, emerging from the left side of the trail, tall twisted trees moved and separated from the brush.

Dryads.  And a large, thick eleven-foot creature lumbered between them attended by a smaller group of satyrs and a black-feathered Harpy who Jeremiah and I also recognized too well.  The Pan and his retinue had found The Faerie Fade and stood between us and those I had promised to give my life for.

But that was not the worst of it.

Two forms stood in their midst.  One I recognized as Torlah and the other…

No.  I shook my head.  It was impossible.  It could not be.

But Jeremiah said what I could not.

“Caleb?”

***

The Xarmnian encampment was alive with activity. Shields were being tested and readied.  Blades honed and sharpened, issued to the men.  They were in preparation for something much larger than guarding a band of wayward Surface Worlders.

A rider emerged from the woods and rode swiftly to the central enclosure.

“Captain Shihor, General Jahaza has taken the field.  They are ready when you are.”

Shihor stood up, his battle gear fastened and pulled taut, his breastplate hammered and hardened, pressing his confidence into him even as it held his pride in check.

His armorers had done their job well.

“Take those prisoners on to Dornsdale.  We will collect them from there on our victory ride back to Xarm City.”

“The fires have shifted to the east.  The winds along the escarpment are dangerous.  We cannot go too far into Kilrane without risking being cut-off.”

“Where ever Mattox has been hiding in there, he will, at last, be brought to account for his betrayal.  If he is found among the living, when this is over, do not kill him.  The Son of Xarm reserves that pleasure for himself.”

“It is fortuitous that all our enemies have been driven to this one place.  What possibly could have lured The Pan away from his lands, I wonder?”

“Whatever it was, is fortuitous for us.  I am sure the one who has been sending those letters will be handsomely rewarded for it.  If we rule the day, which we most certainly will, that man will never have needs or wants for the rest of his days.”

“The Pan and his kind will be driven out soon.  Jahaza and the army will greet them as they emerge.  Something has baited him into it.”

“The travelers will come as well.  Rats from the burning bushes.”

“Something is pulling our stones out of our treasuries.  Exposing them to being taken by the other kingdoms.  If it is not The Pan and some devilry, it must be those travelers who came from the oculus.  Whatever power they are using to conjure those stones, it must be from those agents of chaos.”

“The Pan has a lot to answer for.  He and his kind are in breach of the treaty.  Have the trolls been sighted?  Any word from them?”

“They have not been seen in weeks.”

“Could The Pan have killed them?”

“It is possible.  They are infuriating but useful.  If not for the latter, I would have killed them myself.”

“How much longer must we wait?  The fires are gaining strength.  Jahaza does not intend that we run into the inferno, merely to flush these creatures out.  What news from the Harpies?  Has Dellitch returned?”

“Still no word, but she should be returning soon.

“When she does, we can let Jahaza know it has begun.”

***

The shock of seeing Caleb standing there with The Pan was almost too much for me.

In my mind, I knew Caleb was dead but the illusion of seeing him alive again, wanting to see him among the living and wanting to be rid of the crushing guilt of his death almost made me surrender everything.   It had to be a golem.  Had to be.  When we had confronted The Pan in the forest on the night of Caleb’s death and I fled, there had been no dragon present.

Jeremiah was stricken as well.

“It can’t be.”

The Pan stood behind Caleb and placed its large hand upon his shoulder.

“I sense others,” he rumbled, “Speak to them.”

“Hello, brother,” Caleb said, “It’s been a long time.”

The resemblance was uncanny.  He was just as I had remembered him that fateful night.  We were so stunned neither Jeremiah nor I could speak.  After so many years, to hear his voice and see his face…

“And who is that with you?” the doppelganger of Caleb came towards us.

Captain Lorgray had taken up the crossbow from Jeremiah and he held the stock pressed into his shoulder aiming the arrow bolt, tracking his approach.

It was distressing to see the diamond-tipped bolt pointed toward the image of my lost friend, and I raised my arm to stay his pending lethal shot.

“Is this…?” the face of Caleb seemed bemused, as he studied me.  Looking from my shocked stare to my upraised hand warding off Lorgray’s aim.

“I would never have believed you would be back.  But here you are.  Standing as if you had seen a ghost.  What happened to you that night?  They said you ran off, but I could not believe it.  My friend Brian would stand and fight beside me.  He would never run from a fight.”

“You cannot be…Caleb.  Caleb is dead.  Why do you mock us?”

“Mock you?  Mock you.  YOU LEFT ME TO BE SLAUGHTERED, MY FRIEND!”

The accusation stung.

“But you know what?”  He paused, “You and I,…and my brother there…  We were all wrong.”

Jeremiah spoke up, “You claim to be my brother, yet, as you see, it has been many years and time has aged us.  Why should I believe you are who you say you are?  You are unchanged.”

“My brother,” he shook his head, clicking his tongue in chastisement as if indulging an aging adult whom he had once admired but lost respect for.  “Always the thinker.  Always keeping your feelings in check.  Removed from hot-blooded passion.  So many years I lived in your shadow.  Trying so hard to measure up.  But there was no living up to you.  I could never do it.  I wanted your approval, and all I got for my efforts was your condescension.  I could never be as dispassionate as you were.  In control.  And then I discovered your secret.  You who carried that blasted stone that burned with an inner fire.  Symbol of passion.  You were, in fact, cold as stone.  An opposite.”

Attempting to intercept this pointless shaming, I interjected, “What were we all wrong about?”

“The stones.  The quest.  Everything.  We were the interlopers here.  We are the ones putting everyone in danger with our misguided efforts to open some mystical gate at the other end of this country.  Excavatia is indeed a rumor only.  A foolish hope conjured up by people to help them cope with their pathetic lives.  A fairy tale.  We have been manipulated to cause a distraction only, but now our presence is drawing these lands into a conflict that will involve and consume everything.  No wonder our presence is met with resistance and we are hated.”

“If you are indeed Caleb, what happened to you?  You would never have talked this way, before.”

“That is because I did not know what I was doing, and neither do you.  The Pan took pity on me.  You left me there alone to die, so to me, you were dead too.  And you, my big brother…,” he turned and shoved an accusing finger towards Jeremiah, “You who were supposed to lead us all.  To protect us on the quest of the Cordis Stone.  The Heart stone.  Or, if you prefer, to state it another way, The Love stone.”

He ground his teeth and sneered, “You knew I believed that stone had power, but you let me go off with that worthless glowing rock, knowing it offered no protection.  You planted that decoy because you knew I would take it the first chance I got to go and impress you.  To show you that I was valuable to the team and more than just your annoying kid brother who you let tag along with the group you treated better than your own family.  You let me go to my death, all the while believing I was helping you, Big Brother.”

Each accusation came as a verbal punch, dealing both Jeremiah and I brutal blows that torn into our hearts with the guilt we both had been carrying ever since that terrible night.  If this was not Caleb, I could not figure what else it was.  It read and knew both of us like we were open books.  It knew way too many intimate details to be a newly created golem.

“The Pan is, in fact, a victim and a prisoner of this world.  He came from our world and was once a whole man the same as we are but was made into what he is today.  He is a victim.  He is misunderstood and was cruelly ostracized from all human society living here.  They all were.  They are exiles, refugees living on the fringes of human society.  All they want is to be left alone.  To not be hunted or slaughtered because humans suspect them of nefarious deeds simply because they do not look like them.  We are the arrogant and cruel ones.  It is no wonder they suspect us and fight us.  We are a violent race.  We kill what we don’t take time to understand.  Perhaps we deserve to die.  Look what you both did to me.”

And upon that statement, he turned and looked up the trailhead, spotting the small woodland covering and the gallery of witnesses, fearfully watching this spectacle.

“And what is left, hmm?” he said opening his arms indicating my friends huddled there.

“Ah yes, the Fidelis stone.  The Faith stone, carried by one of the most unfaithful from among you.  An unworthy opposite as well.  A traitor to our friendship.  Leading more lambs to the slaughter, are we?” he bitterly laughed at the irony.

“The foolish Praesporous stone, the Hope stone, has supposedly been placed in the mountains under the fire guardian.  If you have found the stone of your crusade, have you tested it for the responsive gleaming?  Held the stone up to the horizon and set it before you on a promontory or high hill, looking for the respondent flash to assure you it is there?  Light tricks.  Nothing more.  Most likely a bit of quartz or mica in the mountains.  There is a reason you are to do it at sunrise or sunset.  Isn’t that true, brother?  How many more must die believing in the myth of Excavatia, for you to see outside your own delusions?”

Both Jeremiah and I were wavering, unsure of ourselves and uncertain, so it came a terrible shock to both of us when Captain Lorgray swiftly lifted the crossbow, firing the cocked bolt into Caleb at point-blank range.

In the stunning seconds following that shot, the satyrs slammed into the back of us, pinning us all to the ground.

The arrow bolt had lodged into the figure Jeremiah and I had begun to believe was Caleb, but with the onslaught of the satyrs suddenly attacking us from behind, I could not see what was transpiring in the moments that followed.

My face was driven into the dirt and detritus of the forest floor.  The wind had literally and physically been punched out of me.  Hard cloven-hooves stomped on us, kicked us, balled fists pommeled us and beat all hope out of us.  The three of us lay there, prostrated and battered, overwhelmed by what had happened within a matter of minutes and seconds.

At last, there was nothing we could do.  No brilliant strategy to change what was now inevitable.

Had we all been fooled?  Was Excavatia a mere construct of hope for a people driven to the edge of desperation?  Something we all clung to give us something to live one more day for?

I wept into the earth.  The fecund scent of decaying leaves filling my lungs with the odor of surrender, their dying struggle of being cruelly separated from what they once clung to—having fallen from the tall trees and branches connected to the root system from which they once drew into themselves the tender green of their life’s celebration.

As I lay there, bruised and in pain, so very weak and weary, humiliated before my friends, debased before my enemies, struggling with the shock of seeing my friend struck down again before my eyes, I wondered if what I have believed was at all true.  Was this all for nothing?

I wept for the group of Surface Worlders who had willingly placed their trust in me to lead them.  I wept for those who had reluctantly done so.  I wept because I had broken my promise and I had not been there to save them when they needed me.  I wept for little Miray, the precious girl who had believed in me from the beginning.  The one who had trusted me when no one else would.  My heart was broken even as my body felt broken and my spirit crushed.  There was nothing more that I could do.  This was my end.

As my hands curled into fists, and I felt something beneath my bending fingers.  A strip of frayed material.  A sash as tenuously connected to something as I was to my last few moments of life in the Mid-World.  My disoriented mind puzzled over it for a beat and then I knew what it was that I was winding into the spaces between my splayed fingers—The bloodline.

***

From beyond the back of the rise to the hill where my horrified friends watched, a growing light surfeited the edge of the horizon.  The glow of the raging forest fire had encircled the area, cutting off all hope of retreat.  There was no going back or forward, for the fires meant to spare the hidden city of Azragoth from its enemies were now poised to take out its friends and allies as well.  Like a false sunrise, the corona of the flashing light swelled and brightened among flaming embers and smoke providing the illusion of a new dawn under the dark, smoky twilight of our final moments.

***

The golem that bore the image of Caleb, fell forward on its hands and knees, its shoulders heaving up and down, the crossbow arrow bolt sticking out of its back.  The cacophonous noise of the assault on the three men by the satyrs covered the sounds it was making, and only as the subdued three quit struggling and the chortles and grunts of the satyrs ceased, were the noises it was making identifiable as a kind of wheezing laughter.

Smoke and dust sizzled out of the wound swirling into a spinning dust cloud as if the golem was the ground sources of a small vortex.

“Ah, ah, ah, ha, ha, Ha, Ha, HA, HA!” its gritty voice poured out as it delighted in our misery and despair.

“Took you long enough,” it growled between the strange sounds of its breathy laughter.

“I commend you, Mid-Worlder!” it snarled, rising back up again to its feet as the swirling cone of dust formed a nimbus around its head, whipping its hair into a frenzied mass, as its eyes receded into its face, forming dark occipital caves.

“You have done well.  Now see sight given back to the blind and witness your doom!”

The golem’s form began to disintegrate into powder, just as its sister golem had done when encountered and confronted at the granary, just by merely being touched by the honor sword.

A rumbling felt in the ground and roots below, swelled up as The Pan, standing just beyond the dissolving golem laughed at what it knew would happen, anticipating the imminent fulfillment of the promise it had been given.

Smoke poured out of the golem’s eyes, mouth and nostrils and drifted towards The Pan.  As the eleven-foot monster opened its black, soot-streaked maw to receive the mystical wind emerging from the pile of dust to join the inhabitant, it carried within the very air around the site felt charged and polarizing.

The smoke from the golem twisted in an eddy pouring down The Pan’s open throat, swirling and twisting down its gullet like a vortex.  As the transfer began, The Pan’s eyes begin to darken from cataract blue to black.  When the final puffs of smoke drained from the shell of the hollowed body the golem remains crumbled into a small pile of powder and dust.

The Pan blinked away its blindness, as the wind spirit it had ingested joined the hive of its queen.

Its blindness was gone, but it needed a moment to reorient itself to reliance on its restored vision.  When at last it was able to take in the full measure of its surroundings and the placement of its attendants, its dark black eyes came to rest on the three men lying beaten and prostrate before it…and it smiled for the first time in many moons.

***

“No, no, no!” Miray screamed, “Get up!  Get up, Mister O’Brian!  I am beginning to remember the pictures.  They are coming back to me.  I can see them now!”

The golem inhabited by Torlah who bore the image of a little girl approached the gathering huddled under The Faerie Fade canopy.

“Do you, now?!  Little brat!” she laughed derisively, “I should have killed you on the beach!”

Miray’s mouth trembled as recognition dawned on her staring into the strange reptilian eyes of the girl approaching them.

“You are not Becca!  You killed her and took her face!  What did you do with Becca?!  Where is the old lady that took Becca?”

“You want to see the old lady?” the golem creature smirked, her face shifting, her stature lengthening, her arms growing long and spindly, her back arching and hunching like that of an arthritic crone.

“Surprise!” she cackled with ancient eyes and graying hair, her harsh voice changing even as her appearance did.

Another gasped from within the canopy enclosure.

“No-Noadiah!” Nell stammered, “You are not…”

“I am what I needed to be,” her face shifted, the beginning of a beard growing on her chin and cheeks, the wrinkled face smoothing out, the jawline raised, and my face shifted over that of the being that had stalked us from our very first steps out of the surf.

“What is this?!” Begglar roared, angry at the mockery of the shape-shifting creature.

Seeing the monster wearing my visage was too much for Miray to take.  Her face flushed and mouth quivered with indignation.  Her small fists balled into the frustration her small form could no longer contain.

She bolted.

“You are fake!  Liar!” she ran towards her two principal antagonists, “I wrote your name so I would not forget your meanness but the water washed it.  You are a pooh-face!”

If the moment was not so terrifying, her word choice might have been comical, for this was a word she had gotten in trouble for saying in her life on the Surface World.

Nell sprang forward, trying to catch her, but the girl was too quick.

Christopher, however, moved swiftly out from under the canopy, interposing himself between Miray and the two verbal assailants who had bated her.  In a quick move, he gathered Miray into his right arm, just as Grum-Blud sprang forward with his knife bared, cutting a gash into Chris’ left shoulder, slicing through muscle, striking bone.

Torlah moved into the attack as well, her golem fists hardening into clubs of compressed sedimentary stone with a jagged and sharp edge like chipped flint.

Chris cried out rolling away from the stabbing blow, careful to cradle the thrashing Miray protectively against his body, even as the knife twisted in his flesh under the troll’s cruel hands.

The turn wrenched the blade out of his shoulder and threw Grum-Blud off balance and into Torlah.

“I’ll kill you all,” she raged, her cutting, jagged arms extending outward, twisting and brandishing their saw-toothed edges.

In a flash, Christie was by their side, her blade up and ready, the irate blaze of a momma-bear back in her eyes.

She parried the blows with her saber, but the golem creature was moving fast, spinning viciously with powerful torquing motions giving strength to her slashes.  The blade clanged and shuddered with each contact, causing Christie’s arms to ache under the viscous kinetic power delivered through each strike.

The ferocity of the attacks stirred the leaves of the forest floor, gathering dust and grit in a swirling torrent around them.

Nell managed to drag Miray backward from the conflict, finding Begglar and Dominic at her sides, brandishing their weapons to stave off any renewal of the troll and golem’s assault.

Tiernan grabbed Christopher and shoved him behind his body, offering himself in challenge to the scrambling troll moving about on its knuckles and short legs in a surprisingly fast bear crawl gait.

A large branch slammed downward, its timbres wood-like surface morphing into a smooth, well-turned bare leg, as a dryad intervened.

“Back under the canopy!” Begglar shouted, brandishing his scythe weapon in an arc motion, cutting through the extending grasps of wooden arms, bristling with thorns, “Quickly!”

Dellitch had taken flight in the melee, using the confusion of the conflict to slip away.  She was overdue to meet with the Xarmnians and they would grow more distrusting by the hour if she did not arrive soon.  Now that The Pan had regained its eyesight, it was more dangerous and would not be as easily fooled by the ruse she and her sisters had tried to make it believe about their part in the burning of the wood.  It would find their new metal-shanked footwear very interesting.

Blood and Fire – Chapter 67

Jeremiah almost fell backward out of the saddle.  His horse reared, its front hard hooves striking at the menacing satyrs lunging in and out.  It was something that would never have happened to him under other circumstances.  Jeremiah’s legs were still very much in shock from the rapid slip-fall from the tree and climbing harness. While that alone would not necessarily injure an experienced climber, when he’d began his descent, he had not counted on the added effect of bearing the weight of a full-grown man on his back.  A grunt of pain escaped his clenched jaw as he leaned forward against the angled saddle horn, his feet wobbling in the stirrups, rather than hooking back and standing in them.  His center of balance was off, and the jolt of the horse coming back down hard and kicking out nearly took his breath away.  It wasn’t enough to merely maintain a grip on the reins or pommel of the saddle.  Holding on to a horse in startled or even deliberate motion required more leg and thigh strength, than arm-and-upper-body power.  He flailed almost losing the crossbow that he’d used fend off an earlier assault, leaving himself open and completely vulnerable.

Off to the left front, Lorgray held two nasty-looking satyrs at bay, their dark eyes staring both at the waving point of his unsheathed blade, as they shifted from side to side.

He knew they were trying to get him to believe another threat was descending upon him from his peripheral blindside. They were distracting him so that they could feint in and lunge at him with their short-jagged stone knives.  But he’d seen that tactic before.

Dark-winged forms swooped overhead in the smoky firelight, creating shadow wraiths in the roiling smoke below, making it difficult to tell what forms were solid, ground-level threats from within the soot and swirling ash and what forms might strike from above at any moment.  They may be right about the danger in the periphery, but he vowed he would make sure to take these two out before responding to another.  They were too few against so many and uncoordinated in their mutual defense strategy.  He had to rally them.

“To me!” he yelled to the others, signifying that we all should form a tightened back-to-back circle to stave off the onslaught of the crowding half-goat devils.

Will rushed forward, grabbing the side of the reins of the horse that Jeremiah was still struggling to maintain his seat upon.  The horse spun in response, nearly trampling him.  Its mouth champing at the leather bit, that Will held onto, almost cutting it in half.

“Let go of the rein, son!” Jeremiah commanded him, “You’re hurting its mouth and you’re only going to panic this horse more.”

“I was trying to help!” he shouted back, but the horse jerked its neck around smacking the boy and shoving him off to the smoldering roadside.

Flung to the ground in burning embers, he screamed and rolled, his clothes briefly catching fire.  Ash and smoke swirled around him, as he twisted frantically trying to snuff out the small licking flames.  The fires had scorched him, but cursing he managed to smother them in the folds of his cloak.

He turned his head back around, soot smeared on his cheek and brow, the smuggled dagger he’d palmed from the golem now flashing in his hand.  Eyes every bit as full of the flames that had scorched his clothing now glared with burning hatred at the terrified horse that had pushed him and its rider who had failed to control the animal and recognize his prior well-meaning intention.

“You could’ve killed me, you stupid brute!” he growled, brandishing the knife, “I ought to cut your heart out!”

“Will!” Lorgray commanded, “There’s no time for that!  Come into the center.  Form a circle.  These satyrs will kill us all if we don’t join together.”

I had backed into the center of the road, the Honor Sword still held before me, a shimmering electric light igniting the old runes engraved down the blade of the metal.  I kept my eyes fixed forward, but Torlah was laughing as the satyrs crowded in around her, blocking her from my view.

“You’ll never leave this wood alive!” she screamed in venomous hatred as she receded further down the road ahead of us, borne along in the company of what looked like large angular branches and twisted, sinuous vines, somehow made ambulatory within the magic of the forest.  These had hung back from the group, avoiding the smoldering fires as much as possible, but it was now clear to me what they were.

Dryads.

Eight or nine of them.

High above their elongated branch limbs, the wood and leaf exterior gave way to a smooth, emerald-skinned, feminine form.  Beautiful faces stood in oddly sinister contrast upon stretched necks.

One of them looked down longingly at me and the other men and then spoke sharply to the crouching satyrs closing in on us.

“Remember, Gollack!  The Pan promised us we could have their heads when you’ve finished with their bodies.  Our nursery must be replenished.  We shall settle the score soon enough with those treacherous Harpies.”

The satyrs laughed but came on, their stone knives raised, their eyes gleaming with savagery.

“We remember the master’s words, Briar,” a gray-bearded satyr answered her, “You’ll get your heads.  Now run along before these fires scorch your precious skirts.  We’ll see you again real soon, Sweetness.  The Pan awaits you all at the ancient place, where the rest have fled.  This golem owes him an exchange.”

They bore Torlah aloft and away into the forest ahead.  She was smiling gleefully, relishing our growing terror, and angry that she was going to miss the cruelty of the ensuing bloodsport.

***

“How much longer should we wait here?” Christie asked, looking out upon the back forest.  The trail up to the hill where the Faerie Fade was carved into, began to brighten with a smoky luminescence.  The fires would catch up to them soon and she felt foolish waiting under the flammable canopy no matter what it represented.  For her, marriage had been a dream she had once held high hopes for, but the reality of it had fallen so far from the mark.  The thought of it was like a punch in the gut.  God may have intended it for better, but for her, it had been a nightmare.  Her jaw had set and clenched hearing Begglar and Nell go on and on about it.  She envied them and that made her angry.  Not so much angry at them, but at herself and her ex.  Where had they gone wrong?  Why had something seemingly so romantic to dreamy-eyed young girls, a hinted promise in almost every love song of at last finding that one who would cherish them not play out.  At the end of their sparkling rainbow was a pit of rocks, hard and unyielding, the shattered, crushed and broken pieces of dreams, bathed in tears.  If this canopy was a gateway, it might very well be a gateway into a realm of nightmares.

“Be patient,” Maeven said scanning the deeper forest, “They’ll come.  Give them a little more time.”

She had been watching furtive movements among the brush for the last thirty minutes.  She feared that whatever was back there would impede Jeremiah and O’Brian’s chances of making it through to them.

“It’s been over an hour already,” Tiernan asked, “Didn’t that Jeremiah fella say that we were supposed to go ahead and get out of the forest if he didn’t come back in that time?”

“We can’t just leave them!” Lindsey said.

“No one’s leaving anyone, dear,” Nell patted her, putting an arm around her reassuringly.  She looked to Begglar and he nodded.

“We’re staying right here till they get here,” Begglar said, brooking no argument and glancing meaningfully at the young men.

“What if they’re…?” Matthew began, but thought better of it, realizing Miray was following the conversation closely, her brow knitted with concern and worry.

Mason put protective hands on Miray’s shoulders and slightly shook his head at Matthew, indicating that she did not need to hear such speculation just yet.

Laura had drifted over to the woven casements in the back of the Faerie Fade and lightly ran soft fingers over the woven strips of bark and joined saplings that comprised the structures singular wall.  How, she wondered, could something so delicate and small possible protect them against the rumored enemies in the forest?  Her fingers trembled in fear struggling with the doubts that any of this could keep her safe no matter what she’d been told about it.  She’d lived with fear so long, she had a hard time believing in anything else, much less some supernatural hope.

She wanted to see it.

Needed to see it.

Begglar, Nell, and Maeven all had said this was a safe place, and the woodman, Jeremiah, had not contradicted them.  But the strange structure, those curiously designed, did not inspire the confidence in her that a solid stone wall and a tall iron gate would.  She was so conflicted.  She wanted to run, but she did not want to be alone in doing so.  Matthew and Tiernan seemed inclined to try it, but she did not want to leave others.  They were some semblance of family.  The kind that was in the old black and white movies back in the Surface World.  The kind she had often longed to have been born into.  No matter how foolish it seemed, she would stay with them.  Even if…it came down to the worst.

A tear fell thinking about it.  Mister O’Brian was not perfect, but she could tell he was sincere.  The discussion they’d had back at Begglar’s Inn that evening came back to her.  His words of comfort that she could not fully accept about being loved and wanted.  She so wanted to believe in that.  As a little girl, she had once believed that there was a ‘Daddy’ out there who wanted her.  Loved her.

When Mister O’Brian has talked with her, he made no demands of her.  He’d listened to her without judgment.  Wept with her when, in a moment of uncharacteristic vulnerability, she’d laid bare her painful and humiliating experience with her own father leaving because he did not want her or her mother anymore.

When O’Brian had asked her for her name, he did not press her for it when she was reluctant to give it.  He gave her the time and freedom to work through what she was going through, but with the kind offer that he and the others would be here for her when she was ready.  No one had ever done that for her.  Given her the respect of her own space and her own time to come back freely.

What had he said to her before she and Christie left to head back to the coast?

That the things the Troll used against you with their strange influence were only the lies planted in you.  Told to you by those deceiving themselves as well.  That the trolls could not use the truth to harm you.  But only the lies.  Lies that you had empowered to rule over you by giving your beliefs to them.

Her lips trembled as fresh tears fell from her eyes and she averted her gaze from the others, seeming to concentrate on the wall, her hands now trembling as she fingered the posts that framed the casements.

“It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” a voice spoke quietly to her observing the tracery of woven vines and symbols in the wall.

Laura cleared her throat and hastily wiped her eyes with her fingers, hoping the girl did not notice her quiet tears.

“Uh, yeah,” she sniffed, “Yes, it is.”

“My name is Lindsey,” she whispered and after a pause added, “In case you forgot.”

“Laura,” she smiled slightly, hoping her cheeks weren’t noticeably reddened, “I’m just getting used to all this.”

“Yeah, me too,” Lindsey answered, “I’m still fascinated by this place but scared of it too.  Not sure what to do about it.  And I’m worried about Mister O’Brian.  It’s been way too long.”

“What do you think about this place.  What they said about it?” Laura whispered, keeping her voice low and quiet so that the others wouldn’t overhear.

“I don’t exactly know what to think.  It is certainly odd and unique.  Something I might imagine some druids might have conjured up.  Y’know if it had been in some forest in Ireland or something.  But here.  This place, this Mid-World is just…different and alike in so many ways.”

“Yeah.  Just when I think it’s going to be like the Surface World, there is an otherness that just makes me uncertain.  A Troll.  Who would have ever thought those fairy tale creatures could be real here?”

“You should’ve seen those creatures we saw coming out on the lake.  Bizarre.  Ugly and gross.  Creepy.  There’s enough strangeness, without those things, but they gave me the heebie-jeebies.”

“What were they?  I did not see them.”

“Be glad.  I may have nightmares later.”

“Are you scared?”

“I am, but, strangely, not about the things you might expect me to be scared of.”

“How do you mean?”

“I am scared of what harm might come to those I am coming to care about.”

“Mister O’Brian?”

“Not just him and the others.  You too.”

Laura took in a long shuddering breath, her tears clouding her vision, as she tried to stifle a sob.

Lindsey put an arm around her and held her quietly while the young girl cried.  The tears spent were some she had needed to cry for a long time.  Tears of healing, knowing she had at last found a friend.

***

Grum-Blud could smell them.  Smell the salty scent of their fear.  Like birds in a cage, they huddled under the strange woodland canopy.  Nervous, but not moving away to a more secure location.  Well, there were ways he could help with that.  A very particular way indeed, and within the canopy, he’d spotted one very particular weak link in the bunch.  He needed only to catch her eye.  If he could get her to run the others might follow, and then The Pan might just forget how he had lost those Manticores.

And if not.

Well, there were others waiting in the forest too.  His second line of defense—provided he could survive under The Pan’s temporary distractions for a bit longer.

***

The Cerberi were vicious black beasts with a thick mane of black fur that bristled behind their thick flat heads.  Their eyes held a fierce wildness in them, and they stared at the caged prisoners hungrily and intently.  Panting and licking their yellowed teeth, with dangling saliva running beneath their slackened jaws.  Each of the muscled creatures bore two heads, joined together under a wide cranial bone, sharing one central grey eye.  Dog-like in form but only peripherally similar in nature without the innate empathy one might associate with canines.

Four of these thickly-built, grizzled mongrels paced around the outside perimeter of a hastily built cage situated in the midst of the Xarmnian camp, raised within a clearing within the thinning edge of Kilrane Forest.  The very camp O’Brian had spotted from the tall tree he’d been trapped in until his rescue.

Within the cage, the thirteen Surface Worlders huddled close together, trying to stay away from the thin cut saplings that comprised the bars of their cage.  They were under no illusion that these were the only things separating them from being ravaged by the pacing dog-beasts that circled their prison, like a pack of hungry sharks scenting blood.

“How is your arm?” the one called Crystal asked the tall woman named Cheryl, who clutched her wound to her stomach.  She was flushed and swooning.  Her arm throbbed and it had taken a while to staunch the blood flow.

“It burns, but I’ll be okay,” she assured the questioner, though she had no such confidence in her words.

“You need to get that looked after,” one called Marcus said.

“You know of any hospitals nearby, I’ll be glad to go to one,” Cheryl answered, more bitterly than she has intended to.

“Do you think Zeela and Hughland sold us out?” Ramesh asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” DeeAnn answered, “but the wagon and horses were missing when these Xarmnians came and that is just about as bad as anything they could have done to us.”

“If I ever catch up to them, I am gonna kick their butts!” Teagan said, grinding a fist into her palm in frustration.

“What do you think these Xarmnians are gonna do to us?” Emma asked, clearing her throat nervously, steeling herself against the answer she dreaded.

Cheryl had closed her eyes, trying to will the pain in her mauled forearm away, but was unsuccessful.

No one wanted to answer the question Emma had raised.  Knowing what they had been told, they were too afraid to speculate.

The one who had identified himself as Shihor was hard, cruel and cold as frosted steel.  He’d watched as the dogs attacked Cheryl, waiting for her to stop struggling and surrender to the idea that she was going to be eaten and savaged before he’d called the creatures off her.  The beast had to be commanded twice before it broke off the attack.  Its handler had raised a whip to it, but the creature backed grudgingly away before a blow was ever landed.  It knew better than to disobey, and the handler seemed also to know that same kind of fear to his person, should the creature under his charge not heed the barked order he’d given it.

“Bind them and bring them!” the despotic leader growled and then turned his horse and up mounting the slope to lead them onward down the dark road into Kilrane away from the river’s edge.

They’d been manacled to a joiner ring and shoved into a rough walking line, towed together by the central ring bearing variant lengths of chains.  There were four dog-beast wranglers who had come up on either side of the group, keeping the other creatures heeled, with leather-strapped leads, that the creatures could have easily broken free of had they not been trained to do otherwise.

The Xarmnian soldiers had ignored Cheryl’s bloodied lacerations and were as rough with her as they were with the others who had escaped injuries by the hell-dogs.  Ramesh eased up alongside her, and quickly pulled a colorful sash from around his waist and bound her bleeding arm quickly.  “It is not much but should hold until we can get a chance to clean it later,” he whispered rapidly, “Hold that manacle away from the wound and try not to lag behind.”

The handler turned, threatening him to release the monstrous dog beast, and Ramesh shrank back again into the line of his fellow prisoners.

“What if she dies?” Emma asked the guard, roughly ensuring that they were all securely bound to the central towing ring.

“Then she will be dragged the rest of the way and given to these dogs for meat when we get where we’re going,” he snarled and then cuffed her on the side of the head and said, “Now shut up!”

They had not gone far when they all heard the roar and the collapse of the falls and the sickening crunch-sound of breaking ice.  It was at that moment when they all realized that little Miray was no longer in their company.

“Where is Miray?!” Crystal asked, her breathing coming in rapid shallow breaths as she turned this way and that, searching frantically for her?

“I think she got away when the dog-thing attacked Cheryl.”

Cheryl winced and turned, “Where did she go?!”

“I think she went out on the lake,” Samuel answered, the realization of his words hitting him even as he spoke them.

Just then a wall of water roared up from between the trees pouring muddy, frothy water over the roadway, though shallowing out as it ran down between their legs and feet.

“Oh, God!” Cheryl cried out, “Oh God, no!”

In the silence and stifled weeping that followed, they at last wilted under their situation and the horror of it.  This Mid-World, at once mysterious and magical to them, was as dark and as cruel as anything lurking in the Surface World from which they all had come.  O’Brian had been right all along.  They were off the edge of the map.  And here there be monsters.

***

The Pan loomed large in the swirling smoke leading up the barely visible path to the mysterious gate in the woods.  His large antlers rising like shadowy spikes, backlit by the roaring flames that burned within the trees.  He waited quietly for what was promised him.  The scents of beast and man, now buried within the scorched air, blurred beyond perception.  He could feel wave after wave of warmth thermals washing over his dark comingled flesh bearing both human and animal origins.  Nothing of which could have been produced by the ancient natural world he’d foolishly and unwittingly abandoned so long ago, pursuing his patriarch into the wilderness to find…what?

He had long forgotten why he and the others had followed the man through the mysterious horizon Oculus.  He only knew that there was a reason that he and the others had carried their sacrifices of living blood.  Something on the other side of time and space demanded it.  Something that withheld their birthright.  Something that needed to be appeased to lift the curse placed upon their progenitor and by extension their entire family for generations to come.  He had pursued the passage of justice and had received only scorn.  A wrenching and tearing of his mortal body in half only to awaken in gouts of his own blood and find himself remade into…this.

With cruel, rough hands he fingered the long-jagged horns that arose from the crown of his grizzled mane of unkempt hair, and his quiet seething hatred deepened once again.

If he was to be reduced to being part animal, he had vowed that he would embrace that wildness and forever let it rule him according to the lot he’d been given.  But one thing he had not accounted for in his own self-determination.  There was a deeper, darker wildness that came not from the animal side of his newly fused body, but from the ancient part of him, that was still irrevocably human.  A need for vengeance.  A need to punish anything and everything in all of creation that left him consigned to this creature-man body, without hope and a future.  And that was when he’d first discovered the Dragon Pool glimmering darkly under the moonlight deep in the heart of a place the men of these lands called “The Holy Wood”.  And the beautiful shimmering creature beneath those darkling waves called and spoke to him in his misery and offered him a way to do just that.

***

What she was doing was sheer madness.  Dellitch worried over and over again, that she had made a foolish decision in taking the golem any further into the woods.  But she knew that if she just left it there in the swampy slough, even if the fire engulfed the area, the wind spirit inside it would survive, escape and word would ultimately get back to The Pan and her life and that of her kind would be forfeit.  The Pan indeed had a long reach.  The Harpies would find no tree or ground upon which they could land and ever hope to be safe from the humiliation and vengeance that pursued them.

Their secret alliance with the Xarmnian humans, for all their brute strength in proliferating numbers, and their slashing skills with bladed weapons could never protect them from the beings that crawled, swam and flew upon these inter-lands from horizon to horizon.  She was flying a tight line between death and appeasement bringing the golem back to The Pan.  But she knew The Pan was expecting to meet with one, and it was one of the primary reasons why he had roused himself from his lands in the eastern territories and had come to the Forests of Kilrane.  The Queen Horde living within him had promised him that a vessel he had released into the world would come back to him and restore to him his sight.  And that, with sight restored, he would at last witness the crushing of his enemies within the Forests of Kilrane.

She adjusted her clutching talons around the outstretched arms of the golem, being extra careful not to crush him or lose her grip on him.  She was exhausted, taking long moments to soar rather than flap, as she flew higher above the burning forest below, skirting the billowing columns of tumbling dark smoke, yet trying not to fly too far out of them for fear of being seen.  No human could have survived the heat washes they had flown through, so she knew there was no torturing of this thing that could be done to get more information out of it.  She would deliver it as requested and then be off to join the others.  The Xarmnians would be expecting a report soon, and her absence would arouse suspicion.

With long broad wings, she glided in a turning gyre scanning the forest below.  The fires had picked up in earnest as gusts of driving wind came down from the high plains and spilled over the edge of the escarpment leading down into Kilrane.  A haze covered everything below and even with an enhanced bird’s vision she had trouble discerning the movement of the fire and the possible movement of warm-blooded bodies below.

And then she spotted him.  He sat in a clearing, not too far from another open area occupied by a camp of Xarmnian soldiers.  It was going to be tricky not being noticed by the Xarmnians as she attempted to fly in with her package to The Pan, but she had to risk it.  She would fly further west, following the drift of the towering smoke and then skirt the treetops and out of the sight-line of the Xarmnians.  If the Xarmnians suspected her of dual loyalties, that may also be her and her kind’s undoing.

Further movement caught her eye as somethings tall and angular bearing what appeared to be a small figure moved into the clearing where The Pan waited.

“Dryads!” she cursed.  And the small figure they bore aloft was, in fact, also a golem.

***

Metal clanged against stone and wood.

Satyrs with long scythes joined the fight on the road, brandishing their weapons with long slashing arcs.  Others brutally swung clubs and short hatchet-like tools attempting to cut us down where we stood.

We fought desperately, but their numbers kept coming at us, leaping out of the smoke, faces pulled back in a rictus grin of menace and evil.  We beat, swung, punched and slashed at every hybrid creature that thwarted our forward movement.  Fighting on all sides, we kept close together, knowing we were reaching exhaustion and our enemies knew it too.

A fiery tree fell across the road barely missing us but taking out five of the goat-men in its burning crash.

The air was thick, full of the stench of burning hair and sweating bodies, pressing in and outward.

Jeremiah hooked a swinging scythe with the metal lath of the crossbow, jerking the wielder forward into my impaling jab.  The satyr roared and spat at me even as he died upon my sword.  Another satyr took advantage of the occupancy of my blade and rained down pummeling blows on my shoulder and sword arm now heavy with the body of its kind.  Jeremiah managed to pivot the scythe out from under the crossbow and gathered the snath post in the other hand and swung it with a powerful forearm, catching the satyr assaulting me by the blade slicing through the back of its neck.  Its jerk backward causing further trauma pulling the beast out of the fight.

Will had retained his kukri blade and was slashing away at a crouching satyr that had spidered in under his swings and had slashed his tunic shirt with its stone blade.

“Does it bleed, pretty boy?!” it taunted him, hissing in its grunting bark, “Does it hurt?  Tell us!”

Another waved a flaming firebrand at Lorgray, which Lorgray parried with his sword in a shower of sparkling embers.

Satyrs leaped into the fray, bounding out of the smoke, sneering and champing their sharp pointed teeth angrily like a flock of demons.

Lorgray was trying his best to calm his stallion, and ward off the attacks but it was getting harder and harder to do so.

We breathed heavily, and the heated air around us was making that more difficult.  Smoke stung our eyes, as the lunging satyrs shook soot and ash from their hairy heads and reached for us with grimy hands stained black with all the filth they had been into.  Lorgray felt his stallion’s flanks tightening and knew it was about to bolt and attempt to break through the ranks crowding in around us.

“Grab the saddle and hang on!” he shouted, and before we knew it, the stallion lurched and then sprang forward.  I grabbed the pommel of the saddle, Will stepped into the stirrup, standing on Jeremiah’s foot, and swung into the saddle behind him.  Lorgray leaped up and hung his knee into the open sheath saddle hook that had carried his crossbow, and we were dragged forward, barely hanging on to the frightened stallion as it galloped forward and drove bodily into the satyrs crowding into us for each to extract their pound of flesh.

The satyrs broke ranks, driven to part before the lunging horse, and both Lorgray and I raked through the more reluctant of them with our bared blades.

Terrified as it might be, the horse could not bear all of our weight for much longer, and I knew that I could not outrun these satyrs even on my best day.

In the confusion, however, we gain about two hundred feet more, before the satyrs turned en masse and began pursuit.

“Well, have to make our stand here!” Jeremiah shouted, putting a brace of crossbow bolts into the feeder line and winching the spring lock back into a killing tension.  Much as he dreaded it, he knew he would have to dismount the fatiguing horse soon or the animal would crumble to its knees and quite possibly be unable to rise again.

The grunting, growling, barking mob of satyrs came on, their wild eyes gleaming in the firelight, their savagery evident and swift.

At last, the horse slowed, its fatigue overcoming its fear.

Lorgray twisted out of the saddle hook and scramble-fell down upon the dead leaves masking the trail through the woods leading up to the Faerie Fade.  He had managed to snatch a long torch from one of the scattering satyrs which he held aloft in one hand and swept the air with the sword in his other.

“Get behind me!” he shouted.

It was clear to me and Jeremiah what he was about to do, and I only hoped the leaves on the path before us were as dead and dry as they appeared to be.

Jeremiah swung down from the saddle and almost crumpled to the ground.  The stallion had slowed but it had not stopped, and Jeremiah was in danger of being dragged by a stirrup if the dismount was not done cleanly.  I had hung my arm over the pommel and had drawn my feet up, bobbing along the right side of the horse’s belly, so detachment was not an issue for me.  Will, however, refused to dismount and instead slid further into the saddle that Jeremiah had managed to vacate.

Lorgray passed the flaming torch into the dried leaves and ran along the length of the trail starting a firebreak.  The leaves ignited quickly, and the mob was almost upon us.

Flames leaped up into the air, creating a temporary wall of fire that may or may not give us another hundred or so yards to retreat before we would have to turn and engage the onslaught.

We turned and ran, both Lorgray and I helping Jeremiah to hobble forward as far as we could from the temporary barrier behind us.

Will still had not dismounted the horse and to our shock and dismay, he leaned forward, gripped the reins and kicked into the flanks of the beast.  The horse reared and then bolted, not used to such cruelty, but unable to resist the one in the saddle driving it forward.

Gouts of earth and mud kicked up from the horse’s shod hooves were flung at us as the steed pressed forward into the brush of the forest.

We shouted after him, but it was all we could do to breathe let alone raise our voices to command the stubborn and impulsive kid.

The boy was terrified, we knew, but this was beyond the pale, and I could not help but rage in frustration.

Prologue – The Beachhead

The old woman watched as the foamy tides cast themselves relentlessly upon the wet sands of the beach, expending the last breaths of their moon-driven energy.

Her body had once had a name, and an identity. She had been called Noadiah, but now that name was lost with the death of the personhood that had quitted the body when it fell into the great fjord and the wounded beast prowling those frigid waters took her under.

Afterward only the image of the old woman remained, and the thing that inhabited her form was nothing like the woman who once was lovingly known by that name.

Before coming to the beach, she’d been in a great stone city. And there she had existed for several years. In the shadows. In the alleys. In the darkness. Waiting for an opportunity to take back something that did not belong to them.

Each day the old woman’s form became more restrictive and weakened. The presence within her, now fully occupying her dissembling remains seethed and chafed in the length of the waiting. Yet it did not dare to show its degree of impatience. Afterall, time was only a construct given to allow humans to experience dispensation. Impatience gave birth to recklessness. And recklessness was a child that should be strangled in its infancy.

The old woman had arrived upon the beach and had taken up residence in the sea caves months before the coming of the beast. She had unwittingly summoned the creature. Or, rather, the thing living inside of her had.

Since the coming of the second quest, she had learned what the Surface Worlders were after. The three virtue stones that would unlock the hidden kingdom. For years her and her sisters had blown through the lands of the Mid-World, seeking the current resting places of the two remaining stones, for she knew the place where the first stone now lay- high in the mountains of the great Stone Wall, where the fire-beast slept until the final time for its re-awakening. The second stone had gone beyond her sight, but she suspected that it had fallen in the possession of The Pan. Its true resting place was unclear, and that bothered her not knowing for sure.

Through swirling about eaves, and hearing tales whispered by firelight, she had at last learned of the location of another, and that breathy intelligence she had whispered across the waves, reaching the sea creature that had given her its present form to walk unnoticed among mankind.

And insinuate herself there near the location of the third and final stone that lay locked within the treasury of the great stone city of Xarm, named after its founder and first monarch. Guarded by fools who did not know what they had in their possession.

No one suspected the old beggar woman who sat day after day in the shadows, wearing tattered rags, with matted hair, and various insects crawling on her form beneath her clothing to keep her company. She’d waited and watched for an opportunity, allowing the lax guards to grow accustomed to her huddled and seemingly innocuous presence. To see her only as a regular fixture of a city impoverished by the mundane and ineffectual. Just another pathetically huddling piece of human debris, skulking in the shadows. She stared out at the world with gray-blue eyes, clouded with cataracts. No one suspected that she might be anything more than she appeared. A blind beggar—seemingly unseeing. Dismissed by the wary guards as only a ubiquitous and harmless shadow to the point that they no longer saw her. And in this guise, she was able to trade the blindness they perceive to be hers for their own.

The Xarmnians never really knew what they had in the inner room of the treasury, to begin with. To them, the stone was just a valuable rock, unique in its large size, retrieved long ago in a time best forgotten, when their ancestors first traveled from a great distance to settle in the surrounding plains of the mountainous valley. Legend had it that this particular stone was dug out from its golden setting, along with two other large stones, and each of these stones was divided among the kingdoms that occupied the region. The Xarmnian Kingdom, the Capitalian Kingdom, and the Middle Kingdom, an alliance formed of the indigenous proto settlements who occupied the plains before the arrival and formulation of the latter kingdoms. The three precious stones were said to have once been the jeweled adornments of a mysterious golden crown capping a pillar that predated all known races of men and other kind occupying the lands of the Mid-World. These separated fist-sized stones were taken from the mysterious pillar stone and, along with the twelve base set mover stones, were used to build the great cities that grew into powerful walled empires.

But the thing inside the old woman knew these stones were much more than they appeared. They were particularly connected to a prophecy of the Mid-World’s future. These three stones were key components to unlocking a multi-dimensional gate and whose opening would bring about a change in the Mid-World and signify the ushering in of a new kingdom age that would supplant everything. A potential future, this occupant of the old woman would do everything in its power to prevent. And when at last the opportunity finally came, she had absconded with the mysterious gate stone, smooth and polished and perfectly round and larger than any other natural stone of its kind.

One evening, the old woman, at last, saw her opportunity. The treasury had been easier enough to enter under distraction than she had ever anticipated, because the sight of her and the groveling denizens like her had grown commonplace within the city. All city guards were ordered to the city walls to track and kill a particularly hated traitor and prevent him from escaping.

In the rush to comply with orders, the posted guard of the treasury failed to notice the old woman’s stick extended into the closing doorway as they rush out to follow the command.

In the evening darkness, they failed to see the old woman’s slinking form, accustomed to blending in with the shadows, hobbling out of the now-closed treasury rooms, with a large smooth stone tucked into the flea-ridden folds of her tattered clothes. They failed to follow her skulking course through the night, out of the city, or tracked her progress for days without food or water, walking through the wildlands toward the seashore, she knew to lay to the eastern edge of the lands of the Mid-World. The incompetent soldiers would not discover the loss of the great and ancient treasure stone for many days, months or even years. They would never conceive of what she intended to do with it. That the great and giant sphere would be cast, as soon as she reached the shoreline out into the Great Sea, never to be found again. And then she would decide, what next to do about the other stones that remained, but first, she must rid herself of this old body and once again walk in the newness of a life stolen from among the lands of the living.

The old woman arrived at last at the beachhead embankment. From atop the edge of one of the many sea-cliffs, she watched the continual march of the waves coming from the distant pumping heart of the ocean, pounding in frothy surf along the seashore, extending far as her old eyes could see.

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She thought and raged long and hard about what all had transpired to lead her up to this moment. The insufferable restrictions she has borne living within the decaying mud of the now almost bloodless body. She harshly chuckled to herself, realizing that she had at last gotten the upper hand. That those outworlders would, finally, be prevented from being used as instruments of the Terrible One to bring about the prophesied return of this land’s champion.

If she could not destroy this stone, and she had tried many times along the way, she would do the next best thing. From an outcropping ridge that extended as a tall peninsula into the ocean, she heaved the stone, a giant, sparkling pearl, outward as hard as her frail form would allow and, breathless, she watched as the stone left her hands, arched and descended towards the swirling frothy waters below, only to see, to her amazement, the pearl seemed to punch into the air and ripple the fabric of the Mid-World’s veneer of reality, the seascape undulating and forming concentric circles in the very air and as it passed through the center of this reality, she saw, what appeared to be the great fanged mouth of a massive creature catch the falling pearl through a swirling tear in the air. The massive head and jaws clamped down upon the stone, and its eyes shifted and stared at the old woman’s form standing shakily on the cliff before it.

Something passed between them, and the old woman knew that it was only a matter of time before this terrible beast would be allowed to pass through its mystical portal and meet with her again. She need only wait for its coming and the inevitable people that would follow soon afterward. Twenty-one meddling and clueless Surface Worlders who she had vowed to kill as soon as possible before they could make any further trouble with ancient prophecy non-sense.

She waited for many months, occupying the sea cave on the shore below the overhanging cliffs. At last, the first of the otherworldly travelers came.

***

A creature of living darkness emerged from the well of the deep. It had been summoned from the great gulf that separated the world of the seen from the unseen. The beast was given a keystone granting it a metaphysical form reflecting its monstrous nature, allowing it to pass through to a place where the designated one would come to be tested to learn to lead others either by faith or by sight.

The supernatural swords of fire blocking its entrance were briefly parted by the keepers and it was, at last, permitted to enter the hidden world from which it had been ejected so very long ago.  Soon others would emerge from the world of the seen, but this was its opportunity and its singular mission: To kill the desire of the one called to lead.  To stop the opening of the other gate beyond the hidden world to the kingdom without end.  A kingdom called Excavatia.

Like a shooting star, the creature came through a ragged tunnel in the evening sky opening just above the horizon’s edge of the marching sea.  Upon hitting the atmosphere, feathers of smoke peeled from its falling form creating contrails that marked the path of its fiery descent.  Its ponderous bulk plowed into the shoreline with a crash and thunderous clap echoing across the breaks and turns of the seashore cliffs.  The pressure of the impact caused the crawling shallow water to explode into the air, and a large furrow tore into the rising shore, casting a cloud of sand into the air thereafter.

Something huge emerged from the furrowed trench masked amid the falling water and dust, clouded in a loamy patina, sparkling with wetness as if it was newly birthed into this world of sea and lowering sun.

It shifted, undulating in the air, seeming to twist the landscape around it as if bending the light out of its path like a massive, invisible fist moving under plastic.

Its form was translucent, but opaque with the accumulation of sand sloughing off its ponderously moving body.  It lumbered forward and headed towards the open darkness of a sea cave carved by wind, time and water.  The sea swelled and surged behind it as the rippling, translucent, hulking thing faded into the sea chiseled cavern as deeper darkness enfolded it into its waiting bosom.

An old woman’s voice, coming from somewhere deep within the cave spoke to the newly arrived monster and said, “Welcome to the Mid-World, my prince.  We have waited long for your coming.”

The beast filled the cavern with an even deeper darkness, raising its darkling form to cover the escape route through the entrance to the sea cave.

Words, seemingly formed of rock and evoked from the deep-belly of the land and sea, responded to the woman’s voice, rumbling out of the walls and echoing throughout the recesses of the deep cavern.

“You speak in the language of the original tongue. How come you to know this? And by what power do you recognize me? You have the hinting of human blood about you, but it is not you own smell.”

The monster drew in a sniff that sounded like crashing waves of the sea, “I sense the water and dust within you, and the smell of another Prince of the Dark. Are you a creature of this land, or another place?”

The woman’s voice responded, quavering, “I am a confined spirit of the air, my Prince. The original tongue is native to me. I was given this form through the blood and formation of another. I am your servant and the one who beckoned you with the accursed stone.”

“The traces of water in you, are not of this outer sea. From whence do they come?”

“There is a great and deep river between the mountains, my liege. It is called a fjord. There I was infused by the Beast of the Sea, your kind, along with the killing of the human form that previously bore it.”

“And what of that Prince? How come you to leave your loyalties there and bring them to me?”

“The former Prince of the Waters was slain, my Lord. It’s head was taken by fishermen, even as I was present, lurking hidden within its locked jaws. I alone had enough blood left to sustain me.”

The monster seemed to ponder her words thoughtfully for a long moment, and then the bellows of its throat chamber formed an odd popping sound like that of breaking rocks.

“Then, servant, you will be my eyes upon this land, for I move among the shadows and beneath it. The light of this world burns.”

“What is it that you wish of my, my master? I knew you would come, but I did not know for what purpose.”

“There is one of the Ancient Land soon to come to this place. We are to undermine him at all cost, for he like others before him seek the Kingdom that is hidden here.”

“But the stone…I saw you consume it. We have disposed of the virtue stone needed to bring the prophecy about.”

“We have only delayed it. The stone is embedded in me. I could not consume it, for its power would send me into Tartarus.”

“You mean it is here still? Not out in The Void?”

“It cannot be lost. The virtue stones are from the altar of The One. They can be contained only for a time, but they answer another’s call.”

“So how are we to prevent the one who will lead another of the stone quests?”

“You will join their company. You will undermine their group, and sow seeds of dissension among them.”

“I have done this before, only with some limited success. Those who knew the form I bear, eventually suspect.”

“Then it is for you, that this charge I give is perfect. Those arriving here do not know the others. They will all begin as strangers without names.”

“Your will is mine, my Lord. I am called Torlah among those who know me by my true form.  I am called Noadiah, but the others who see only the blood form I now wear. And by what name shall I call you?”

“My name is Sheol, for I am the Lord and Master among the many graves of men.”

“So, My Lord Sheol, how shall we begin this deception together?”

“Bring me a sacrifice so that I may feed on human blood. From this I will give you another form, beside the ashes of the one you now wear.”

The monstrous bulk in the shadows slowly moved aside, allowing the faint graying light from outside the cave to pass around its body. Giving the old woman leave to go to the outside and do as it had commanded her.

***

She saw the traveler struggling inside what appeared to be the remains of a rowboat, taking on water, being swamped by the surfeiting waves.  She scowled, trying to get a better look through the old eyes.  When she finally saw the terrified occupant of the small craft, she smiled broadly.

“A little girl”, she thought to herself, “Perfect.”

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***

The lifeboat had been adrift for at least a full day. The two girls did not know what to do. They had screamed for help until they could speak no more and then they had wept copious tears, growled at each other, snapped at each other and finally consoled each other.  But in all that time, the one terror they did not dare speak of lest by speaking it aloud they make it true-No help would be forthcoming. They were lost at sea. And it would be hours before someone realized they were missing.

Thankfully, there was a small cache of provisions stowed within the bench box of the lifeboat, but it wasn’t much. There were kits for purifying sea water, into potable water but neither of the girls knew anything about how to put the strange items together, or know much about desalination. The items to them were just what they appeared to be: A rag, a silver bowl, a collapsible wooden frame, a small corked vial of blue tablets and a mirror.  They might as well have been the components of an Erector set. There were some dried cracker-like biscuits, that they halfheartedly  munched on, but found them tasteless and hardly satisfying. Neither of them had much of an appetite after their ordeal.

The wind was cold, but the sun overhead threatened with blistering heat. They pulled the tarpaulin cover over the half open area from the front bow to the mid-ship rails and oar stocks and took shade under it. By and by they fell asleep, having little else to do but hope and pray the ship would turn back, and a search party sent out and they would eventually be found before they died of thirst, hunger or exposure.

Sleeping fitfully in each others arms, trying to stay warm as best as they could, they never saw the opening in the sky and sea, and never knew they had drifted through the strange glowing portal out from the open sea of the Surface World into the waters of another world entirely.

It was only a matter of a few hours more, before they were awakened by the rocking and chop of the boat lifting over the swells, and spinning lazily into the deepening troughs between the frothy wave crests, that they knew something was wrong. They could be swamped and capsized if nothing was done to orient the small life boat.

The oars were long and heavy, and up until that moment the girls had been afraid to try lifting them out of their stocks into the row locks. But they had to orient the bow, and water was already pouring over the sides with each dip and pitch of the boat. Shakily they crawled towards the mid-ship bench, weakened from fitful sleep, growing hunger, and a disturbing lack of fresh water.

The darker haired girl rose up, bracing herself by clutching the canvas extending from the transom.  The younger, fair, red-headed girl scrambled towards the bracket holding the long wooden oar on the port side of the boat just as the craft crested a rising wave.
“Land! Land!” the older girl squealed and screamed.

The water and crackling, liquid noises of the waves drowned out the other girl’s words into nonsensical gibberish and squeal. The younger girl lost balance and fell into the sloshing water in the bottom of the boat, bruising her shins and arms.

“Oww! Oww!” she cried, “Help me, Becca!”

“Miray, there’s land over there!” the older cried, trying to steady herself against the pitching boat, “Get the oar! I’ll get the other one.”

“I was trying to, big dummy! And I fell and hurt my legs.”

“Miray, don’t you see?! We are saved! There may be people there who can help us! C’mon!”

With that the older girl, identified as Becca by the younger, bent down and crawled through the sloshing water to the starboard bracket holding the other oar and tugged at the long paddle.

Meanwhile, the younger, Miray, tugged at the oar on the port bracket.

“It won’t come out!” she wailed, gritting her teeth, “Becca, help me! It won’t come out!”

Just then a swelling wave of water poured over the port gunwale, drenching the red-headed girl. She cough and sputtered, shivering from the chill of the water, trying to wipe her eyes, but losing her balance again. The frustration of her circumstance overwhelmed her and she started crying, “Becca, help!”

The older Becca lost patience.

“Quit being such a baby, Miray!”

She had pulled her oar out and laid it across the mid-ship bench. She sloshed past Miray, gripped the port-side oar and jerked upward, but the oar did not come loose. Gathering her legs under her, she planted her feet, and gripped the oar with both hands, just as another wave poured over the side, drenching both Miray and Becca. Becca coughed and sputtered water, gasping for breath, which irritated her and she lashed out angrily at Miray, as if she had caused the wave to hit her.
“Get outta the way, you weakling baby! There is land over there and all we need is to get the oars out and we’ll be able to row towards it without sinking first. Now is not the time to cry!”

“I’m not a weakling baby!” Miray protested through her tears, “Stop being such a meanie! We wouldn’t be out here, if you hadn’t insisted we play pirates!”

“Shut up, you!” Becca turned on her, raising a balled fist at her, “All you ever wanted to play was with your dollies. Grow up, you sissy baby! Ship up or ship out!”

Miray’s faced puckered into an angry pout. She wanted to give Becca a good clout in the mug, but she was much smaller than her, so she bit her lip and reached over to grab the stuck oar with Becca.

“On three,” Becca commanded, acting as if she was the pirate captain she had pretended to be.

“One-two…”

Miray yanked upward and the oar popped loose of its bracket, and she triumphantly cried out, “THREE!”
Becca, expecting Miray’s effort to have joined hers on her own declaration of the word “Three”, lost balance and fell backward into the sloshing water on her buttocks, expelled a loud “Oof!” when she struck the bench seat.

The hard plunk had bruised her tail bone, and she teared up, but bit her bottom lip trying hard not to let Miray see her cry.

“Who’s the weakling baby now?!” Miray snuffled, wiping the salty spray from her eyes and cheeks.

“I’ll get you for that!” Becca growled, turning and rising, reaching for the oar she had freed before.

Just then the boat pitched and spun, angling down another wave, but did not dip to gulp the water at the bottom of the trough. It canted, throwing both Miray and Becca off balance again, and they hung on to the gunwale railings to keep from tumbling overboard. The oar clacked against each other and formed an ‘X’ across the boat.

The boat see-sawed again, and the oars slid to parallel positions, clattering again.

They put the oars in the oar locks and fastened the ends together, so that the oars could be operated in tandem. When the paddles were dipped into the water, the two girls were thrown forward over the mid-ship bench and fell toward the transom and canvas cover.  With a shout of surprise the two girls tumbled head-long into the canvas, tangled together but no worse for the experience.

Becca started laughing, and Miray couldn’t help herself. She never could hold onto a mad for very long, and together the girls laughed at the silliness of their predicament.

“Do you know how to row a boat?” Miray asked.

“I can sing it, but there’s no ‘gently down the stream’ here.”

“Guess not,” Miray wrinkled her brow, “How’re we gonna do it?”

“Don’t know, ” Becca said, rising up off of the canvas tarp, “But we’re gonna figure it out. How hard can it be?”

Two hours of struggle against the choppy sea soon taught them the answer.

***

Shihor, a Xarmnian scout, stood high in the stirrups of his saddle, his gaze fixed eastward towards the coastline.  A strong look of displeasure clouded his face from its usual placid and controlled coolness into a darkening and furrowed scowl.

The pulsing flash over the edge of the far eastern horizon and the faint but distance marks on the edge of the lowering sky confirmed his worst fear.  Twenty-one fingers. A year of sevens. The soothsayer had been wrong to placate their concern.

When the first seven years had passed after they had put down the insurgency, they had watched the east with guarded vigilance.  No gray harbinger smoke fingers arose on the horizon-far distant pillars of fire burning somewhere beyond the edge of the sea.

Sentries watched, day and night, stationed on the hillside that formed the sea-side cliffs overlooking the sea for over a year, but no flash of the opening between worlds appeared. No rumors of the otherworlders came from their spies, hidden within the pathetic pockets of resistance operating with what they foolishly believed was secrecy within the outer villages.

When no further signs of the mysterious Oculus had come, they had begun to believe that the trouble with the Surface Worlders and the Prophecy was failing. When fourteen passed, they had begun to believe that the meddlesome entries were at last over, and they had celebrated their victory with a brutal campaign to pillage those villages who still resisted Xarmnian rule and tribute. Even the commercial city of Azragoth had fallen, and its collapse had demoralized all of the other towns who still believed themselves protected from the reach and might of the Xarmnian Empire.

What was started so long ago, and had to his mind been thwarted, suppressed and seemingly abandoned, was not yet over.  The beings would be back.  The nightmares would become flesh, gristle, and bone, and crawl, swim or fly back into the Mid-World seeking vengeance.

The Pan and its minions had been warned.  An agreement had been reached, or so he had thought.  It was hard to tell with the wild ones, what truly was in their self-interest.

The remote patrol assignment would have to wait.  There was no time to be lost.  He had to ride hard and fast, back to the city of Xarmni and warn the dread monarch.

If they did not put down this potential uprising, it could mean the end of their rule.  The marauder resistance was one thing, but this was quite another.  This involved the supernatural.

He turned his horse towards the westward rise and the purple shadow of the distant mountains beyond it.  He would ride hard throughout the night and so doing would kill his mount, but he would pick up another one in the occupied towns along the way.  Seven days ride.

It had taken nine days to reach the coast in pursuit of the mysterious old blind woman seen to have left the city. Something about her had never seemed quite right, lingering day after day in the alley next to the inner court portcullis. Never once asking for alms, food or water. She wanted something else. Something much more precious to her than those things that would naturally sustain a human life, and he suspected he knew what it was she wanted. He’d been a fool not to recognize her, sitting there day after day, but then again she was much changed from when he’d last saw her serving he and his men in the Tavern at Sorrow’s Gate.

If the pulsing light on the eastern horizon and the smoky columns in the distance were not indicators enough, the fact of the old woman showing up in the City of Xarmni, should have warned him that an attempt to recover the remaining crown stone would soon be made–provided, Xarmni, still had it in its possession. He had to get to the Treasury to be sure. He would meet with Helmer’s company on the road and then proceed onward.

The horse-flesh under him had served him well in his patrols.  It was a fine and powerful beast.  What a waste, he thought as he clenched his teeth, gathered his reins tightly into his fist and drove hard, cruel spurs into the flanks of the mountain stallion, causing it to rear up and then run for all its might.

Down The Dark Road – Chapter 66

Like ghosts arising from a graveyard mist, shadowy forms appeared from either side of the road and a large dark figure loomed in the smoky woods behind them.  The girl stood in our path holding up and fingering what appeared to be a small bejeweled purse in the shape of a heart.  A strange red light emanated and pulsed between the joined jewel casing.  The casing could not fully contain the light throbbing from within.

“Hello, Mr. O’Brian,” she said simply, though her voice was accompanied by an odd jaw popping noise.

“I promised you I would find you again,” she smiled slightly, “…and that you would pay for the body you took from me with your own.”

She nodded just behind us, indicating that whatever forms were waiting and watching the interaction from within the shadowed haze should now come forward.  Rather than turning, I locked eyes and unsheathed the Honor Sword wrapping the bloodline sash around my forearm as she spoke.  She was distracting us.  Lulling us into a dead calm before the strike, but I could sense and feel the pressure building.  Captain Logray had his sword out as well, silently and cleanly removing it and raising it to the ready.

Out of the smoke, the forms clarified into nasty dark, goat men.  Their foul stench masked by the swirling smoke.  Their ash-streaked bodies and char-marked faces grinning at the prospect of tearing us apart.

“Though you may have survived in the mouth of the dragon long enough to imprint this dirt sack, I need your death to retain it.  I will finish what that dragon prince has left undone.  I have come to collect my due.”

Shadows darkened around us, yellow-eyes gleamed, and the satyrs attending what appeared to be a sweet, innocent child, chortled with savage glee.

“To that end, I’d like for you to meet some of my friends.”

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Ugly, bestial faces resolved out of the haze around her, their teeth bared, there dark eyes shining with cruelty and a savage glee.  Their fur bristled along their backs, in anticipation.  Their hooved feet stamped impatiently in the ash dust of the road as they chortled, delighted with the contrasting effect this disturbing semblance of a young innocent girl created with her calm threatening words.

Her gaze shifted from me to Jeremiah and her eyes narrowed above a slight smirk.

“Jeremiah,” she cooed, “So very nice to see you again.  Have you been in hiding?”

“Who are you?”

The young girl clicked her tongue chastising and shook her head, “Perhaps, you knew me with this face?”

Suddenly her young cheeks sagged with age, her forehead wrinkled above greying eyebrows, her mouth drew in with sallow cheekbones rising, and her hair lengthened into graying ropes of braided cords and tired grey-blue eyes shone within time-weathered sockets that had seen too much pain and heartache in the days etched on her visage.

“Noadiah!” Jeremiah exclaimed with a start, shrinking back in the saddle.

The old face appearing on the body of such a young girl was unnerving.

“I have so missed you, my elusive friend.  So much that I thought I would bring you this gift you misplaced beneath Azragoth.”

She carefully reached with the purse and drew out a glowing ruby stone.

“You dropped this, remember?  Such a pity you were so haphazard with it,” she said turning it in her hands, watching its red throbbing light pulse through her fingers.

Jeremiah stared at the stone and the light from the interior gleamed reflectively in his eyes.

“I think I shall keep it for the time being.  Just to keep it safe,” she said tucking it away, smiling at the effect her presentation of it seemed to be having on Jeremiah as she mocked his mission with its final failure.

“If there is nothing further, then, I will leave you to my friends.  They’ve been dying to meet…  Wait, no sorry, that’s not how it goes. It should be, you’ll be dying to meet them,” she said beginning to laugh her visage returning to that of the young girl again.

Jeremiah had surreptitiously slid his hand into the saddle sheath and retrieved the crossbow.  There would be no chance to wire an arrow bolt from the brace, but it could be used as a bludgeon.  He remained calm, though disturbed by the sight for reasons this golem creature would be unable to guess.

The girl and her “friends” posed a direct danger, but he was also concerned about the indirect danger of the uncertainty of his own party.

Will had eventually fallen behind and it unnerved him.

The young man could not be trusted any more than could the disturbed young girl standing in the middle of the smoky road ahead of them or the sneering goat-men creatures curling out of the smoke behind her, flanking them on either side.

What was about to happen was going to be very, very bad and he saw no way out of this one.  They would die today.  The third quest would at last surely end here in blood and in fire.

“Pretty, pretty horse,” the satyr snarled and chortled, its black sooty hand rubbing its muscle-twitching flank, as the stallion rumbled displeasure deep in its chest, its eyes rolling to follow the quick furtive movements of the two satyrs circling it and Jeremiah astride him.  Jeremiah held the crossbow easily, readily and wary of their fleeting, jerky movements.  He’d misjudged their swiftness before, and it had cost him his own stead.  A mistake he would not repeat with the one he now rode on loan.

Jeremiah recognized one of the satyrs sneering at him from the shoulder of the road.  A dark scar had marked its cheek and its side.  Wounds it had received from him during a prior skirmish earlier in the day.  Jeremiah’s jaw clenched and unclenched, this was one of the raiding troops that had maimed his horse.

As if upon the moment of Jeremiah’s recognition of him, the scarred satyr lunged from the roadside and Jeremiah drove a foot into its face as it leaped for him.  And with that action, the battle was on.

This was shaping up to be a very bad day indeed.

***

At the base of a tree, along the leaf-strewn roadway, the satyr that Jeremiah had bound awoke.

Firelight flickered in his eyes as he blinked away the grogginess from having been struck.  His sharp teeth champed as he struggled against the chain wrapped around him, twisting and jerking and grunting to wrench himself free.  Black twisted embers gilded with bright orange flame floated around him, dancing in dervish twirls upon the heated wind.

He grunted and lunged against the chain again, but this time was rebuked by a harsh voice.

“Stop thrashing, Banalus!” the voice hissed, “The forest maidens will come for you, but not if they suspect us.”

The satyr left for dead in the roadway winced as the arrow that pierced his flesh shortened each breath he took but could not quell the animal eyeshine in his golden eyes as he licked slavishly at the aphrodisiac pollen that covered the rocks where he fell.

“Gwemmel, I thought you were dead,” the bound satyr hissed back, “Get me loose.  These dead harpies ought to be good for at least a romp with the maids.  I don’t need to be bound for that.”

“Did you lick these rocks?”

“What?  I barely got a taste.”

Gwemmel shifted over still lying flat on his belly, crawling forward, his short hooves clawing at the dirt.

As he turned his head back to the golden dusted stones, a massive black cloven hoof silvered with wear and age descended just in front of his face.  He blinked rapidly at the sight and then shuddered in terror.  He knew what he would find when he followed the hoof up to the broad muscled fetlock and knees and muscled thighs and beyond to the shaggy mane and broad chest eleven feet above the ground, and the hoary grizzled head and cataracted eyes staring sightlessly down upon his quaking form.  One false move, or one whimper, and that would be the last time he ever saw the light of day.

“I smell the scent of blood in the air.  These ears have heard the sound of two imbeciles who should have reported back to me long before now,” the large, sightlessly blinking and intense gaze narrowed to the shuddering arrow shot satyr at its feet and took in a long, deep, inhale through widely-flared nostrils, “Yet I smell the spore of rutting dryads all around me.  What do you two have to say for yourselves?”

“Humans, my Lord,” Banalus squeaked, and then cleared its throat, “The outworlders have returned.  I recognized two of them.  One was the leader of the second band whose men passed that worthless red stone to you.  He has become a forester, perhaps he is the very one the dryads have long spoken of.  The one they call ‘The Fire Walker’.”

The Pan did not turn when Banalus spoke, only listened and flexed and unflexed his massive hands and corded muscled arms thinking brooding and dark thoughts but continued to glare downward at the form he sensed lay huddled at his hooves.

“And the other?” he growled.

“A woman, sire,” Gwemmel squealed through trembling lips, “She is the one the others call ‘Storm Hawk’.  I recognized her sweaty, female scent.  She bathes, sire.  It is not as strong as it is with other females.  Her face, however, was uncovered.  I saw her face, my Lord.  I can certainly recognize her again…if…” he trailed off, trying to reign in his desire to plead for his life and provoke his master further.

“And why was I not informed of this sooner?” he rumbled low and dangerously.

“I am bound to this tree with linked chain, my lord,” Banalus offered, “the forester…”

The Pan raised his hand swiftly, cutting him off mid-sentence.

“And you, my groveling friend?” he knelt slowly down, knee-joints crackling, nudging at the prone creature with his extended shaggy arm and curled knuckles.

“An arrow pierces my back, sire.  The woman she is artful and swift with a bow.  She killed one of the harpies that were fleeing.”

The Pan reached out and felt the haft of the arrow jutting out of the satyr’s back, its grimy blackened fingernails brush the fletching feathers of the arrow, causing the Gwemmel to writhe and wheeze through clenched teeth in short rapid breaths.  He closed his massive hand around the shaft and swiftly jerked the arrow upward, out of the satyr’s back, causing Gwemmel to whimper and bark-cough in pain.  The Pan’s nostrils twitched as he lifted the black-bloodied point to his nose and then ponderously rose to his feet, scenting the sour-milked odor of the two dead harpy carcasses strewn about the clearing as well.

“Your tales ring true this time,” he rumbled and then conceded, with a slight hint of disappointment, “You will both live this day.  Join your brothers.  There is a dangerous place within this forest that these outworlders are most likely headed to.  There is a wind spirit-creature that we were supposed to meet that would show us the way.  She said she would be waiting in the forest in a form we would all recognize from before.  If we are swift, we may yet prevent them from getting there.  Besides this creature swore an oath to me to restore my sight and she will deliver on that promise or there will be no place or help from us.”

He raised his fist and five satyrs emerged from the surrounding woods, two set about freeing Banalus from the tree, the others helped Gwemmel rise to his feet on trembling legs and unsteady hooves.

***

Azragoth was teeming with a rapid and quick activity.  In the mere hours following the moment that the raging fires first roared out from the front of the city igniting and repelling both the encroaching forest which had for the greater part of twenty-years grown wild and organically surged against its outer wall and the ferocious Manticores attempting to scale its pitch-coated, ebony walls, there had not been such apparent flurry of hurried life to the outside world.  Truly the inner city now roused and in motion within the dead outer ring of the old city was symbolically represented by the large wheel-within-wheel chandeliers that lighted their grand reception hall.  A circensian circus in its original sense, whereby all the surrounding communities which had once benefited from Azragoth’s commercial greatness, could now witness from the lower galleries, the veiled curtain of the forests of Kilrane thrown back with dramatic flair and witness its rise again from the ashes of its former grave.

Captain Thrax stood at the doorway to the surgeon’s cottage, arms folded, his large thick eyebrows shadowing the shallow caves of his intense eyes as he waited on the final news of his General’s condition.

Kadmin, the thickly-built shorter bodyguard of the General emerged first from the cottage door, his bow already in hand, an arrow notched as he swept the portal field with his eyes and then rested them on the imposing figure of Thrax and lowered the post of his pointed arrow.  A line of soldiers stood at attention ranks, just beyond Thrax, eyes forward but stealing furtive sidelong glances at the front portal of the cottage.

Kadmin raised his fist, signaling to the interior of the house through the partially open doorway at his back that, in his assessment, the way was clear of any immediate foes.

To the surprise of all, General Mattox, “The Eagle” emerged from the house, flanked slightly behind and on the left by Jesh, his taller, equal statured bodyguard.  The General stood tall just beyond the doorway, his chest emblazoned with the fierce and proud red eagle crest, with only the gauze bandage peeking out from behind the shoulder of his tunic, and a slight and barely perceptible twitch in the corners of his eyes signifying the pain from his recent ordeal.

An older, balding fellow with silver-hair, pleaded with him, “General, respectfully I must insist that you get bed rest for at least three days following such an extensive surgery.”

The General stepped forward out from under the stoop of the surgeon’s cottage, “And I told you if Azragoth does not have three days to rest, then neither do I.  I thank you for your skill and concern, but I have my duty to fulfill.”

With those words he strode forward towards the surprised Captain Thrax, signifying that he would brook no further argument from either the well-intentioned healer or from his own soldiers and guards under his command.

“How stands the city of Azragoth?” the General asked, “Were the beasts fully routed?  Has Morgrath reported back from The Keep and the tunnels below?  Where have the three treacherous creatures been taken?  Where are they being held?  Where is Corimanth?  Has Logray returned to the city with the Forrester?”

When there came no quick answer to the general’s questions, he walked closer to smiling Captain Thrax, irritation apparent, “Has everyone gone deaf and dumb, since I’ve been down?”

“No, General, we are all just very stunned to see you return back from death’s dark road so swiftly, and all very glad that you have.”

“Glad?!” Mattox asked, turning towards his guard and the ranks of soldiers standing just beyond Thrax, “Well, so far, I see very little to be gladdened about.  I’ll tell you what would make me glad.  It would please me ever so much to see these men stationed out on the wall watching for the enemy and remembering that they have a city full of people to protect, rather than attending an old worn-out soldier who deigns to try and lead this rag-tag bunch.  That,” he punctuated with a raised finger under Thrax’s nose, “IS what would make me glad.  Not this show of…of…”

“Loyalty and devotion, my General?” Corimanth offered, stepping out from the ranks of soldiers.

General Mattox turned on him swiftly, “Foolishness, is the word I was searching for, mister.”

“It’s good to see you too, General,” Ezra stepped forward as well smiling at the General who was now clearly back in his command element.

“Where have you placed those three creatures, Ezra?  How have you secured them?  These are not what they may appear to be and will elude your men if they are not watched carefully and cautiously.”

“We have placed them in the oubliettes,” Ezra answered, “Three guards stand over their iron gratings, ready to sluice them with the blackened sludge-waters, should they stir or attempt to escape.”

Mattox thought on this a moment before he lifted his eyes to Ezra again, “Captain Thrax and I will go to them, and see what further can be learned.  Corimanth, get these soldiers back up to the wall to stand watch.  I am assuming Logray has not returned, but when he does bring him and Jeremiah to me quickly.  I would hear from Morgrath soon if you can get him.  The city should be prepared for retaliation from the Xarmnians soon.  I believe Tobias and Sandballat may have already betrayed us to them, but in either case, we must be ready as the curious and the malicious come forward to observe the city of fire.  Go to it.”

The men broke ranks and hurried off quickly towards the inner walls of the city to relieve the armed citizens who had volunteered to stand watch in their place.

***

The sentries stood firm.  Legs apart, armed with sharpened Monk Spade weapons ready to thwart any outside assistance coming to affect the release of the strange identical beings locked in the street holes beneath them.  Their eyes were watchful, vigilant and their muscles were taut, flexed and ready gripping their deadly blades ever so tightly.  So focused on the walls around them, and cautious of every soul that would dare look their way, they failed to notice what was going on beneath them in the oubliette cages below.

Ants.  Thousands of them.  Swarms of them crawled up onto the grating swarming and covering the splayed legs of the soldiers above.  These tiny frenetic creatures crawled out of the suppurating eyes, nostrils, and mouths of the golems beneath them.  Crawled up their extended arms, out of their ears and through their hair and up onto the grating in swarm stacks of ant bodies linked in living chains to torment their captors above.

The ants flowed through the myriad tiny tunnels and wind capillaries of their host’s golem body, contained within the mud mounds the Dust Dragon creature that birthed them brought within itself in its trek through the Mid-World pursuing the latest members of the Surface World quest.  It imbued these hostile living nests within the hollow belly of each golem, crazing them with chemical pheromones as the wind spirits flowed into the corpus and moved these chemicals into golem’s hollow circulation.  The frenzied ants merely need to find a way out of the golem body and would sting repeatedly anything and everything they found in proximity upon their release.  It wasn’t long before the first guard who had confined the initial golem to the prison well began to feel the tingling itch and prickle of several somethings crawling within the seams of his outer clothing and hardened leather armor.  Seconds later, the other guards began to feel similar sensations.  When they finally looked down their legs and arms were covered in living carpets of biting and stinging creatures wild with chemical-crazed fury.

***

When General Mattox, Captain Thrax, Ezra, Jesh, and Kadmi arrived in the courtyard where the oubliettes were kept, they found three guards on the ground writhing in agony, crawling with thousands of tiny brown creatures, their Monk Spade weapons having fallen to the ground as ineffective against such tiny insidious enemies.

The three oubliette holes lay open, their metal gratings were thrown back, and trails of fine-grain sand led away from each prison hole.

They rushed forward to the holds, fearful certainty already confirming that the three former imprisoned occupants were long gone.

When they lifted their eyes from the courtyard holes, they noticed a series of dark-cloaked silhouettes perched upon the courtyard walls.

Their pale-white faces and hard glaring black eyes, and black-feathered capes revealing the identity of the second wave assault force lying in wait to terrorize and rip apart the city of Azragoth.

Harpies.

Forty or so, by best estimates.

Vessels of Stone and Flesh – Chapter 65

Out of Azragoth, there had been four golems in pursuit of the soldier.

Two of these had fallen.

One was taken.

And now, there was only one.

But hundreds more still waited in the darkness below the old city.  Waited…to rise to take faces.

The fourth of the ash-covered creatures watched the men from the dark road below.  A false twilight had begun to dim the horizon as ash ascended and filled the forest with dense smoke.

When the golems had heard the young man shouting, it had separated from the troop and was circling around behind the soldier on the road when it saw what had become of its three companions.  It followed the soldier when he rode up to the tree to free the young man. It had stood quietly in the shadows watching as the two men descended from the tree, below the lowering ceiling of ash.

It passed grimy hands over its face, brushing the coating ash from its cheeks and brow and scooping it out of its eyes.  The revealed face beneath scowled in anger.  It blinked away the dust that had coated its golem’s eyes leaving only a cataract film.

Its face and arms had dried and cracked with the heat of the fires and it could no longer bear the semblance of the hated one they were sent to resist and betray.  The projected image the dragon had captured in the tunnels was a temporary image at best. Not sustainable as long as the man still lived. Only eight wore this face. The face of a man with whom this particular golem inhabitant had a personal score to settle and a promise to keep.

In the past, it had worn at least three other visages of Surface Worlders.  And it primed itself to collect and masquerade as many more before it was done.

Its present doppelganger now stood beside the soldier of Azragoth whom they had followed out from the old city.  The fires made the tableau above hazy and appear to shimmer in heat vapor, but the creature could still see and identify them as they helped another man from the base of the tree to mount up carefully upon the soldier’s horse.  A younger man stood aloof and to the side, now unbound but seemingly uncooperative and at odds with the one called O’Brian.  It recognized him, as well.  There was potential in the young man.  Useful potential.  A rage he harbored for all authority figures.  With a few more instances of prodding, he could be turned.  He was ripe for a bitter harvest.  Perhaps, in time, it would wear this young man’s face as well.

When the man, they had assisted, turned in the saddle and finally sat upright, the malevolent presence inhabiting the golem form immediately recognized him from many years before.  Its scowl gave way to an expression of surprise as its heavily lidded eyes widened.

“Jeremiah,” it hissed and seethed, its tightened jaw making a popping noise as it spoke.  The man it personally hated more than the one it had been initially sent after to deceive, undermine and kill.  For somehow, this man had evaded it for years.

“Well, well, well,” it clucked, its voice again accompanied by that jaw popping noise, “What a nice little gathering we have here.”

It would never forget him.  Though the man on horseback’s face had slightly changed, and his hair had thinned during the intervening years, the spirit’s sight knew it was the same man who had first dissolved its first clever corporeal shell with one of those accursed honor swords.  A covenant sword.  A weapon not bound by time, space or physicality.

“Two birds,” it reached into its garment and pulled out a dirty sack, bearing something bulky within, hefting it into its sooty hands, “One stone.”

The time spent digging under Azragoth had proved useful after all.

***

“Mr. O’Brian were you ever in the presence of a dragon?”

Captain Logray’s words had barely been uttered, when he saw the implication and shock register in my expression.

“We should speak more on this.  But not here.”

I lifted Jeremiah’s gear-pack from the ground and slung it over my shoulder, wondering at the weight as I lifted it and at how effortlessly he had seemed to carry it with him before he ascended the tree.  I eschewed the climbing gear and spikes but Will had acquiesced to follow us at least temporarily and snagged them as he passed by moving towards the road below.  I caught a glimpse of a small hilted dagger tucked away towards the back of his shirt, certain that it had not been there before when he had been trussed and deposited at the base of the tree.

The smoke ceiling had descended and threatened to fill our lungs with ash if we did not get to lower ground.

We moved down the hill, Logray carefully leading the antsy horse around the fires blackening the hillside.  It snorted in short breaths, its muscles flexed and tensed, and it rolled its eyes fearfully at the conflagrations all around us, but Logray kept a tight confident hold on its lead reigns.  Despite the animal’s fear and natural inclination to flee the flames, it had learned over time to trust the man who now led it through the burning forest.  I bore this quiet gentle lesson in mind, thinking of my own personal struggle.

Visibility was minimal, but the further we descended the swirling hot air around us became slightly cooler and easier to breathe.

Logray spoke up as we made our way down towards the carved roadway, “I believe this harpy that attacked you might be temporarily deceived.”

“Tell them, young man,” Logray addressed Will over his shoulder, “What threatened you before I came up from the woods and found you.”

Will had moved slightly ahead of us and acted as if he did not hear the question, refusing to follow, but grudgingly acknowledging that he had little choice if he wanted to survive.  It was an act of passive aggression but Logray was having none of it.  Logray heard him mutter a growled response under his short, labored breaths.  As a respected leader of fighting men, knowing the danger of insubordination and how it subversively affected group morale, Logray pressed him again.

“Tell them,” Logray lowered his voice meeting the young man’s threatening growl with a dangerous but commanding calm, “or you will follow us no further.”

Will knew the man meant it.  It was an incontrovertible choice he was giving him, not just an idle threat.  This man did not suffer fools and did not give instructions lightly.  The memory of the father Will had lost loomed largely in his mind and reminded him of something deep he still admired.  Military men knew that to follow or not follow an order, often meant the difference between survival and death when a lifetime was measured in seconds.  If he valued his own life or the lives of those around him, he must choose.  As resentful as he might be towards O’Brian and Jeremiah, he somehow knew that Captain Logray was not a man he could treat with the same level of contempt.

“I don’t know what they were,” he retorted, “So much smoke was in the air.  I couldn’t see them very well.”

“Describe what you think you saw.”

“Four men.  Smoldering and fully covered in black soot and grey ash.  Their hands, arms, face, eyes all covered in it.  They didn’t even seem to have trouble breathing it.”

Logray’s head turned suddenly and he faced Will, “Four?”

Will nodded, “Three came up to me and the fourth held back and disappeared into the smoke.”

“Did you get a look at their faces?”

Will shrugged, “Not really.  As I said they were covered in ash, but about the same size.  No real difference that I could see in the few seconds before they came up to me.  I didn’t know what they were going to do.  They just watched me struggle there, and then one of them raised a knife and came at me.  He fell on top of me and just sort of dissolved into dirt.”

“Dirt?”

“Yeah.  Dirt, powder, smoke, mud, ash, dandruff–I don’t know what the hell it is, but I’ve got it all over me and it itches,” here he gestured towards, Logray, “And then you came up.  I didn’t know that you had shot him.”

“You’d be dead if I hadn’t.  Those creatures you saw are golems.

“Three came up to you?” I asked.

“Yeah.  When the one with the knife fell on me I did not see what happened to the others, but I heard something.  I was tied up, no thanks to you mister tree man, and couldn’t defend myself, so I thought I was as good as dead.”

“Your harpy swooped down out of the smoke and took them,” Logray said, “They can’t see in smoke any better than we can, so it was an easy mistake to make if she was pursuing you down the tree.  She’ll figure it out sooner or later, but it helps that they were covered in so much ash.  Golems take a while to vocalize and form words.  She’ll have to land soon, but when she learns her mistake she’ll be back to hunt you all down if this place is not completely engulfed in flame.  The fire and smoke give us some cover, but not for too long.”

“The other one is still out there somewhere,” Jeremiah said ominously, squinting and scanning the smoky woods.

“But what are they?

Jeremiah answered, “Molded forms that are a mixture of earth, clay and a kind of plasma that only comes from the mouth of dragons. Each is inhabited by evil spirits formed by wind and supernatural fire. Golems are the only physicality they can take in this world, and they rely on dragons to give them form.  They feel no pain because the bodies they hold are malleable husks that give the semblance of flesh but not the feel of it.  They would not feel the fire as they move through it so it would not matter to them if it destroyed their form.  A storm rages within them.  They shriek in a terrible howl that can cause sickness and swooning.  Often they are a harbinger of death.”

“I think we may have encountered one before,” I said, “Are they called by any other name than golem?”

“Aye,” Logray rejoined, “They have many names.  None of them good.”

Will turned and looked back up at me, descending the hill to the left of Logray and Jeremiah.

He knew of whom I spoke, and he remembered Begglar’s story of a creature he had called a Banshee.

Jeremiah watched Will move ahead into the smoke and he nudged the horse to follow.  He knew that it was unwise to let the young man get too far ahead, and he had wished Brian had not been so quick to untie him.  But he held his tongue, knowing that there was a competing reason for it.  Will was a part of Brian’s party of travelers, and he was trying to give the young man the benefit of the doubt, but there were things Brian did not know.

He had set his bow and quiver aside when he had ascended the tree, but it had not been at the base of the tree when he returned.  He suspected either the golems or Will might have had something to do with that, and he hoped it had been the former rather than the latter, but he could not be certain.  Aside from the dusting of golem ash, he had noticed an underlying golden powder that had transferred from the young man’s body to his shoulder when he’d carried the bound man to the base of the tree.  A powder which, unless he had missed his guess, was evidence that the man had recently been under the influence of a rutting dryad female.  A grisly process, to say the least.  One in which the unsuspecting male victim, becomes inebriated by the pheromone-infused pollen dust of the females and lulled into a pliant and yielding euphoria.  It was a deadly mating ritual whereby, post seduction, the male victim was summarily eviscerated, decapitated and devoured.  Having his head, spinal cord and entrails pulled out from his body, twisted and braided around a dryad vine affixed to the dangling head, with the female’s now fertilized eggs packed into the cranium.  The resulting dryad cradle, comprised of the entwined entrails, were then hung from the tops of the forest canopy until the female’s seedlings sprouted from their erstwhile father’s dangling head and fed on their sire’s composted brain matter.

There was no telling how long the young man had been free of the dryad’s lair before he had been recovered or interrupted by the harpy he had witnessed contending with the dryad when he had intervened.  So, because of the potential latent effects of the dust, when the young man briefly awoke from his stupor, he found Jeremiah reinforcing his bonds, rather than freeing him from them.

It was just as likely that without the restraint, the young man would run back to the dryad female he had unwittingly escaped from.  The dryad dust acted as both an aphrodisiac stimulant, but also inhibited the victim’s ability to sense their own peril and respond aggressively for self-preservation and flight.  The dust was highly addictive, if deeply ingested.  It also made the victim behave subversively, if not given the time to be observed, isolated and monitored until the effects of the dust completely wore off.

By the time he and O’Brian had made it down to the bottom of the tree, Logray had already cut the boy’s bonds and had not known about the dryad dust, because the coating of the dissolved golem obscured it, and the haze of the smoking fires around them made it difficult to recognize.  But Jeremiah was not about to lose sight of the boy.

***

The golem seethed as it watched them move through the rising and falling smoke.

It had indeed followed in the wake of a dragon, swept from the in-between by the flashing of its forming tail caught up in the swirl of a vortex in the ethereal passage that led to this Mid-World prison.

It had no use for a corpus in the world of spirit, but within a world of human flesh, it needed and hungered for a corporeal form.  It was now trapped here and the cause lay at the feet of one man.

Jeremiah–the same man who had also slain and butchered its former dragon master with that pirate captain who now called himself Begglar.  Only that time its dragon master did not dig beneath the ground or dwell in caves or roam the land unseen.  Her master then had pierced the mighty depths of the mountain fjords and plumbed the darkness of this world’s seas.

It had also been a sentient dragon crawling onto this plane from the inter-dimensional realm beyond what this and the Surface World laughingly called their realities.

Illusion.  A grand, mystical illusion.  The physical realms were a mere half-life, gravely inferior to the fullness of the expanse of existence.  Temporal, transitory and passing.  But the touch of one of those accursed swords bound it to this pathetic plane of existence.  Limited her fullness and made it a beggar and a borrower of sand suits.

Bodies.  It both loathed and desired them.  Their only use was in how well they deceived these “called” ones.  But with each iteration of the sand suit it wore, there was a memory of form, a lingering taste of the image of death.  A memory that allowed it to alter its corporeal visage internally by diverting the stream of air flowing beneath its pliant, faux skin.  Every iteration of form granted by these magnificent dragons, allowed it to serve the great Serpent even more.

Gender made no difference to it, but it liked wearing a female visage more than most if given a preference.  There was a certain sweetness in the terror of women before they died.  And feminine horror had a particular flavor it craved.  Something peculiar in their prospective loss of beauty and the knowing surrender to ultimate decay and rot.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  They all fall down.  But some of these souls in sand fell harder than others.

There was something spiritually terrifying to them, that was ineffable.   Something precious lost to them when both time and tragedy carved away at their perceived self-value.

Fluidity made deception palatable to the masses and further eroded their self-worth and made them seek identity of form, rather than the created purpose which might have led them to Him.  Confused them and further isolated them from connectedness to one another.

“I feel therefore I am,” it muttered under its simulated breath, and then almost laughed aloud.  From this, they had caused people to question the existence and the benevolence of the One.  If the One did not make them feel pleasant, then the One could not be called good.

For when the identity of form rules their mind, then feelings are everything and emotion is the only real truth.  And in such mindsets, these foolish creatures chose to serve themselves and their own fluctuating passions, rather than to acknowledge an external truth that did not make them see themselves as in desperate need of a Savior.

As much as it loathed the Words of the Ancient Text, it could not deny the perceptive wisdom of the Ecclesiast as he observed all mankind in their pursuits to find meaning in their lives and his discovery that in most everything, these beings were in a frantic and monotonous chasing after the wind.

As it watched the men gather together and begin to leave, its face shifted, its brow smoothed and once more it grew younger.  It sloughed off the ash flakes from its shrinking body, as its big blue eyes blinked away the gray-brown hazel that had once colored its irises.  It became, in visual form, a female.

Wiping the grit away as the excess skin peeled from her and appeared as cloth, she folded and tucked the coloring layer in around her with an almost modest fastidiousness.  She couldn’t wait to see the shock register on the face of O’Brian when she showed up again.  Couldn’t wait to see the fear rise as he realized that there was no escaping the swirling pursuit of the wind.

Azragoth would soon fall.  The heart of the resistance would be plucked out and the gate to Excavatia would never be opened again.

Now that the Surface Worlder had found her name, she would make sure he never, ever forgot it.

***

We eventually found the continuation of the road, covered as it was by embers and burned leaves.

We had moved a little faster, as the meandering mountain air currents moved more freely through the charred woods, liberated from its leaves and brambles.

Jeremiah began to set up higher in the saddle and Logray allowed him control of the horse’s reins so that he could rest his lead hand easily along the protruding pommel of his angled sword.  Both Logray and Jeremiah sensed they were being followed, and that it was only a matter of time before The Pan and his half-bred horde discovered them as well.

When both Jeremiah and Logray turned right down the road toward the place where I’d last left my team but went beyond the road and into the remaining woods beyond it, I realized they were not immediately parting our company.

“Where are you taking us?” I finally asked.

“As we told you.  To the Faerie Fade.”

“But, what about the Cordis stone?  We need its power to carry out the mission and bring it to the gate.”

“We may need the stones, but we do not need their power.  That is where you are wrong, Brian.  These stones do not contain power.  To think they do is to ascribe them to sorcery.  These gate stones are mere vessels that focus the authority you have been given to carry out your calling.  If you are seeking or relying on the stones to protect or empower you, you had might as well give up the quest right now.  That thinking will lead you and everyone who follows you to death’s door and death’s kingdom.  What you and Caleb and the others failed to understand is that those of us who are called to lead are not doing so to gain personal power or ability or authority, but to learn to give all of that up.  To lead by surrendering and sacrificing themselves to the will of The One who called them.  To become emptied of themselves.  All their goals, schemes, plans to prosper and subdue, and to learn to fully trust in the Goodness and Perfection of all mankind seeks within The Will of The One.”

“Seek anything else and you will most assuredly fail and all you set out to do.  You and I are blind and in darkness.  We cannot lead ourselves out of the Eternal Night.  We cannot fumble our way through it.  We must surrender and listen to the only One who gives sight to the blind and makes the lame to walk again.”

“These stones are mere vessels like you and I are mere vessels.  They are symbols of us.  Surrender your Hope in all else and place it firmly in the Gate to Excavatia and you will find that it is a light that will shine from the horizon into darkness and whatever dark valley you are led into.  The Praesperos stone is firmly embedded in the Gate to Excavatia.  I told you this long ago, and you have the testimony of others who you have no reason to doubt.  You know and have met the two Ancients I mean.  When you surrender to the Will of the One and experience the quickening again you will be able to see the shine of the Praesperos stone on the horizon.  Its light will find you in the darkest places.”

“Besides, the bearing of the Cordis stone is not your burden to carry.  It is mine.  The call still beckons me to return to the quest I abandoned.  Yours is to find and bear the third stone.  If you follow in obedience to the calling of The One He will ensure that the third stone comes or is brought to you.  You need not seek it.  It will not come in a form in which you expect.  Often it comes wrapped in tragedy, pain, suffering or even within the form of something monstrous seeking to harm you.  A gift that turns what others intend to harm you into triumph.  This is what Joseph meant when he admonished his brothers who tried to murder him and sold him into slavery.  The Ancient Text says:

“20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” [Genesis 50:20 NLT]

His opportunity to fulfill his calling to save his brethren and people came through a series of terrible events.  He was betrayed, enslaved, falsely accused, imprisoned unjustly, forgotten and then raised from the dungeon to be set in a position of authority over all of the kingdom.  His focus was on The One who promised him in a dream as a young boy, that the promise made would be kept because the One was good and honored His Word and Promises.  Joseph saw Hope in the darkness of his tragedies, and opportunity beyond his ability to comprehend arose out of these events.”

“Then why did you leave the quest unfinished?”

“Because I let the injustice of the world fill my heart with rage.  Instead of allowing myself to be emptied, I gave place to wrath and could no longer lead a company without endangering them.  I knew the truth and the Words burned within me, admonishing me of the danger of my choice to vent aggression, but I could not surrender it.  The Ancient Text is clear:

“24 Don’t make friends with an angry person, and don’t be a companion of a hot-tempered one,  25 or you will learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare. ” [Proverbs 22:24-25 CSB]

If I allowed the others to follow me in my rage, I would lead them into wrath that would destroy them and we would be of no use in the quest.  Forgiveness was not something, I felt I could reach for at the moment.  That eventually came later. A heart filled with rage allows no room for Love to co-exist within it.  So by giving the place reserved for Love within me to my anger, I could no longer easily carry the Cordis stone.  It felt unnatural in my hand.  It no longer served as a conduit of power.  I had to take it someplace where I knew I could leave it in safety and that was a hidden place deep within Azragoth.  And there it resides in an ancient place that was the very foundational site of the city.  I left it there so that someone more worthy than I could eventually come and take it up again and complete the second quest.  I walked away from it, but now…  Now I know I was wrong.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nor did I, until just recently.  You were called, but not to complete the quest I failed at with the Cordis Stone but were given this present calling to bring the last gate stone needed, the Fidelis Stone, so that the success of both my mission and yours will fulfill what we are jointly called to do.”

I pondered his words, feeling the rightness of them stirring within me, knowing that what Jeremiah was saying was not of his own perspective, but of the intention of One greater than both of us, speaking through him, affirming and clarifying what was needed.

Jeremiah continued, “Mattox and I met in the woods of Kilrane before he and his scouting party returned to Azragoth.  He reminded me of a truth I had forgotten or was unwilling to see until now.  I did not want to hear it, but I needed to hear it.  The timing was right for me to be able to hear it.  I have followed my own way for far too long, and the journey always leads back around to the crossroads and a binary decision:  My way or His.  Resist the truth or surrender to it.  The truth that The One will not abandon us, even if we insist on proceeding into our own folly and self-destructive path.  His is a love given fully, once accepted, persists unwavering without conditions.  He sees our end from our beginning and is not fooled by the low points of our journey, nor surprised by them.  Like the father of the prodigal son, He watches for our return upon the horizon and meets us joyously at a run when we surrender our ways and come back home.”

I thought about that and felt encouraged by it.  Then my mind went back to the problem of the keys and the nature of these gate stones we were meant to recover and bring into the distant mountains.

“So let me get this straight in my mind.  You say these keys, these gate stones should not be viewed as having some sort of power in and of themselves.  If these are merely conduits of the power to complete the mission, do we even need the keystones at all?  Can we tap into this power some other way and open the gate?”

“It is still a meta-physical gate in the Mid-World, my friend.  Any locked gate with form and substance needs a key and these three stones joined together are both the symbolic and physical keys to the kingdom.”

“Well, then can we use a replica of the Cordis Stone, like Caleb and I took?  Perhaps, duplicate the Fidelis Stone key as well?”

“These original keystones are not manufactured by mortal hands.  No effort of man is sufficient to open the gate.  The gate belongs to The One and He alone defines how it must be opened.  No, a replica will not do.  I do not fully understand why the One allows the Cordis stone to be replicated.  It is still a mystery to me.  But I suspect that only the original stone will do.”

“So what then?  You said the third stone would be brought to me, that I don’t necessarily have to find it.  Do I sit around and wait for the Fidelis stone to just roll out of a cave and make its way here so I can pick it up and continue the quest?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he fixed me with a chastising look, “You are not hearing what I said.  You and I need to listen to the guiding of The One, then obey it.  The power to accomplish what needs to be done and to find and recover what needs to be recovered will come in surrendering and obeying what you are told by The One.  Your task is to follow His leading, to acquaint yourself with how it sounds in your spirit so that you will be able to recognize it among competing voices.  He will accomplish in and through you, what He has called you to do.  This is how the quickening is actualized.  This is how you will always know that what happened was not because of your own effort, but because of His empowerment and the authority, He has delegated through you to accomplish what could not be done any other way.  That is the secret to leadership.  It is in full surrender, becoming a faithful servant to voice and guidance of the One.”

“These gate stones…do they ever exhibit any traits or some sort of power over nature?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because,” I reached down and untied the pouch from my belt and opened the drawstring.

“You asked me about this when we were coming down from the tree,” I said as I drew out the giant pearl.

Jeremiah stared at it and then took it from my hand.

“Where did you get this?”

“Like you said,” I nodded toward it, “It came after me, wrapped in the body of a monster that almost killed me, but for the power of the quickening.”

“How were you able to get it?”

“I was led to sacrifice myself and allow that beast to take me into its jaws.”

“Where exactly was this stone?”

“It was in the tongue of a Dust Dragon.  I was told that this one followed me through the portal.  That it held me in its thrall.  Nem told me I had to confront it because it was destroying the foundations of the city.  Everything they had built was being compromised by its furious digging beneath.”

“The that explains the presence of golems.  Golems do not exist without the aid of a dragon, dust or otherwise.  They are constructs of the creature.  Dragons can form their own armies given enough time.”

I indicated the pearl. “Maeven had me release it and allow it to roll down to the water’s edge of the basin lake below the Trathorn Falls. As soon as it touched the water it flash-froze the surface of the lake solid and froze the water pouring over the falls. I was afraid I would lose it into the water but that pearl seemed to operate on its own. It raced across the surface many times and was drawn to every place we fought and cut the creatures trapped in the clutches of the ice. Every time their blood was spilled this pearl raced into the spray and pools and absorbed the liquid.”

Jeremiah considered this a moment. “When you released the pearl, what did you feel?”

“That I was being foolish and giving up something we needed for the road ahead. We were told to buy a ship and hire a captain to get us across the fjord-lake Cascale at Skorlith.”

“Then why did you release it?”

“I don’t really know. It felt right, somehow.”

“Perhaps, it was a test to see if you would rely on your reasoning or act in faith to what may not have made sense to you at the time.”

Jeremiah lifted his eyes and looked directly at me, “There is a verse in the Ancient Text that says:

“The stormy wind comes from its chamber, and the driving winds bring the cold. God’s breath sends the ice, freezing wide expanses of water.” [‭‭Job‬ ‭37:9-10‬ ‭NLT]‬

He cleared his throat, “As I said, these stones are mere conduits.  Empty vessels that focus the intentions of The One in such a way that we notice them.  There is no power within them.  To possess them, we must believe that they serve only the Will of the One and that in Him they have the power to accomplish all that is needed to serve the calling.  If we hold on to them, they cease to have value.  But when we release them, they move in wondrous ways to make our way to serve Him possible.”

Jeremiah’s words resonated true within me, such that I found myself nodding emphatically.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I said, “Yes.  I am the emptied vessel, yet He dwells within me and I within Him.  The authority is given and transmitted in my obedience to the call.”

“And that is why,” Jeremiah said gravely, “Even if you had taken the real stone, it would not have changed the outcome.  Power over darkness comes through the stone.  Not from it.  Mankind cannot stand against the kingdoms of darkness as long as darkness maintains an anchor hold within their souls.  This is why the deceiver had to take on the form of a serpent and get mankind to yield to the root of deception and allow it to be implanted within their hearts so that they and their generations to follow would all bear the root of death and never be able to resist the prince of the power of the air.  This is also why you have to be grafted into the Vine that draws from the innocence and perfection of a life lived perfectly, but taken unjustly.  As a graft takes its power and life from the established and strong vine, so too you and I get our power from being ingrafted into the Forgiveness and the Final Payment made upon our life debt by The One.  No power in heaven and earth, below or above or in all time and space, can resist a vessel filled with the Life breathed by the Breath of The One.  It is by Faith and the grafting alone that you are empowered to do and accomplish miracles in the obedient service to the call of The One.  That purpose will bring you past all of your doubts, raise you above your tragedies and restore unto you all that you may lose in its pursuit.”

***

The canopy roared with raging flame.  The air was acrid and thick, shimmering with heat thermals that distorted the way ahead.  Black billows twisted and punched the air with swirling waves that erupted and split and stripped.

Out of the gnashing teeth of the inferno, Dellitch emerged, like an undulating dark cross, smoke poured off her singed feathers as her wings pumped up and down dragging her remaining captive through the smoke, its form blackened and gray with ash.  Her face was reddened by the heat, her eyes squinted and appeared almost black, streaked with sweat and ash.  She grimaced and scowled with the effort of having flown through a sea of twisting fire.

She could barely speak, struggling enough to breathe, sapped her flagging effort to stay aloft and above the reaching tongues of fire.  The exertion was taking a toll.  She flew lower and lower, unable to gain altitude.

As the smoke thinned she entered the area where the slough waters began to pool and widen, with a grey film of ash over the oily skin of the murky water.

The Pan and his retinue, his satyrs and dryads, had moved away from the area where she’d last observed them.  She tried to call out, but her throat was scorched and raw from the fires.

“My Lord Pan!” she hissed, painfully, unable to make out much through watering eyes.

Fire-blackened brambles clawed into and out of the filmy water’s edge as Dellitch released her golem captive and dropped it onto the withered reeds along the soft bog.  She alighted next to its body, exhausted and wheezing.

Smoke stung her eyes.forest-fire-424388_1920

“Lord Pan!” she croaked, blinking and searching for his large form among the sickened swamp trees.

A strange, misshapen lump floated in the filmy water.  She hopped forward for a closer look and realized the form was a floating body, its face bowed and buried in the water, unmoving.  She looked up searching the irregular shoreline, her watering eyes beginning to clear.

No satyrs emerged from the brush, no dryads uncurled and spun back into simian form to threaten and challenge her.

They were all gone.

She heard movement behind her and turned.

The golem had arisen and stood to its feet unsteadily.  It opened its eyes and stared expressionless at her.  It twisted its neck from left to right and gaped rotating its jaw.  For the first time, it spoke to her, its jaw making an odd popping noise.

“Take me to The Pan.  I must speak to my queen.”

***

We moved down the winding road in thoughtful silence.

I considered what Jeremiah had told me, and realized I had gotten so far off in my thinking that I had been missing the bigger picture of what I had been recalled back to the Mid-World to do.  I had to learn to trust The One in all things and not rely on the distractions of gate stones or reasoning out the where and how of this mission.

The giant pearl was a conduit, as I was.  It was, Jeremiah concluded, the very stone I was sent to carry to the gate.  Something within me responded to this.  A part of me that knew that this strange orb I carried was none other than The Fidelis Stone.  The Faith stone.  The one stone which was symbolic of actualizing transformative power into circumstance.  The Praesperous stone, the Hope Stone gave a promise of a future, just like the portentous dreams of Joseph.  The Cordis Stone, the Heart stone, symbolizing the Love of The One, the Creator, revealed the Heart of Him who sacrificed and demonstrated the reason for all Hope.  A Love that was extended to us even though we were not worthy of it, affirming the Good intentions and the plan of The One to redeem the peoples of the Worlds back to fellowship with Him.  And finally the Fidelis stone, the concluding stone which required us to choose belief in both the promise of Hope, the intentions of Love, and the application of those Truths into our own circumstance.  The symbolic concepts of each were powerful and worked together to jointly open the final door to the greater Kingdom promised to us.  It all made sense on many levels.  Together these made Truth accessible.  To fellowship with the Truth of the One, we had to allow that Truth into our lives and live under the revolutionary implications of it.  The key to all of it was Connection.  All things severed from connection to The Source, The One, were in death throes.  Life comes through connection to The One and through direct fellowship with The One.  The Honor Sword exhibits the power of the quickening when it is bound to the arm of the one called to lead, and by their connection to obedience to The One.  The Dust Dragon would not have been defeated without my yielding to The One and so being quickened by Him.  The stones had no power until they were released to serve, rather than possessed and contained.  The people in my company become more than a crowd when I took the time to know them by their names.  Names were connections.  I had told them.  Names given were a connection to the quest and the mission.  As long as the others whom I did not know by name, remained nameless to me, it was hard to know and feel a commitment to their loss.  It had to be personal for us to feel a connection.  This was the whole point of The One’s mission to the Surface World.  He came to know us by experience and calls each of us by name.

What’s in a name?  The answer was as clear to me at that moment as it could ever be: Connection.

I was mulling these thoughts over in my mind when a voice called out to us from the smoky road ahead.  We turned and saw a small figure standing in dappled shadows amid billows of swirling smoke.  The voice sounded female and young but something about it was familiar and disturbing.

As we cautiously approached, the figure became more defined.  Small frame, long wispy straight hair, eyes large and blue beneath a tilted brow, as if she looked out from under something.

Her words were repetitive, in almost a sing-song monotone chant, as if she were talking to the air.  Yet, upon seeing us approach, her voice grew in volume and distinction, accompanied by an odd sort of popping noise.

The haze of smoke made her face still indistinct.

Her mouth parted, and her pink lips paled, as she spoke once more, this time with exaggerated pauses between each word.

“Say…my…name.”

She raised her tilted head and as her hate-filled eyes met mine I immediately recognized her.  Before I even knew what I was doing, her name came to my lips and I did the very thing she was asking of me.

And then the storm broke.

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down – Chapter 64

“Meddling Outworlders!  I am going to tear your eyes out!” Dellitch screamed as she swooped in out of the smoke, claws flared dangerously.

Jeremiah raised a gloved arm and the harpy brutally raked her claws across it almost wrenching him out of the climbing harness.

With the gaffs set in the trunk of the tree, and my body pivoted out in the slip-belt, I reached for the hilt of the honor sword but felt it impeded by the strap and the scabbard, bound by my body weight.  I twisted to my right to unimpede the blade, and a gaff spike pulled loose of the trunk beneath my left foot, causing me to smash my face against the tree.  My cheek and brow were abraded by the rough bark.  My nose sprouted blood as I hooked the trunk with a flailing arm, wheezed in a shaky breath and slammed my dangling foot and the metal barb back into the trunk.  My face throbbed and stung and I knew there would be bruising if we survived this fight.  I took a fast, deep breath and angled towards the tree, catching a small tap branch jutting from the trunk and pulled my weight forward, allowing my crossed arm to tug at the sword hilt again, knowing that I would not get another chance before the harpy returned.

I had the sword half-way out when she swooped back, striking me hard with the bony extrusion that capped her wing’s alula (also known as the bastard wing).  Some of her kind had ground that bone cap into a hook, others to a sharpened spur, but this creature obviously preferred the savage shock of a blunt pummeling force.  Clearly, she was a more seasoned battler, for the hooks and points of her sister-kind did not prove to serve as well as one might assume in an aerial battle.  Hooks and barbs were best suited for ground fighters, and the harpies’ advantage was clearly in flight.  Skewer something with a point, or hook it with a curved spike and it weighted and impeded wing movement.  This one knew that a fast strike made quick assaults leaving them to strike and evade as needed until they beat their quarry senseless and could sink claws into them and rip them apart.  Lacking the sharp beak of a true bird, the old crone could not peck or tear flesh as their avian relations might.  Since humans were not susceptible to their bizarre lactation, like the dryads were, the harpies had no choice but to fight us using flight, strike, and claw.  And these she used again and again.  Hitting us hard, swooping away into the smoke, driving us to brace against the tree, preventing our safe descent.  Wearing us out with each brutal salvo.

The honor sword proved to be more of a hindrance than an asset, for I could not identify from which way she would launch her assault out of the smoke, nor could I get a good chance to bind the bloodline to my wrist and forearm before she came storming back.  Each swing and slash of the blade threatened to throw me off balance again and loosen the cleats holding me up into the harness.  I could not cross and deflect with the blade, because she moved so swiftly, and the blade only parted feathers of her spanned wing, but never fully connected with her body.

Jeremiah attempted to strike her with the weighted bolo weapon, but it sailed off and dropped harmlessly into the smoke, having the slight effect of throwing a glancing rock at her and nothing more.  She cackled at the attempt, and Jeremiah received the brunt of the next pummeling salvo, twisting in his harness below me.  I could not get past Jeremiah while he was below me, and our downward progress was poor, maybe only a few feet, but nothing more significant.

When she broke off again, Jeremiah hissed up at me, “Cut the belts,” he panted, “It’s the only way we’re going to make it down.”

“We’ll break our necks,” I retorted.

“We have no choice.  The hill is sloped and covered with leaves.  The ground is not that hard and we’ve got a far better chance on the ground under the cover of the smoke.”

Our breathing was labored, the smoke stole oxygen from our lungs and desiccated our throats, as we tried to gain just a few more feet down before attempting the fall.

Jeremiah looked up to gauge how much further I was above him when he noticed the leather pouch fastened to my belt.

“What do you have there in that pouch?”

I glanced downward and then felt a sharp thud crack against my skull.  The harpy laughed and swooped by again, her bony alula cap wet with my blood and a snatch of hair.  I was stunned and my whole head throbbed, ears ringing as I swooned from the blow.

My eyes watered, and the tree flashed with ghost negative images, my legs turning to rubber.  I almost dropped the honor sword but was able to cradle the blade as I took in deep breaths, trying to keep my feet from buckling.

I began to sag and then felt someone coming back up behind me, pulling my calves outward, preventing me from folding.

In a moment I felt his shoulders under my knees driving upward.

Faintly I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Getting your feet clear of the tree.  Pull those spikes out.  Sit on my shoulders and let that slip-belt slide down.  I’ll get us out of this tree.”

My feet suddenly pulled loose of the trunk and I fell backward in the slip-belt, having only Jeremiah bearing my weight.

“Put that sword away. You’re gonna need both hands to hold on to that belt. We’re gonna do a skid-fall.”

I slid the honor sword back into its scabbard on my belt while he unfastened the calve belts of his footwear and lashed the loose strap-belts together joining them with a thick brass ring.  Then he pulled his own wide strapped belt loose and strapped it behind the bend in his knees so that the belt pressed against the trunk of the tree between his knees.

“What exactly is a skid-fall?”

Avoiding my question, he glanced at the two bare gaff-spurs curving inward from the bottom of my feet, dangling wickedly close to his ribs and said, “We need to get these off.”

He quickly unbuckled the harnesses from my calves, as we heard first a plaintive voice shout something up to us from below.  The voice shifted in tone and then shouted up again in anger.

“I should have gagged him,” Jeremiah muttered, but said nothing further, continuing to work with his preparations as swiftly as he could.

We could see nothing below.

A dense, frothy river of smoke streamed beneath us, so thick it appeared to be a writhing soft down blanket covering the forest floor.  The fires roared up from the declivity to our left filling the gully that descended down towards the Trathorn river and the stepped descent from Azragoth. Heat washes from the fires were mixing with a cooler prevailing wind that streamed down from the hill leading up to the old city.  The falling breeze ran unobstructed through the now spartan breaks and fire stripped woods catching the rising backend of the fires and twisting in a cloudy thermal battle of their own.

Quietly, I pressed him with the questions again, “Jeremiah, what are you not telling me?  Who do you have down there, and what is a skid-fall?”

“To the first question, I don’t know and to the second…believe me, it is really better if you did not know,” Jeremiah responded, “Now lean back into the slip-belt and don’t let your face hit the tree.”

He entwined his forearms around both my slip-belt and his and pressed his gloved hands against the bole of the tree.  He pressed his knees into the belt straps running against the tree and behind the bend and above his calves, dislodging first one of his tree gaff spikes and then the other.

At it took was one slight jerk of our combined weight downward to break the pivot hold and suddenly, I felt us drop in tandem, and my stomach roll up into my throat.

Gravity seized us with a vengeance.

Jeremiah was right.  It was better that I had no idea what he’d planned to do.

***

The golems skulked through the smoke and smoldering detritus of the fire path.  Something had fallen from the smoky canopy above, landing with a loud crack upon an outcropping of stones and they swiftly moved to investigate.  Sounds of a fight ensued above, but they could not see what was making the noises.  Ahead and lower to the forest floor they heard the groans and struggling noises of what appeared to be a bound figure writhing at the base of a tree.

***

Will had been through so much that he found himself shivering despite the gathering fires in a cold sweat of panic.

“Get me outta here!” he yelled.

“Hey!  You!  Tree man!  Get down here!”

Small fires were growing around him flaring closer and closer, eating up the ground and rapidly closing off the possible routes of escape.

Will rocked from side to side, lying on his belly, his feet tied to his wrists behind him, his face smudged and dirty from the swirling ash and smoke.  Unable to right himself he raged against his bonds as the fires steadily crawled towards his position.

Squinting through the haze, he coughed and choked out a groan as three ash-covered figures approached him cautiously through the smoke.

“Get me outta this, please!” he begged, trying to get a better look at the figures through watering eyes.

Solemnly without a word, the three figures came forward and stood about six feet from him, their gray shrouded bodies appearing like spectral corpses who had recently crawled out of a fire-decimated graveyard.

One of the silent figures had something in its hand and slowly moved forward towards the pleading man, raising it as he approached.  A glint of firelight gleamed upon it for a second and Will realized suddenly that the three figures had not come over to help him at all.

***

We plummeted for what seemed like twenty feet, engulfed and buried within the river of smoke.  The hot air seared us.

With a sudden grinding jolt and a heavy grunt from Jeremiah, we finally slid to a sudden stop buried deep within the cloud.  My spine ached from the impact and I could tell Jeremiah had suffered the worst of the fall.  His gaff-cleats had cut gashes and furrows in the trunk of the tree, and the upper metal staves had hooked up on the belt around his calves and had formed a kind of belted sled, down the trunk of the tree, until the gaff points drove deeper into the tree trunk enough to bring our rapid descent to a grinding halt.  The shock of the fall and stop on Jeremiah’s hips and thighs, may have debilitated him, snapping his thigh bones like mere twigs, and having felt to the pain of my spine jabbed down on Jeremiah’s shoulders, I could hardly imagine what he must have felt.

We hung there like dead men from the climbing straps, like sides of beef drying in a smokehouse, only as painful as it was, we still breathed, and were silent for a while, barely able to believe we had survived.

“That was a horrible idea,” Jeremiah croaked, made breathless with the pain and shock of the impact on his torso, shoulders, spine, and legs.

His gauntlet gloves, though thick and padded, were worn smooth and thin from the rough bark, by pressing his hands down the side of the trunk during the fall to keep us from being bashed against it.  The leather was hot from the friction.  And he carefully tugged at the fingers to pull them loose and allow his blistered hands to cool and breathe.

We had no real idea how far down we had fallen, or how far we had yet to go, but what we did know is that in this disorientation and cloak of dense smoke, perhaps, at least the harpy would not be able to easily find us.

That was until we heard the flapping noises above us and her angry and frustrated, screeching.

***

Thwock!

The arrow-bolt launched from the line of the crossbow, sailing through the air with a slight hiss, and embedding itself into the ash-gray back of the figure raising the dagger blade over the bound young man at the base of the tree.

If there was one shot that needed to count, perhaps, Captain Logray thought himself that was it.

He shoved the crossbow back into the sleeve, pulled the securing flap up and mounted his horse.  Preparing to ride up the hill, through the forest to see what kinds of creatures these were to molest and murder a helplessly bound man in cold blood.

***

Dellitch swooped down through the smoke, barely able to see where her quarry had gone.  They had both been there for a moment and then they had dropped out of sight, into the cloud of smoke below.

They would not evade her so easily, she vowed, as she flared her claws and descended down into the thick of the smoke after them.  If indeed they had chosen to fall to their deaths, she would at least bring their bodies back as evidence to The Pan that the meddlers were back in the Mid-World, and they were still intent on carrying out the quests that had brought them there.

She knew she somehow recognized at least one of them.  Jeremiah, leader of the failed second quest.

***

Blind as we were, and without strength or the power yet to descend further, we sensed a large shadow pass by us within the smoke, swirling just out of reach, but close enough to know that it was the harpy seeking us to finish us off.

***

Captain Logray was careful to approach the remaining two ash-covered creatures standing over the fallen body of their comrade.  The creature had fallen forward, its knife released from its hand as the crossbow bolt drove deep into its side.  Something strange was happening to its body as it fell across the bound man it had moved in to kill.  Smoky dust leaked from its side, with a hissing noise, tendrils of silver smoke rose from the wound swirling like an inner fire had been released from its body and was draining from the hole created by the arrow-bolt bristling from its back.  Its form began to crumble as if formed of wet molded sand.  A golem, Logray recognized.  Some creature which was an amalgam of wind and malleable clay formed and molded by a Dust Dragon from the netherworld in the between realm brought over unwittingly by Surface Worlders.  A follower and pursuer, given leave to impede the calling of the One, by buffeting those quest-called Surface Worlders with their own fears and doubts.  Azragoth was still in danger as long as the Cordis stone remained within the hidden chamber beneath it.  The General had foreseen such and knew that it was time Jeremiah took back the stone once again.  Perhaps this bound man whom he’d just rescued might provide him with the answers and whereabouts of Jeremiah that he sought.

***

Dark flared claws and a black feathered form swooped out of the lowering smoke cloud above.  A dark nimbus of hair flowed from its head and its black angry eyes raged below furrowed and feathered brow as the flying nightmare slammed into the back of the two standing figures, sunk a talon into the back of one and a grappling toed-claw around the arm of the other and snatched both upward, with great gusty downbeats from her broad wings.

“You will not escape me!” she bellowed and laughed in a high-pitched screech as she lifted both into the air with a pulled retraction of her legs.  The one whose back had been pierced by the sharp talon began to smoke and leak the same substance that drained from its arrow-pierced counterpart, dried powdery substance falling like sand from its form as the harpy and her captured prey disappeared into the smoke cloud above.

***

It had happened so fast, that Captain Logray had not been able to get near the creatures in time before the large flying creature had seized them and carried them off through the smoke.  Perhaps he had been mistaken.  Perhaps the other ash-creatures had not been entirely in league with the one he’d shot, but clearly one of the two was another golem.  So intent on catching her prey, the flying creature, which could only have been a displaced harpy, had not been aware of his presence, nor aware that a young man lay hobbled beneath the disintegrating form of the other golem.  She’d descended out of the thick smoke, so most likely she’d been disoriented and partially blinded by it, but not enough to dissuade her in her vengeful pursuit.  He’d heard her screech in triumph as she’d retaken her prey and carried them off.

The tree trunk above the prone man, stretch up into the dark smoky cloud, as embers within the forest continued to drop from the top of the tree, like flecks of golden rain.  Logray dismounted his horse, gathering the reins and led the mare up the hillside toward the base of the tree, carefully avoiding the burning brush around him as he went.  He needed to get the young man safely away from the tree and back onto the cleared road, where there was less chance of the fire cutting off all possibility of escape.  He knelt, grabbing the rope that bound the man’s hands to his feet, and the young man bristled and cried out, “No!”

“Relax, young man.  We need to get you back to the road.  I’ll cut your bonds, but you will need to be straight with me and tell me who did this to you.  Got it?”

He drew forth a dagger from his side and sawed at the rope until it unraveled and snapped.

The man stretched out, sighing from the ache of being trussed up for so long as he was at last able to extend his legs and arms.

“Get me outta these,” he thrust forth his hands, indicating the rope that still bound his hands and ankles together.

“I’ll decide when those come off, young man,” Captain Logray answered in a tone that would brook no further argument.

“For now, I’ll give you your feet,” and he reached and sawed loose the binding that held the man’s ankles together.

Logray stood, leaned down grabbing the man’s forearm and hauled him up to his feet.

“Can you walk?”

The young man felt very weak in his legs but nodded.

“What is your name?”

“The last one to ask me that, tied me up.”

***

We heard the noises of the harpy attacking below.  We heard its boast as it captured something or someone and fly past us once again.  It did not make clear sense to me, but Jeremiah sighed heavily.

“Who was down there?” I asked again, “I really need to know.”

“I found a young man who had been captured by a harpy.  I picked him up on the trail to find you.  But it seems I’ve lost him again.”

“A young man?” I muttered, “What did he look like?”

“Oh, he was a little shorter than you, dark hair, really surly attitude.  Surface Worlder.  Belligerent and ungrateful.  A harpy and a dryad nymph were fighting over him.”

“Will.”

“What?”

“His name is Will.  I sent Maeven looking for him, but you said she returned and took the others to the Faery Fade.”

“Yes, she did.  She must not have found him before the harpy got to him.  Makes sense why there would be no ground tracks to follow if that thing carried him.  Are you planning to go after him again?”

“I don’t think we can.  If she doesn’t kill him, she’ll bring him to The Pan and he most certainly will.  I have to think of the others now and release his life into the hands of the One.”

“Now you’re finally talking like a leader.  I don’t know about you but I am about sick of being in this tree.  Ready to get back on terra firma.”

“Do you feel up to it?  How are your legs?”

“Don’t ask.  I’m operating on adrenaline only.  They are numb, but I think I can still get us down.”

Jeremiah carefully lifted his left leg out of the cut groove that had arrested their fall.  “Oh, man that hurts,” he moaned as he attempted to massage his thigh to get feeling back into his leg.  He bore his weight on his right leg and swung his left leg lower, gaining about another foot in descent.  The muscles of his right leg and ligaments spasmed and he gritted his teeth and winced with the pain.

“If I ever suggest something like a slip-fall again, just remind me of this,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Another voice spoke quietly below, and Brian and Jeremiah froze.

“What is your name?”

A younger voice answered, “The last one to ask me that, tied me up.”

***

The bewildered beings hung slack as Dellitch the harpy ascended into the roiling cloud bank of smoke.  She had swooped in fast behind them, clasping both figures before they could crouch, run or put up much of a struggle.  They were covered in ash, but so had she been, flying through the smoky ash pursuing them down to the base of the tree.  She had felt her claws satisfactorily sink into the flesh of one, catching him under his scapula and wrapping her upper talons around the top of the man’s shoulder, wounding and immobilizing him with one strike.  The other she had caught behind the arm in a half deflective turn, reacting to the sudden seizure of his partner, but not soon enough to prevent her swift attack.

With a mighty down thrust of her wings, she’d seized and jerked them aloft, dangling by the piercing of her claws, unyielding iron-shod shanks, and the forceful grip of her powerful, grey-skinned knuckles.

She had exulted to herself, enjoying the savagery of her triumph at the moment, savoring their brief writhing under her vise-like grip and the diminishing feel of their following sagging despair, resigning themselves to their fate.   But, that lasted only for a few moments.  When Dellitch suddenly felt one of her captive’s body begin to crumble and dissolve into dry powder under her claws, she knew something was terribly wrong.

Could it be that these prisoners were not who she thought they were?  She clutched her pierced captive harder but could feel its arm dissolve into grit and grains of dust, sifted through her claw.

Startled and panicked she almost released them to fall to the forest floor.  No.  Surely, they had not had time to get away.  She had only been blinded for a moment, flying through the haze of the smoke, but she’d emerged swiftly, responding to the two upright forms below.  When there was a brief thinning in the swirling smoke, she stole a quick glance down at her remaining captive, its face expressionless, though it looked to be that of the man she had borne up into the tree, there was an uncanny difference about him.  This one lacked something.  And then she realized what she was holding and why the other had literally crumbled and dissolved in her claws.  These were not outworlders at all.  These were from the in-between, ether-natural vagrants—squatters—haunting a mud-cake replica of a man.  Banshees.  Wind spirits.  Howlers.  ‘Damn!’ she cursed.

Nevermind, she vowed.  They would not evade her for long.  She would turn the whole vengeance and violence of the half-men kingdom against them.  Their blood would be offered in appeasements to The Pan for his use in the mystic pools.  The two would flee and inevitably lead her to the others that had been sighted in Kilrane.  Rather than being a pariah, she would be praised and heralded before the evening descended on the wood.

***

Captain Logray looked up, hearing an odd ‘Thunk-jingle-Thunk!’ noise, coming down from the tree above them.  He drew out his sword, ready to confront whoever or whatever was making that noise until he saw human legs with foot spikes coming down the side of the tree.  A man of almost equal size sat upon the larger man’s shoulders, working a slip-belt down around the bole of the tree.

When Captain Logray saw who it was, he laughed aloud.

“Well, this is fortunate!” Captain Logray clapped his hands together, “The very man I am sent to find, appears before me, climbing down from the treetops performing a very impressive display of strength.”

“Captain Logray?” Jeremiah answered still slowly working his way down to the ground.

“And who is this you have with you, besides your belligerent prisoner?”

My face was covered in smeared blood from a swollen nose and my brow was abraded by the rough bark.  Given the opportunity, I realized that I would perhaps find it hard to recognize myself in a mirror or pool of water.  Bracing myself against the tree, I pulled a leg over Jeremiah’s arm unbuckled the slip-belt and slid down to the ground.

“They call him Mr. O’Brian,” a familiar voice snarled to my left, “but I’m inclined to call him something else.”

I turned.

“Will.”

“Yeah.  Surprised?” he sneered.

“Relieved,” I answered, “I sent Maeven to find you.”

“Well, you found me.  Where are the others, fearless leader?  Did you lose them too?”

I stared at him a moment and he glared back, daring me to counter his insolence.

I turned to the man Jeremiah had called “Captain”.

“I’m sorry, Captain, is it?” I offered my hand.

“Logray,” he took it in a firm, strong grip, “Captain of the Forest Guard.  We observed you and your company in the backwoods of Azragoth in the company of The Storm Hawk.  You’re pretty bashed up there.  Are you all right?”

“Honored to meet you, Captain.  I’ll be fine, it’s Jeremiah that needs our help.”

“I’ve got it,” Jeremiah growled, sighing to catch his breath, “Only a few feet more.”
His legs were trembling and his body sagged in the climbing harness.

Brooking no argument, Logray and I came up behind Jeremiah and allowed him to rest his weight on our shoulders to loosen the tension on the slip strap fastened to his climbing belt.  Painfully, he tugged at his leg to loosen the gaff spike under his foot and allowed it to dangle.

Taking in another deep breath, Jeremiah unfastened the slip strap and sank to the ground with an involuntary hiss and groan, but we caught him putting our shoulders under his arms to ease him down.

“Jeremiah’s legs are in shock,” I explained, “We fell quite a way coming down and I am afraid he will have some difficulty walking.  May we trouble you for the use of your horse, Captain?”

“She is at your disposal, my friend.  As is my sword.”

“We need to get back to the road and to a guarded place within the forest.”

“He speaks of the Faerie Fade.  Storm Hawk and the others should be there by now, waiting for us to return,” Jeremiah huffed, barely able to breathe through the pain as he leaned against the base of the tree and tried futilely to undo the climbing harnesses on his feet and around his waist.  I reached down to help him, but he fended me off.

“I’ll be alright.  I just need to catch my breath.”
Logray ignored Jeremiah’s protest and bent down helping him remove the footgear and harnesses.  I took the gear and held it out to Will to carry so Logray and I could assist Jeremiah further.  Will only glared at me, so I just set the gear down, as Captain Logray and I assisted Jeremiah, lifting him on either arm and guiding him towards the horse.

“We must get out of here quickly.  A harpy attacked us above and could come back at any moment.  Are you alone or are there others in your company?”

“I stand alone on this charge.”

I nodded and took out a short knife and moved towards Will.  He drew back from me, evidently thinking I meant to do him harm.

“Give me your hands.”

“What for?!” he hissed, “Why should I follow you any longer?  Look at what it has got me.  Everywhere I turn you bring bad luck on us!”

“Give me your hands,” I spoke quietly and firmly, looking him directly in the eyes.

“I will not hurt you.  I just want to set you free.  You can come with us or go your own way.  I am not compelling you to follow, but there are many things in this wood that will kill you if you choose to leave now.  Come with us and we may get out of this alive.”

Will hesitated but finally thrust his bound wrists out at me.  As I loosed him, I heard Jeremiah speak in low tones to Captain Logray.  “It’s been a long time since we last spoke, Logray.  How did you know where I would be?”

“Friends are never really that far away, Jeremiah.  We have kept an eye on you for some time.  I knew that you would be near the cache supplies when the fires started.  The General knew as well.  He told me that you and he spoke when he was returning from the overlook.  He ordered me to give you some time to work out your thoughts.  We know you’ve been secretly aiding us in the resistance, in your own way.”

“But why come out into the fire?  Why risk it?”

“Because I knew you would risk your life trying to salvage the cached supplies.  You cannot continue to do things alone.  But more to the point it was also because General Mattox has been shot,” Logray announced to our shock and dismay.

“What?!” I turned.

“Two arrows to the chest.  Barely missed his heart.  He’s badly wounded but was under the surgeon’s care when I left.  He is a strong man and a determined fighter.  His personal guard said he was insistent on my bringing you back to Azragoth as soon as possible.”

“But we just left,” I answered.

“Not you.  My General wants Jeremiah.”

“Me?  What for?”

“I think you already know why.  The time has come, my friend.  You cannot run from your calling forever.  You have left something in our keeping that you need to take up again.”

Jeremiah was silent, his expression signifying an internal struggle whose outcome was still uncertain.

“Who shot him?” I asked, wondering who would dare attack Mattox.

“It is not particularly so much of a who, as it is a what.  If I did not know how to recognize a Surface Worlder when I see one, and if I did not clearly see your face is bleeding one might think that you did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We’ve captured and are holding two of them and the guards dispatched one upon the city wall.  But where one of this kind shows up, there are always more in the shadows.  What I find particularly interesting is that these creatures we have clapped in irons all seem to resemble you, Mr. O’Brian.”

He let that stunning bit of information sink in for a moment.

“We have seen their kind many years before.  We call them golems.  And Jeremiah, you were the one who helped us deal with them then.  That is why we need you again.”

I looked up and Jeremiah had turned in the saddle and was staring hard at me.  He seemed highly agitated and distracted.

“This is something new,” Jeremiah said gravely, “Golems do not take the faces of the living.  Or at least I have never heard of it happening before.”

“It is rare indeed, unless…” Logray’s words trailed off as a look passed between Logray and Jeremiah, communicating much between them, but revealing nothing to me.

I looked from Jeremiah to Logray and back to Jeremiah again.

“What do you mean they resemble me?  I’ve never seen a…  What did you call it?”

“A golem.”

“You mean the skinny little creature…”

“No.  The word is much older than its use for the character in Tolkien’s tales,” Jeremiah interrupted me, “It appears in the original written language of the Ancient Text meaning ‘formless body’.  But even in that state, as shaped by The One, it has purpose, meaning, and identity.” [Psalms 139:16]

Logray turned back and fixed me with a hard, scrutinizing look, “Mr. O’Brian were you ever in the presence of a dragon?”

The Cordis Stone – Chapter 63

I slid down and pressed my back against the trunk of the tree.  I could not see the harpy, so I figured to stay as close to the branch and trunk as possible.  If I could strap myself to the trunk so much the better, and then I would have my arms free to draw the honor sword when she came back.  It was becoming harder and harder to breathe.  Smoke burned my eyes.  With the rise and descent of the smoke, the harpy had found a perch somewhere and had broken off her attack.  I was disoriented and confused and not certain that I could get the footwear on without losing my balance.  Her passes had ceased, but I knew she was still out there.  Waiting for me to succumb to the rising smoke and fall.  I had to get my head clear.  To think this one out.  But like the wall of building smoke, all I had coming to mind was this cloud of self-recrimination engulfing me.

And then I remembered the purpose of my calling.  To redeem the stories and connect them to those who owned them.  To lead them forth to the Kingdom Gate of Excavatia.

Some stories have a beginning, middle and resolution.  Some have happy endings.  Some have tragic endings.  And some just break off in the middle and fade.  They have a broken sort of death in a half-life existence.  They are not themselves dead, but trapped in a twilight of monotony, unable to move far away from the moments that arrested their forward progression.  The Mid-World is strewn with the litter of these fading stories.  Some I have contributed to in my life within The Surface World.  Some contributed by others who have eclipsed my experience and have surfaced here in the in-between lands.  It has been my belief that I was sent back here through the collective dream to gather together these remnants who were trapped here.  Help connect them with the individuals within our company who could carry these forward, and in the process redeem my own story and operate from a position of strength to help these find Excavatia, the land in which hopes and dream connect and materialize into experience.

Yet so far every effort I put forward and yielded to, led to tragedy.  Azragoth burns.  Its location and resurrection exposed to the hostiles forces who wanted it never to rise again.  We are driven forward by the fires behind us.  We almost lost Maeven, by confronting a Manticore and almost lost our lives trapped under a collapsing waterfall and cliffside.  Every decision and every lack of decision was leading us closer and closer to death.  My leadership so far was a disaster.  My failure put me in this tree.  My obsession with rectifying the past wrong caused me to leave those I was called to lead and seek out The Pan in some strange hope of retrieving what Caleb and I had given him the opportunity to steal.

The Cordis Stone—The second of three mysterious stones needed to open the gate to Excavatia.  Each stone represented the essential values needed to unlock the pathway to the awakening.  As I’ve said before the Nature of the Mid-World is a place of joining between things incorporeal and corporeal.  Things that exist without bodily form, take on a form when they enter this place.  This is why this land has supernatural monsters here.  But by the same token, some incorporeal concepts also take on a form and solidify into something of precious value in this Mid-World.

The Ancient Text speaks of The Word becoming flesh to dwell among men.  That the fullness of the expression of Love is made corporeal in the expression of Christ.  In another verse, the Ancient Text says:

“13 Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.” [1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT]

These eternal concepts have been showing up in the Mid-World as unusual and particularly precious stones.  We believe that these are the gate stones that will unlock the Kingdom Gate at the other end of the Mid-World beyond the land of Capitalia.  Individuals from each generation were granted entrance into the Mid-World through a shared dream to participate in three quests to open the gate.  The first stone, representing the eternal concept of hope, called the Praesperos stone, has been delivered to the gate in the first quest of my generation.  The stone of the second quest, the Cordis stone, representing Love, also known as the heart stone, was lost, and the second quest failed.

I was once again repeating the failures of the past, dooming this mission and those I was called to lead.  Yet the message I had received offered me another chance.

Caleb and I believed that we could turn The Pan upon himself and force him to confess to his meddling in the affairs of men in the Surface World.  We thought that the Cordis Stone would reveal to all what was hidden within his dark heart.  That that revealed truth would undo him and expose him.  We believe that the stone itself had the power to subdue him, so we took the stone from Jeremiah, went on a foolish mission without seeking counsel and confronted The Pan in his kingdom within the Sarsooth forests where the dryads and harpies originally lived before they moved to the outer rim beyond The Stone Pass.  We were wrong.  Dead wrong.  Caleb lost his life for it.  I barely escaped.

But now I would die here.

The Faeries, the living Fire Lights, had told me to return to my company.  That I would be “drawn forth from the well to be a channel of living water to those given”.  I was told to “return to them” for I would be “made into what is purposed” and that I would find “delight in [my] purpose”.  There was no mention of retrieving the Cordis Stone, the reason for which I had left my company.  My guilt in being partially responsible for its loss drove me towards the confrontation.  I felt compelled to rectify the past, to somehow retrieve the Cordis stone, and put this mission back on track.  I have never been able to forgive myself for the results of our failed mission.  I believed that my calling by The One to lead this third quest was a second chance to make amends for my part in the failure of the second quest.  But again I was failing.  It might be best if I did just fall from the tree and break my neck, or let this attacking harpy take my life and cease resistance.  I felt despair surround me and threaten to cover me with a cloud of darkness.  I was blind within the rising smoke.  I could barely breathe.  I had climbing gear that was useless without time to strap the pieces on and descend.

And below me, somewhere in the swirling cloud of ash and heat was Jeremiah.  The one man who I owed so much to for the failure of his mission.  The one man who had every right and reason to kill me for what I’d done to him, as a brother-in-arms, who’d been responsible for undermining his leadership with his younger brother.

I owed Jeremiah the truth about the Cordis Stone.  Though his brother had taken it from him, I was every bit responsible for what had happened as a result of Caleb’s theft.

Jeremiah had been understandably grieved and angry.  Because of my part in the betrayal, I led him to believe that the plan had been wholly my idea, rather than cast blame upon the dead.  In truth, Caleb had taken the stone and had awakened me in the night and told me that we two were given a secret mission to take down The Pan.  That he had been sighted in the woods of the mystic pools and was obsessed with watching what was transpiring through them in the Surface World of men.  We had planned to confront him alone within the wood and perhaps push him into one of the portals where he would be ripped in half in transit, back to the Surface World.

The Pan had gone nearly blind from staring into the ethereal light of the mystic ghost pools.  Yet somehow he still saw through them with eyes that were becoming useless in this Mid-World.  His focus on them so obsessed him, that he would be oblivious to our approach.  We had witnessed that it was his custom to refuse attendants when he went into the mystic wood.  That we could be certain that he would be alone, based upon his own command.  It seemed to both of us that it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  That we could rid the Mid-World of The Pan or expose him for the charlatan that he was and in so doing we could bring his influence in the Mid-World down, and force him to confess under the Name of The One.  We believed two things.  That the power of The Name of the One would compel even the darkest creatures to bow its knees and confess to the truth.  We believed that we could use the Name alone to compel The Pan to yield to us and confess to the power that ruled him.  The Ancient Text says in the chronicle of the prophet Isaiah:

“18 For the LORD is God, and he created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos. “I am the LORD,” he says, “and there is no other. 19 I publicly proclaim bold promises. I do not whisper obscurities in some dark corner. I would not have told the people of Israel to seek me if I could not be found. I, the LORD, speak only what is true and declare only what is right. 20 “Gather together and come, you fugitives from surrounding nations. What fools they are who carry around their wooden idols and pray to gods that cannot save! 21 Consult together, argue your case. Get together and decide what to say. Who made these things known so long ago? What idol ever told you they would happen? Was it not I, the LORD? For there is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior. There is none but me. 22 Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. 23 I have sworn by my own name; I have spoken the truth, and I will never go back on my word: Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.”” [Isaiah 45:18-23 NLT]

We knew that it was the image of The Pan of this world that was being used as the image of the devil in our world.  The Surface World.  Ancient world religions and traditions depicted a hybrid king with both human and animal flesh.  Ancient China, Egypt, and Greece were the most prominent, although modern paganism brought the hybrid ram/goat king back into tradition.  The Pan was in some Surface World traditions, both the god of nature and of the universe.  He was higher than Zeus, the famed god of Mount Olympus and heaven, though at some point his worship fell out of tradition.  But still, it lurked in other forms.  The Pan was the Oberon, the forest king of the fairies in medieval tradition, a god of forests and all land surfaces.  This was in contrast to what The One said of Himself–That He alone was Lord and there was no other.

The lie arose from this pernicious creature, whispering it into the minds of mankind.  The Pan brought blood into the mystic pools and opened them up to whisper deceiving words.  By day, the Pan ruled the half-men kingdom of the Mid-World.  By night, he sowed treacherous deceptions into the foolish minds of pagan humans who opened themselves to mysticism in the Surface World.  We thought with both the compulsion of the Name and with the power in the Cordis stone, we could compel The Pan to confess his treachery both through the mystic pools, but also before his own hybrid kingdom who were dwindling in numbers as mankind appeared to encroach more and more into the lands of the Mid-World.

We made the mistake of the seven sons of Sceva.  The Ancient Text records this account:

“11 God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. 12 When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. 13 A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. 15 But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.” [Acts 19:11-16 NLT]

Caleb had hoped to use The Name to command The Pan to yield, and instead treated it much like a word from an incantation.  We falsely assumed that because we were called on the mission, we could not fail.

The first quest had been successful, and the gate stone had been delivered to the doorway to the hidden passage to Excavatia.

We were foolish to believe that because of one prior success that we could not fail in the second one.  We placed our confidence so much in the rightness of the quest, that we failed to walk in the obedience of it.

The Ancient Text says:

“12 There is a way [which seems] right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” [Proverbs 14:12 NASB]

A way that seems right at the time, if acted upon without seeking the will of the One, leads to failure and death as it did for my friend Caleb.  Deception operates in the “seems”, as a wise man once said.

This pattern recurs over and over again throughout human history and leads to horrific consequences.

“15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” [Proverbs 12:15 NASB]

Had I insisted that we turn back and seek counsel from Jeremiah and the others, I was fully convinced that Caleb would still be alive.  Instead, we took our own counsel and I was a fool for doing so.

I pondered all of this, leaning against the tree trunk, struggling to swing the larger slip belt around the trunk and catch it with my dangling foot and draw it up to me, but was so far unsuccessful.

And then something gripped my leg.

***

Smoke rose from the sides of the hard-packed road as the rider, Captain Logray, slowed his horse from a gallop to a trot.  Ash and dust drifted around them, and Logray knew his horse needed a breather.  Its flaring nostrils were coated with gray ash, and Logray was concerned that the horse had breathed in too much of the substance.  He slowed the horse further, easing the mare down to a walk, trying to calm the horse who was skittish and fearful of the smoldering fires around them.  Two other times in the journey down the old road from Azragoth, Logray had slowed his horse and brushed away the ash from its body and face, calming the horse, but the fires had not abated, and the road ahead was strewn with smoldering limbs and fallen trees.

As Logray dismounted, he paused with his foot still in the stirrup, his hand on the pommel of the saddle, his ears hearing the noise of furtive movements behind him and about twenty yards off from the road.  The animals of the forest would have long since fled from the fire, but the noises of runners were something else entirely.  He was being followed.  Pursued.  And he could not risk leading who or whatever was following him to the place where he was going.

***

The four golems ran swiftly through the charred forest.  Flakes of soot and ash coated their bodies with a white crust as they ran, loping like silver furred werewolves under a haze of gray smoke.  Their faux flesh no longer looked like the image of the one from whom they had been molded, for the charred residue of the skin of the dead forest cloaked them into obscurity.

They had avoided the road in which the soldier from Azragoth rode, attempting to hang back and follow from a distance.  One of the presences animating the bodies was the ephemeral wind spirit that had once walked among the company of Surface Worlders, posing as one of them, before her facade had been stripped away by the gratitude test and that cursed covenant sword.  Her name was Torlah, and the promise of her revenge on the two that exposed her was within reach.  She tasted its anticipated and violent flavor upon her clay tongue–a gift of the Dust Dragon.

The ether-natural beast from the between whose hook had snared the current Surface World leader called to lead the third quest when he passed through the portal to return to the Mid-World after a lengthy hiatus.  The man had returned to the small hut and hovel where he’d last lived after the failings of the second quest.  A hermitage, with a small garden, a river tributary and a lake within walking distance of the home.  Time had ravaged the place when the man returned to it.  The small two-room bungalow had fallen into disrepair.  The garden was choked with wild growth and weeds.  The flagstone path was overgrown.  The shelter was infested with rats and mice and other vermin.  A caked layer of silt covered every surface and the place smelled of mold and mildew and the pungent odors of urine and mouse feces.

He’d fallen asleep in the cottage and his consciousness took him back into the Surface World.  His presence had disappeared, and the shack had been abandoned.  Years later, when he awoke he found that he was in a room filled with decay.  The cottage, his hermitage, was a graveyard shrouded accumulated layers of in burial dust.

***

“Relax!” a voice below hissed.

The hand that grabbed my leg belonged to Jeremiah.

I jerked away and almost fell when he grabbed me.

“What are you doing?!”

“There’s a harpy stalking me.  How did you get up here?!”

“Using a set of the gear I sent up to you, rather than fiddling with it.”

“There wasn’t time.  The harpy that caught me and put me up here, came back before I could get the pieces strapped on.”

“Where is she now?”

I gestured ahead into the rising smoke, “I don’t know.  Somewhere out there.  She broke off the attack when the smoke rose up.  The fire is spreading all over the forest, I’ve got to get back to my friends.  They’ll be trapped soon if we don’t press onward.”

“They’re safe for now.  Maeven returned and I sent them to The Faerie Fade.”

“There is one here?!”

“Of course there is.  I saw you from below and saw the Faeries come to you.  What did they say?”

“That I should go back to my travelers and would be shone what to do.”

“Why did you leave them in the first place?”

“The Pan is in the forest.  He is just ahead in the area where the old bridge once crossed a forest stream.  We could not go by way of the road without being discovered, so I had my company wait for me behind while I scouted ahead.”

“Why didn’t you sent someone to go scout for you?”

“And risk being spotted by The Pan?  It was too dangerous.”

“So dangerous, you would risk leaving your people leaderless alone and unaware of what to do next?!”

“I told Begglar to watch after them and get them to Sorrow’s Gate if I did not return soon.  His wife Nell, knows the way because she was raised in this area.  They have contacts with the underground that could help.”

“What is it that you would risk your life and the lives of those of your company to go towards The Pan to find?”

“Because The Pan has the Cordis Stone,” I confessed.  “Caleb and I took it when we went to confront The Pan before.  If The Pan has the Cordis Stone, he will eventually find and kill every story we set out to save.”

I heard Jeremiah mutter something under his breath and then sigh heavily.

“No,” he huffed, “He doesn’t.”

“I saw The Pan take it from Caleb,” I refuted, “He has it and he will blind everyone to their purpose as long as he has it in his possession.  I have to get it back.  I caused your quest to fail.  Every quest is doomed until we get it back.  With The Pan appearing in the forest of Kilrane at this time, I figured that this was the time for me to get it back.  I could not bring the others with me, but since I bore the Honor Sword this time and was called by the One, this had to be the opportunity I was waiting for.”

“You have been deceived, Brian.  The Pan does not have the Cordis Stone.”

“I was there.  I saw him take it.  How can you say that?”

“Because I still have it.”

He let those stunning words linger for a moment while I recovered.

“You have?” I stammered, “How did you get it back from him?”

“He never had it in the first place.  What you and Caleb took was a decoy.  I knew what Caleb was planning.  I knew that he was tempted to take the stone from me, so I had a clever decoy made.  Caleb is perhaps dead, because he took the decoy, believing it had the power to overcome and expose The Pan.”

Those words hit me like a hammer.

“You mean…?”

“Yes!” he growled, “Caleb did something foolish.  He and I argued over it and I forbade him to try it, but the stubborn fool did not listen.  I never thought he would have convinced you to go along with it, but he did.  I know you lied to me, saying it was all your idea, and that hurt and insulted me even worse when I had found out what you both had done.”

“But you never completed the quest…”

“No.  I did not.  I lost heart for it.  I let anger rule me and I walked away from it.  I too was a fool.  I left the Honor Sword on some broken rock ridge in the mountains.  And I walked away from it.  My heart turned to stone.”

“Where is the Cordis Stone now?”

“It is in safekeeping, I hope.”

“What do you mean, you hope?”

“Back there.  I assume since you ride with The Storm Hawk, you already know where.”

I lowered my voice, stunned once again.  “In Azragoth?”

“Not in Azragoth,” Jeremiah said, “Under it.”

Sparks, burning branches and floating embers began to fall all around us as the canopy above began to lower its emblazoned the ceiling of fire.

“We need to get down from this tree,” I said.

And Jeremiah concurred, “I couldn’t agree more.”

It occurred to me that The Dust Dragon that I had encountered in the cave system under Azragoth might not have been digging to destroy the city above after all.  It was quite possible that the creature had been seeking to uncover and steal The Cordis Stone.  To dig the very heart out from under the city and the quests we, both Jeremiah and I had been sent into the Mid-World to lead.

Jeremiah helped me strap the tree gaff harnesses onto my dangling feet, and loop the long wrap belt around the bole of the tree and under the limb upon which I had rested.  With an unsteady pivot outward and his assistance driving one of the gaff points into the trunk.  I flailed wildly, disoriented and blinded by the smoke, fairly certain I would grind my face against the tree as I fell.  I was finally able to get positioned into the climbing harness and slip belt, in such a way that I had counter-balanced my weight against the trunk.

Jeremiah had descended below about eight feet when we both heard a whooshing noise of flapping wings and a horrific shriek.   The harpy had evidently been close-by, waiting for her chance to strike both of us.

***

Captain Logray stood very still, placing a calming hand on his horse’s neck, feeling the felt-like surface of its sweating coat as its powerful muscles trembled and flexed beneath his hand.  He spoke low and calm to the mare who eyed him and fidgeted, wanting to adopt the comfort of the calming hand, but sensing that danger was still near.

Logray stroked the horse’s nose whispering low, “Easy girl.  Settle.  Settle.  Calm girl.”

The horse’s ears twitched, and she rumbled a throaty noise.

Beyond the horse’s neck, Logray watched the ash coated figures move and duck behind the blackened trees, darting in and out of the smoke rising from the crackling trees and scorched ground.

With one hand he had slipped the hand comb out from his saddle roll and stroked the horse’s brow and neck and with another hand he fingered the stock handle of a cross-bow, hanging in a padded sheath sleeve secured with bone loops.  A brace of arrow bolts was mounted below the main spring bow, just clear of the aiming stock.  Carefully, using the horse’s body as cover, he released the bone button hooks, fingered out an arrow bolt and set its nock into the bowstring.  Palming the horse brush, he crossed it and dropped it into the bow sleeve as he eased the weapon out with his other free hand.  The crossbow would be good for just one shot and he needed to be careful to make it count.

The ash-covered creatures still acted as if they were not aware that their quarry had marked them as well.

Whatever these creatures were, Logray was certain, they were up to no good.

 

The Path of Fire – Chapter 62

Flames scoured the land, roared through the treetops and blackened the ground with char and silvered it with settling ash.  From behind the waves of fire, a cloaked and wrapped horseman rode quickly down the break ridge switchback road, his horse’s iron-shod hooves pounding the ash-covered roadway.  The rider’s fist tightly gripped the reins of his mount as the beast’s body churned underneath him.  The old road had become overgrown and choked with forest scrub, ferns, and cast leaves, but now it shone like a silver pathway among the blackened poles still standing as the skeletal reminder of a forest gutted by fire.

The man wore a sash about his face, and a pre-moistened gauze, now drying, covered his brow and thick hair.  Both the rider and the horse deftly chose patches of ground where the foliage had burned down and cooled or was laid bare to rock or gravel, alternating between the steamy roadway and the nearby dry river bed where the path followed along its border.  The smoke was being pushed ahead by a slight wind falling down through the breaks beyond the city of Azragoth.  The rider had taken advantage of the shift in the wind and had lit out to follow his general’s command, perhaps earlier than was prudent.

Observing the damage done along the way, the rider pondered what he was seeing.  The flames from the interior walls of Azragoth should not have extended this far into the forest.  He’d received thorough reports of the siege and knew what had transpired afterward.  The flames from the oil and tar wall had burned and set the Manticores afire, and it was understandable that they would flee blindly into the wood, but their passage would not have burned such wide swaths of ground in their frantic flight.

Hours had passed since the attack and the company of Surface Worlders should have already been clear of the forest of Kilrane before the first flame reached the roadway and died out.  Something or someone had accelerated the fire and carried it across the firebreaks.  Something or someone who wanted Azragoth exposed to the outside lands once more.

The rider could hear the sounds of conflict ahead but assumed that the cries were that of the forest animals fleeing before the fire.  Noises to his far left and right sounded like he was being shadowed by other horsemen, but it was too difficult to make out anything through the shifting haze of the smoldering wood and the dying crackle and pop of withering embers.

When he’d arrived from the backwoods and entered the city of Azragoth, the front forest was ablaze and black smoke billowed from the outer walls and flared through the treetops.  The general had been savagely attacked and shot with arrows.  He was understandably anxious to learn of his commanding officer’s condition and rode straight to the surgeon’s house in the low street.  Jesh, Mattox’s taller bodyguard, had relayed the General’s command to seek out the elusive forester Jeremiah and bid him come back to Azragoth as soon as possible, but he knew that chance was dwindling.  Jeremiah owed the general at least that.  But with the front passage on fire, no one was coming either into or out of the city by that route.  The Keep had been locked down and was under tight guard, so the underground route was not an option.  For six hours the general had undergone surgery, and there was nothing he could do but wait.  But when the wind shifted, and the billows towering over the front wall began to thin, Captain Lorgray knew the chance to carry out what might be the general’s last order had come.  If the general wanted Jeremiah to return to Azragoth, then he was bound and determined to find the man and compel him to come back with him.

***

Dellitch was angry and terrified.

The audience before The Pan was not turning out at all how she planned.  Their plan to destroy the Dryads once and for all had been found out, her fire-setting sisters caught in the act and then the whole burning of the forest entirely blamed upon them.  The Pan’s rebuke still rang in her head.  She had been in a tree when he raged, and the branches had caught her and kept her from falling, but her bones still vibrated like a tuning fork.

‘Curse that lying Troll!’, she thought.

She doubted if even turning over the Surface Worlder she had captured would make any difference to The Pan now.  But it would distract him, and that distraction was badly needed.  The dryads would have had nothing to do with fire.  They were understandably terrified of it, which was another reason they never directly assaulted the settlements of men.  And why they shied away from taking humans who traveled through the forests by night carrying firelight or refrained from molesting those who dared to camp within the forest sleeping around a campfire.

Much as they might want to, they could never make The Pan believe the dryads had anything to do with the burnt torches affixed to the wings of her sisters.  And if The Pan were to follow that line of questioning further into how exactly those brands were attached, they would have to risk disclosing their own alliance with the Xarmnians.  A weak alliance they had made in case they were ever entirely excommunicated from the Half-Men kingdom and declared ‘kill on sight’ by any of their former allies.  The Half-men where a dwindling race, but the presence of mankind was increasing and would eventually overrun the Mid-World.

The Pan would most certainly make good on his threat.  There were dark, violent things that seemed to do his bidding, and his reach was far and wide.  Her captured prize might placate The Pan enough to where he still saw value in the harpies rather than receiving the full weight of his ire.  She had to collect the Surface Worlder and bring him back to The Pan to have any hope of salvaging a place for her kind.

There wasn’t time to find the other Surface Worlders, but even if there had been, Dellitch reasoned, any remaining would most likely be driven out of the forest by the spreading fires…unless…

A thought arose her in mind from a distant memory, a mere scrap of a conversation she had overheard about certain places in the various woods where Faeries had once been sighted…a place such as Kilrane Forest.

It was time to extract some information from her treetop prize.  She launched from the limb and swooped in and out of the smoky wood, headed swiftly to the place she’d deposited the overworlder.  She would get him to cooperate or dangle his body in flight and let the branches of the wood beat the information out of him.  If that did not work, there was always the path of fire.  Funny how tongues of flame loosened tongues of flesh.

***

When the rider had left the gates of Azragoth, four figures bearing the face of O’Brian followed him, loping after the rider in furtive bursts of speed that the original body bearing their face had no capacity for.

Only the desperate, foolish and the called charged into the path of the fire.  And from their perspective, the latter was the most dangerous.

The Azragothian would eventually lead them to the one with whom they shared faces, and then they would kill him and all those who followed him.  They could not touch these persons within the Surface World except by means of deception and through the actions of others still lost in the death of the Fall.  But here in the Mid-World, where the spiritual had form and corporeal substance, violence could be done in this perception realm that could not be done in the land of the original curse.

Surface Worlders were both ignorant and dangerous.  They did not know who they were called to be, but if they were to learn the truth it would be the end of the Dark Reign and the “Stone of the Worlds” would open the portal that would usher in the returning king.  The sleeping bride would awaken–roused to awareness by her beloved’s call.  The lamps in the darkness were being lit even now by the fire of the Divine One.  Violence and destruction and hatred were gaining ground in the Surface World, but it was also driving some into an awareness that there was a dark otherness bringing forth these influences.

The sentries of the Throne, the faeries, were being sent into the Mid-Word to aid those following in the quest.  Their stories would soon be connected and restored to them.  Already, the man had harvested the Fides stone, (also known as the Pax stone), from the body of their master.  Six other stones remained in the Mid-World, three were harvested from the now-dead demons who had entered it, two still walked the Mid-World in monstrous forms, and one swam within it.  The first quest to Excavatia had been successful in that the Praesperos stone, (the hope stone), had been delivered to the Kingdom gate and embedded in the key lock.  The second quest had been partially successful but abandoned and the Cordis Stone was taken into possession by the Half-Men kingdom.  The man whom they called ‘The Face’ had been in the company of the first quest, had risen in rank during the second quest, and had been partially responsible for its failure in the second, and now he had returned and was in the lead of the third quest.

The third quest must not succeed.  The Dust Dragon had followed ‘The Face’ in his awakening.  Had planted a whispering root of deception in his mind that had been exposed by his Mid-World intercessor and had been broken when he yielded to the Quickening of the One.  The honor sword of covenant had been roused to life, and the quest had begun in the place of death’s defeat: Azragoth, city of plagues.  A fortified city built of quarried stone carried from a hillside below what was now a rotting burial mound, covering the central Rock: The Bloodstone, designated as the most dangerous place of all within the Mid-Worlds.  A town whose foundation was almost as ancient as that of the Surface World from which the human builder came and encamped during that first night after slaying his own brother.  The place was not actually a town, to begin with.  It was an altar.  Built with stone and tears.  A place in which the human builder had received a mark of protection when The One offered him Mercy instead of Justice.

***

Sometimes life might literally hang by a straining thread.

That thought passed through my mind thinking not only of my own predicament but that of the others in my company who had been taken by the Protectorate Guards.  A band of brutes who were cruel as an afterthought, but wicked by intention, savage as any of the Half-men creatures falling under The Pan’s rule.

The Xarmnian military used to be thuggish and slow-witted, oafish and unregimented until Xarmni enlisted the Bergenians of the mountains to discipline them.  Initially hired as mercenaries and personal protection, the Bergenians were given rank and Xarmnian-citizen standing in exchange for transforming their armies into brutal and efficient battle groups.  The Xarmnian foot soldiers were originally comprised of conscripts and foundlings, orphans and the children of debtors who were taken, educated and made into what they had become.  Few of these ever attained a status of higher rank, and most of the leadership came from among the Bergenians in the Stone Pass.

But the Protectorate Guard patrols were mostly comprised of Bergenians, their duties reserved for the hunters of the military bands.  Enforcers who were tasked with ensuring that subversives were swiftly put down or rooted out and pursued until they were found and taken back to strongholds for public sentencing before a tribunal court.  Chances were that since our company was Surface Worlders, the military would be interested in finding out what our interests and objectives were before slaughtering them, but I could not put too much weight into those chances.

My present company were in danger as well, the longer I was away, but that could not be helped.  There was a very important reason, I had to get near The Pan that I could not share with anyone.  Begglar and Maeven both would have stopped me if they knew what I had to do, but it could not be helped.  I knew I should have waited for Maeven to catch up, but there wasn’t time.  Begglar, despite what he said, had been a robust fighter in his day.  He’d had a hard life since, but I still suspected there was a considerable amount of fight and leadership qualities left within him.  If pressed I was confident he would arise to meet the need, so it made sense that he remained with the group in my stead.  There was something I had to retrieve that had been stolen so long ago.  Something that I felt was crucial to set things right again.  Something that would take away the advantage of The Pan in hunting us down and thwarting what we were trying to do.  I was taking quite a gamble that the dangerous retinue would remain in his presence.  And that if Maeven were to catch up, the most logical place she could do so would be along the dark forest road.  Traveling through the ferns and brush would be furtive and noisy and draw attention and rouse animals.  Though it may not seem so, the cleared road was the place from which my party would be able to see stalking enemies from any approach.  But I could not be gone long, and the harpy capturing me and depositing me in the trees was not something I could have predicted.

That thread holding everything was growing thinner and frayed.

Set that thread afire and, if it holds at all it becomes a fuse.

We needed to catch up to those taken captive quickly if we were to have any chance to rescue them before or after they reached Dornsdale, but I could not get to them if I could not get past this moment and safely out of the tree.

The branches overhead crackled as the drier leaves fed the hungering tongues of fire, but I could not focus on what was happening above me and hope for any success with needed to be done below.  Like that precarious balance between thread and fuse, the hold of the thread could snap if I acted too suddenly and the smoldering length of the shortening fuse pressed the fact that I was running out of time before all my options were lost in the flames.

I leaned down, straining to grasp the cleated straps as they spun and slightly swayed from side to side, the thin thread looking as fine as the filament of a spiderweb.  I rewound the excess thread around the shaft of the arrow and held each drawn length gathered in my sweating palms wrapping it to slide over a finger as I cautiously drew each loop upward and over the arrow again.  I held my breath with each pull, careful not to breathe too deeply as I knew any sudden movement would snap the line and send the harness down to the forest floor and along with it my hopes of safely getting out of the tree.

I lay braced between a slightly angled fork in the branch, my torso pivoted down, my legs and knees locked around the bough.  The arrow point was wedged between another fork and I worked the loops through the fork locked the arrow and then bent to try to reach the swaying strap that was tied to the thread.  My fingers lightly brushed the silver metal ring that joined the straps, but I could not lunge for fear of severing the line.

And then my feet slipped.

I scissored out my legs, trying to expand them far enough to keep from slipping through the forked limb and managed to hook a finger through the metal ring that dangled from the twisting thread.  My breath caught in my throat as the limbs pressed into the muscles of my thighs, but I could not risk much more movement without slipping further down.  Carefully I drew the spiked foot stirrups upward, trying not to lever too much to loosen my pincered hold.  I was able to push a stirrup and spike through the gap in the fork and let it dangle over the branch counter-weighted by the other stirrup.  Slowly, I leaned upward, knowing that I would lose my leg-hold in a few seconds because of the bend and shifting of my weight.  I reached for the bottom of one metal stirrup and my other hand caught the other as thighs ground between the fork and finally slipped out.

I fell a half-foot, but stopped short, dangling from the two stirrups like a novice gymnast holding on to the chainrings for dear life while they swayed back and forth over a thirty-five-foot drop.

I told myself not to look down—to focus on getting back up to the limb above—but I could not help but feel gravity pulling my body and my gaze downward.

A screech to my left startled me, almost to lose my sweating grip, as I jerked and twisted toward it.

The harpy was returning—and she was very, very angry.

There was no time to think.  Only to act.

I swung my legs upward, hooked a leg over the bough, pulling the stirrups toward me while avoiding the jagged tree spurs.  Gathering the stirrups together into a fist, I swung an arm over the bough, grapple with the rough bark on the limb and shifted my body upward and over.  The harpy would be upon me within seconds and the further out I was on the limb, the more certain my chances of falling became.  I could see her coming fast, underlit by the fires below, smoke roiling around her wings, her face appearing vampiric and ghastly, wild hair streaming, eyes black and feral with rage.  I scrambled backward from the fork, shuffling towards the trunk of the tree, trying not to lose my balance as I climbed to my feet to be able to move faster.  The honor sword pulsed in its sheath, but there was no time to draw it forth or bring it to bear to fend off the imminent attack.  I gripped the two harnesses in my fist, with the hammered metal shafts and barbs bristling out at angles, realizing that they served as a sort of make-shift weapon as well, though unorthodox.  Like a rooster, if this bird-hag were to come at me claws bared, at least I would have these barbed spurs, called gaffs, to serve as claws of my own.

Taking my eyes off her for a moment, I carefully placed my feet on the top of the rounded limb.  Moving downward, I reached the central trunk feeling her arrival rather than seeing it.

Air whooshed by me as she came for me.  Large black wings pumping gusts of hot air around me, as her claws flared, attempting to rake me off the limb.  In a fall, she might catch me but might skewer me as well with those talons.  A guttural bird-screech came forth from her open mouth as she dove at me, and I shifted the harnessed footwear to both hands.  The bough bobbed as she thrust her claws upon it, and then lifted away, hoping to upset my precarious balance.

Turning my back against the trunk, I knew she would eventually tear me from my perch, so I gathered the belt harness I had flung over my neck shoulders cinched the shorter belt around my waist while the larger belt dangled from one ring on the belt with the other hooked end swinging free.  I needed to get that end around the tree trunk below the limb upon which I was standing, but there was no time.  The harpy had banked and turned back towards me, her wings flapping in large downward drafts, gathering momentum as she rushed again towards me.

I glanced below but saw only a rising wall of smoke building upward.  If Jeremiah was still there, he could not see what was going on above, but then neither could the harpy attacking me.

***

A wall of soot and smoke stretched like spectral arms through the lower parts of the forest, and Jeremiah could no longer see what was happening to O’Brian above.  He’d heard a loud screeching noise moving through the top of the forest.  The fires in the canopy above dropped flaming embers but also created such a haze that O’Brian’s form quickly faded into a misty shape and then paled into a grayish-white.  He could fire no arrow accurately, so he tucked his bow over his shoulder and turned to gather the man he had carried closer to the base of the tree to see if he might be able to tell when O’Brian began his descent.  As a precaution, he’d hog-tied the man so that he would stay put while he attended to O’Brian’s situation.  He had committed to bringing O’Brian and nothing more and he did not know the nature or the intentions of the man he’d picked up.  He could prove to be a friend or a foe.  All things considered, the treacherous influence of the presence of the dryad dust was only part of the risk he’d taken when he’d picked up the young man.  Out in the forest, there could be more than one adversary hunting this particular young man.  But that aside, there was no telling with the increasing number of crossovers from the Surface World, that something more unnatural might be in play here as well.  The demons following travelers out of the otherness did not always manifest themselves in monstrous forms.  Sometimes they took the guise of mankind and wore that image to deceive.

Thinking of this, Jeremiah fastened the foot to wrist binding rope even tighter, lashing the double knot securely.  When he moved around him he noticed that the man’s eyes were now open.  He had twisted onto his side, and he struggled against his bindings, looking with anger-filled hate and suspicion at Jeremiah for reducing him to such an ignoble state.

“Still not going to give me your name?”

The man almost spat at him, “Why should I tell you anything when you’ve tied me up this way?!  Who do you think you are?!”

“Suit yourself.  I would think you’d be more civil to the one who saved your ungrateful keister, but I guess not.  Considering your present situation, I’d say it’s your job to convince me whether I should think of you as a friend or an enemy.  If you had any idea what I saved you from, you’d be showing me a great deal more respect.  Harpies and dryads are terrible creatures.  You may think you’d like to see whatever vixen dryad got a hold of you again, but I guarantee if you knew what she had planned for later you would thank me profusely.  They don’t always look so ‘friendly’.  But then again maybe you wouldn’t.  Kids these days.  I don’t know you, and you’re doing a lousy job of even identifying yourself.  What is your name, kid and where do you hale from?”

“You can go to hell!  I’m not telling you jack!  Untie me!” he spat back.

An enemy then, Jeremiah decided, but not one he could leave tied to a tree for the fires or the denizens of darkness now occupying these lands to deal with.  The life of a Surface Worlder came with a much bigger cost.

“My name is not Jack and I don’t have time for this, you little snot.  I’ve got something above I got to handle, and from the looks of these growing fires, not much time to do it in.”

He scanned the descending haze above.

Nothing had fallen, so he knew O’Brian still had the climbing gear.  It was a simple enough apparatus.  O’Brian should be able to figure it out, but lately, things weren’t going as they should.

He turned and looked back down at the young man.

“I’ll be right back.  You keep quiet and don’t go anywhere.  Hear me?”

The bound man growled a hostile answer back, but Jeremiah did not stay listen.  Things above were heating up and there was precious little time left.  Someone was going to die if he wasted any more of it.

The Fire Lights – Chapter 61

Glowing embers swirled through crawling blankets of smoke as the flames of Kilrane crackled and popped and roared with flared bursts as underbrush and dried limbs caught fire.  The ground was a sea of red and yellow flame.  Dark-feathered demons swooped and dove in gliding waves dipping down and then arising like fiery phoenixes, cackling and laughing cruelly as they charmed the fire’s progress onward.  So blinded by their hatred and so intent on destruction, they failed to notice or see the high borne witnesses to their savage delight, clinging and climbing above into the canopy.  Dryads, the former and recent occupants of the forest of Kilrane, were aghast and incensed at the destruction, yet fled for their lives, unable to stop the roaring tide below.  The harpies, bearing the firebrands, crisscrossed below them, their frenzied fire dance crawling higher and higher up the trees, so that all the dryads could do was flee as fast as possible towards the edge of the forest, crying, “Treachery!”  Some fell screaming as the fires spreading across the canopy above joined with the fires below, engulfing them in flames causing their branches and limbs to erupt in bright flares, as they tumbled downward disappearing into the smoky and haloed glowing sea.  The shouts and screams in the back forest and the insane laughter of the fiery harpies wove together into a nightmarish symphony of terror that rolled forward in crescendo toward the dead slough where The Pan held court with his savage satyr-courtiers, and the shrieking harpies and the gathering number of displaced and scorched dryads.

Yet amid the terror and smoke one dryad lingered high above the forest roadway waiting for the right moment to present itself—A dryad by the name of Langula.  As the harpies flew in and out of the smoke below, her vine twisted limbs encircled the long strands bearing rotting heads of dead satyrs and unfortunate men and sundry other animals that she and her fellow ‘ladies of the leaves’ had feasted on and collected as ornamental warnings for errant satyrs and men who dared broach their domain.  Quietly and silently she swayed the ends of the grisly ornaments deftly through the rising smoke forming a slight spin to their sway.  Carefully she timed the rotations of the various death vines to move and sway inward and outward in ever-increasing circles.  The horrific faces, blackened by rot, twisted by shock and rictus, misshapen mouths hung slack around blood-stained teeth, gaped and swallowed smoke as they swayed inward and outward.  A certain degree of fascination and savagery also shone in the golden and green eyes of the porcelain cream face ensconced in a ruffle of leaves as she watched the flame-bearing harpies fly ignorant of her presence above.

A harpy strayed off from the others, laughing and chanting, “Burn!  Burn! Burn!” as she swooped under and over the smoke headed toward the area where the grisly ornaments weaved above.  Four other harpies follow laughing and echoing the chant, their firebrand flickering yet remaining aflame.

Langula saw the back of one rise through the haze, wings extended, as she struck one of the rotting heads.  Another, pivoted and suddenly the vines pulled taught and the branches bearing the anchor points thrashed, as something beneath the smoke became entangled.  Savagely Langula jerked the dangling vine upward, eliciting a “Gawww!” sound as two vines twisted around something that fought below.  Two of the harpies emerged from below, yet a third was unaccounted for and the voice of the first harpy ceased her smoky chanting abruptly, from somewhere ahead.

Vines lifted toward the canopy, and a black feathered body, curled in vines moving like green worms emerged from the smoke, the firebrand’s flames catching fire in the feathers of the entangled harpy, two dark heads pressing their rotted faces into her gawking crone face.

“Caught you, you burning bat-bitch!” Langula hissed, as she drew her hideous trophy upward.

What was not apparent from below was now becoming clear from above.  A sharp-pointed spike jutted out from the severed neck of each head whose point lay even alongside the vines that extended upward.  As the vines were rotated or struck, however, the barb jutted outward causing the grisly ornament to become a deadly hook, from which the dryads could catch or ensnare flying quarry interested in feasting on the rotting heads below.  The harpy so trapped was also spitted with the skewered barb, and, struggle though it might, Langula would ensure that this particular feathered-fiend would never fly again.

Using this method, Langula caught four other fire-setting harpies before she was through air fishing, and then set off to deliver the evidence of their arsonous villainy to her chief Madame Briar, who now stood before The Pan.

***

The Pan towered over the groveling Trolls cringing and bowing before him.  His arms flashed out grabbing both Shelberd and Grum-blud by their necks, lifting their dangling, struggling forms aloft.

“It is to you I hold the fault of these deaths.  And this companion of yours, who properly fears me and has ever only cowered in my presence, I will grant a mercy.”

At this, The Pan flung Shelberd down into the filmy water of the slough, from which Grum-blud had crawled.  A large splash of brown and blackish water wet the muddy bank, as The Pan moved quickly forward.  His great hooves stirring clouds of water bugs and gnats as he followed his flung captive into the deepening water.  When Shelberd burst upward from the water, coughing and sputtering he felt the great weight of a suspended hoof slam into his chest, plunging him back under.  Ripples from the water and the floating mat of film, evidenced a struggle underneath, as The Pan cruelly pressed downward.  He dangled Grum-blud over the pool holding him by his short leg, forcing him to watch the demise of his former companion.  Bubbles and a cough of roiling water broke the surface and then ceased.

“The mercy, I grant him,” The Pan rumbled, “is the swiftness of his death.  Yours will not be so swift, human frog.”

And with that, he strode out of the water, towards the onocentaurs, who were even now backing away in terror, towards a sneering group of satyrs laughing wickedly.  The Pan reached out and grabbed the one called Bunt by the torso, as the man-half of creature raised his arms defensively covering his head.  “Do you wish you could fly, little donkey?” The Pan rumbled, his face pulled up in a sinister grin, his cataracted eyes seeming to gleam with a cold monstrosity.

“P-Please, sire.  We didn’t do anything.  It was the trolls, they…” he begged.

With a mighty twist of his body, The Pan launched the onocentaur into the air, throwing his flailing body hard into the trees, where it sailed and struck branches and smacked hard into a trunk, and then tumbled lifelessly downward.

Several satyrs bounded after the flying body, chanting, “Feed!  Feed!  Make it bleed!” then laughing with delight, champing their sharpened teeth together, as they descended upon it under the cover of the brush.

The other onocentaur, called Dob, turned to flee and was pounced upon by the satyrs blocking his escape.

Shaggy arms and blackened grimy fingernails scratched and pounded his body mercilessly, as he cried, “No!  No!  No!”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” the satyrs mocked him, as they brutally struck him, a few biting his haunches and then slapping the bites, adding insult to injury.

The Pan squatted on his massive shaggy haunches, savaging enjoying the sounds of the pleading onocentaur.

“PAN!” a voice yelled above the cacophony, “Now see the evidence of your firebugs!”

The Pan sniffed the air smelling the scent of burned flesh and feathers, the harpies perched in the treetops around the deaden slough shriek in outrage as did the harpies swooping high overhead.

Briar flung the bound bodies of four scorched harpies outward landing in the mud of the bank upon which he stood.  He bent down sniffing the corpses, attempting to listening to the whispered words of his designated courtier, who described the sight before his blinded eyes.

The noises of the beatings of the mobbed onocentaur prevented him from hearing his chief satyr’s words, and he roared a rebuke.

“Silence, you savage fools!” he bellowed, “Leave the donkey-man be, for now.”

When the satyrs did not hear him, clearly, he lunged forward and backhanded a few closest to him, his other senses giving him a quasi-sight to do so.  His powerful fist, slammed into the side of a satyr, snapping its spine and flinging its body into the air off to his right, the brutal hand coming back across, clipping another, from the opposite direction, dislocating its shoulder, as it fell to the ground.

That got the satyrs’ attention and they backed away from the onocentaur’s battered, bloodied and bruised body.  The Pan then turned and moved towards the fallen harpies that he smelled clearly, his hands pawing at their smoldering bodies, feeling the firebrand branches clutched and bound to their winged claws.

“What is this?!” his sightless eyes turned towards the scents he knew to be the smells of the dryads.

“Your harpies have burned the forest of Kilrane!  The land you claimed and made us tenants of.  Quite possibly they are responsible for the deaths of your Manticores.  Did you authorize this destruction?!” Briar asked.

“No,” he growled, increasing his throaty rumble in intensity so that the sound of it trembled the leave around him, “Harpy Dellitch!  What do you know of this?!  Who authorized the burning of my forest?!”

At this, he dropped Grum-blud into the mud, and stood up to his full height, his angry face turned to the sky, his teeth clenched, and his eyes narrowed to glaring slits of white-hot fire.

Grum-blud grunted painfully when he struck the ground, but he quickly righted himself, seeing a sudden chance to save his own skin.

“My lord,” he gasped, “That is what I wanted to tell you.  The harpies burned the forest behind us.  We were beset with fire on every side.  Your Manticores were intent on taking Azragoth under your orders and did not escape the fires.  I and the onocentaurs, held back to oversee the destruction.  We climbed trees to witness what we knew you wanted reported only to find the forest lit behind us.  We called out to the Manticores, but it was too late to turn them.  It was the harpies that are responsible for the failures you are punishing us for.  So zealous they are in their hatred for the dryads.  They did not keep their destructive zeal in check, even under your orders.  They defied you, seeking to serve their own interests and vengeance.  It is they that deserve your wrath.  Not us!  We are your loyal subjects.  We honor your command.  It is our pleasure to serve your mighty hand.  To deliver wrath to your enemies.  Yet they would see us bleed for their treachery.”

The Pan listened and pondered this, as the harpies shrieked in protest, like birds storming out of the trees under gunfire.

“Lies!  Lies!  Lies!” they shrieked.  “Kilrane was already beset with fires to the north!  The fires arose from the hidden city.  We reported to you of its rebirth.  We saw their walls catch fire!”

“Do you deny, spreading the fire?!” the Pan roared to the bird-women, “If so, why do I feel this firebrand, bound to the wings of these dead?!”

Dellitch flew in from above, “My lord, divine king, god of the lands and forest, the dryads are deceiving you.  They killed our sisters and attached the brands to them.  You are being deceived by these betrayers!  We are not to blame.”

The Pan roared in anger and frustration, his fists clenching and unclenching, his hands grabbing at rooted brush, twisting it and casting it into the air.

“Do not think, foul-bird that because I am blind, I cannot see deception!  Do not mock me!  Do not smile upon my scarred eyes.  I can hear the deception in your voice.  I can smell the feverish sweat of lies bead upon your aged skin!  I can taste beads of milk flowing from your feathered breasts.  You have taken advantage of the limited liberties I gave you with regard to this command!  Never insult me and think just because you can fly that you are ever out of my reach.  You know what other forms of creatures I have under my command.  You know what nightmares I can send against even you, though you may fly to the mountains, you will not escape the bite and claw of those I send after you!  DO NOT MOCK ME!”

The last words caused both the ground to tremble and the swampy trees to sway, and its noise echoed terribly throughout the forests and surrounding canyons.

All of the gathered, pressed their hands to their ears and howled in pain at the sharpness of the power of the voice.  For a brief time, no one could hear, as their ears painfully thrummed and throbbed.  Grum-blud huddled in the mud below, his fat fists pressed hard into his bulbous ears, the ringing in his head unbearable, causing him to gasp in short breaths and mewl in agony, his legs drawn into a fetal curl as he writhed.  The satyrs cowed, in similar agony, grimy hands pressed into the sides of their heads, grunting in pain.  The dryads shrunk down into piles of twisted wood, appearing like dried cypress trees, curled around themselves, no greenery showing.  The harpies, however, suffered the worst of the powerful roar, their wings folded as they plummet from the sky, falling bodies, formerly in flight striking the hard ground, splashing into the murky slough waters, embedding into the mud, caroming off bare branches with a hard wing-shattering crack, their hollow avian bones snapping with the impacts.

***

Jeremiah had at first thought that O’Brian was speaking from the high bough to The Pan, but then realized he wasn’t.

He was carefully ascending the back of a hill in the forest when a thunderous noise poured over the top of the hill with an audible and physical fist with a power wave, that seemed to shake everything in sight, knocking him flat against the ground with a thud, the limp body of the weakened man on his back slamming down hard upon him.  Everything around him seemed to ring with the tine-struck note of a tuning fork, that echoed and bounced every which way he looked.  The clap of the sound felt like he’d been struck on the sides of his head with a physical slap, and his ears pulsed and throbbed, muting all other sounds of the forest around him.  When he was able to lift his head from the matted leaves, and groggily raise his body upon trembling hands, he glanced upward to see how the powerful sonic boom had affected the one he sought to rescue from the treetops above.  What he saw both shocked and amazed him.  The man was surrounded and protected by circles of glowing light.

***

I had heard of the beings that the Mid-Worlders called faeries, heard how they had been described, by those who had witnessed them from a distance but had never encountered one for myself, until that moment they descended upon me from the treetops.  It was both terrible, frightening and wonderful all at the same time.  They pulsed and throbbed with a power and energy that was beyond imagining and barely contained within this existence or any other for that matter.  Their light shone piercing and sharp yet did not cut through me as I feared it might.  I was dumbstruck before them and felt weak all over.  I trembled and hid my face, shielding my eyes from the brightness of their being.

The branch under me felt like a gossamer thread that could break at any moment, and something about their presence made me weep.  A sound emerged from them, some mystical tonal quality that I cannot describe adequately.  It was beautiful, sad and joyous, tragic and lovely, evoking emotions and feelings in me that I did not know I had.  In a language, my ears did not understand, but somehow my spirit knew instinctively, I felt words of comfort dance softly and fluidly with the sounds of the song in their voice.  What they communicated in a language expressed with a fullness of thought, and to the best of my ability to translate, was “Do not fear.  Feel courage.  Embrace faith.  Believe and trust in the One that has called you.  You are known and loved.  These are the keystones of the Kingdom which you seek.”

Only the final word, that I translated as “loved” seems so far inadequate to describe what they actually said.  The feeling of that word made me weep tears of joy and filled me will a sense of place that had nothing to do with space or time because it was somehow coupled with divine intention.

The air around me became thicker and softer somehow as if it caressed me with a warm breath that stabilized me.  Something external move all around us but peeled away from the presence of these living beings that seemed more alive than any other creature I had ever observed in this world or the Surface World.

“You are purposed for these moments.  You are drawn forth from the well to be living water to those given.  Return to them, for you will be made into what is purposed.  You will find delight in your purpose.”

Their words swam through the air around me, touching me with sweet fragrance, bathing me in golden light.

“Upon your mind and in your memory, you will find the timeless words.  They will meet you in your moments of doubt.  Seek the wise counsel of called friends to confirm and clarify what you are hearing in your spirit.  Learn to see yourself through the eyes of forgiveness.  Surrender the old burdens you carry.  You cannot repay the debt of the burdens you choose to bear.  Empty your holding so that you may receive the greater gifts for your journey and for the benefit of those to which you are called to lead.  Trust in the voice that speaks gently to your spirit.  Choose to obey the direction of the One for only He knows the paths ahead of you.  Mankind’s measure of success is deceptive, for only the One judges outcomes with all ends in sight.  Obedience to the One is life.  Obedience is better than sacrifice.  Do not follow human reasoning which leads you into the darkness, but lead your mind with obedience, hope, and faith in the One who loves you and knows you most and has called you to live out the meaning of your name.  Align your heart and mission to the voice of the Chief Cornerstone and build upon that Truth.  The Truth will set you free to will and do that to which you are called.”

Then a melody from where I did not know rose up around us, flowing through me as if every part of my being were washed with cool water, refreshing my soul and spirit.  I wanted that feeling to last forever, but soon after it left me, and it had no feeling of the passage of time, but felt placed again into a moment that I felt purposed for, though I did not fully understand the why of it.  From down below me, I could finally hear some other voice, calling up to me trying to get my attention.  A voice I was vaguely familiar with, from a distant past.  I looked down below and saw a figure moving cautiously towards the base of the tree where I sat, some form borne upon his back as he moved from shadow to shadow, careful not to attract attention.

“Brian!” he called in a loud whisper, cautiously trying not to create too much noise but needing to gain my focus and attention.

I rubbed my eyes, and then looked down again, his face small because of the distance between us.

“O’Brian, or whatever you are called now!” he called, carefully kneeling to lay the form down upon the ground and gather his bow in his hand, which he hunched over and worked on a few minutes before turning again upward.

“Move back,” he said, raising the bow, the arrow point pointed above towards me.

Realizing what he was about to do I lurched backward as he let fly the arrow from his drawn bow.

Thwap!  The arrow drove deep into the branch upon which I sat, and I noticed a small thread attached to its fletching, fed out by a light spool handing down below.

A memory crawled towards me in realization from a past I thought I had left long ago, as I realized to whom it was I spoke.  Our last encounter had left me battered and bloodied, but I understood the fury and frustration of the man and the grief to which I had brought him.  This was Caleb’s brother, the friend I had lost to The Pan as a result of my error in judgment and failure to humbly seek more than my own counsel.  The man had sworn if he ever saw me again he might kill me.  And I wondered if perhaps he had finally come to do just that.

***

The two former members of the traveling Surface Worlder party, who were not what they claimed to be, drove the wagon and the horses through the woods of Kilrane, fear mounting upon their minds and their heels.

The rode was more winding than they had remembered it, and the wagon and horse team almost ran off of the path many times as they raced faster and faster through the woods.

Something was following them, besides the ever-raging wall of fire gaining momentum as it hit the drier areas of the woods.  The horses were getting harder to manage, being kept as they were on a runner line.

“We can’t keep this pace up, Zeelah,” the male shouted above the pounding footfalls of the horses.

“We’ll lose the wagon and the team if we don’t slow a bit.”

The woman addressed as Zeelah, cursed under her breath, still fighting the reins and the nervousness of the team, trying her best to maintain her seat on the wagon, bracing her feet against the coach toe board.

“Dergin was supposed to meet us in the woods long before now,” she groused, “Where are they?!”

“Tobias said they’d be here.”

“Tobias!” she snorted, “I don’t trust him, Hughland.  I know he has helped out in the past, but I cannot figure what truly motivates him.  He and that Sanballat fellow.  There is something disturbing about the man.  Wasn’t he some sort of cleric in the past?”

“Priest,” the man called Hughland answered.

“What’s the difference?”

Hughland began to answer and then stopped short.  Something was on the road ahead.  Something that did not look good.

“What is that?” Zeelah asked, slowing the team, pulling the reins back, wrapping her arms in the traces.  Her arms were tired and shaking from the extended strain.  The horses skidded to a stop, slightly rearing up on their back legs against the momentum of the tongue post of the loaded wagon.

“Hold, ho, horses, hold!” Hughland commanded, standing in the stirrups of his lead horse, but getting bumped by the horses following closely behind.

When each of the teams slowed, their riders looked at each other, and back to the strange mass stretching across the roadway ahead.

A breeze was drifting up the road, and a foul smell arose from whatever it was that lie ahead.

“Is that a fallen tree or something?” Zeelah asked, her eyes beginning to water, reflexively covering her mouth and nose with her trembling hand.  “And what is that rotten stench?”

“I…I…,” Hughland stammered.

“I, I, what?!” Zeelah coughed into her covered mouth and shielded her watering eyes, “Say something.  Why does that stink so bad?”

“We’d better go back!” Hughland said, also covering his mouth and nose, turning his horse into the other horses stand behind.

“What are you saying?  We can’t go back now!  Whatever that thing is ahead, it smells dead.”

“That thing is what Mister O’Brian talked about before back at the cabin.  He said you would smell it before you saw it, but he did not account for a wood filling with smoke from fires.”

“You didn’t take him seriously, did you?” Zeelah asked, coughing again into her hand, trying not to breathe in any more of the noxious fumes.

“His account is not the only time I have heard of it,” Hughland choked on his own cough, wiping his watering eyes, “It is the Hollywood.  The beast that crawled out of that accursed woodland swamp.  It is poisonous and smells of sulfur.”

“Where do we go?  There is only one road out of these woods.  The others have not been kept clear for many years now.  How do you propose we get this wagon out if we cannot go down the road.”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes.  Now come on before that thing begins to follow us.”

Zeelah pulled the reins back further and then guided the horse team into a tight turn, following Hughland and his string of horses.

Behind them, however, were a line of horsemen spanning the width of the road and blocking their way backward.

“Hello, Hughland,” the lead rider called out, “Zeelah.  You are both very late.”

“Dergin!”

“Where do you think you were going?  The way out of Kilrane in that way,” he pointed past them.

“You don’t want to go that way,” Zeelah shook her head saying it, “There is something on the road ahead blocking the way and it smells rancid.”

Dergin was a thickly built man, gruff and hard, his eyes were buried under thick eyebrows, his face lost amid a thicket of a black bushy beard.  The man gestured for one of his horsemen to ride ahead to check it out, while he waited, curious to see the contents of the wagon and the stashed contraband the two had brought.

They waited quietly until the man on horseback returned.

“The way ahead is clear,” he announced, “I saw no cause for concern.”

Dergin nudged his horse forward, looking from Zeelah to Hughland regarding them with measuring suspicion.

“I don’t know what you two think your up to, but Tobias is waiting outside of Kilrane for this wagon and those extra horses, so let’s get this thing turned around shall we?”

“There was something there…” Zeelah began, but Dergin only stared hard at her and she fell silent, looking down.

“Since Maeven will no longer be running point with the Lehi horsemen, the resistance falls to us to supply its needs,” Dergin said gruffly, “The men in the towns below grow weaker by the day.  The will to resist the Xarmnians is dying out.  Tobias has agreed to help us, but he needs something from us as well.  And we are finding it much harder to find allies in the fight anymore.  So we welcome his help, even if it means some short-term costs.  The Surface Worlders are not our concern.  They will most likely stir up the Xarmnians and bring them down upon us before we gain enough strength and strategic positioning to upend their rule.  The Azragothians are misguided.  They should have never tried rebuilding that accursed place.  They were warned from the beginning.  Let us hope, now in their demise that they will provide enough of a distraction to allow the real resistance to Xarmnian oppression to gain strength.  Do you both understand what I am saying to you?”

Both Zeelah and Hughland nodded, but that was not what Dergin was seeking.

“I need to hear you say it.”

“We understand,” they responded in unison.

“Good,” he said, “Then turn that wagon back around and follow me.”

And with that, the group proceeded down the road, further into the woods and eventually out onto the open road where another wagon and team of horses and several riders met them.

***

I moved and inched my way toward the arrow that had been shot into the thick meat of the branch.  It was an amazingly precise shot by any measure, and I realized that if Jeremiah had planned to kill me, he could have just as easily done it without announcing himself to me from below.  Especially since The Pan and his creature subjects were in close proximity.  To call up to me was a risk to himself as well as to me, and it did not make sense for him to bring attention our way.  When I was close enough, I reached down and pried the arrow out of the wood being careful not to lose the narrow spool that was two inches down from the end of the arrow point.  The arrow was of more modern design, something fashioned from the ingenuity of the Surface World and not subject to the innovation of the Mid-World.  The thread was fine yet strong, and the shaft tapered such that the razor point could be removed, and the grooved spool slid off the end.  Righting myself, I quickly did so, knowing that the harpy who had deposited me here, could be back at any moment to collect me from the high perch.  From the angry shouts and noises below, I knew that it was highly probable.

One end of the thread had been woven and tied securely to the arrow with just enough slack to allow the spool end to clear the shaft and slide off.  I dropped the spool, allowing it to quickly unravel down towards the waiting arms of the man I suspected was Jeremiah.

He waited quietly marking the falling path of the unraveling spool, deftly catching its end and then affixed something to it and then looked up nodding.  I wondered how such a small string would lift over forty feet of rope, but I soon saw that was not what he had in mind.  What he attached was a cotton woven pole climber’s belt.  If he’d not been intending to kill me himself, he might just accomplish it with this gear.

Having no other option, pulling hand over hand, I quickly hauled the belt up for a better look.  The belt was braided and woven with a thick support strap, and cross-over straps that gathered in the front and allowed the climber to hug the pole with his knees using a slang balance and gather and slip strap to ascend or descend a vertical pole.

I took a deep breath and looked down.  Jeremiah motioned again for me to drop the spool.

I had no idea what else he had to send up, but I was pretty sure it was not anything that would give me more confidence in what I was about to attempt.

When he caught the spool bob again he turned his back and knelt covering what he was doing so I could not see.  When he had finished affixing whatever it was to the end of the thread, he turned again and looked up at me, this time cupping his hands around his mouth, once more risking exposure by calling up to me.

“Slowly,” he rasped making hand motions indicating that I should pull the line, then cupping his hands again said, “Very slowly.  This may break the line.”

That gave me no comfort, but I nodded and slowly began gathering the line in my hands, being very careful not to jerk it, or let my sense of urgency risk me drawing it too fast.  The item was heavier than the other and from what I could tell it appeared to be a set of leather saddle stirrups.  I saw a set of buckles and short cinches, and the stirrup had a heavier metal barb at the bottom, and from this, I realized he was sending me the climbing spikes, that would strap to my feet and calves and allow me to descend with the strap, rather than just relying on a fulcrum press.  Seeing these slightly spinning and twisting the stretched thread made me fearful of losing them.  I might have an even chance with these, but I would most certainly fall attempting the descent without them.  The tree bole was too big for me to get my arms around it, which was most likely why the harpy was confident that I would be here when she returned.  I took deep breaths, trying my best not to let the thread torque and weaken, but I could not prevent it from doing so.  Halfway up the metal and stirrups began to twist again, and I stilled my pulling, fighting the urgency and fear that made me desperate to jerk the gear upward.  Patience and deliberate action were not my strong suits, and I closed my eyes, struggling to find calm and peace, knowing that was needed.  I breathed deeply and slowly inch by inch began again.  A wave of heat shimmered my vision, and I felt the forest beyond growing hotter as the fires moved and licked steadily towards us.  Overhead I heard a whooshing noise, signifying that the canopy above me too was catching fire.

The Covering – Chapter 60

Sometimes in leadership, one is called to go forth alone and meet the wolf.  Others witnessing this might not understand what the lead is doing.  They will most certainly question it and ascribe motives for it, and even accuse them of cowardice.  One cannot reveal every private plan because not everything is subject to committee review.  When one is called to a mission, and he hears and seeks guidance from the One who calls him, sometimes that communication is held in the strictest confidence.  The charge I felt, moving down the road with the company of companions who were becoming more of a family to me is the sense that I must seek to follow what even may seem foolish to others if the One bids me do it.  The Ancient Texts reads:

“11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” [John 10:11-13 NIV]

My actions may appear to even those back on the road like that of the hireling, but it was towards the wolf, The Pan, I was moving to interdict his approach.  To stand and confront him, before he could get to my family.

The Xarmnian wolves had already taken part of my company and separated us.  The Pan, the ancient ruler of the Half-men, would find that his forward progression into the forest of Kilrane would be stopped here and now.  The satyrs would be close to him.  The dryads would not be far, and whatever else passes for his retinue would soon be gathered together in one place to vastly outnumber me if I moved against him.  But the truth is I did not stand alone.  As I moved through the gloom within the hearing of The Pan and his collected audience, I felt the quickening come upon me and flare brightly in my soul and spirit.  This was the right path.  My spirit within me confirmed it.  Foolish though it may seem, I was being led here.  It was time to take back what had been stolen and I might never have such an opportunity to do so again.

The Pan was ancient and dangerous.  His command and kingdom were governed by very valid fears of his might.  His roar rumbled the ground.  And Greek legend of him records that his angry shouts inspired terror, from whence we derive the word Panic.

As I moved through the smoke, my face covered and shielded by my cloak, my eyes stinging and watering as ash particles filled the air, it was with some surprise that I found myself saddened grabbed from behind and lifted aloft into the trees.

Great gray talons, with black hooked daggers, wove around my upper arms clasping me and pulling me towards the leafy sky.  A milky substance dribbled down upon my head and body, and I debated whether I should try to twist free or wait until I at least have the change to reach a limb of some kind to make my effort.  Craning my head to the side, I looked upward and saw the lower chin and bottom feathered breasts of what appeared to be an old woman.

A harpy.  Terrible creatures who carried a degree of angst for all mankind and their semblances.  Harpies were known to carry their victims to great heights and then drop them over rocks below so that they could come back down and more easily tear and chew the soft pieces of flesh that were tenderized by falling upon stone.

If this harpy took me much farther up or beyond the canopy, I was a dead man.

But I soon learned that was not her intention.

When she placed me in the treetops, over forty feet from the forest floor, and then left me there, I knew she had something else in mind.  Some particular form of nastiness she was reserving me for.

***

Jeremiah moved quickly and quietly through the woods along the rutted shoulder of the road.  Smoke poured through the forest undergrowth, being sifting by the trees coating everything with flakes of grey and white ash.  The fires were moving swiftly towards the slough and there were enough dried wood and decaying gasses from the rot to give the fire fuel for a flare-up. Peat moss, a pre-cursor to coal formulation, once ignited, however, might smolder for years.

There was no way to track O’Brian through such conditions.  Visibility was poor and the memories of what had happened between them and what had led to Caleb’s death still plagued his mind, unbidden.

Caleb, he sighed.  The pain of the terrible and pointless way he had died, due to following a plan hatched without the guidance of the One, by O’Brian, the erstwhile Brian David, so many years ago.  His failure to seek guidance had cost Caleb his life.  Forgiving him was a hard thing that had taken him many years to come to terms with.  Especially since “O’Brian” had basically dropped off the face of the map and had not been heard from nor seen in many, many years.

The loss and the pain had been particularly hard since Caleb was his only brother.

O’Brian, then Brian David, had come to him after seeking forgiveness and contrite, but Jeremiah was too grieved to offer him either.  The exchange between them had come to blows.  Upon reflection, however, Jeremiah recalled that Brian had not fought back.  Rather he had received his strikes as a kind of penance.  Bloodied and battered, he’d stood up from the ground, taken one last look at Jeremiah and then walked away, never to show himself again.  Until today.  If Jeremiah could find him in time.  The fool had gone to face The Pan on his own.  A stupid, stupid surrender of tactical maneuvering.  A suicide mission that would only get himself killed and would serve nothing.  But perhaps that is what the man wanted all along.  To die at the hands of the very one who had killed Caleb and then fed his body to Manticores.

***

The harpy, called Dellitch, had been scalded and scarred in the top canopy fight with the dryads, but she was feeling savagely victorious.  Over forty of the dryads had either fallen under wet claws or been consumed by the spreading fires.  Recompense for the sisters she had lost over the years when they were starved out or ostracized by the other races of Half-men creatures.  The dryads had been given this new forest, while the harpies had been left to subsist under the blighted remains of the prior home they’d once shared together.

She’d been only too happy to enlist her sisters in service to The Pan when she learned he had the need to clear a forest of dryads.  What he did not know, however, was the extent to which they would go to clear that wood, or how deeply their collective rage had rooted itself within them over the years.  The dryads had renewal and rebirth, the satyrs had their debaucheries and reveling pleasures, the others had many other things to distract them from the inexorable curse that would one day claim them, but the harpies had only vengeance to cling to.

And Dellitch, knowing she would be returning to face The Pan’s rage once he had discovered what they had done, along the way to her accounting had a fortuitous finding.  A male Surface Worlder, whom she had swooped in from the fog and smoke and had captured and deposited upon a high bough for safekeeping while she announced her fortune to her sisters.  They had flown ahead to proclaim their find to The Pan, just ahead of another flock of sisters who also bore a prize of their own.

It had been too late for Dellitch to call her sisters back and delay the announcement, but these others might mitigate any leniency she had hoped to have from The Pan bearing such a prize, by offering one of their own.

How many other Surface Worlder’s might there be traveling under the smoke and haze of Kilrane?  Having one prize among another of equal value might reduce the appeal, but finding the others and delivering a group of them to The Pan might raise her offering’s value.  Meat for one surely was less impressive than a banquet of meat for all.

***

Maeven gathered and beckoned the company to come together and stand under the strange ceremonial canopy growing beneath the trees.

“This is the Faerie Fade.  We will all be safe under here.  Gather around.”

Begglar grinned and took his wife’s hand, “Remember this place, Nellus?”

Nell smiled and brushed her fingers lightly over the woven vines and ornate carvings and touched the rough and smooth bark of the tree posts that held the living ceiling above them with its large circular carve-out with wooden spokes that radiated outward.

“I do,” she smiled and turned softening, moistened eyes to Maeven, “Begglar and I were married here.  This is the place.  We have been looking for it for many years but could never find it.”

“You were married here?” Dominic asked.

“Aye, son,” Begglar patted his arm, “And your mom was a sight to behold.  I nearly cried like a baby when I saw her coming through the woods there.  A few maids bearing her gown.  Petals of white scattered upon the path up through the woods to this small him.  Our cleric ready and waiting to join us in the covenant.”

“Nearly?  You did,” Nell rejoined, “I never thought I’d see such a big bear of a man cry, but he was blubbering like a fish.”

Begglar chuckled, “Funny how tenderness had a way of touching you like nothing else does.”

“He cried when you were born to, Dom,” Nell grinned, “The old softie.”

“Excuse me guys, but I don’t see how any of this helps us,” Christopher spoke up, “This canopy doesn’t have any walls, except the back one, and that does seem strong enough to withstand a gentle breeze.  What we need is some sort of fortification.  Something that we can lock and bolt down.  Anyone with an ax can take this down in a minute.  Excuse me for saying it, but you are wasting our time having us get here.  I doubt that Jeremiah cares much about the danger we are in or O’Brian or anyone but himself, for that matter.”

Begglar spoke up, “Now hold it just a wee bit, there.  There is protection in a place like this.  Powerful protection.  Look around you, lad.  This place is a place of covenant.  You are standing in a sacred place.  The Pan and all his might and menageries can do nothing to harm us here.  Maeven was right to bring us here.  This is the safest place in the wood.”

Lindsey took it all in fingering the ornately woven latticed bridgework, admiring it earthy construction and the deft folding and weaving of branches making symbolic patterns in the back wall and overhead ceiling of moss, branch and grafted timber growing in and out of the patterns.

“Well I like it here,” she interrupted, “There is something peaceful and sad about it, but it feels lovely.  Such intricate designs.  I see the casements of four windows there in the back.  I can almost imagine colored, stained-glass panes.  Like this is a holy place.”

“It is,” Nell stepped up emphatically, pointing to the four posts holding the outer structure, “Don’t think that protection always comes in the form you expect it to.  This holy place is guarded by forces you cannot imagine.”

Matthew leaned back to Mason, “I don’t see anything.  Do you see anything?”

Tiernan joined in, “You said this place was a covenant place.  Begglar and Nell say they were married here?  What did you mean by that, Maeven?”

Maeven, teared up slightly, “I…,” she swallowed hard, “The places here in this land are unlike anything I’ve been to in my waking life on the Surface.  Right now, back in my waking life, I have lost…”  She covered her mouth with her hand choking back emotion she wasn’t ready to share with the group.

Laura and Christie both came to her side, their comforting arms gathering her in protectively.

Nell turned to the others, “In our world, as I was told once was in your world, marriage is a protective covenant.  Here is has visible power.  The One ordained it as an original ordinance for all humankind.  It is an everlasting symbol of His redemption and relationship with His redeemed.”

“I don’t see how it connects,” Christopher said, “Marriage doesn’t mean much in our world.”

“That is because it has been stripped away from its intention.  It is not treated as a covenant anymore,” James, who had been quiet up to this point, offered.

“Sometimes divorce is a good thing,” Laura muttered.

Nell moved to the front post of the enclosure, “Can I show you something of what it means here?”

[Author’s Note:  Illustrated graphic follows this section, depicting the images and symbolism to help the reader visualize what they are being shown.]

“Yes!” Lindsey spoke up, “Please do.”

“Maeven, are you okay with this?” Nell asked, “What do you say of marriage?  I know you are suffering from the loss of your spouse, but if you had it to do over again, knowing such pain, would you have wanted to make the decision to marry?”

Maeven though tearful-eyed, nodded emphatically, “No.  I cherished every precious moment, good and bad.  Tell them.  They need to hear it.”

Begglar turned to the young men, “Gentlemen, are you okay with hearing what needs to be said?  This place is full of visual symbols that represent concepts that make up the picture of the Holy One’s intention.  In this world, marriage is a position of honor, the basic unit from which society is built and it is sacred.  The Xarmnians view it only as an institution, but unnecessary.  That is why their societal structures fail.  Theirs’ is a kingdom of fear.  The wife is merely a convenience and property.  A servant that may be beaten at their master’s will, but must serve the master’s flesh primarily.  They have no standing other than their utilitarian value.  They are considered less equal than men.  If any of you view women in such a way, you should know that you have more in common with the brutal dictators that oppress these lands than the One who calls you to this quest.  Do you understand this?”

Nell turned to her husband, “So you remember all this?”

“I do,” Begglar grinned and winked at Nellus, drawing her into his arms and kissed her on the forehead, “And I do.”

“For instance, the two front posts of this canopy: they are pillars supporting a structure.  The front and side walls of this covering are missing because this covenant is meant to be made public so that those outside may witness the miracle of covenant union.  Everything beyond the pillars is full in public view as a testimony of this divine arrangement.  The sides of the structure are also open on both the brides’ side and the groom’s side so that the family and friends of each, standing on either side of the structure may witness the covenant through their relationship with the bride or groom.  These are each’s intimate public.  This is why the sides and front remain open.”

Begglar moved to the front tree trunk on the left and then place his hand upon it.  “This pillar represents society.  It can be those of the community in which this couple will live.”

He walked the expanse to the right side and placed his hand upon the other tree trunk post support the awning roof of the enclosure.  “This pillar represents societal laws and the protection of the covenant relationship as an institution valued to remain intact.  These laws protect the mutual rights of the spouse, under the institution, and ascribe certain duties of provision and responsibility within the relationship.  The laws also protect the children that arise as part of that relationship and duties held to the parents.”

From there, Begglar moved to the back wall, which was bordered and supported by four living trees, two serving as interior columns, and two serving as exterior columns supporting both the roof and the back wall.

“These outer columns framing the back wall represent the family structure that the two people are joining into.  You can see that they are joined together by the only shared wall of this structure.  They are bonded together and related.  One post to the left is the column of the family of the bride, the other to the right is the column of the family of the groom.  All four outer posts are rooted in the ground and grow out of it.  Root systems are deep and extend below the visible ground representing traditions that were in place long before the witnesses were ever born or the union proposed.”

Both Christie pointed, “What do…?” and James began, “How about…?” accidentally interrupting one another.

“I’m sorry,” James said, “You first.”

“That’s alright you go ahead.”

“No, please.  I insist.  Ladies first,” James demurred.

“Why does it have to be ladies first?  Go ahead.  Ask your question,” Christie returned.

“And that is how it begins…,” Nell grinned.

Christie whipped her head around, “What?”

“Christie, please ask your question,” Nell smiled broadly.

She glanced at James searching to see if she missed something, and then turned again to Begglar.

“I just wanted to know what these two interior columns represented supporting the inner wall.”

“On the left side of the door in the center, the post represents the bride.  Her person, her experiences, her past and her future.  The part you see visible is only the moment in time that she comes to this moment.  You will notice, that both her roots and her top are beyond view.  Her past is covered by the soil of this carved-out floor.  Her top, her future, extends above the ceiling.  We witnesses of the ceremony held under this covering do not know all that led her to this moment, nor will we know all that will arise from this moment, for we are not given to see everything.  The same is true for the other column, the tree that represents the groom, adding his own support to the back wall within the frame of family.  The bride and groom post share support of the single back wall connected to the outer posts, which represent the extended family.  The joining of heritages and ancestry for forge a new line and branch of the family tree.”

Here Begglar paused and turned to his wife, “My darling, please continue.”

Nell nodded and applauded her husband’s recitation of the history and symbolism, “Very well done, my Dearest Love.”

She approached him, as if she was walking on air, and tiptoed, to which he bowed so she might kiss him lightly on the cheek.  In so doing, she took his face in her hands, gazed into his eyes and said, “Pirate McGregor or Begglar, my Love, there is no escaping it.  You will always be a wanted man,” and with that, she lightly kissed him on the nose, and then seemed to dance away, as if twenty years of hard life had been erased, and she was a young girl again.

“See the back wall?  On either side of the doorway, on both the bride’s side and the groom’s side there are two window casement frames.  See them?” she pointed to each set, like a woman display a showcase of fabulous prizes on a game show.

“These window sets represent the parents of the bride and the groom.  The father casement is on the exterior closest to the public outer courts.  This placement is deliberate because fathers represent the barrier of protection for this family and this covenant union before the outside world.  When a man and women walk side by side, the man is responsible to take the place of protection which means if they are walking along-side a roadway, he stands between the road and the woman to protect her with his body should a horse or wagon run astray and strike her down.  It is his place to take the hit that will spare her life if need be.  He is her human guardian protecting her physically.  He is the one given the potential for the greater physical strength of form.  This is his rightful and respectful place within the relationship.”

“But what if the woman is stronger than he is?” Laura asked.

“As I said, it is his place.  Not hers.  The position is not about capacity or ability.  It is about the role that gives him the respect he needs within the relationship.  If the woman takes his role, she also takes his respectful place away.  If she loves him, she won’t do this to him.  He needs her honor, every bit as much as she needs him to love and cherish her.”

“I never thought about it like that,” Laura said seeming to think this over.

“There is a lot, that is not taught anymore in your world, dear.  Don’t fault yourself for not knowing it.”

Christopher spoke up, “I still don’t get how all this symbolism helps us.”

Tiernan had listened to all of this and interjected, “Hush up, dude.  I want to hear this.  If they say this place makes us safe, they know better than we do.  They live here and there are things about this land that we are still learning.”

“But why is this called ‘The Faerie Fade’?” he shrugged, “I don’t understand what the name means any more than how understanding marriage will make us safe.  It sure didn’t help my folks.  They fought all the time.  I was glad when they busted up.  They threw things, and almost set the house on fire when they left the stove on.  My brother and I hid in the attic and they almost didn’t find us in time.”

“Dude, that’s harsh, man,” Mason said, “I’m sorry, Bro.”

“Don’t be.  I was so glad when the court gave me and Benjamin to Granna and Grampa.  My parents were nuts.  It all worked out.  Marriage is misery, man.”

Begglar put a hand on Chris’s shoulder, “And that, lad, is why this is important for you to hear.  Your parents got it wrong.  They did not model marriage the way it was intended.  Don’t judge the ordinance too harshly, without learning its good.  Be glad that your Grands were there to show you the love that you needed.  I assume they had some affection between them?”

Christopher considered this a moment.  “Yeah, I guess so.  But they were old people.  Young people don’t follow the old ways anymore.”

Begglar laughed in spite of the implication that he too was an “old” person.

“And it is because they do not follow the old way, that they fail in their new ways.  Would you give a mind to that?”

Chris considered and then nodded, “Okay.  So, what does all this on the ceiling represent?”

“Well, now, I am very glad you asked that because these are very important.  See the big circle there in the center, surrounded by four semi-circles or half-circles?”

“Yeah.”

“The groom and the bride stand directly under the biggest circle in the center there, and that is where they say their covenant vows in front of each other.  Not to each other.  This is where the Surface World gets it wrong.  The circle there represents completeness and it represents God Almighty and the witness of Heaven.  This is to Whom the covenant vows are made.  Not to each other.  A covenant made to a fallible human being is doomed to fail and is conditional upon the feelings and attitudes towards each other.  Most Surface World marriages are based upon this which is why they fail.  They set conditions.  There are certain conditions given by Heaven that allow for the dissolution of marriage and those are infidelity, abuse, and harm.  One of the spouses who causes such is breaking faith with the One who oversees all covenants.  By focusing on their resentments towards the other spouse, they justify harm, but they are dishonoring the One who established the covenant protection and will eventually stand before Him and give account for what they did.  God witnesses covenants.  He is present and presides over them in the same way He did of old.  The Ancient Texts says:

“6 Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover–the place of atonement–that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” [Exodus 30:6 NLT]

…The man or woman who uses their body to break faith will stand under the judgment of Heaven, even as this betrothed couple stands under this symbolic circle under this canopy, making their vows.”

“So, if my dad cheated on my mom…”

“Yes, son.  He will account for it.  Remember his duty to physically protect the union from the outside world?  He brings dishonor to his role.  If he raises his fists and dishonors his wife in so doing, he brings violence and dishonor to his role.  The man is more severely judged for this, because to him is given that role of physical protection.”

“What if he doesn’t pay child support?  What then?”

“Same thing.  Is a child physically harmed if they are not fed and clothed?”

“Yes.  I guess so.”

“Then his physical protection falls short and he is not honoring the role he is called to.  Under marriage, the family is an extension of the bond between the husband and wife.  He must bring honor to his role.”

Tiernan spoke up, “What if his wife cheats on him?  What then?”

Nell spoke up, “The she is subverting his role as physical protector.  If she brings dishonor to a role that is not her own, she then owns the consequences of violating that role.  Understand?”

Christie joined in, “So is one role more important than the other?”

“No,” Nell answered, “Importance does not play into it.  Both roles are essential.  Both are pivotal.”

“So, what is the woman’s role,” Christie asked, “Have babies, cook, clean and be submissive?”

Begglar sighed, “That is Xarmnian mentality that does not value the individual or lift or cherish the relationship.  No person is merely utilitarian in the relationship.”

Nell came and stood by her husband, “No one likes to be taken for granted or just used.  There is no joy or love in that, dear.  Have you not read the Ancient Text words?”

“4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT]

“This is a covenant of love.  It is protected by it but be sure and understand what love is as defined by the One who oversees its coverage under a covenant vow made to Him.”

“So, when this couple makes their vows, what happens next?” James asked.

Begglar smiled and put his arm around Nell’s waist, “They stand together, while the cleric draws a ring around them in the ground with a cross-stick hung on the doorway there.  This is called the ring of the covenant and it is drawn directly below the circle above, but not wider than Heaven’s circle above.  This is done to show that the covenant is sealed under Heaven’s covering.”

“Wow,” Lindsey remarked, “That is a beautiful thought.  So what do the four half-circles represent?”

Begglar spoke up, “They represent the boundaries of our existence.  The two closest to the back wall represent Time and Height.  Time is on the female side, Height is on the male side.  The two semi-circles toward the front of the Faerie Fade ceiling are Length and Breadth or Depth.  Length is longevity, and females, if properly cared for and cherished tend to live longer than males.  Depth is the plumb line of Wisdom and it is given on the male’s side to discern for the safety of his cherished bride.  These are the boundaries but are not the limits of love.  For the Ancient text says:

“38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39 NIV]”

“So what is left?” Matt asked, “The door?  Where does it lead?  I see only a wall but it doesn’t appear to have a room beyond it.  There is just more forest back there.”

“We will get to the door in a moment,” Nell said.  “Do you see the benches here?”

Several nodded, but Mason said, “I just figured those were there for when the people get tired of long discussions.”

Both Matt and Christopher laughed, and the others chuckled as did Nell herself.

“That is a good reason,” she acknowledged, “But there is only room enough for two couples.  These are places of honor on earth for two sets of very important witnesses to the union of the betrothed couple.  Unfortunately, these seats cannot always be filled, as in our case.  My parents died in Azragoth before they could witness Begglar and I getting married.  Some couples have absent parents, missing parents or unknown parents.  The point is the intention that the seats are there, whether they get filled or not.  God prepares a banquet, a wedding feast, more than adequate to feed every guest invited to His table, but not everyone invited chooses to come, though ample accommodation is still made had they chosen otherwise.  Blessings await, but few of these are ever experienced if those invited do not decide to come by choice.  These places of honor and witness still remain.  The most tragic loss, however, is of empty seats, where the invited guests to the ceremony refused to come.”

Begglar stood behind Nell placing comforting hands upon her shoulders, knowing it was hard for her speaking of this, and remembering the sadness of seeing empty benches on both sides.

“The half circles in the ceiling above are not only the dimensions of existence but windows from every aspect of it.  Windows so that witnesses from all of heaven and all those who have gone before can view the love covenant of this union.  Nellus’ parents, my parents were present at our ceremony viewing us symbolically through these windows, even if they were not physically present to occupy the honor chairs.”

There was a long pause while they all reflected upon this too frequent reality with a sobering solemnity.

Maeven spoke up, “Tell them about the door.”

“Ah, the door,” Begglar said, “That is where the walking begins, where the covenant moves from promise to action.  There is a symbol here on the door, and the tool used to draw the circle is hung here.  The tool is in the form of a cross.  It is central to the door.  There are two lines on either side of it carved out.  These represent the two separate lifelines of both the bride and the groom.  In the center here, where the cross lines meet are a set of diamond-shaped engravings one within the other.  The diamonds are formed by two triangles joined together at the baseline, set with points facing away top to bottom left to right so that together they form the diamond shape.  Three points have triangles, which represent the triune aspects of a person: body, soul, and spirit.  The husband and the wife, each their own person, yet joined in togetherness along a shared baseline where two aspects of their personhood are in direct fellowship.  Body and soul.  The spirit points away showing a vigilant watch and guard of each other.  There are two of these diamond shapes, one within the other, at the section that crosses it.  This is the intention of the relationship of oneness.  That they are joined together in harmony, physicality, and soul, each watching out for the other.  And that this union is contained and empowered by an ever greater union of joining with the Oneness of God as His Bride through the Power of the Cross.  The ovoid symbol below here represents Fellowship.  It was a symbol of the Early Church.  Called an ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ), it is a fish symbol, representing the call to be fishers of men.  At the close of the covenant ceremony, the couple leaves together through this doorway, as will we.  This is how we will together, once Jeremiah and O’Brian return, will get safely out of Kilrane.”

“So, we go out of the backdoor?” Laura asked.

“No, dear,” Nell answered patient and lovingly, “This is the front door.  A very special doorway.  It doesn’t appear like much on the outside.  A simple narrow wooden doorway, one must enter one at a time.  The husband takes his wife by the hand and leads her through it.  This is the time when it is not, as you said James, ‘Ladies first’.  It is the man’s place to lead lovingly and gently.  To face whatever danger exists on the other side first to protect her with his body as a shield.  Like a man-at-arms goes before his queen, he is to lead her to a safe and cherished place.”

“What are these symbols on either side of the doorway?” Lindsey asked, touching their carvings softly.  “They look like a flower in a circle.”

“Ah,” Begglar said, “And at last we come to it.  This is the reason why this place is called The Faerie Fade.”

Maeven, who had been quiet again up to this point, spoke up, “They’re here.  In the forest.  I saw them.  They’ve come back to Kilrane.”

“What have?” Lindsey asked, wrinkling her nose in a puzzled grin, “The flowers?”

Maeven turned towards her, very serious and very quietly said, “Those are not flowers.  What looks like the top and bottom petals of a flower to you, are not fronds or leaves.  They are a body, a humanlike form, with four wings in a circle of light.  The locals call them Faeries here.  But they are very powerful and very, very dangerous.  They are the guardians of this portal.  Anyone who enters it who is not covered under a covenant of faith will not survive it.”

“What do you mean, ‘will not survive it’?” Chris asked.

“Just what she said,” Nell added, “There are those in our traveling companions who were taken prisoner, that would not make it out of Kilrane if the Xarmnians had not already taken them.  They would not survive this portal, because it is a hallowed place that no darkness or darkened soul can enter.  Only covenant provides safe passage through.”

Tiernan cleared his throat, “So, why would the Half-men permit the Xarmnian Protectorate or whoever, to take those through without killing them all?”

Begglar addressed his question, “Because the Xarmnians are in league with the Half-men and have brokered a truce with The Pan to allow them passage through the wilds.  The Pan has given his kinds strict warning that they are not to molest the Xarmnians or meddle in their affairs and The Pan severely enforces his warnings even among his own subjects.”

The group each looked from one to the other, worriedly, taking deep breaths trying to process what was being told to them.

“What does ‘Fade’ mean?” Chris asked, ever the inquisitive one.

Begglar answered, “When we go through the doorway together, you’ll see for yourself.”

Lindsey said, “But how do you know we will all be safe through there?  How do you know?  Do we all have to get married?  Or be married?”

Nell smiled and stroked her face gently, gazing directly into her eyes.  “Because, child,” she reassured her, “I can see that you all shine, and you are all already under a yielded covenant with the One.  Marriage is a mirror of the relationship of faith in the One.  You are a bride under your faith already, even if not a betrothed one here with a spouse.  Remember there are two diamonds on the doorway.  Two forms of covenant that protects.  Ideally, both are within the faith covenant, when spouses vow together.  That is the One’s intention for the greatest good and protection of the sanctity of marriage.  Each is accountable to Him for their treatment of the other.  Each acknowledges their covenant to the One as the primary relationship, and to their spouse as secondary, contained within the primary covenant.  Understand?”

“I think I do,” Lindsey whispered, more to herself than to Nell.

“Can we open the door and sort of check it out first?” Matthew asked.

Begglar stood in front of the door as if by symbolic answer.  “There is no halfway, once the door is opened.  No hesitation on the threshold.  Once this door is opened, there is no turning back.  The called one must lead through it.  That is why it is important to have O’Brian here.  Otherwise, we will become separated and they may not find us, once we’re through.  The portal here is mysterious and unlike any other.  All others who stand under the ceiling will be drawn into it once it is opened, so even the parents and the officiating cleric must step out from under the covering before the groom opens the doorway.  Where it takes those who enter, is determined by the One, but it is always the next step on the journey.  Every choice made apart from the intention of the One leads to personal and collateral pain for others.  This is why it is important to know the intentions of the One.  Why His words revealed in the Ancient text mean so much here.  It reveals the way to the abundance of life and His greatest good for each of you.  It gives meaning to your every breath and your unique design and purpose.  It invests you with the knowledge of your own value to Him.  It tells you why you were born.  And how to ignite the torchlight of your soul.”

“So, marriage is actually a good thing,” Chris said.

“Yes, lad,” Begglar said, “A very good thing, once you understand its intention.  This is why this place means so much to Nell and I.  It reminds us of how good love is.  Just like the Ancient Text reminds us all.”

hut-2017964_1920_symbolism

“Then why is it that so many people get it wrong and screw up so many lives in the process?” Laura asked thinking of her family.

Begglar said, “There is a verse that speaks to that.  The Ancient Text says:

“14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ.” [2 Corinthians 3:14 NLT]

…The outside world simply cannot understand this kind of covenant.  Only a heart that is opened by the One, has a chance.”

Laura nodded, taking this all in thoughtfully, but then she turned and addressed one of the young men in the group.

“Dominic, are you betrothed to someone?”

The group burst out laughing and Dominic blushed bright red.

***

Syloam marked well where the harpy called Mawgla finally landed with her Will in tow.  And it was with some stealth and skill that she finally made her way down the back of the tree where Will was held at its base.

The harpies Mawgla, Awlen, Grawla, and Dawlen huddled together around their captive discussing how best to present their prize when they were suddenly startled to overhear the other harpies flying above announcing to The Pan that they had taken a Surface Worlder prisoner, for they had not yet announced their victim and had been savoring the chance to do so.  They felt upstaged by this announcement and resentful.

“How is it that they get to announce and take credit for our capture, Grawla?!” Awlen asked, indignant.

“Perhaps they saw us coming with him, sister,” Dawlen grumped, her wrinkled face looking even more pinched than it had before.

“I knew Dellitch and her sisters would eventually betray us,” Mawgla growled, “It is a foul day indeed, when we can no longer trust our own kind.”

Grawla fluffed her breast ruffle, drying it from the oil froth that still left a residue or foam on her black and gray feathers.

“Perhaps they have recovered another captive,” she combed the fluff with the hooked claw extending from her wing.

“Then what is to become of ours?  Shall we eat him ourselves?” Mawgla asked.

“I could just tender him up a bit,” Dawlen drooled, licking her pinched lips with a pinkish-gray tongue.

“Better partial glory that no glory, I’d say,” Awlen regarded Will with gimlet eyes, “Though a bite or two might not be noticed.”

Grawla regarded the young man who now lay exhausted and sore from dangled carry through the forest, his eyes dulled and surrendered to whatever fate might await.  She considered and then turned.

“Better to deliver this scrap meat to The Pan.  But go in and scout the prize these others have brought if they have any.  Let them be diminished before The Pan when they offer.  If they have claimed our trophy, let us hide him away for ourselves and see how they fare making promises they cannot deliver upon.  Let The Pan change who leads our kind, by eliminating our competition for flock rulership.”

And with that, Mawgla, Awlen, and Dawlen took wing again to watch the spectacle happing ahead with The Pan and his retinue, leaving Grawla to watch after their prisoner.

When they had gone, tiny green tendrils began to creep along the lower ground and up quietly within the leaves of a bush, near where Grawla scraped the ground with her large claws, looking for grubs and other crawling insects along the ground.  The tendrils thickened, and green eyes and a cream-colored clear complexion looked upon the unwary harpy with hatred.

It only took a second for Syloam to lunge forward and seize the harpy, her thick vines, and branches clutching fiercely to her throat as the harpy lurched from the impact.

“Death for death!” Syloam hissed, through clenched teeth and suddenly felt herself being ripped from the bush and drawn upward.  The harpy, despite the stranglehold, was strong and powerful, and she was flying upward at an incredible speed.

The two bursts through the tree canopy, Syloam twisting and writhing tightening her vines ever stronger around Grawla’s throat.  There had been no time to find an anchor shoot to prevent the harpy from carrying her upward, for she was so intent on killing the harpy.  Higher and higher they flew, pirouetting into the blazing sun, a terrible pain burning upon Syloam’s legs as she realized the harpy was draining milk down upon her dangling legs.

If she was going to die, she resolved, she would not die alone.

From a distance, the aerial struggle between the land and the sky played out in slips and lateral spins and twists, but eventually, the harpy stopped climbing, and the trembling vines and branches stopped flailing in the high wind.  And together they fell downward, locked upon each other in a death grip until they plummeted through the forest and disappeared, never to rise again.

***

Jeremiah heard the shrieks and screeches as the shadowy figures ahead fought and then flew upward.  He saw the prone figure lying at the base of the tree but could not tell if it was the one he’d once known as Brian David or not.

The man looked too young, and he did not recognize him.  He bent down and tried to wake him.  Upon closer inspection, he noticed the young man’s upper torso was covered in fine golden dust.

“Dryads!  Ah, this is not good,” he shook the man again, slapping him lightly across the cheek, and the man finally opened his eyes and held his gaze for a moment.

“I see you can hear me,” and then his eyes shifted from the man’s glistening and sweat-smeared cheeks.

Golden dust transferred from the man’s yellowed face to Jeremiah’s hand and he wiped the substance from his fingers with a handful of scattered leaves.

“How do I always get myself into other people’s troubles?” he said to no one in particular.

“Why can’t I just be left well-enough alone?” he sighed, seeming to have an internal dialogue with himself and someone other than himself.

“Alright,” he sighed, “You win.  You always do.”

Jeremiah knew he could not risk freeing the young man from his bonds.  Not yet anyway, so he reached into his pack and pulled out some short lengths of rope to further restrain the man.

“What is your name?”  The young man only stared dully at him and did not answer, but it was clear to Jeremiah that the boy had heard his question.

“Alright then.  Be obstinate.”

“I should leave you here,” Jeremiah continued, beginning to quickly wrap and tie the man’s hands and feet, but he did mark that this man was a Surface Worlder, and in dire need of rescue, “but I won’t.  He won’t let me.  I can’t avoid becoming like them if I don’t treat my own any better, so you’re coming with me.  Like it or not.”

With that, he reached down and grabbed him lifting in a fireman’s carry and proceeded onward, searching where O’Brian might have gone.  The young man did not protest or struggle.  Clearly, for whatever moment the young man had been with him, he was out again, but perhaps, Jeremiah thought, that was for the best.

Moving gingerly forward, with his new burden, he carefully scanned the forest floor, trying to see through the growing smoke, but it was growing thicker by the moment.  He chanced a gaze upward and blinked.  He rubbed his watering eyes with his hand, to be sure, but thought he saw a figure of a man, high up on a tree limb about forty feet off the ground.  The tree bole was too thick for the man to have climbed up himself, and he was puzzled.  A slight corona of light outlined the figure’s body against the dark leaves.  The man’s build was larger than the boy he’d carried.  No one had mentioned this boy to him on the road, so he wondered if O’Brian might have had a better reason to go out into the woods alone.  Perhaps, he’d misjudged him.  Ahead was a murky watered stream that eventually spread out and stilled.  The slough.  The black mud was thick and foul-smelling.  Hazes of bugs and flying gnats swarmed the dead pooling slimy water.  Frogs and snakes tried to survive in it and each other.  Boglins were sometimes seen about.  Half-men creatures comprised of both man and frog.  Weird creatures that lived on decay, rodents and various and sundry swamp animals.

He couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man above just might be Brian, or O’Brian as he was called now.  A lot had changed.  When the man in the treetops suddenly spoke loudly to some group gathered in the clearing below, he was certain of who it was.

‘No’, he thought to himself, ‘The man is still foolish and impulsive’.

When he heard the rumbling voice of The Pan respond, Jeremiah shook his head, “Not foolish.  Downright insane.”

***

I had very little hope of making it out of the tree except by a nasty fall.  I had no way to know what I was supposed to do next and was growing desperate and having trouble with doubts and fears that I had misinterpreted the Spirit’s urging to go and confront The Pan.  This was a terrible development putting me in a more desperate situation.

“What am I doing?  Why am I here?  How am I even helping the situation?  Oh Lord, why did You call me to lead?  I am failing at every turn.  Help me find Your Way.”

Then like soft rain upon my heated brow the following words of the Ancient Texts came into my mind.

“7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You [are] there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You [are there]. 9 [If] I take the wings of the morning, [And] dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.” [Psalm 139:7-10 NKJV]

There was a purpose, even in this predicament, though it eluded me at the moment.  It had felt right that I scout out the way ahead and determine the situation with The Pan and what manner of creatures attended it, but I had hoped to do so under the low-lying brush and not trapped in the tops of a tree.

I scanned the tree limbs above me.  This limb that I had been flung upon, was the lowest and thickest limb that could safely bear the weight of a man.  The limbs above slowly diminished in thickness and size, but they did extend outward enough that I could possibly reach across to a branch from one of the other surrounding trees, and work my way back down from there.  I could not get down as it was, for the bole of the tree was too big for me to safely wrap my legs and arms around its girth.  The harpy had chosen this high redoubt judiciously, safely imprisoning me while she attended other nefarious errands.

It would be risky, but I believed I could ascend somewhat and see if I could get a bearing on where we were within Kilrane.  Perhaps, I could sight The Pan and his devilish brood and find a way to bypass them.  To do so, I would need to gain a better understanding of the lay of the land, above the treetops.

So carefully I climbed upward, being certain of the strength of each radiating branch, as I placed my arms and feet carefully.  I am not afraid of heights, but I understood that I would need to be very careful to avoid getting vertigo.  I climbed another fifteen feet before the canopy began to thin enough for me to see through and over the surrounding forest.  To the north, the fires smoked and blazed, crawling steadily and wickedly across the tops of the tree canopy.  Strange figures, seemed to ascend out of the heat shimmer all around, some black and feathered, with some sort of firelight brands gilding their wings with smoke and flame.  These I recognized as more of the fiendish kind that put me in my present predicament.  Among these swooping and cackling fiends were odd angular shapes that morphed and elongated strangely, flaring out whip-like flagella at the flying creatures, having little success.  The glowing canopy engulfed these angular creatures in flame and smoke, such that fewer and fewer rose upward above the treetops.  It was clear to me then that the harpies were using the excuse of the forest inferno to rid themselves of their arch-enemies which had taken up illegal residence in the lands of men.  The conflict had not yet reached my proximity, but it soon would, and I knew that I could not risk being spotted by either of these dangerous groups of combatants.

I then turned towards the west and spotted movement on an exposed curve of the winding roads passing through the forest of Kilrane.  I could not be sure, but it appeared to be the back of our wagon, entrusted to us, by the Azragothians for our journey.  I could not see more than two riders, and I wondered at what had befallen the rest of our party, but then focusing outward a little further to the south, I saw a clearing and an open field, and a site that almost made my heart stop.  A flag standard was raised in the midst of the field, and the field seemed to move and undulate with an encampment of armored Xarmnian soldiers.  Had we but followed the forest road a little further we would have run right smack into their camp but would have been spotted and captured long before that, for the Xarmnians were not imbeciles and would have established a forest-watch.  I looked closer trying to measure their troop-strength, and the size of their party, but was surprised to see, flying in and out from among them, the hideous old harpies, circulating from some edge of the encampment and flying sorties back into the forest.  Clearly, the Xarmnians had formed some sort of alliance with these harpies, and the shock of it, almost made me forget where I was and lose my grip, clutching my arms around the tree.

I searched the remaining direction within the forest but was unable to locate where The Pan might have moved to.  If The Pan and the Xarmnians were in league together, then Azragoth was in more grave danger than I had thought.  Something had been informing these enemies of their renewed presence within the old abandoned and fire gutted city, and I strongly suspected that the harpies had something to do with that.

Was it only a faction of harpies working in concert with the Xarmnians?  Had The Pan offered the armies of Xarmni aid?  There was no way to tell, but I knew this information could not be entrusted to just anyone.  There may be a traitor within Azragoth getting ready to help these erstwhile adversaries to work in tandem to put down the heart of the secret resistance.  Suddenly, I knew why I had been led towards this path, though it had not been my intention, I served at the design of the One who still called me forth.  This was why I had been directed into the wolf’s lair.  Not to find the disposition of The Pan or to see if he still bore the lost Cordis stone, effected by mine and Caleb’s past foolishness.  It was to be brought here to see and to remember, that even though I might not be aware of it, I was still being moved, despite my own foolishness by His unseen hand to accomplish His purpose rather than my own.

The wagon had disappeared from view, but I could also see some sort of wheeled cage being guarded within the Xarmnian camp.  It was too far away for me to tell clearly, but I was certain, I saw the faintest glimpse of long blonde hair lean in under the sunlight that I recognized.  A woman, I knew to be tall and slender.  Fierce-eyed and intelligent, but tender and caring as well.  The Mid-World citizens were very rarely ever blonde-headed, so I surmised that this one must be one of my company.  Cheryl, I believe was her name, though she had not given me her moniker, I had heard Miray mention her as one who had resisted when the Xarmnians had accosted and captured them.  I was relieved to see that she was still alive and perhaps had formulated some plan in her mind as to how to effect their release.

Dornsdale was the next large town beyond “Sorrow’s Gate” located to the west at the foot of the high plains pass, where we had sent down the wreck of Begglar’s original buckboard wagon.  It was firmly under Xarmnian control and had been since before I left twenty-one years ago.  The occupied town was the seat of a fist, which the Xarmnians used to keep the other townships in abeyance.  If the Xarmnians were to take their prisoners anywhere, that was the most logical destination to take them to first, unless…

No, I could not even think it.

Suddenly from behind me, I heard noises coming across the canopy.  The movement sounded as if it was coming from some distance.  The fires were surging over the treetops and rapidly coming my way, yet there was something moving at a high rate of speed just below the leafy canopy making a hissing sound that frightened me.  Had I been spotted?  Was the harpy returning?  I desperately needed to get down from this tree and quickly, but the intervening branches were clearly not thick enough to hold me to span the gaps between my present perch and the trees surrounding it.

I had to move down again.  Back to the lower branch where the harpy had left me.  The fires would be over me soon and would take a while to get to me on the lower bough.  Climbing nimbly and as quick as I could, my heart racing, my ears thundering with the tympani rumble of my pulse, I twisted in my decent, ducking once again below the canopy, and saw something flashing in the distance.

My mind leaped to the obvious conclusion.  The fires of Azragoth were blazing towards me.  They had ignited in the dry leaves of the canopy and were rapidly spreading across the treetops, flash burning as they came roaring forward.  I was going to die here.  Roasted alive like a featherless bird in a nest.

Surely this was not the plan of The One, but I could not claim to anticipate Him.  His ways are above my ways.  He had made that clear.  If He wanted to take me out, I was His to dispense with at any given moment.  I served at His pleasure.

A verse rose into my mind as if spoken by a calm, reassuring voice.

“2 Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD rises and appears over you.” [Isaiah 60:2 NLT]

I turned my head upward, careful to balance myself upon a forking limb as I leaned back, and suddenly I saw, above the dappled leaves, what looked like brilliant stars descending towards me with other shining lights waiting above the canopy.

The Faerie Fade – Chapter 59

“You lied to us!”

A partially scorched, dryad came raging out of the wood, bounding over the mired bog of murky water.  Her body unraveled into large twisted limbs, blackened and smoldering in places, yet dark green and wood-grained in others.

“You gave us this forest when the Xarmnians quitted it.  Now you send harpies in to drive us out!”

The cataracted eyes of the Pan blinked and narrowed, as a low growl rumbled from within and without.

“I permitted your occupation of it.  I did not give it away.  The land is mine, the woods are mine.  A king does not parcel out his kingdom.  You would do well to mark this and consider to whom it is you speak and accuse.”

Other dryads emerged from the backwoods, following their scorched leader, also bearing the marks of fire, and smoke.

“Why did you send the harpies among us?!” another asked, “Have we not served you?”

At this, the satyrs stood up from under the low forest brush.

“Hello, sweet Briar!” one of the taller grey and grizzly looking satyrs announced, a dark-lipped grin spreading from the coal-black apples of his cheekbones, eyes shining with lecherous delight, “Did you miss us?”

The other satyrs that had hidden within the brush also popped up and laughed throatily, sounding like a chorus of baying and barking dogs.

“What are THEY doing here?!” the lead dryad, jumped at the suddenness and surprise as satyrs fanned out among them, circling them around and around, feinting in and out to stroke their legs.

The lead dryad, the one that the grey satyr had addressed as ‘Briar’ bristled at the touch, her body suddenly developing large thorns all around.

The grey satyr pulled his hand back, a small cut on his palm from the contact.

“Funny,” he croaked with laughter, “you have the same effect on me.”

The satyrs all laughed, erupting again in that strange cacophony of bawdy mirth reticent of drunken partiers laughing uproariously together at a shared dirty joke.

The Pan lowered himself into a crouch, moving steadily forward, his nostrils flaring and his large ears twitching among curls of black and grey hair.

“Don’t think I haven’t marked you, human toad,” he rumbled, “Our conversation is not over.  You have not been dismissed.”

Grum-blud had been attempting to slink away.  Both he and Shelberd were hoping the distraction with the dryads and the satyrs would prove to be more than The Pan could manage, but it wasn’t working.

“Yes, sire.”

“Dryad, I will treat with you in turn,” The Pan growled, and then turned his focus back on the trolls.

“Now, I was asking you about the Manticores.  Where are they?”

Hoping to ingratiate themselves with The Pan, Bunt and Dob attempted to answer at once.

“They’ve fallen in the fires.”

The Pan stood rigidly and still.  Dangerously still.

“I asked the Troll,” the voice rumbled an octave lower and was slowly enunciated expanding every syllable.

There was an implied warning in the words, and both onocentaurs gaped and clamped their mouths shut, but trembled.

Grum-blud’s mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton, and in this very moment, he regretted the day he was ever born.

Shelberd whimpered, huddling on the ground covering his head with his hands, not daring to look up.  Grum-blud smelled the distinctive pungency of urine but wasn’t sure if it was Shelberd’s or his own.

***

Syloam raced through the mid-canopy, crashing through branches, breaking and snapping smaller limbs as her gnarled and twisted root clusters clasped the tree poles, rocketing her body through the forest, closing fast upon the harpies flying and dangling her nest before her, like a hypnotic pendulum.  She could now see the human Surface Worlder, she had bound inside, slinging from one side of the rotting-cage to the other, grappling to hang on the anything he could, even as pieces of the cage began to peel and break away.  She wondered if she’d been wise to delay her pursuit by taking time to pick up the pieces of deadwood from the forest floor because she might have gotten ahead of them if she had not descended, but she had no choice.  The milk of the harpies was deadly, as evidenced by the deteriorating condition of her bower.  Something had given it far, greater potency.

Ahead, she heard the harpies laughing and taunting him, oblivious to the fact that they were being followed.

“Stay put, little mousey!” one squawked at him.

“Cawten, you’re dripping again!” the lead harpy reprimanded, glancing down at the deteriorating condition of the vine cage, “Quit frothing, you idiot!  These flesh bags are soft and break easily.  The Pan will get no pleasure if it dies before it gets to him.”

“Pay attention to where you’re going, Grawla!” another hissed at the lead, “You almost flew us into that tree back there. This basket is not going to hold our little mouse much longer if you keep jerking us around.  I should have flown lead.”

Just then the branch and vine cluster one of the harpies had been holding clasped in their talons, broke away from the rest of the basket, causing the corner to sag and drop down, jerking the others forward and down, spiraling into a tree, smashing through the basket with a loud crunch and snapping of other brittle branches.

Will was thrown from one end and smashed into the side of the trunk pole that ripped into the cage.  The vines that had been holding him snapped and he felt the impact, blunted a bit by the final grasp of the bindings, but at last, he was free…

And then he was falling…

***

Jeremiah wondered how he had gotten himself into these messes.  First General Mattox confronting him.  Then the satyrs maiming his horse.  The firestorm on the horizon.  Now, this.  The thought of Brian returning to the Mid-World and leading a quest of Surface Worlders as he had long ago before everything went totally wrong.  His brother’s betrayal, his company divided and fragmenting under his leadership, the lies and deception, and now here it was again.  Come around full circle.  The ghosts of the past confronting him at every turn.  Confronting him or haunting him.  He did not know which.  He had to somehow find a way to make peace with the past, but it dredged up so many painful memories.  He wished he’d never been called, been given such a responsibility.  It was too much for anyone to bear alone.

But that was the point, wasn’t it?

He felt that same quiet stirring deep within his spirit, that had seemed to go silent so long ago.

At least he had thought it had gone silent.  Perhaps the problem had been within him all along.  He’d chosen to quit listening.

***

Will was falling…and then he wasn’t.

He felt sudden compression in his chest and ribs and found he had been wrapped in a curling twisting vine that moved like a serpent around his body, constricting him, yet dangling him from the trees and spines of rocks jutting out of the forest floor below.  He looked up, following the extension of the branches to see Syloam dangling from a massive branch, her arms and legs a fusion and amalgam of vines, branches and moss and lichen.  She was breathing heavily from the exertion and the last second catch of his body.

“Look at what we’ve got here, Awlen.  Isn’t that sweet?” Grawla the harpy said, recovering from the strike, having found a perch on a branch from which to regroup.

The broken cage had ripped apart, brittle vines snapping and scattering across the forest floor, the withering brown husk of it misshapen and twisted on the rocks between the tree roots and trunks below.

Cawten, the erstwhile frother, had sustained an injury and tumbled down after the cage landing on top of it, her wing folded under her, broken.  Awlen, the harpy to the back right side of the cage bearers, had flipped downward, plunging with the torn enclosure, but finally freed her claws, caught air and regained her flight wings, before striking the ground.  Disoriented she gathered air under her, and climbed upward, beneath the hyperextended dryad that had caught their prize.

“Just precious,” Awlen sneered, “Where Dawlen?”

“Up here,” a scratching croak came from above, “Grawla, you cank!  You could’ve killed us!”

“Mawgla dropped her end.  Where is Mawgla, anyway?”

A distant voice answered back.

“Down here.  In the cage.  It trapped me when it fell.  Cawten milked the vines and the cage broke apart.”

“What is wrong with you, Cawten?!” Awlen crabbed.

No answer came.

After a long pause, Mawgla’s voice came back, “I think Cawten’s dead.”

A series of broken chirps came from the tightening lips of the harpies, to which Grawla added, “Remember our vow, sisters:  Each of our dead is owed a death from theirs.  Death for Death!”  The harpies overhead fluttered and shook themselves as they collectively began a slow chant picking up the refrain, “Death for death!”

A milky-wetness pouring down from their fluff ruffle, pearling over their feathered breasts, dripping down their metal shanks and curling down their legs to their claws.

“What do you have to say, Wood Pick?” Grawla turned cold eyes to the dryad, “Care to dance?”

Mawgla nudged the still body of Cawten with a claw as she pulled out from under the half-crushed bulb of the broken cage.  No movement.  Vacant black eyes stared up into the canopy, the wrinkled mouth gaping at some horror from beyond.

Syloam gathered Will up towards her feminine body, her arm shrinking back into a shoulder more in line with human form than a tree.

“This man belongs to me.  I found him first.  You have no right to take him from me.”

“If he belongs to you,” Awlen snarled, “then you should be willing to die for him.”

With these words, both Grawla, Dawlen, and Awlen launched themselves down on her, milky claws flared.

The harpy identified as Mawgla, caught Will by the flailing arm, as she flew up intending to join the attack.

Before Syloam hit the ground below, she had devolved into what appeared to be a rotted tree, no female form remaining of her.

Now Mawgla flew onward into the forest, dangling him painfully from beneath iron gripped and powerful grey claws, hooked with black talons and the others flew after her.

fallen-tree-679791_1920

***

“Where is this Faerie Fade?” James asked.

“What even is a Faerie Fade?” Laura asked.

Maeven looked in the direction that Jeremiah had gone and then turned back to the group.

“It’s not far from here,” she told them, “As to what it is, I am not sure I even know, but it is what it does that makes it important for us to get there.  At this point, however, I cannot tell you any more than that.  We just need to get there as soon as possible.  The forest is full of the Half-men kind.  I have seen somethings in the forest that I have not seen in a long time, so we have reason to hope.  Please follow me and stay close together and keep watch.”

“You haven’t told us anything,” Christie interjected, “How do we know that O’Brian will be able to find us, or that this Jeremiah can even be trusted?”

“Jeremiah can be trusted to do the right thing,” Maeven answered without hesitation, “As I told O’Brian and you, Begglar, earlier, Jeremiah is the one to whom I was referring when I said there was one who maintains a hidden cache in this forest where we can get supplies and the tools of war we need and perhaps some means of transport.”

Lindsey spoke up, “But you said that he would not be happy to see O’Brian again.”

“I said he may not be,” Maeven corrected, “I didn’t say would not be.  It is true there is a history between them that I cannot get into now.  But the cause they both serve is the same, and at least in that, they are unified.  Both are stubborn men.”

“Aye, I’ll vouch for that,” Begglar guffawed.

“Their disagreement was in method only, that is about all I know.  But as I’ve said, we need to get moving.  I believe most of the satyrs are traveling with The Pan.  They like to stay close to him, feel emboldened by him.  And there are dryads in the forest, so they will most likely be anxious and stirred up.  Those things hanging above us were meant to warn the satyrs, not us.  Satyrs are addicted to dryads and the dryads will come to The Pan, and you can be that is just where the satyrs will want to be when that happens.  Not even the scent of dogs will distract satyrs from pursuing a dryad, so, we have a good chance to avoid any significant number of satyrs for the time being.  Now let’s get going.  Follow closely.  Keep up and stay as quiet as you can.”

***

The Pan cast a dark shadow over the cowering trolls, as he glared at them through sightless eyes.  His hooves sinking deeper and deeper into the soft mud of the bank as he had moved threateningly over to Grum-blud and Shelberd.  Massive hands the size of shovel blades hung fisting and unfisting at its sides ready to throttle and pound the two creatures and tear their bodies apart.  “If what the asses say is true,” The Pan growl, rumbled, “What will you give me in trade for their loss?  They were unique in my kingdom, and there are not many left to serve me.  How do you, small toad, hope or plan to ever make up for that?”

From deeper in the forest, voices came crying out, again interrupting The Pan.

“Master, master!” a group of harpies flew over the heads of the dryads, and satyrs gathered below.

Irritation again, The Pan growled, “What is it?!”

The dryads hissed and crouched, then turned angry shouts of rage towards The Pan, “Betrayer!  You are in league with these flying hags!  You cannot deny it now.”

“ENOUGH!” The Pan roared, and the ground and trees seemed to quake with the sound as all assembled and near felt the vibrations from the noise.

In the weighted silence, finally one of the swooping harpies, spoke up, loud enough for all to hear, “Surface Worlders are in the forest!  We’ve caught one.”

***

“There it is!” Maeven said, moving faster through the forest.

They’d left the roadway, and had moved quickly and quietly through the woods, trying to follow Maeven’s shifting form through the dappled light.

Before them, at the midway point up a small rise, between large, very old towering trees, forming four wall-posts, holding an ornately woven ceiling formed of living vines and trees, was a kind of cupola with a woven back wall but no fore or sidewalls, leaving these sides open to the forest.  It was a place one might associate with a wedding ceremonial canopy, like a Jewish chuppah or an arboreal worship place.  In the back wall was a single doorway, fashioned by bowed branches.  On either side were the paired casements of two windows, four total, that had partial coverings and the forest beyond appeared through the tops of these.  No further building or enclosure extended beyond the back wall.

“Get under the canopy, all of you.  Quickly.  We will be safe there.”

“What is this?” Matthew asked, “There are barely any walls.”

“The Faerie Fade.  An ancient place of weddings.  A very powerful place of protection.”

***

Artifice.

Syloam blinked, cracking apart the pieces of deadwood she’d wrapped her duplicated body in.  Being very careful not to touch the scarred sides where the harpy milk had touched, she reformed herself from twisting sinuous roots out of the hollow core husk of the fallen log.  Had she lain there any longer, the dead rot would have extended through the old bark and killed her.  The fools had almost dropped the Will creature.

It had been difficult, but she had caught the Will with dead arms, and it had fooled the harpies.  Had they but looked harder, they would have noticed that the body had very little green on it—mostly a film of lichen.  The deadfall had served her needs.  She hoped her fallen sister would not mind being used in this way.  “Truly,” she whispered with a hiss as she lifted once again from off of the forest floor, extending herself with vines reaching into the trees, “Death for death!”  Only the death would be for the one called Mawgla.  The one carrying her Will.

Conflagration – Chapter 58

The canopy shook with conflict.  Dozens of harpies, like black-feathered missiles, launched out from under the treetops in a burst of scattered leaves and broken branches amid a barrage of shrieks and harsh laughter.  Large spider-like creatures, each with thorax and abdomen bearing a human-like form exploded from beneath the canopy, hissing and leaping angrily after them, tearing much larger holes in the turbulent sea of leaves.  The treetops trembled and shook from the embroiled battle above and below.  The feathered missiles opened their large wings, pumping them up and sweeping behind as they gained altitude, twisting in aerial arcs, moving higher beyond the grasping, leaping limbs of the dryads trying to tear them out of the sky.

The haze of smoke rising from the sea of trees threatened to surfeit the treetop turbulences under a billowing deluge of gray.  Fiery tongues licked hungrily at the yellowed sky.  Dryads, thus revealed in their full foliaged rage, swatted at the diving harpies, some hits landing a solid blow, causing them to careen into the canopy below, others missing, throwing the lunging dryad off-balance, causing them to roll across the treetops and catch fire.

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The scene was surreal.  Like dark devils dancing and raging over the rotting, undulating canvass suspended over the smoky pit of hell as in Jonathan Edward’s vision.

Harpies curled in and out among the dryads bounding after them, heckling and deriding them.  Dryads with long thorny vines swung their whip-like flagella after them, landing their barbs into feathered flesh, tangling the harpy’s wild flowing grey hair, scratching their scowling withered and twisted faces.

The harpies returned the fight, raking milky claws across the backs of the dryads as they swooped in and out, causing these to rapidly wither and crumble, breaking their branches as they became brittle and snapped.

Every dryad scarred by the talons of the harpies convulsed in spasms, had rough bark enshroud their bodies, obliterating any semblance of their human form, and they became rigid deadfalls crashing back down to break apart into the forest below.

The fight raged on until finally, the dryads realized what the harpies had been doing.

With each dive, swoop, corkscrew aerial and taunt, the harpies had been drawing the dryads further and further into the forest fires raging below and then evading them from the air, rising up on heat thermals to gain altitude out of reach.  The harpies, though sustaining losses themselves to both thorn, strike and fire were systematically wiping the dryads out.

***

At the sound of Miray’s scream, the dark birds that had been above the group leaped from their perches and descended towards the dangling heads, raking their talons across the dreadful ornaments, causing them to sway and spin.  The birds cackled at the gaping travelers as they circled further and further down to them.

Laura held Miray close to her, leaning down, taking the young girl’s face in her hands to calm her.

“Miray, look at me,” she coaxed, “Look at me.”

The young girl’s eyes were full of tears, as she tried again to look upwards at the horrible sights, not wanting to see, yet unable to turn away entirely.

“Miray,” Laura repeated, her voice was calming, as Nell stood over them, shielding the sights above with her body, and protectively gathering the two girls under her arms.

Miray held the backs of Laura’s hands, pressing them harder into her cheeks and ears, blocking the sounds, of the cackling “birds” above, if not wholly able to shut off her other senses.

“I’m afraid for you,” Miray’s lips trembled as she fought the urges not to look above and found a sense of shelter in Laura’s pleading eyes.

The shock caused Laura to blink rapidly and tear up.  Bath or not, she pressed Miray into her arms and chest and choked back her own amazed-tears.

“Well, well, well,” the voices of the birds descended upon them, both bird-like in quality, yet that of rasping, old vulgar women one might associate with the brothel madams and past-prime, cigar-chomping, hard-drinking, bawdy saloon girls of the old west.  These swooped over the tops of their heads, brushing by them with downdrafts from the beating of their wings, and glided to rocks and lower limbs just to either side and ahead of them.

“Outworlders,” one observed, the old haggard face of a wrinkled, scowling woman, pushing out of a tangle of long gray hair behind a large beak-like nose that dominated her features.  Her eyes were deep-set and black–shining darkly, under a heavy forehead. Her broad brow was interwoven with both wiry gray hair and blackened feathers extending radially from the shadowy caves holding her eyes.  Another of these creatures, its face barely feminine, if at all, looked sunken behind ridges of wrinkles causing her face to droop and frown from every aspect, croaked, “Prizes for The Pan, methinks.  Master will be pleased.”  A cruel chuckle coupled with bird chirps emitted from the three bird creatures, as they leaned forward to study their lot.

From the northwest came a trilling noise, almost flute-like.  To the east, a rapid clapping sound, like two stones beat together.  Before anyone could react fully, a hunched figure sprang up behind the dark harpy who had alighted on the mossy boulder rock.

“Hello, sweetness!” the figure said, pulling the harpy’s head backward, jabbing its jagged stone knife under her jowly throat, “So glad you could come down to play.”  It leaned its wooly face over her shoulder, its yellow eyes dancing brightly from its ash-blackened face, its jagged, sharpened and broken teeth gleamed as it skinned its lips back in a disturbing grin.

“Back off, satyr!” the thick-browed, harpy jerked seeing her sister, held under threat, by the wickedly grinning creature, whose arms now pinned the harpy’s wings under a steely grip.  “These are our prisoners!”

Mason sighted down the shaft of the arrow notched in his bow, not sure which of the enemies to aim at first.  Christie swept her sword upward, ready to hack and slash at any one of the harpies than dared to swoop near them again.  James raised his halberd into both hands, angling the hooked blade outward, ready to cleave into either the threat from ground or sky.  Begglar lowered the reaper blade from his staff downward, letting it pivot from his midshaft grip to scythe through the legs of any satyr feinting and running by.  Dominic fingered the jagged stones he’d collected, unnoticed, from the riverside.  He bore a half-pouch sling tucked into his traveling tunic that he’d kept in reserve.  The jagged stones were broken pieces of flint that he knew would serve for lethal purposes.  He and his dad’s game of “Rats in the Barn” served many purposes and with many makeshift forms of natural weaponry.  Back to back with the unarmed members, in their center, they bristled against the threats all around them.

“Beg to differ, harpy,” the satyr gouged the harpy he held in the back between the shoulders of her wings making her squawk, “Prisoners of prisoners belong to the one who has the upper hand.  We knew you couldn’t resist this bait.”

The momentary distraction, caused the other to fail to see the dark shaggy figure snaking its way up the back of the tree towards the branch on which she rested.  Before she was aware of it, the sneaking satyr had slapped a metal snap locking manacle upon the two metal shanks that covered and protected her legs against the symbolic threat of the dryads.  The satyr leaped down from the tree trunk trailing a finely linked chain in his hand, and with the weight of his fall, tugged and jerked the harpy from her perch, pitching her to the ground, her wings flailing, her body slamming the ground with a thud, whereupon the satyr pinned the creature down with his hooves and squatted over her.

“You’ve been grounded, granny!” he fingered her breast ruffle with a dirty, sooty paw.  Black nails scratching the top of her grey breast.  Then he turned his ugly bearded face toward the other satyr who held the harpy under his knife.

“Are we allowed to eat this chicken?”

***

Maeven witnessed the exchange and the developments surrounding the company.  One free harpy remained, glaring down at the two satyrs that had turned the tables and odds against their upper hand.  She saw the crew loosen their vigilance and focus on the exchange between their would-be captors, turning away from the areas of vulnerability.  Their weapons tracked on the known threats but opened them to others.  Using these distractions, however, she knew she could work them to an advantage.

Quietly as she could, she had set natural timer traps to create forest noises.  Small saplings bent carefully back under creeper vines she knew would break under the strain.  Branches intertwined to come loose and swing and swoosh.  A stone balanced precariously on an outcrop covered in scarred moss beds.  A forked bush with branches pinned and folded against a shallow-rooted tree.  And to cap off the distraction, she’d collected scrapings of the fine yellow dust from the leaves left by the dryads where Will had been abducted and sealed it in a pair of small glass flasks corked shut.

Spines of stone jutted out from the forest trail as it descended away from the mountain ridge road that led up to the once shrouded city of Azragoth.  If the noises failed to distract the satyrs, the glass flasks, once shattered and spilled out upon stone, would not.

The satyrs were cunning in their own right, but even after all these years, they were still enslaved to their most primal animal instincts.

***

Syloam caught her plummeting body on a series of limbs, just before plunging into the burning brush below.  A fog of smoke obscured the forest floor yet flashes of orange and yellow flame flared through it like lightning flashes.

A sheen of sweat beaded her brow, as she tucked and curled like a trapeze artist, and oriented back upward into the high woods, rising with the smoke.  Ahead she saw harpies, flying low through the woods, embers and flaming sticks clenched in their flexor pin feathers, like lighted wingtips, as they flew and glided through the lower forest. Their flight was concerted and deliberate–touching off smaller fires as they brushed the leafy tops dragging the flaming embers through the dried brush and fallen leaves.

Above, and in the distance, she saw the place where her high bower nest had once been. Beyond, the abattoir basket bower, now torn free of its moorings, was being flown away by at least five or six of the black-feathered beasts.

“Mine,” she whispered, the words exhaled through red and full lips, then drew in a deep lungful of heated air and she shuddered at how little the air helped her breathe.  Her next words, though forced and backed by outrage and feral wildness, came out raw and coughed.  “MINE!  THE MAN IS MINE!  GIVE IT BACK!  GIVE IT BACK!”

Vines and branches shot out from her, clawing her vaulted path through the trees, moving fast in pursuit.  A patina of green frothy patches pulsing and fading all over her body, her fingers and hands growing in size, branching out like gnarled arthritic claws.  She grasped, grappled and raced through the mid-level portion of the forest, high enough above the fiery floor, yet below the upper canopy, her wooden claws wrapping the trunks of trees driving her faster and faster forward after the rapidly deteriorating branch and vine-woven cage, carried in flight ahead of her.  The harpies would have to find a clear flight path through, without dropping the cage and the man they held prisoner within.  But Syloam had no such limitation.  Though they were already far ahead, she knew she would catch them.  And when she did there’d be hell to pay–the hell of a woman-dryad scorned.

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***

Maeven moved low and quiet, turning her feet to find the soft ground of pine needles, avoiding the dried leaves as much as she could.  And then the first of her timed noise-traps went off.  Vines snapped, and the pinned brush swooshed, shaking the leaves and clacking branches.  The tilted stone, heavily sliding down the smooth moss mud, fell from the boulder, down upon the assemblage of buried stone, cracking noisily.  The sapling tilted down, pulled up from the soft staked earth, swishing back into its upright tilt, brushing the surrounding bushes.  And Maeven palmed the glass flasks and threw them hard towards another outcropping of stone, shattering glass, spilling the powdery yellow substance across the rock and causing it to puff briefly in the air.

The satyrs followed the noises with their eyes, but when the glass broke, they whipped their heads around in the direction, their nostrils flaring, their breathing becoming more of a rapid pant.

Crack!  She threw and shattered the other bottle, against another rock, even as she launched from out of the backwoods, racing towards the group gathered and surrounded.

Taking advantage of the distraction the third harpy, took flight, climbing back upward toward the treetops, with rapid movements of her wings.  The satyrs responded excitedly and violently.  The one with the stone knife stabbed savagely into the harpy’s feathered breast, then lept away as it quivered and stilled, moving towards the enticing scent that had captured his interest.  The other, wrapped the chain around the harpy’s neck, garroting the bird-hag with a quick twist and then dragged its body after him as he launched himself towards the other strike site where the second shattered flask had landed.

Maeven slid in low, kicking the bottom tip of her bow from Mason’s hand, catching the arrow he released in surprise at seeing her suddenly emerge from the brush.  She caught the bow, spun it into her forearm grip, had the arrow notched, pulled and let it fly whizzing through the air to pierce the back of the distracted satyr who had run to the first broken flask.  The satyr buckled at the hit, misstepped and fell forward into the rocks, plunging face down into the yellow dust.

“Arrow!” Maeven shouted at Mason.

“Ain’t got all day, kid!” she shouted when Mason hesitated, amazed at how fast Maeven had turned the tables, “Arrow!”

Mason obliged, reached over his shoulder, catching feathered fletches of one, and pulled it out, tossing it to her.

She had it notched, in half a second, pointed the bow and tip upward, pulled it back deeply and let it fly.  The arrow seemed to sizzle through the air, aimed at the fleeing harpy, trying to gain the safety of the upper branches.

Thock!  The arrow point caught her mid-flight, driving deep into her feathered body, and she let out a “Gaaawwww!” noise, that quickly silenced as one of her wings folded over the driven shaft, and her horrible form tumbled downward, bouncing off of a tree pole, spinning from a branch, and then dropped down with a thud and snap as its body hit the road beyond them.  The second satyr, dragging the garroted harpy from the thin chain, smothered its bearded face in the yellow dust, it bent down licking the powder hungrily off of the rocks and bits of glass that had once contained the substance, its hands and face smeared with smudges of yellow, oblivious to its own danger.

“You are better now than you have ever been, Storm Hawk,” a deep voice spoke from somewhere close, startling the party and Maeven as well.

She whirled and spun the bow, its sharp, blade-capped nocks, ready to slash the next unknown assailant.

A crouched and shrouded figure stood up from atop the boulder, looking down at them.

He raised his hands defensively and said simply, “Slow down there, I’m friendly.  Don’t you remember me?”

“Jeremiah?” Maeven lowered her bow, the frame falling forward loosely from her palm and she flipped and caught it, and slung the arc over her shoulder.

“It’s been a long time,” she said.

“Too long, I’m afraid,” he took in the party, and the prone satyr sniveling in the dirt among the dusted stones.

He noticed a cut on its shoulder and a particularly familiar pattern of tufted hair ridges down its back.

Maeven moved towards the groveling creature, but Jeremiah stayed her.

“Leave this one to me.  I’ve been tracking him.  He maimed my horse and I had to put it down.  Cut its ligaments.”

“Horrible,” Maeven said, matter-of-factly.

The satyr still did not look up, so consumed and obsessed it was with the dryad powder.

“You need to get these folks out of Kilrane,” Jeremiah said, “These forests are not what they used to be.”

“I know, I know,” Maeven said, looking back to the group.

Christie, Miray, Laura, and Lindsey rushed to embrace her.

“So glad to have you back.”  Their voices crowded over each other.

“We were worried.  We thought that…”

Mason’s heart was still pounding in his chest at how swiftly their situation had turned around with Maeven’s return.

Her speed and accuracy with the bow under pressure amazed him.

“Can you teach me that?”

Maeven turned to him and smiled, “It takes a lot of time and practice, but sure, kiddo.  Desperation helps, but there are many situations, here in the Mid-World, which will amply give you that.  If you want to do what it takes, I’ll show you what you need to know.  But it’s still up to you.”

“I noticed you don’t hold the grip but let the tension of the drawstring pull press it into your palm.  How do you aim so well if you don’t grip it?”

“Good eye, Mason.  That is a common mistake understudy’s make.  The aim is in the line between the string, arrow, and guide, not in the tension.  Accuracy is deadlier than the power of the pull.  Focus on the line of the arrow, not the grip or even the arrowhead.  Gripping the bow will make your tightened arm muscles shake and you will tire too easily.  Keep your fingers open and loose.  Use the flat of your palm to push out as you draw it back and do not curl your finger around the arrow shaft.  Use a finger glove or thimble if you can get one.”

“Where did you learn all this?” Matthew asked.

Maeven nodded at Jeremiah, “Him.”

Jeremiah had rounded and descended the boulder and was cautiously approaching the satyr, so consumed by the fallen powder, it did not sense its own peril.

On the road, the company of travelers gathered together around Maeven and the one she’d called Jeremiah.

The man was tall, solidly built, broad-shouldered, yet lean and rangy looking.  His hair was cropped short and thin, and his face was reddened and tanned, his eyes deep-set and knowing, with age-worn gathers at the end.  His demeanor was reserved and measured.  He wore a dark green cloak and hood and carried a longbow, and rapier sword easily accessed from a hip scabbard, with a bell fist cage guard and a leather-wrapped hilt.

Jeremiah had used a bola weapon, a sort of cable with two weighted knuckles of metal or stone on each end, that was spun like a toss sling and hand-thrown, wrapping the target and inflicting debilitating injury when the weights on the cord smashed and bludgeoned the enwrapped victim.  The satyr had been dazed by the weapon, and Jeremiah bound him to a tree using the self-same chain the creature had used to garrote the dead harpy.  He’s stuffed and gagged the creature’s mouth with a hard pine cone and left it there for the “others” to find him.  By others, he meant the dryads, whom he knew to be now lurking in the forest of Kilrane.

“Let the others deal with their own,” he’d said, once he’d securely bound the satyr and the body of the harpy together to the tree, he added, “The dead shall bury their dead.”

The group gathered around Jeremiah, eager to meet this one whom Maeven seemed to know already, yet one in the group already also knew the man and had known him well many years ago.  Maeven made the introductions, for the man had but little to say, yet when she came to Begglar she stopped short.

Jeremiah studied him, and Begglar was silent a moment, but then spoke, “It has been a long time, my friend.”

Jeremiah’s eyes widened and then narrowed, “I know this voice.  You are strangely familiar to me, yet I do not recognize you unless you are much changed.”

“I am.  The years have not been kind.  You once knew me as a man of the sea, before I left that life.”

Jeremiah moved in closer to study him under the dappled light, “Can it be?  You are not McGregor, are you?”

“The very same.”

“I was told you were dead.”

“I was.  Am.  It is complicated.  I do not go by my old name.  That life I left behind me to become something else.”

“And what did you become?”

“A baker and Innkeeper.  My name is now Begglar.  This is my wife Nellus, and my son Dominic.  Xarmni’s reach has finally extended to the place we made our home, so now, after these long years, I find that my old identity calls me back from the dead once more.”

Jeremiah stared at him, his eyes searching, and then suddenly he broke out laughing.  Mirth transformed the man’s face and unlocked his guarded reserve at last.

“Ha, ha, ha!” he bellowed and embraced Begglar and then pushed back, grasping him by the shoulders, “McGregor the mighty scourge of the sea has become a baker and an Inn Keeper.  Truly, sir, you are reborn.  Ha, ha, ha!  I would not have recognized you.  You were a much more corpulent fellow back in the day.”

“Times have been hard, my friend.  The travelers from the east quit coming when the Xarmnian occupiers began acquiring the territories.  The company of the prior have long been disbanded.  Few if any return here.  From the looks of you, there are many changes in you as well.  Where is the full-face beard, you used to have?  The thick locks of hair? Are you balding?”

Jeremiah ran his hand over his head, and grinned sheepishly, “Aye, captain.  Like you, I was a wanted man as well.  I became a forester here in Kilrane.  I’ve kept connections, but I’ve kept to myself as well.  Xarmni’s reach is indeed long and brutal.  Many from the old company have left the fellowship.  Many have just forgotten who they once were.  The spirit, if left unattended, eventually quiets into complacency.  Few dream anymore.  It is a sad state of affairs.”

“Gentlemen, if you’re through with your little reunion, we’ve got a crisis here and quite literally we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Both men gave assent.  She was right.

“So, what are your plans for this mission?” Jeremiah asked gravely.

“I am not the one called to lead.  Mister O’Brian is.”

Maeven turned and looked among the group who were watching Jeremiah, “By the way, where’s Mister O’Brian?”

“Who is this Mister O’Brian?”

Begglar, interjected, “On this mission, he is called O’Brian.  That’s another story, but you and I know him as Brian David.”

A series of inscrutable expressions seemed to pass over Jeremiah’s face that none could fully read, but after a long pause, Jeremiah said, “Well, now, this seems to be a day of many resurrections.”

“He’s seeing what’s in the pan,” Miray announced, grabbing Maeven’s hand.

“The what?”

Begglar cleared his throat, “He is scouting ahead.  He thinks The Pan is here in the forest.”

Jeremiah’s head shot up, and both he and Maeven’s eyes met reflecting a mutually, startled look, upon this news.

“That explains it,” Jeremiah muttered to himself glaring down at the fallen satyrs and then turned to Maeven once again.

Maeven was suddenly more scared than she had ever been.

“Get these folks out of Kilrane and do it quickly.  Stay off the forest roads.  I’ll go after…O’Brian, if I can.  I cannot imagine what may have been in his mind to abandon you and try to confront The Pan alone.”

Maeven studied his eyes for a moment.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I will find you. Bringing this many with you, there will be signs of your passage that cannot be hidden.”

“You’re going to leave us, too?” Laura asked, her voice quavering.

“But sir, we don’t know how to get out of this forest,” Matthew objected, “There are fires behind us. Things chasing us. What if we get turned around or lost? We need you to lead us out.”

“Son, Maeven, and Begglar both know enough to get you out of the woods. Stay with them. Do what they tell you.”

James interjected, “What if we get separated? They are creatures here that I would not have believed existed, had I not seen them with my own eyes. If we are attacked that could happen. We are not experienced fighters.”

“You have more skills than you believe. But there is more to this than you know. If you were brought here for a renewal of the Marker’s prophecy, then you need the one called to lead you to complete the journey. I am going to help bring him back to you if I can. If it is not too late. The Pan has a particular interest in the one you call O’Brian. There is something he does not know about what happened to my brother. I have to get to him before The Pan does.”

“But what if we get lost? How can we find our way out of a place we’ve never been to? What if…,” she glanced at Maeven and shrugged apologetically, “What if something happens to her? She almost died. How could we get out of here?”

“Seek a clearing,” Jeremiah said, “One never needs to get lost in a forest if you think carefully about the nature of it. The trees and vegetation around you will tell you all you need to know. Think about what they need to grow, and how they react to getting what they need.”

“What do you mean?” Tiernan chimed in.

“At the edge of the forest, the tree foliage is much lower and the ground vegetation is thicker and denser because sunlight can get to it.  The deeper one goes into the forests the higher the canopy of foliage becomes and the more sparse the ground foliage is because the sunlight cannot penetrate the canopy and only dim filtered light makes it down to the forest floor.  Moss and mushrooms and plants that thrive in decaying leaves, fungi, and low light are what thrives there. Look at the ground, the trees, the slope of the land. Water flows downward, so you know you will more than likely find rivers and streams in declivities. If one finds themselves lost in a forest with a high canopy observe the heights of it.  If the canopy lowers as you move in a particular direction it indicates that there will be a clearing or field or bare ground ahead.  The ground plants will become thicker and you will find more varieties of plants also indicating that sunlight is closer ahead. Once you reach an open field, stay within the edge of the forest, until you are certain the field is clear. Most cleared areas will have some sort of road along the edge of it. You’ll find animal trails leading into and out of it. Animals graze in the fields because the rains make the grasses sweeter and plentiful. If you find a field, you also can see the open sky and can find direction and bearings from the heavens.”

Begglar spoke up, “We have received information that Xarmni is amassing to the south.  Something is bringing them out of their strongholds into the fields. We had thought to bring them to The Fairie Fade if Maeven can still find it. It has offered protection in the past as you and I both know.”

Jeremiah turned to Maeven, “Call you still find it? It has been a while.”

“I think so. I remember enough from before. The Half-Men fear it still. We will wait for you there.”

“Fine. That is a better plan. If we are not back within an hour or so, don’t wait.  Take them in.  Get them as far away from the forest as possible.”

And with that, Jeremiah turned and headed away into the foggy smoke following the barely visible road down towards the stone bridge that spanned forest slough.

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Deadfall – Chapter 57

Tiernan had been given one of the cardinals.  Of the four cardinal points of the compass, he’d been charged with watching for enemies coming from their northern flank.  Since the group was moving south down the forest road, Tiernan was given the unenviable charge to watch the backwoods from behind.  This meant he had to either walk backward or constantly turn or look over his shoulder—a bit disorienting if trying to keep up.  At best, all he could do would be to provide a warning as the others with weapons responded to it.  O’Brian had said this was important.  He wasn’t sure how much he trusted O’Brian, but he’d sounded convincing.  “The things that hunt us will most likely come at us from behind,” O’Brian had said.  “Tiernan, since you seem to be a bit taller than the others, I’m giving you the north flank to watch.  Close your eyes, adjust for the lack of light.  Then look and listen.  The satyrs are fast and cunning.  Dangerous.  You won’t hear their footfalls, only the swishes of parting brush as they move through it.  They move like deer.  Weaving and darting through the narrow gaps, faster than you can imagine.  It is pointless to try and outrun them so we will have to stand them off.  The fires are behind us, so that may deter them from coming straight down on us, but they will angle around if they can.  They are attracted to the fires, but they will not go far into them.  Hair burns easily, and these are shaggy and unkempt.  Enough of them have caught fire cavorting about to learn caution and the smoke disorients them.  They snuffle and grunt when they run, so if they are close you’ll hear it.”

When they had seen the silhouette of The Pan, O’Brian had told them to stay back and stay silent.  He’d spoken to Begglar and placed him in the lead, and then moved ahead disappearing into the haze of smoke crossing over the road.  And that was the last they had seen of O’Brian, for nearly an hour by his reckoning.

He’d searched the woods carefully, seeing moving shadows under the sighing of the trees, but nothing exactly as O’Brian had described.  He’d heard phantom sounds, from the left northwesterly direction and the right northeastern edge of the Trathorn but the sounds could easily be mistaken for water noise from the continuance of the river moving southward over rocky rapids down the mountain slopes.  The smells were mixed with the pungent and sickly-sweet odors of the rotting flesh dangling overhead from the high branches of the towering trees.  He dared not think about the relative freshness of the grisly ornaments that they still were wet enough to give off such pungency.  It was threatening and disturbing, almost plunging him back into the nightmare he’d lived through back in the Surface World.  He felt naked without a weapon, but strangely calm, despite it.  He too had a sense of the uncanny power in the Ancient Texts.  When spoken aloud the words seemed to vibrate within the air of this strange place.  Timeless voices that seemed to return to him from days raised in a community of faith before the war called him away.

And then the noises came.

Something moving quickly with a pattering sound as forest plants parted in leafy slaps of the body that disturbed their hush.  Another noise to the left, accompanied by a quick splash of water and rapid muffled thumps.

A breathy “Henuh, henuh, henuh!” sound came from the northwesterly movements, and Tiernan responded.

“Guys!” his voice rose in pitch as the noises grew louder, “I think one or two are moving in behind us.”

“Got it, keep your voice down,” Christie responded, raising her ornate sword to guard position as Ezra had shone her.

Mason notched an arrow and swung his bow around, “I’ll cover you.  O’Brian said they have knives and clubs.  If I can get a clean shot, I’ll drop him.  Tiernan, where did you last see it?”

“It moved from the left from deeper back to that mossy stone outcropping,” he whispered low enough so that the ears in the forest beyond wouldn’t hear.

The light filtering from the canopy above dappled them in grey leafy shadows.  Mason closed his eyes for a moment, adjusting them to the light of the gloom beyond.  Christie was miffed a little.

“What’s wrong boys,” she muttered, “Don’t think a girl can handle this?”

“It’s not that, Lass,” Begglar spoke up, “It’s that you bear a short-range weapon.  If we can keep them at a distance, we need to.  Save your strength for when they move in.  You’ll get your fill.”

“Shouldn’t we save the arrows,” Christie asked, and she inclined her head to Mason, who had opened his eyes, was staring intently at the spot Tiernan had indicated while pulling the bow back with the point of the arrow closing in on his knuckled grip.  “Suppose he misses.”

Mason’s eyes squinted, and his voice lowered an octave, piqued, “Why does everyone keep saying that?”

Matt spoke up, “Mason’s a bowhunter.  He hates tromping through the brush after a lost arrow.  Don’t worry, Miss.  He’ll wait till he gets a clean shot.”

Mason’s scowl softened a bit, hearing this from Matt.

“Back home we call him the red man,” Matt added.  Gesturing upward at the top of his red hair.

The scowl on Mason’s face returned, even as the impish grin spread across Matt’s as he winked at Christie.

Christie smiled, and reached over patting Mason’s shoulder, “You’ve got this, kiddo.”

Matt added, “Just kiddin’ you, Mace.  Put a feather in the nasty goat-man.  Wish I had those pick-axes.”

***

Back in Azragoth, Morgrath and his soldiers looked startled when a soldier asked, “Where have all the cats gone?”

Of course, Morgrath realized.  The room at the top of the Keep towers had several cats that would often rally and intertwine the feet of visitors to the upper tower room upon entry from the tower stairwell.  The cats were kept there to keep mice and rats from infesting the grain silos.  Naturally, the rodents were attracted to the silos because of the grain.  They could scale the wall of the keep, ascend the stairs, climb up from the tunnels below, scurry along the rafters, wedge themselves through the loose mortar between the stones, enter through the narrow window slits in the towers and gatehouses.  They would have been a terrible scourge were it not for the cats and the birds of prey nesting in the nooks and crannies and battlements atop the towers of the Keep.

Now their sudden absence caused an even greater unsettling of mind and a more heightened sense of danger.

A soldier named Selanth emerged from one of the side tunnels having gone through to the grain silo and the gantry room next to it.

His face was pale and ashen as he announced, “They’re all dead in there.”

“What?!”

“Dulos and the others.  The grain doors are open.  I could see their bodies down below.  The storage wells are spoiled with the rot of the dead.  Wasted.”

Another soldier emerged from the opposing corridor to the other silo.

“What he says is true over here, as well.  The meal tower is opened and bodies filled the room.  The rest of the watch have been slain and cast into the silos.  Amaran is looking into the other tower on this side, but I have no doubt he may find the same.”

The mentioned Amaran emerged from behind.

“Sir, there are dead in both of the northern silos.  No sign of the enemy dead.”

Morgrath turned away glaring down into the blackness of the descending stairwell leading to the tunnel network below.

“No sign of their dead,” he muttered to himself thinking long and hard about what that might mean.  “What possible could so overwhelm these seasoned guards and not suffer losses for the effort?”

“Sir?” Selanth spoke up hesitantly, “I did notice something odd in both areas.  Perhaps it matters, perhaps not?”

Morgrath sighed and turned back to the soldier.

“What?”

“Tunnel sand, sir,” he said, “It is strewn all over the floor in there, down the hallway.”

“And there, sir, more of it there.” he pointed to the floor around the dark entrance to the stairs below.

Four drifts, elongated and irregularly shaped mounds of dry sand matching that found in the tunnels below the city.  The mounds had been strewn and kicked about but there was something odd about them and yet familiar.

He knelt and ran his gloved fingers through the mound, letting the loose grains sift through his fingers.  His eyes widened and then he suddenly rose and pivoted, almost running towards the capstan rooms.

“We have to release the grain into the sluice gates.  Flood them quickly.  There is little time.  Hurry!”

The metal staves had been removed and four men gathered behind the capstan spindle arms and began to push the grinding capstan spindle.

Others who did not understand began to protest, “That is our yearly harvest.”

“We can remove the bodies and salvage most of the grain.”

“Why are we doing this?”

Morgrath’s muscles bunched as he and his companions began to slowly turn the grinding spindle.

“The slain of the enemy is present all around us.  They are in the sand.”

The other soldiers at the other capstan began pushing the spindle and far below in the bottom of the silos gears groaned under extreme weight and a shift in pressure.  Fine dust and powder coughed up in a yellowish-white billow from the central stairwell accompanied by a growing hiss sound.

“Push!  There is an army in the tunnels below us, because of that Dust Dragon!” Morgrath commanded them, “Push with all your might!”

From the stairwell, a sudden wailing shriek arose, followed by another.  Then another.  Terrible cacophonous noises arose as well as a rumbling groan and cracking of the wood and falling stone, like the sound of an avalanche coming from the deep throat of the descending stairs.

***

Maeven could see the satyr as it shifted swiftly from deep shadow to deep shadow.  She could hear its snuffling grunts as it crossed in and out of the dappled light, brushing leaves as it crossed closer towards its quarry ahead, intent on stirring up as much terror as it could.  All she had in her possession was the knife she’d used to cut Will free of his bonds that the Troll had bound him with, but nothing more.  She knew the creature would get wind of her soon enough if she wasn’t careful, but from the looks of its actions, it seemed more intent on stalking the party of Surface Worlders ahead.

It crouched low by the stone outcropping, hunkered down but peering furtively over the mossy rock, glaring with hate-filled eyes at the circle of travelers warily searching the surrounding forest from all directions.  She heard him chortle to himself as he watched them.

A voice of strange timber, hiss out from his sharpened teeth, “Pretties gather.  Cut’s them we will.  Bleed them.  Soon we feed them.”

Maeven saw the saw-toothed flint blade in the creature’s dirty hand as it leaned up against the rock, sniffing.  Its bare, back was marked with dark soot and ash so that it could not be seen moving among the shadows.  A line of matted fur rose from his midriff wool up the middle of his back.  A sheen of sweat stood upon the oil of its body, smears of black with finger lines raked through it, hatched its skin, giving the illusion that its body was part of the forest background, a tactic it had used on more than one occasion to fool and surprise the dryads.

***

Just as Dellitch the Harpy had suspected, the foolish, hot-headed dryad climbed up through the canopy to confront her.

She came bearing something shrouded in her arms only too willing to thrust it upward as she emerged through the top of the canopy.  A severed claw, gnarled with age, but held proudly before her, as vines twisted around the body of the dryad lifting her above the tops of the trees to glare fiercely at the Harpy.

“How dare you interrupt our sport!” she hissed with the sound of stirring leaves.

Dellitch laughed harshly, “Sport?!  Is that what you are calling it now?”

Syloam spat back, “This wood is ours, your kind have no right to come here!  We had an agreement!”

“We are under orders, Leafy,” Dellitch chirruped back, her large owlish eyes widening then narrowing to slits at the object the dryad held in her hand warding her back like it was some sort of protective talisman.

“Under whose orders, hag-face?!” Syloam twisted upward, vines sprouting from her back and sides in a tentacular mass.

“Careful, you voluptuous collection of sticks!  You have a Surface Worlder in your lair.  That is contraband.  You know the orders of The Pan!”

“Shut up, pig bat!  You know as well as I do, The Pan does not forbid our sporting with these outworlders.  He wants a way back as much as we do!”

The harpy leaned forward, a dark milky froth seeping down its black-feathered breast, dripping down upon the curl and knuckles of its claws as it adjusted its weight and balance on the barren limb.

“Not in the order you ascribe.  These are to be brought to him first, and then he gives you leave to ‘sport’ with them.  Your mind is as twisted as your branches.”

White pearlescent drops dripped from the metal shanks on the harpy’s legs and wet the dark black talons clutching and splaying outward letting the milky substance bead and moisten the sharp points, as the harpy held the dryads in a steely glare.  A half-smirk curled her age cracked lips, as her eyes bulged and narrowed almost hypnotically, anticipating the imminent attack.  Her hunger for the violence of it barely contained almost making her giddy.

What the harpy did not see were the other eyes that watched and witnessed the exchange, barely peeking upward with beautiful faces below the leafy canopy.

***

I moved through the smoke, following the silhouette that shifted under the ghostly light.  I could hear the Pan’s deep, resonant voice addressing someone ahead as it rumbled through the ground like a bass register.  He stood amid moving shapes and shadows and I knew that these would be his retinue of satyrs, eager for whatever mischief he set them to.  I heard their grunting noises as they reveled about him, vying for attention.  The smoke masked the oils and scents that would reveal me long before I came into view, yet I heard the Pan taking in deep snuffling breaths trying to measure his surroundings to offset his hampered ability to see them.  I heard splashing in the lapping water, so I knew the backwatered slough was near and it would be giving off its own brackish scents to mingle into the miasma of forest fragrances.

“Where are my manticores?” the deep voice rumbled to someone, I did not perceive to be a satyr.

Oh no, I thought, this is not going to bode well for the one being questioned.

A piggish grunt came back, distinctive of what I knew to be the sound of a creature we had already encountered in our travels.

“Your worship,” the piggish grunt, sounded chastised, and apologetic, almost groveling, “All did not go according to plan.  There were some…losses.”

A deeper growl rumbled from below, “Losses?  Well, now.  Losses are to be expected.  Counting Morgrawr, I sent you twenty-six of these mighty beasts.  How many are left?”

***

Lindsey noticed the birds first.

She hated that she had lost her weapon in the lake.  She had much rather fight, than watch the overhead canopy, especially since those horrible rotting heads dangled from above.

Christopher and Matthew got the east and the western sides to peer into, but she had to glare at those nasty vile danglers, and somehow watch for movements beyond them.  Large shadows had passed over the tops of the trees.  She had seen the silhouettes passing and gliding overhead against the hazy yellow sky.  It was eerie.  She imagined Sulphur clouds under a waning sun.  The smell of it felt about right.  No telling what all manner of creatures roamed this world of contradictions.  In some respects, beautiful, and serene.  Unspoiled mountain vistas that bore no sign of powerlines crawling up them, or pipelines stair-stepping from pump-station to pump-station to keep the internal pressure high enough ensure delivery to valley communities beyond.  No cutback ski runs or switchback trails.  Pristine wilderness…inhabited by monsters.

It was difficult to see them through the dark clusters of leaves swaying and rustling so far above.  With the slightest noise, these large birds curved and swirled down in gyres, punching deftly through the canopy and gliding to dark limbs high above.  As they settled upon the limbs they appeared larger than she had expected.  But with only a slight flutter, they remained quiet in the darkness.  Unmoving.  Waiting.

“I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there appear to be some awfully large birds high up in the branches above us,” she said loud enough for only the company to hear her.

Miray couldn’t help herself.  She looked upward, saw the array of death above her…and screamed.

***

Will heard the voices above raised in anger, but there was nothing he could do.  The girl had left him tied in the half-cage of woven vines and branches.  Leafy walls surrounded him, keeping much of the sidelight out except for a few dappled rays from the sun.  He was disoriented.  Did not know how long he’d been held here.  His thoughts and memories were not clear.  His shirt was open, his chest bared.  He remembered the girl.  Such beautiful and haunting green eyes.

And dust…

Some kind of yellowish dust that coated his face and hands.  He’d wiped some of it off on his shoulder.  Weird.

He was now sweating profusely.  Every movement, every struggle against his bonds seemed to sway the cage in which he found himself.  He smelled the distinct odor of smoke and heard a distant crackling sound accompanied by a series of whooshing noises.

Man, it is getting warm in here, he thought as he struggled again against the vines.  This time they felt a bit looser than before as if some of the fibers had at last torn in all his wrenching and thrashing about.

He doubted if the girl would be back anytime soon.  But something was coming this way.  The crackling, whooshing, and popping noises were getting louder.  He was so confused.  And he was so irritated by how hot it was getting.

***

“You are not welcome in our forest,” Syloam hissed her bristling green body now circling the harpy, as moving branches lifted her like a large spider walking spindly-legged over the tops of the trees.

“Upon that, you’ve made yourself clear, Wood-Rot,” Dellitch cawed threateningly, “Why don’t you go suck on a sour root and leave me to my business.  I could blight this entire forest if I wanted to.”

The harpy’s large golden eyes followed the movements of the dryad, its black pupil narrowing against the yellowing smoke drifting up from the canopy below.

As Dellitch made ever so slight turns of her head following the path of the cagy dryad, a small vine from the canopy below quietly extended upward, circling the barren limb upon which she rested.

“It was you, Scowl Owl, who interrupted my business remember?” Syloam fluttered, “You who put your meddling claw where it does not belong.”

The tendril vine looped and twisted, snaking silently towards the grip of the harpy, fastened along the dried branch.

“You’ll find these claws not so ornamentally accommodating as you might think,” Dellitch responded, moving a half step to the left, flaring a talon and nicking the tendril vine with a tiny pricking cut.  The vine’s movement ceased and its small leaves crinkled and browned.  Its central stalk drying and hardening rapidly to become brittle.

The harpy’s neck twist and peered downward in an instant, then shot up and glared daggers at the dryad, “Clever!”

A gasp arose from below and then shrieking.  A form twisted and jerked in the canopy, thrust upward, leaves parting, showing a lithe female body, swathed in a covering of moss that was rapidly becoming mottled and black.  Bark sloughed off of the thrashing figure as she then fell backward enveloped again in the canopy but the sounds of crashing and limbs cracking accompanied her plunge below.

The harpy’s head twisted at what seemed to be an impossible angle as she screeched at Syloam, “Clever, but foolish!” and then launched herself, claws flared at the dryad.

Seven other dryads, lurking below the canopy launched upward to surround the harpy, hoping to entangle her before she could gain altitude, but two of them were stopped short as something from below latched on to them and jerked them back downward, shrieking and quivering toward the forest floor.

Syloam shrank backward, falling behind the other dryads who had risen upward through the treetops, she dove underneath the leaves heading downward, vines folding behind her, branches tucked away, rapidly shifting her hybrid visage back into that of a woman.  She had to get to her prize.  No one could take her prize possession.  He was the key through which they would get past the doorway.  The one whose seed would be sown in blood.

The sight that met her eyes, however, caused her to shriek and flail, trying to stop her downward movement.

The forest floor and the lower trees were on fire.  One of the dryad sisters lay in the midst of the smoldering flames, engulfed in smoke, her blighted branches now twisted and blackened and stilled.

***

The basket room lurched, and Will was twisted from side to side, as movements from outside struck the outer wall of the cage in which he was kept.  He heard vines snapping, and a ripping tearing noise as if the branches above had just been struck by lightning.  The cage spun, tossing his legs from side to side, then pitched downward, canted as if two or three or four thick vines holding it within the tops of the trees had snapped loose.  Large black claws pierce the ceiling above him, but he could not see outside, what manner of beasts it was that held him.  He heard a familiar laughing as the cage lurched again and parts of the edge of the basket browned and grew brittle, snapping loose a few of the curved thatch that revealed how high he was above the forest floor now black and grey with smoke and soot.  Erupting with flash fires, as the dried brush was kindled into flame.  The floor sagged and browned as well, and the heel of his foot punched through the weave.  Four pairs of large black talons pierced the half-ceiling and he was sure he saw black feathered wings push air through the porous wall in a heavy downdraft as the leafy sky beyond began to move past the opening.

***

“Murderer!” a shriek rang out, from the trees, rapidly moving towards the slough.

“Slaughterer!  Thief!  Liar!” more voices like the sound of rushing winds and waves breaking upon a rocky seashore in a storm, increase in volume as the trees in the distance shook and shuddered, accompanied by a blast of leaves swirling and exploding outward.  The haze of the smoke from the backwoods accompanied the forceful sounds forming a swirling nimbus around the angered accusers rushing towards the Slough where Grum-blud stood quivering before the towering figure of The Pan.

The satyrs scurried forward, leaving their mighty forest king, eager to meet the coming voices filled with ire for their master.

Enemies Above and Below – Chapter 56

The angular face of a crone, sharp and aquiline, with a white and gray nimbus of wild hair, and a pair black and golden eyes peered down into the bower where the young man was held, wrapped in vines.  A young woman with piercing emerald eyes, pawed at the young man, stroking his face and brow, arms and chest, whispering to him words that could not be overheard, but seemed to have an effect on him so that he blushed, and his eyes widened at what she was saying.  A net of woven branches and vines formed a mesh beneath them, yet the leafy canopy from the top was partially open to the treetops and the sky beyond.

“What you got in there, twigsy?!”

The voice was harsh and raspy as if spoken by someone who had spent their whole life filling their mouth and lungs with smoke, desiccating their vocal cords.  The young woman started and turned her head upward, searching for the source of the raspy voice.

The crone cackled, her angular and aged face disappearing from one vantage point and then reappearing from another, outside of the girl’s field of search.

A patina of leafy green passed over the girl’s face as she searched the leafy canopy encircled about her and the young man.

“He’s mine!” she spat and hissed at the seemingly disembodied voice, “I found him!”

The branches above shook rustling the thick mats of leaves covering the high bower, as whatever it was seemed to bound over the top of the canopy, shrieking and laughing harshly.

The young man looked up beyond the girl, his face previously enraptured and enchanted by the attentions of the beautiful girl, now seemed to shake the influence and glare angrily.

“Leave us alone!” he yelled, “Go away!”

He made an effort to strike out at the being but felt hindered, only now seeming to realize, with puzzlement, that his arms and legs were entangled in the vines holding him to the woven walls.

From behind him, the old crone’s face appeared through the dense leaves, “He doesn’t know what you are!” she cackled, shrieking with derisive laughter.

“Tell him what you are, woody dear!” and her head ducked away, as the nymph girl turned suddenly, seeing only the rustle of leaves as they enfolded over the retracted darting face of the ugly crone.

A raw, throaty whisper, rasped, “Tell him what you are!”

The girl lunged at the dense leaves, vines sprouting angrily from her fingertips, “Harpy!  Child-killing harpy!”

A sheath of vines and foliage shrouded the woman’s once smooth, cream-colored complexion, as her anger flared, forgetting to maintain the illusion for the young man she had beckoned and wooed, awaiting her in the cocoon bower below.  Her body rustled with unfolding leaves, and an intricate network of veins that wrapped her body like swirling, grids of tattoo work, rapidly inking her smooth luxuriant skin before his very eyes as she crawled up the sides and along the ceiling of the vine-woven cage she had brought him to for more private intimate attention.

The young man’s eyes went wide in terror, realizing what he’d thought was a sensuous young woman was actually something else entirely.  He struggled violently against the vines that held him, his heart racing his breathing becoming labored and panicked, expelling some of the pheromonal dust he’d breathed in.

“What ARE you?”

The dryad woman cursed and hissed in frustration at the old crone somewhere on the outside of the bower cocoon.

“Mood-killer!  Meddling bat-faced hag!”

Then remembering her captive, she gasped and turned to look downward at him, her skin suddenly smoothing out, the varicose vascular lines fading and descending back below her epidermal layer, the sprouted leaves covering her slender feminine figure shrinking and withering down to disappear within her dilated pores.  A patina of green flashed over her complexion as she fought to regain her blushing composure for the young man’s benefit.

She coughed at him, expelling a puff of yellow smoke from her pouted lips that rained down a cloud of fine dust upon the bound young man.  “Tell me your name again, sweet, beautiful man,” she said seductively, as she slid sinuously down from a vine in the ceiling.

A euphoric glaze seemed to pass over the young man as he again breathed in the dust, forgetting his panic, surrendering once more to the desire that had beckoned him to follow the young woman when she’d invited him to play.

“My name is Will,” he said, his mind surrendering the memory of what he’d just witnessed, to the possibility that whatever this yellow dust was that covered his face and body must be some hallucinogen and that the scare he’d just had was only a temporary drug-induced nightmare attempting to replace the pleasure of the dream he wanted to come true with this exotic and fascinating girl.

The girl responded, her voice soothing and soft as warm butter, “And my name is Syloam.  You are a very beautiful man, Will and I want you.  I am going to have you…WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS!” she added the last loudly directed to the cone-faced creature that had harassed her and distracted her from without.

She moved down to his level, knelt and placed her hands upon his shoulders, then ran them smoothly up the sides of his neck, kneading his tense muscles as she did so, and then proceeded to cup the sides of his face, move forward and kissing his face gently with soft feather touches of her lips.

Her eyes were so beautiful, and Will could not turn away from her as she gazed directly into his own with desire he reciprocated.  Never had he felt such wanting.  She then moved in to kiss him fiercely and hungrily on the mouth, and he struggled forward to meet her but the restraints prevented him from embracing her and holding her.

When she finally withdrew from the kiss, she pulled back, patting his head and tousling his hair like she might a small boy.

“Stay put, Will.  Your Syloam will be right back, shortly.  I just need to ensure we are not interrupted again.”

***

Dellitch the crone-faced Harpy, smiled as she hopped out of the canopy upon a high limb that stood like a crooked talon above the tops of the other trees and was mostly barren of leaves.  The sun’s rays bathed her bizarre body in a golden light revealing her strange features to the witness of the sky.  She made a chirrup-chirrup noise in the back of her throat, a very bird-like sound, as she shuffled and extended her large black feathered wings, and placed her large grey talons with black hooked claws upon the branch adjusting her balance in the breeze that wafted over the forest treetops, rustling and sighing through the leaves making visible its transit along the foliage sea of green.  She bore a feathered ruffle below her jowly neck, like a bola wrap, under which jutted the curved tops of two prodigious grey-skinned bosoms.  Frothy, milky wetness glistened the chest-feather plumage and clabbered in the ruffles below it, giving off the distinctive sour odor of curdled milk.  Her body stood about four feet tall from the crown of her wildly flowing grey hair to the bottoms of her fat clawed feet.  She had no arms to speak of, only large black wings that stretched from twelve to fifteen feet across from tip to tip, with a hooked barb jutting out from the wrist joint at the end of the patagium of each wing.

Harpies were hated by the dryads for many reasons, but certain reasons stood out among the others.  The dryad females found that they were unable to breastfeed their infant children with their mother’s milk.  Tree sap was all their hybrid bodies could produce but it offered no sustenance to the infants.  Cattle had not been domesticated to the point that they might offer their children milk that might nourish their half-human bodies, and the only creatures among them that seemed capable of offering a milk-like drink were the harpies.  The harpies were then not as ancient and old in visage as they were now, and the harpies agreed to share their milk with the dryad nursery on the condition of being given a portion of the forest in which the dryads occupied.  Only the milk was later found to be poisonous to the infant dryads, causing blight to wither and kill their plant nature and spread disease to the trees around them.  The effect of the poison was slow working, but irreversible, and no antidote could be found that would save the lives of the infant dryads.  Further, the disease once spread to the trees and then dispersed in the pollination, worked as a unique genetic pathogen that suppressed the production of Y chromosomes making the dryad females only capable of producing female children, and no males.  The milk of the harpies had served as a death sentence to the race of dryads, and they were forced to flee their home forests and seek virgin forests that were unspoiled by the contagion spread by the Harpies.

Dryads were not vulnerable to the Harpies unless their blood or an open wound was mixed with the lactate of the latter.  For this reason, most dryads were easily cowed by the Harpies, and avoided direct combat with them, lest they be raked with a claw and pressed into their lactating breast ruffle.

Harpies had no offspring.  They were incapable of breeding and resentful of the dryads’ propensity to remain youthful in appearance and evergreen, while they aged and became more and more embittered and ostracized by the other races of Half-men.  They were only too happy to clear out an area of forest from dryads, whenever The Pan requested it, merely by showing up.  They too reciprocally hated the dryads, but it was a matter of deep envy, and a frustrating drive to covet their libertine lifestyle.  They happily occupied the blighted forest that the dryads had vacated.  Since there would never be more of their kind, they felt entitled to it since they had been dealt such a harsh sentence of prolonged misery by the One who had forbidden them to worship any other god or aspect of creation but Him alone.  They too could be killed, and some dryads had been instrumental in bringing that about, but the Harpies felt the loss greater because they could never have more of their kind.  The resentment between the two groups had been growing but held in a delicate balance by The Pan who manipulated both to serve his purposes.

The dryads could be driven to such rages, that they turned on the Harpies and fought them, without thought to the potential consequences, and the Harpies were skilled provocateurs.  The Harpies worked up their vile milk froth, a few days before a conflict, allowing the substance to spill down their front, so that the dryads, who saw and smelled its days-old rancid smell would fear them enough to flee while self-preservation was still at the forefront of their minds.  Being a part bird, they had the advantage of swift flight and could evade the dryads who could only climb after them from the tops of the trees or hope to ensnare them in a woven net and then beat them to death with rocks.  Only the dryads had figured out one other indignity that enraged the Harpies even further.  If they ever could catch one, without the risk of being cut or clawed, they would instead maim the creature by cutting off its feet.  Among the dryads, the severed claw-foot of a Harpy was a sign of warning and they bore it as a crest.

So Dellitch and her harpy sisters had been fitted and prepped with something that only the humans could forge for them, and the trolls in their dealings with The Pan delivered these to them for his distribution to the Harpies, for a commitment that he would employ their threatening services to keep the dryads in line from taking Xarmnian men and boys and give them consequence if they failed to comply.

Dellitch wore these armored fittings proudly on the shanks of her legs down to the knuckles of her clawed feet.  Iron bands that would make the severing of a claw by a dryad from a distance or even up close impossible.  Now Dellitch only had to wait for the angry little dryad to come to her.  Where she would be dealt with swiftly and severely.

***

Beneath the city of Azragoth, deep within the underground network of tunnels, a silent army of hundreds was being slowly awakened.  A twisting, curling breeze of powdered dust-billows sifted through an outside grating, swirled through a pipe chute of silt strained from the dry water run of a splinter-stream and navigated smoky corridors to the darkened parade cavern where the Dust Dragon had established its lair and began reproducing its golem totems from the clay and dust of the hidden city above.  The moldings had begun to cure as their hollow eyes received the powdered stirring, from the strange breeze, that channeled its dusty tendrils into the statuary poised to receive the mysterious breaths of the bizarre streams of curling smoke.

Line after line of clay-figured heads broke their crusted molding as their necks bend back, thrusting the statute figure’s chin upward, their terracotta lips gaping to receive more of the swirling powder.  An eerie sort of respiration noise began deep within the hollow cavity of each golem attended by the tendrils of swirling dust.  Fine powder sloughed off these figures as their fingers curled, and their arms slowly moved with a grating noise as if kiln-fired bricks had been dragged across a slate stone floor.  The eyes of each closed and then blinked open with a white sclera and a jeweled iris dilated almost to blackness.  The first lines of the awakening army had already moved out from the cavern and proceeded down through the darkened tunnels making their way to the hoist chute and winding stair beneath the city leading up to The Keep towers above.  Eight of the previously cured and awakened golems had ascended the winding stair.  Eight who bore the uncanny resemblance to the reluctant leader of the party of Surface Worlders who had left the city, prior to its attack.  Each of these eight carried sharp jagged stones intent on forcing their way into the hidden city above.

***

Captain Thrax had heard of the assault upon General Mattox, and he had heard that while the General was in bad shape, he had barely avoided being mortally wounded by imposters that had somehow infiltrated the city.  A detachment of soldiers, led by Lieutenant Morgrath had been withdrawn from the central bastille and dispatched to The Keep pavilion to investigate a possible breach point through the underground tunnels.  Three of the retinue soldiers of General Mattox had been slain by the traitorous archers before they had been captured and interrogated.  The General had dispatched two riders to seek out Captain Lorgray from the backwoods and call his company in to rally to the city, for all their defenses would be necessary to guard what was soon to come.

The man who had delivered these messages to the Captain had looked vaguely familiar to him, though he was unable to place the name with the face of the messenger.  The thought bothered him, but he did not know why it did.

***

Morgrath moved carefully up the winding stairwell, leaning closely against the inner stone balustrade.  Being left-handed gave him an advantage in the ascent that many of his troops did not have.  With the curve of the interior stair moving in a clockwise rotation upward, the arc of the interior wall gave very little room for one who fought right-handed to draw of swing their sword arm.  Any strike they made towards an attacker above them would be impeded by the need to cross their body to parry the blow of an attacker descending.  Being a left-hander, gave Morgrath the advantage of blocking and hacking the defenses of the opponent, with a reciprocal blow that the offender would have to brush away moving his arm from center to right, against the natural bend of the wrist and elbow.

Morgrath also had both ascended and descended the stairs of The Keep many times and well-knew the cadence of varying lengths and height of the steps so that he could carry feed bags up and down the stairwells without missing a step or faltering upon the uneven parts.  With the ascending towers on either side of the tall Keep, he had hand-picked his men, to include a fair number of left-handers among them, so that interior defense could be affected from the ground up to the top descending stair.  The General had given him an order, that he would normally have been loathed to follow, but he trusted the commander’s instincts and knew, that he would carry it out.  When he and his men had found the dead guard in the turret tower, he knew something was wrong and though his orders seemed extreme, he was worried that perhaps the General was right in the order he had given.

Having had no real way to tell, what was below the city, Morgrath knew that the threat posed by the Dust Dragon they’d found slain by the Surface Worlder called Mr. O’Brian, had shaken several to the vulnerability that the caves and tunnel systems posed if they were discovered by the wrong people.  The chain locked winches would be hard to move, even on the drum spindle, for the silos had been sealed for many, many, years.  Unlocking the traps would be difficult.  The counterweights designed by Nem would, in theory, cause the bulwarks to tilt and buckle, and the weight of the stored grain, would burst the floor and bury the central stair, collapsing its superstructure under tons of flowing grain.  Whatever was down there, would have to find another way, besides The Keep, to gain entrance into the city of Azragoth.

***

Mattox coughed a pinkish froth, as he drew in a shortened ragged breath.  Ezra stood at his side, supporting him with his shoulder, and Mattox’s arm draped around him.

“We need to get you to the surgeon, General,” he spoke quietly but firmly.

Mattox winced as any small movement caused the arrow point to auger in the wound.

He whispered under his breath so that the bound imposters would not hear his response.

“They thrive on weakness,” he muttered, “Mustn’t show…[cough]…”

“The One is strong in our weakness,” Ezra advised, nodding to the other bodyguard to help him withdraw Mattox further from the garrison, toward the apothecary shops and surgeon’s quarters up at the end of the street.

“We will attend to these three,” he said.  The other figure, who had posed as an archer and had shot Mattox, had been felled, by a slinger, and his body had toppled over the wall, falling into the flaming oil trough, and dissolved into the flames.  The fire seemed to flare as the Banshee quitted the golem body-double of O’Brian, and fiery sparks wafted into the air, turning end over end, swirling and then moving outward toward the forest fires ahead.

A breathy sigh, almost a hiss, had attended the expulsion of the Banshee, but it was not clear if any actual harm had been done to it.

As long as these remaining three were contained within these fashioned bodies, they could get into no further mischief.  The problem was, where to keep them in the meantime.

Nem joined Ezra as he surrendered the charge of the care of General Mattox into the capable hands of his trusted bodyguards, Jesh and Kadmi.

“What shall we do with these three?” Ezra asked as the two of them looked away from the General back to the three prisoners tied up.

“These three are why Azragoth has the oubliettes,” Nem said simply.

***

Mattox had been lain upon a thatch-woven frame and was carried by both of his personal guards, Jesh, a tall angular framed warrior whose stature was slightly taller than that of General Mattox, such that, in battle assassins often confused him with the General because they share the same built, but opponents often assumed height signified prominence.  Among the proud Xarmnians, one was never allowed to outshine or stand taller on a battlefield that their commanders and they mistakenly applied their own assumptions on that of their enemies.  Knowing this, the brave man had volunteered for the position and had earned it many times over.  Kadmin was by contrast, fairly short and thick-shouldered.  Between the two of them they covered Mattox from both low and high assaults and Mattox had come to trust and rely on these two men, offering both a command of their own but they had refused and would not leave their General’s side.  Theirs was a duty of honor, and they counted it a privilege.

Mattox tried to rise as he was lifted and carried but they had admonished him to lay still and not let the arrow work any further into the wound.  Mattox sighed and lay back, but spoke urgently, though quietly.

“What is happening with The Keep?” he took in a ragged breath.

“Morgrath is carrying out your orders, sir.  General, I must insist that you…”

Mattox raised a gloved hand, a signal that there was no need.

“Call Lorgray to me as soon as he gets in.  Tell him it is time to seek out and find Jeremiah.  Now that we’ve found the location of the second Honor Sword, it is time that he came back to Azragoth to reclaim the Cordis stone.”

***

The wooden door at the top of the stairway of the Keep had been struck from behind, splintered, cracked, and wrenched off its hinges.  The darkness beyond the broken door frame gaped like an open throat—ominous and sinister—and insatiably hungry.  Morgrath approached it with caution, defensive and ready should something evil emerge from the pregnant darkness below.  His sword was drawn and raised for a quick diagonal slash.  Eleven other men had followed him up the stairwell, ready to rally to his side at his signal.

The stone stairwell leading down into the tunnels below the city was built into the central tower of the Keep, mounted upon jutting corbel blocks and buttressed by crossing interior beams that formed the infrastructure of the central shaft.  A series of small platforms and stone landings descended and twisted into the darkness like a curved gray tongue.  At each landing, there was had been a lighted sconce, but these had been snuffed out so that the interior was cast into pitch blackness.

The small eyelet windows set high in the stone walls above the top of the landing only allowed a certain half-light into the top room but did not penetrate deep enough to light this recessed central doorway.  These light beams which squeezed through the narrow windows swam with shadowy dust motes, swirling like a superimposed microbial universe projected into the air and smelled of a sickly-sweet malt odor.  Morgrath recognized the smell.  Grain dust and ground corn pulverized into cornmeal.  The Keep’s silo doors had been opened as well.  The formerly lighted sconces that once illumined the branching barrel vault hallways on either side had been snuffed and the top guards who regularly stood post at the top of the descending room were nowhere to be found.

The ascent stair tower they had emerged from had external arrow loop windows set within the exterior wall so that the stairs were bathed a certain half-light and did not require lighted braziers or torch sconces during the day, though they were fitted with torch brackets for nighttime ascents.  When they found the top of the stair room darkened, they had struck flint and re-lit a few torches so as not to be taken unaware by whomever or whatever lurked ahead.

Morgrath reached back and took a torch from one of his men.  He lifted the flickering torch and moved closer, seeing only bouncing shadows cast from the twisting firelight within the central doorway.  He lifted it higher as he approached and briefly illumined a portion of the first landing no more than twelve feet below.  He could not be sure but he believed he heard sudden movements from within as if many feet pulled back into the deeper darkness evading the dancing light descending the stairwell.

Two large half-turret rooms flanked the central doorway.  Each featured a large capstan spindle within, bristling with hand-smoothed crossbeams running through the metal-bound drums.  Each capstan was set directly in the center of the circular stone chambers that worked a large wooden column extending from the top of the capstan to a greased borehole in the top of the arched ceiling and then down through the stone floor to some buried mechanical cog and gears deep within the wells of the Keep below.  These vertical shafts were the size of a large ship’s masts and every bit as thick.  Whatever power could be generated to turn these capstan spindles would require more than one man’s strength to move it, however, the large beams crossing the spindle made such a task entirely possible with the effort of at least two men working to push the beams.  This mechanism served a two-fold purpose.  It opened and closed the grain floor sluice troughs below each of the stone silos.  The sheer volume and weight of the grain in the silos did the rest.  Pouring down into the catcher chutes that ran on either side of the wooden stairway that descended to the floor of the caverns below.  The capstans were never turned more than a few feet within the turrets above, for the flow of kernels and grain would become too great and overwhelm the grain chutes and spill out onto the central stair.  Turn these capstans any further and the sluice gates could not be closed by any man or beast for the tonnage of falling grain would overwhelm the stair, slamming into the wooden stairwell and flood the corridors below, until the massive silos were emptied.  To prevent such from happening, metal bar staves were fitted into the floor of the circular room stopping the turn of the capstan spindle.   Each of the staves had a curved eyering at the top, in case they had to be removed and repositioned in the floor as the measured grain levels in each silo required the sluice gate to open wider.

Morgrath ordered four of his men into the circular rooms to pull up the staves.  They quickly did so using a metal bar, hung from a peg within the chamber, running it through the eyering and pulling them up from the stone bored holes in the floor.   Other men fanned into the room bearing spears which they aimed threateningly over small half-shields down the corridor of each barrel vault tunnel leading to the storage silos at either end.

The freight shaft rooms were deep below and the base of The Keep.  Wagons could be drawn into them with a small team of horses to be let into the city, from below, but the gantry and counterweight systems were operated from the top rooms of the Keep towers next to the silos.  If the enemies below knew anything about the working of these freight shaft systems, they would realize that if they were to mobilize an army to rise up from below, they must bring larger numbers of fighters and weapons up through the freight elevators below.  For this knowledge, they would need to keep the gate sentries alive to operate the elevating levers and counter-balancing weights until they were satisfied that they could operate the lifts themselves.  After that, these persons would be of no use and their lives forfeit.  Somewhere within, a few might still be alive and held at knife or spear point.

Something tugged at Morgrath’s mind.  Some further mystery that seemed relatively important about the empty upper room, given the gravity of the dead in the doorway below and the darkness and destructive forces evident in the central room at the top of the Keep.  Some difference that nagged his subconsciousness, that he could not immediately identify at the moment because of the imminent danger posed by whatever waited in the silo rooms and down the descending steps in the tunnels below the city.

Another of his men turned to Morgrath and asked the question that brought back the missing detail in stark relief.

“Where have all the cats gone?”

***

Maeven knew there was no way she could reach Will once the dryad had pulled him up into the canopy.  She might have been able to prevent it if she had her bow, but Mason carried it on the road ahead.  There was no telling how long the dryad would let him live, but there was very little hope that it would be long enough to allow her to return with her bow.  Much as she hated to abandon him to his terrible fate, she would have to return and catch up to the company.  There was nothing more she could do but hope that Will’s death would come swiftly.

She ran as fast as she dared without creating too much noise, trying to make it back to the road and catch up with O’Brian and the others.  There was no telling what the others may be walking into and with the satyrs in the forest and now the confirmation that the harpies and dryads were present as well, it made sense that the presence of The Pan would be the reason why these contentious groups were in the vicinity.  Only the Pan unified them.

Their only hope was to reach the Faerie Fade.

The Stand-Off at the Slough – Chapter 55

Smoke curled and twisted through the forest stinging and singeing, my eyes and nostrils so that I had to partially cover my face with the end of my cloak as I squinted through the gossamer veil moving under the shadow of The Pan.  I knew he was at some disadvantage.  The burning of the smoke would dull his senses as well and he would not pick up my scent as easily as he would without the intervening proximity of the forest fires.  The same would be true for the satyrs.  Though swift and of a nasty and vicious disposition, they relied upon their animal instincts far more than that of their human ones.  The Pan was ancient.  Time had ravaged him.  He relied on his attendant retinue far more than he had in the past, though he would never let on.  Age had finally left its traces:  His shaggy hair was black and gray–Black with soot, but grayish-white with age.  His eyes were clouded with bluish-white cataracts, and he was nearly blind.  His hearing was dulled–though still greater than human–it was not as attuned as it once had been.  His hooves were worn down so that only thick calluses kept the tender pads of his feet from contact with the rough ground.  His voice had become more guttural as age tightened his vocal cords and added a rasping grate to his speech.  His strength of limb and ligament had also weakened making his movements more ponderous and lumbering rather than lithe and swift.

Only his intellect remained sharp and savage.

And his hatred for the children of men had fed upon years and years of resentment both towards them, and towards the One who loved them and imprinted upon them His image.  And that made him dangerous.

I knew that he watched and was obsessed with the Surface World that they had quitted long ago—Back when his form was comprised of only human flesh alone.  But he had chosen this, though he’d been severely warned against it.  The Surface World had no naturally occurring blend of animal and man flesh.  Much as one might seek for transitional forms, these hybrids were without precedent.  Once quitted, the Surface World had no place for what they’d become or his kind.

He had not heeded the dire warnings of the patriarchs.  He had followed the mysterious Nomad.  Had seen him vanish into the sun touching the horizon.  He’d assumed that the Nomad had been granted access back into Edenu and would reach the Tree that would grant them all immortality.  And the Tree that had given them the curse of death.  He’d wanted to be made a god at any cost.  To offer appeasement to the God of his fathers, by bringing the ram into the place of the sun.  He wanted it ALL that was promised to the family matriarch for himself and his posterity.  He demanded it.  And that was why he’d been named Pan—a word that survived its journey through antiquity into the Latin dialect, meaning the same as had its proto-original word—Pan (Πάν) – All (πᾶν).

Since the path through the Throne Room of all the Heavens had been shut and guarded by the wielders of the holy flames, he still believed they would eventually find another way.  Another means of access to gain audience and demand of the God of Heaven to deliver upon the promise made by the fiery serpent god, The Draco.  The Draco had been acting as an emissary and had made those promises on behalf of the One.  Draco, himself had been betrayed.  Trapped in the form he took to deliver the message and bound to the Surface World.  It had taken some time before The Draco was able to free himself from the form.  Both Draco and Pan had become convinced that perhaps they had not understood the ultimate good purposes of the One, but eventually, they would.  And their patience in this their misunderstanding would eventually pay off and be rewarded by the One.  So, he’d served The Draco, faithfully having surrendered his humanity to become The Half standing upon two worlds.  He would act as a stand-in emissary to receive and deliver the worship of man into The Draco’s hands to be carried up continually into The Presence of The Most High.  So that one day He would relent from His curse and restore all worlds into balance and set him up as a Prince among the gods under heaven.  This, I knew to be Pan’s self-deception.  The Draco was, in fact, the primal enemy of us all.  The one who, in his own hubris, thought to make himself equal to The One who is above everything, and led an ancient uprising against The Most High, even to the point of sweeping a third of the stars with him in his revolt. The Draco, before he became thus left his role as the “shining one” to coax, woo and lure a serpent with crafty words into a portal and there seize, indwell and cohabitate its body and mind to then re-enter the world of men.  I also knew that anyone serving it in any capacity was being used for his own ends.

When The Most High eventually decreed through Moses that He would have no other gods before Him and codified it in stone, it had been a nasty blow. He’d wanted to strangle Hanokh for ever granting to mankind the gift of a written language, where such a decree could be preserved as a testimony for generations that would follow after.  But Hanokh’s life was preserved and protected.  Unlike himself, Hanokh’s body showed no such signs of aging.  Though he had entered the Mid-World ahead of Pan, and walked the same Mid-World lands as he and those who had followed after, Pan feared him.  He talked a lot of hunting and killing Hanokh, but deep down knew he never would carry that out.  Hanokh was appointed for something that would happen in the future in the Surface World of mankind.  A world in which he knew he would never be able to return to without being ripped in half and arriving in severed pieces of what had been left when he’d departed.  Longing for that return to the land of his fathers was pointless.  He was now a creature of the Mid-World, ever to remain as such.  But that did not mean he could not wield influence within the homeworld he had quitted.  And the Draco had shown him how.  If The Most High would not deliver upon the promise made to his family of achieving godhood, the Draco would.

***

Upon the road, Miray, Begglar, Nell, Laura, Dominic and James, Matthew, Mason, Lindsey, Tiernan, and Christopher watched as Mr. O’Brian faded into the haze, silhouetted against the ghostly backlight towards the towering shadow of what O’Brian had identified as The Pan creature.  They saw the flicker and crackle of the light of the sword he carried behind his body and hoped that it would prove to deter and counter this spectral threat, blocking their way ahead.  Begglar stood at the point position of the company, now seeming to take charge in a way that he had, heretofore, shrunk back from.

Begglar had distracted Miray from looking overhead and seeing the grisly, dangling display of vines and heads swaying above them in the wafting smoke.  She didn’t need to see that, and the others in the company recognized what Begglar was doing to keep her focus away from these things and they refrained from commenting or drawing attention to them as well.  Laura too felt delighted and refreshed by Miray’s exuberance and unapologetic honesty.  And she was prepared to fiercely protect it, as necessary.  What others hadn’t seen when they all reunited on the road, was the exchange that happened between them.  Miray had bounded up to her and then paused with a crooked smile.  “I remember you.  You’re Laura.”  Laura stared at the little girl, amazed that she would remember her or even take notice.  She had smiled and said, “Yes, I came back.”  Miray twirled from side to side, dipping her toe out and then wrinkled her nose and said, “I think you need a bath.”  Disarmed by the forthright honesty of this child, Laura laughed, “I’m sure I do.”  Miray reached up and twirled a strand of her hair in her fingers and said, “I want to hug you, too, but can I wait until after?”  Laura smiled, looked up thoughtfully and said, “Only if you promise you will when I get washed up.”

Miray beamed, turned on her heel and bounded away into the group.  Laura, shook her head, smiling from ear to ear and reminded herself, what O’Brian had said to her earlier, “Family.  I think I’m gonna like it here.”  Such an unpretentious moment given freely by a sweet little girl.  Whatever threatened her, Laura would fight with all her might.

Begglar had reattached the reaper blade to his staff, and he looked formidable and ominous bearing it forth against the threat that could come upon them at any moment.  It had been many years since Begglar had encountered The Pan, and, if memory served, the man-creature was even then crooked and stooped by age and wear.  He’d been thickly built, and both Begglar and others had estimated that The Pan had at one time stood at least eleven feet tall, by the English standard, and three and one-third meters by the Metric measure.  Its human half had once been very muscled and powerful, but age had diminished it until he was leaner than it had been, though its wooly legs amid thick salt and peppered fur still seemed thickly powerful, as if reserved for a lunge at his enemies.  Begglar had seen The Pan only one time lose its sinister cool and take part in the physical threat he typically wielded through others under his command.  And that rage had been terrible and brutal, and bloody.  O’Brian had witnessed it too, and Begglar hoped that O’Brian still held that terrible memory in mind as he approached The Pan even now.  Though The Pan was ancient, one should never think that they could get too close to it.  The Pan was unpredictable, and one could never be fully certain whether they were entirely dealing with the human side of him or the raging animal.

***

The Faeries had zipped away through the trees, headed to the southern end of the forest, and as she was preparing to leave with Will and return back to the road through the wood, she froze when she saw a flying shadow pass over one of the breaks in the forest canopy.  Though the sighting had been brief she recognized the form immediately and had stopped Will from rising.  A harpy.  Another of the creatures of the Half-Men races in the kingdoms of The Pan.  Never had she seen these creatures venturing this far and this close to human territories.  The fact that she’d once again seen Faeries returning to the woods of Kilrane after all these years was surprising, but to see both Faeries and satyr prints and a harpy together in the same proximity signified that these were strange times.  Both satyrs and harpies were mortally afraid of the Faeries and had they known there had been several spotted here, usually would have caused both to rapidly leave the environs of the wood.  This strange development gave her pause.  The only possibility that she could come up with was that neither the satyrs nor the harpies were aware of the return of the Faeries back into the woods of Kilrane.  When Maeven finally turned to get Will, she saw additional evidence that a further division of the Half-men races also occupied the forest.  Dryads.  Their yellow pheromone dust powdered the leaves of the bushes under which Will had taken cover.  Strange times indeed.  Three races of Half-Men in one wood, each of which was extremely antagonistic to the other, drawn into one place.  A microcosm of what lay ahead, if Corimanth was correct, that the mysterious drawing of the Builder Stones was forcing the human races towards conflict as well.  Inexorably precipitating a war among the races of man.  She knew they could waste no further time.  They had to get out of these woods and fast.  The presence of so many Half-Men races together in one place could only mean one thing.  The Pan was somewhere in the forest.  And their party was walking straight into a trap on the road ahead.  She dove under the ferns to quickly grab Will, only to see him being hauled up into the canopy by a dryad.

***

Dryads were mostly female.  Of the few males that survived the passage of the ancient portal, there were only two still breathing Mid-World air.  Sylvanius and Polonius.  These The Pan kept a tight rein on, almost making them prisoners, yet deceiving them into thinking they were free.  The Pan used them as leverage against the desires of the more powerful female Dryads of certain Mid-World forests.  As long as the Dryad females did his bidding, The Pan granted them access to their few surviving males.

As mentioned before, the Dryads were obsessed with finding a way to transform back into their human forms again.  And they strove to use sex as a means of achieving this.  They had taken captives from among the men of the Mid-World but never were able to get pregnant by them.  And they killed these in their frustrations and adorned their lairs with the dangling heads of their conquests.

They desperately needed their males, but The Pan had reduced their population over the centuries when he used them for his own purposes in forest warfare.  Something had happened that made the dryad females predisposed to having only girls and rarely ever producing males.  An unforeseen consequence that The Pan had not intended.

To the dryad female mind, they believed that if they could capture and mate with a Surface Worlder male, rather than the Mid-Worlders and also mate with one of their males, and then together ingest the blood of the Surface Worlder human male, that combination would produce their desired seed, gradually becoming once again more human with each succeeding generation.  But the humans of both the Mid-World had learned that there were dark purposes being served in the Mid-World forests, and they tried to avoid those woods where dryads had been sighted.  And very few Surface Worlder’s came through the Mid-World anymore, and when they did they were warned to stay clear of forests with a possible dryad infestation.  But with both dryad male populations dwindling, and The Pan restricting the females from accessing them, even the population of females began to wane.

Instead, they (Mid-Worlders) looked for forests rumored to be the domain of another mysterious creature.

The Dryads, like many other of the Half-Men creatures, were terrified of the Faeries, so they fearfully avoided places where they believed the Faeries were present.  The Forests of Kilrane, stretching below and surrounding the hidden city of Azragoth, had traditionally been a site avoided by the Dryads, and so it was one of those desirable places for mankind to build near and dwell within.  But Faeries had not been seen in the Mid-World for many, many years, and naturally, the threat of them began to wane, even among the Dryads, so that little by little they made incursions into Kilrane, and when left unchallenged, became bolder about their presence over the years.   Many dryad females then brokered a deal with The Pan, that they would serve as his retinue warriors, spies, and attendants, serving even his carnal desires, if he would allow them the proximity to the male dryads he kept in his forest courts.  But then the Xarmnians showed up and declared their rule and threatened the dryads with setting fire to the forests where they remained.  Many land and forests were burned in this Xarmnian war to root out The Pan and his Half-Men.  Deep-seated resentments remained because of it, and it was only recently when the Xarmnians finally decided to change their tactics and offer a peace deal with The Pan and his subjects.  They would establish their domains and give each safe passage if respect and due homage and permissions were granted by the leaders.  The Xarmnians would not encroach on The kingdom lands of The Pan, and The Pan would not molest the Xarmnians in their rulership, nor meddle in their affairs, or take Xarmnian prisoners nor kill and eat them, provided the Xarmnians did not violate the accord.  But with the return of Surface Worlders coming back again into the Mid-World all that changed.  The Pan and his Half-Men creatures had designs for the Surface Worlders, and the Xarmnians viewed them as hostile to their rule and dangerous and subversive interlopers upsetting the balance of power.

***

Shelberd tugged at the pack line, and Bunt balked at the rope rubbing into his skin on his flank as he struggled to gain footing in the soft peat mossy soil around the wood slough.  Grum-blud grunted as he was pulled from the sucking black mud that mired his clothes, and arms.  When he’d finally come free of the muck, the mud made a bubbling wet-popping noise, reluctant to free their prisoner.

Dob had been extracted with much less trouble, for the ratio of water to mud from where he’d entered was weighted more on the wet than the muck.  When finally, Grum-blud lay upon the soft shore, he struggled to free himself from the greasy rope that had cinched too tightly and restricted his breathing.  Shelberd released the rope and came trotting over to help Grum-blud but only received a cuffing for his well-meant efforts and when Grum-blud had found his feet again, he grabbed Shelberd by one of his prodigiously large ears and pull him close into a threatening position.

“If you ever leave your post, when I tell you to stay put, again.  You’d better hope I don’t catch up to you.  Do you hear me now, or shall I tear off this ear and keep it with me as a reminder to you?!”

Shelberd whimpered, as Grum-blud’s fist twisted his ear with such severity, that he could not answer without crying out.

“Yes, yes, yes! Ooo!” he croaked, “Never again!  Never again, boss!”

Grum-blud released Shelberd’s ear and shoved him away, and then turned upon the onocentaurs.

“And as for you…!” he stomped forward and both Bunt and Dob retreated to a distance, fearing what the angry Troll might do to them.

But Grum-blud did not get to finish the statement before it parked and skidded to a stop on his snarling fat lip.

Beyond the two onocentaurs, standing tall amid a bevy of wickedly smiling satyrs, stood the tall ominous form of The Pan, sniffing deeply at the air, and then turning gleaming eyes downward to Grum-blud and the cowering form of Shelberd, ducking behind Grum-blud.

The onocentaurs slowly turned their eyes to where Grum-blud was staring and gaping.

Dob flinched and started.

A deep voice, seeming to begin from underground and rumble upward, vibrating through the roots of the towering trees and up through their feet and legs before registering as sound in their ears spoke to Grum-blud from the deeper forested edge of the black watered slough.

“Ahh, Xarmnian frog, how pleased I am to find you.  We were coming to celebrate yours and our victory over the infested earth walkers occupying our forests.  From a distance, we saw the fires.  Tell me now, how stands the city of Azragoth?  And for my sake, please don’t leave out a single bloody detail.”

The onocentaur named Bunt couldn’t help himself.  He dropped a manure bomb.

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Additional Notes:

For further reading and reference regarding the source myths of the Greek traditions and prior traditions to the Greco-Roman periods:
Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_(god)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nymph

Out of the Fire into The Pan – Chapter 54

“Close the Keep!”

The clarion call rang out from the stone courtyard, through the streets of Azragoth, past the bastilles and was conveyed from mouth to mouth, following The Eagle’s orders.  A detachment of soldiers responded to the news quickly, moving in ranks to the court of the northwestern sector of the city, under the shadow of the tall stone edifice.  The doorway to the climbing circular stair hung ajar.  Its door panel wavering upon the hinges under the slight wind stirring within the walls.

The soldiers approached it and fanned outward, blades and points aimed and ready.  A brace had been removed from the fortified door and tossed aside from where it once had run through bronze bands to hold it from without.  The standing order of the General had always been to close the gates behind them upon entering or exiting The Keep.  No doubt the guards charged with that responsibility would be questioned if they were not already dead inside.  As the soldiers approached cautiously, they saw the dramatic answer to the questions circulating in their minds—A dark pool of blood and an arm with an open hand extended out from the interior of the tower doorway.

The dead sentry lay inside amid a small cloud of flies, face bludgeoned and smashed.  Bloody footprints through the pool and spatter of blood revealed that whoever had done this had also callously walked through, on and over the fallen man’s body and proceeded out into the courtyard.  Several sets of tracks showed that there had been at least four or five of them.  A sharp, jagged stone, spattered with gore and cast aside from the body indicated that the man had been assaulted immediately upon opening the door.  The heartless, mindless killers had merely removed an impediment to their entry into the city and had had no sense that they should make an effort to hide the evidence of their violent crime.

Whatever or whoever it was that had come into the city from below, apparently had no sense of self-preservation.  This made them that much more dangerous.

***

We stood in the forested road before the glowing backlit mist, armed yet unnerved by the sight before us.

From the tops of trees dangled a collection of various animal heads strung at the dangling ends of vines which swayed ominously in the chilling breeze wafting under the forest canopy.  I recognized this as the grisly work of the dryads.

Nubile young women, seductive and sensuous creatures that were a fusion of wood, plant, and human—creatures belonging to the races of half-men.  The heads hung from the treetops varied between animal and apparent-animal with characteristics of satyrs.  The majority of these being those of the satyrs.  Vengeful creatures those dryads.  Obsessed with re-birth and finding a way back to becoming completely human again, they wooed and taunted young men into their tree lairs and tore them apart.  Dryads were not the sexy nude nymphs of Greek mythology and classical paintings in the Surface World.  Yes, they were uncommonly beautiful.  Yes, they used their sensual lithe movements to seduce men to commit lewd acts with them, but do not be deceived in any way.  These seemingly beautiful amalgams of human and nature had no nurturing instincts and were as savage, dangerous and capricious as any of the other hybrid creatures of the Half-Men races.  Like sirens of the sea, these woodland nymphs are not what they seem.  Many men, women, and beasts who succumb to them under the influence of a pheromonal storm circulating like pollen are in for a rude awakening.  Dryads were the consorts of a different master and they killed on a whim.  One should avoid the embrace of a dryad at all costs.  The reason for that, hung up swaying from multiple branches in the towering trees above us.

A large shadowy form, beyond the mist, moved interposing itself between the back-light glow and the mist separating us, casting a giant shadow of itself upon the fog as if it were projected upon a silver movie screen.  An eerie light emanated from its eyes from around the shadow of its elongated head, glaring into the mist.  Its long spectral fingers splayed as if ready to reach out from behind the mist and snatch one or all of us.  It wasn’t clear to me if the being beyond saw us through the fog, but there was no avoiding the confrontation with it, so I stepped forward to stand for my people.  I had no doubt in who it might be that I would be confronting.  I recognized that form all too well from both past experiences and from my waking nightmares.  We were about to meet The Pan.

I whispered a quiet prayer as I slowly moved forward and to the point position at the head of the group.

My honor sword scintillated with a crackling light, but I kept it low and to my side, choosing instead to prepare my heart and mind with supernatural weapons rather than physical ones.

I remembered the terror of the last time I had encountered dryads, and the Ancient Texts account of Job’s covenant that I too had to make.

“1 “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look with lust at a young woman.” [Job 31:1 NLT]

I knew that these half-human creatures were not the women that they appeared to be, that their image was distorted and marred by the fusion of the flora they had bonded to when their ancestors had crossed over.  I also knew that what anyone might wish or deceive themselves to think they might be, would not make it so.  Their enticements were a cruel means to an end.  Like in the Surface World, visual enticements to indulge secret pleasures and imaginations, never produced a healthy, satisfactory relationship arising from those desires.  The One, by design, invested the need for intimacy within the design of the human being, and His intention was for the greatest good for the individual.  The physical need alone would not serve to meet the good desire, nor would the soul’s need alone achieve it.  What was needed was a completion, bathed in the commitment of the whole person, maintaining the sacredness of all components to truly enjoy its intention.  What these creatures were doing was reducing the need to the physical component alone, isolating it from a relationship and the blessing of the One.  I knew that dissatisfaction was the end product of succumbing to the mere physical appeal of the dryads.  That they toyed with physical intimacy in Machiavellian terms and used it to gain power, and they, like a parasite, devour their host victim with the insectile finality of a female Praying Mantis.  No man can reach true meaningful intimacy with a woman if he dishonors her personhood and disrespects her trust, in the service of his own physical need.  Despite what he may say or do, this is what deep down, the need was created in him for, and it is what he truly seeks to find fulfillment in the enjoyment of it, rather than the conquest of it.  Human women, unlike the dryad creatures, want and need to know that they are valued, honored and protected in their personhood, physicality and spiritual covering.  They are too often deceived into thinking that they must trade a part of their being, surrender their privacy and physicality in hopes of being appreciated for their wholeness.  Far too often, this trade almost never works in their favor.

Despite the knowledge of all of this, knowing truly what these creatures were and their malevolent intentions, they gave off extremely high-levels of pheromonal dust that drove their victims mad with desire.  The satyrs were highly susceptible to this, which they used to torment them.  As such, The Pan forbade the satyrs from cavorting with the nymphs, whether dryads (forest nymphs) or naiads (water nymphs), when they served as his retinue.  However, merely forbidding them did not cause a deterrent in how they were affected, so The Pan chose his traveling companions to suit his needs and forced the pre-evacuation of the ones who might cause disruptions to those attending him.

His kingdom was divided by necessity.  He pitted certain groups of the Half-Men races against the others to keep them in line and maintained his iron rule by coordinating mutual threats and balancing the reigns of tension in his dark fists.

I hoped, for the sake of our company, that this time he had chosen to travel with the satyrs rather than the dryads.

From the prints on the trail further up the road, this had seemed to be the case.  The evidence that the dryads had been here was ominous and obvious.  Knowing that The Pan was coming, and would be traveling with satyrs, they would have been forced to vacate those portions of the forest, but they were loathed to do so and were not above sending a dire warning message to the satyrs even with The Pan in their midst.  But the fires to the north would eventually drive the dryads back this way and soon.  Whatever creatures The Pan had used to compel the dryads to temporarily vacate their domain would serve to keep them at bay only as long as their threat was not exceeded by the need for self-preservation under the threat of the approaching fires.  As soon as the fires became the greater threat, the dryads would return in force, despite the creature-threat of The Pan’s brute squad sent to clear the forest.  A confrontation was coming.  It was only a matter of time.

If it was still possible that The Pan did not already know we were in the forest, I could not reveal their presence.  I could only buy us some time to allow Maeven to join us soon.

I addressed the group.

“I need to scout the way ahead for a bit,” I said quietly, “And I am going to need all of you to wait here until I come back or Maeven does.  If Maeven comes back before I do, go with Maeven.  I have an idea where she is taking us to get supplies.  The place is not unknown to me.  Go with her and wait for me there.  I will catch up to you.”

Miray moved forward and took my hand, “I’m going with you.”

I turned and knelt down and cupped her cheek, “Miray, I’ve got to go this one alone.  It is too dangerous to bring anyone with me into the presence of the creature that lies ahead of us.”

“But I want to go with you,” she protested.

“I know.  I know,” I took her arms gently, and looked her directly in the eyes, “But I need you to be brave and protect these others.  I need to give us some time to get to safety.  I will do everything I can to return quickly.  Please be brave for me.  Can you do that?”

“I can but I am much braver with you here.”

There was no arguing against her pure and simple logic, but there were things I could not share with her at that moment.  I hugged Miray fiercely because I could give her no other response, “Please trust me, Miray.  I will return as soon as I can.”

I had barely escaped death in my last encounter with The Pan, but I could not run from him forever.  Part of my calling by the One required that I face The Pan again, and trust that a way would be revealed to redeem the losses suffered during the failure of the second quest—a failure that I was partially responsible for.

There was something he took from Caleb before having him slaughtered.  Something that I may still be able to retrieve from him if I chose to believe what I was told rather than fear it.  I was confident that The Pan still had that thing with him.  That he used it to gain the advantage he now had over his warring kingdom.  If he turned that thing against us, he would destroy us one by one and the stories would die forever.

Where was Maeven, I wondered.  She should be here by now.  Had she found who had taken Will?  Was Will a captive to The Pan, and Maeven was still gathering intelligence as to what had been done with him or to him?  All of these thoughts weighed heavily upon me as I walked forward towards the glowing mist, under the shadow of a cursed man-creature that was as old as Hanokh himself and had come into the Mid-World no long after Hanokh himself had arrived.

***

Maeven and Will ducked low in the forest brush uncertain of what the faeries might do.  Maeven knew they were dangerous.  That even the Half-Men wanted nothing to do with them.  That the Xarmnians were terrified of them, and those were enough of a reason to give them a wide berth and try not to provoke their interests.  A mere touch of a metal blade and the blade tip broke away flaring red as if it had been pulled from a forge.  It had scalded the troll creature and driven him off abandoning his captive.  Maeven had done all she could to avoid trolls and she wasn’t about to pursue this one.  Trolls had the strange quality of pulling out painful memories and assaulting their victims with them, and she had already re-awakened to some terrible memories of her own.  She didn’t need some troll making them any worse.  There were many creatures with whom she was willing to fight face to face, but trolls were not one of them.

In her mind, the sooner they left the area the better.

Again, came the odd top-canopy rustle that she’d heard in the upper trees when she’d left O’Brian and moved into the forest.  Something was up there.

Then she saw what was making that noise and her breath caught in her throat.

“Oh my God, no!” she whispered, drawing in a shuddering breath.

“What is it?” Will asked.

“Harpies,” she answered, twisting and holding his mouth closed, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.”

***

The four faces of Brian glared angrily and contemptuously at the soldiers who now held them bound to one another and tied with strong cords so that they could not escape. Their eyes burned with a seething fire as they saw that the one they had thought they had brought down now stood before them with bloodied chest, the shaft of an arrow bristling from his chainmail, to be attended to later.  Their plan had failed.  The man still stood resolutely, though propped up, before his enemies.  His indomitable spirit was determined and bolstered by a new-found fire that did not serve the ends it once had when he was their unwitting ally.

“You betrayed us, Captain Mattox,” the four bound bodies said in disturbing syncopated unison.  Their doppelganger voices sounding somewhat like O’Brian’s but not.  Vocal modulation, airway throat structure and simulated muscle movements copied from that of O’Brian, but the interior animate presences were that of wind creatures who spoke with more force than that of the human they replicated.  There was no denying that these were not the original, but Mattox was worried that if there were four, there would most certainly be more.

“Whom do you serve?”  Mattox pressed them.

“Our service has now ended,” they responded, “now that our master has been slain.  We are freed to our own will.”

“You lie,” Mattox retorted, “you do not bear these forms without a purpose in them.”

“Strike us from these forms, deposed Captain.  We will find others.  The awakened one shall not be long into his quest until he finds us again standing in his path again.  You cannot hold us here.  We have many faces yet to wear.  He has taken the sword and there are none like it left that can alter his fate to treat with us.”

“That is not true,” Mattox responded, “There is another.”

For the first time, since their capture, these creatures bearing the shared image of Brian studied him for a moment and looked collectively worried.

***

High on a weathered hill, upon the crest of the mountain known as Mount Zefat, a sword similar in kind to the one borne by the one called Mr. O’Brian, stood blade down within a broken assemblage of mountain stone, its driven blade whistling in the mountain wind.  Its forbearer had abandoned it there many years ago, overcome with grief and crushed by betrayal.  He had walked away from the call to lead, abandoning the quest as hopeless and too dangerous.

Its age-worn sash, called the bloodline, was frayed and severed from the cross-guard.  The material had floated down the mountain and eventually became snagged somewhere below, caught and held by the jagged edge of fractured rock.

Mattox’s men had repeatedly tried to dislodge the sword from the rock and scree pile but were unable to do so.  Mattox realized that human-might alone could not wield this type of sword destined to serve those under the specific calling of the One.  Supernatural forces held the sword in its present resting place.  Only the one designated to wield it could take it up again.

Mattox was certain he knew who this remaining Honor Sword had belonged to.  The man had come to Azragoth many years before and left something of value to be kept within the secret city while it was being rebuilt.  Mattox had faced the man on the field of battle, but time and circumstances had so radically changed their positions that now they had become allies.  Mattox’s heart and perspective had changed, while this man’s heart had been hardened and distant, even though now they shared a common cause.  Mattox had found the frayed sash and had taken it up and kept it in his pocket.  The sword was left in place, and its present location was carefully marked upon the map Mattox and others were compiling.  And perhaps eventually the man would be brought to the place where he might take it up again…if only Mattox could convince him to try.

Scree and Sword

***

I moved into the edge of the glowing fog, and realized that is was not fog at all, but smoke.

The fires of Azragoth were moving faster, and the strange winds moving through and under the forest canopy had driven this stream of smoke to creep along the forest floor and weave its smoky tendrils through the tall trees.  Fire and smoke–a combination that would excite the satyrs- given their interest in ash, would ultimately bring these out towards the burning city environs surrounding Azragoth.  And if, as I suspected the forest dryads had been driven ahead, they would soon turn back this way, for these had a particular fear and aversion to fire.  If The Pan had used some other Half-Men agents to drive the nymph dryads to the northern side of the forest, they would eventually encounter the fires and surge back this way in fear.  Whether the Pan intended to or not, both the dryads and the satyrs with him presently in the woods come into contact and mayhem would ensue.  And there we were, right smack dab in the middle of it.  The dryads would entice, bate and stir up the satyrs, appealing to their carnal natures to lure them into the trees—to be ravaged and savaged.  Whatever third group the Pan had employed would be friends of neither the dryads nor the satyrs and bringing those into the mix would only complicate the Pan’s attempts to control the situation.  What the Pan did not know is that his pitting one group against the other to manipulate the situation into his favor was about to backfire on him.  I only hoped that our company might be able to occupy him here for the moments needed to allow these beast-men to come back together and create that circumstance whereby we had a chance to elude capture.  I needed only stall him for time.  The heads above me swayed ominously at the ends of their vine tethers, reminding me that what I was attempting was extremely dangerous.  I still had not heard from Maeven, so whatever she had found that was tracking us, must either be eluding her, or she was heading right into danger with the enemies about to converge in the forest.  That is if both she and Will were not already either captured or dead.  I knew I should have insisted that we stay together, but she had convinced me that there may still be hope for finding Will.  I had hoped that too, but not at the sacrifice of Maeven.  I had felt like we almost lost her earlier, and was praying that a second miracle might spare her once again.  I wondered also if I was asking for too much as I moved into the smoke, motioning the crew to stay put, while I treated with The Pan.  I bore the Honor Sword, my wrist firmly wrapped in the bloodline sash, as I raised it into the guard position and moved into the smoke fog screen towards the shadowy silhouette.  I had seen The Pan back down from one who bore an Honor Sword before in my past.  One who had been my friend, who had been betrayed by my failure to keep my presence of mind about me.  A friend the horrible Manticore alluded to back on the Lake at the Trathorn Falls behind us.  A fellow warrior and resistance fighter named Caleb.

***

Dob had become enmired.  As he had burst through the forest underbrush attempting to flee the attack of the faeries, he’d become disoriented.  He wasn’t used to running for more than short distances.  He’d picked up the burning smell and had panicked further and was running blindly when he’d plunged into the dark miry water, black with rot and decay.  The ground had become soft and his hooves sank deep into the sucking mud below, slipping on oily mud, descending into the bog.  A slough.  The black, greyish water stank, its surface swam with water bugs skittering in all directions.

A murky film of grey water-moss sloshed around him as he fought against the sinking tug of the mud.

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Splosh!  A wet-noise to his left, caused Dob to turn as something or someone slid down an embankment, under the leafy plants and hit the bog water as well, rippling the grayish-green filmy mat of brown and organic black.  Momentarily a grotesque, mud gobbed lump bobbed up from the water, spitting, sputtering…and cursing.  Grum-blud.

The grey blackened lump that was Grum-blud sloshed, and flailed, sending water slashes slapping the shore and spattering the leaves the terminated and shrank to curled brownish husks along the edge of the slough.  Gnats buzzed about his head as he clawed mud away from his eyes and face.  His hair was a mess, but it had never been much of a fashion with him to keep it more than tugged under a dirty short woven cap.

Dob couldn’t help but bray out a laugh, as he witnessed this display, while Grum-blud swore and thrashed his way towards the muddy edge of the water, finally grasping at the broken root of a stump that jutted out of the mire.

Grum-blud turned reddened, blinking eyes towards Dob, and grumbled, “Clamp your yap, you black-eyed cabbage eater!  I’ll boil your eyes out!”

“Nasty, nasty!” Dob clucked his tongue at him, “I don’t know which is fouler.  You or this stinking water and muck.”

“Why you little…!” Grum-blud lunged towards Dob, but lost hold of the root stump, and splashed back into the murky water, going under once more.  When he came up again, a small, brown water snake curled down from his brow, around his bulbous nose and dropped into the water and slithered away from him.  Grum-blud gaped and panted, coughing brown water, and frantically sloshed towards the root he’d once held to.  He trembled violently, and whimpered a bit, hugging the mossy root, searching frantically for any other reptilian creature that might come near him.  “Sn-snakes, gawd!” he blinked rapidly trying to clear the water from his eyes, rubbing his face with his stumpy hand.

Dob laughed, knowing there was nothing Grum-blud could immediately do to him.  For all of Grum-Blud’s blustering and bullying, Dob felt a savage delight knowing that there was at least one critter that could fill the troll with the cold dread he cruelly served to others.

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From further up the forest line, where the slough and bogland curved around from the woods, a familiar voice called out to them.  “Oy!  That you Grum?  What’re you doin’ muckin’ about in that stink?”

Another troll, not much different than Grum-blud in stature but considerably cleaner and drier, though soot-blackened and gray with ash flakes, stood holding a halter and gawking at them both.  There beside him was the other Onocentaur named Bunt.  Both wore a poorly veiled expression of amusement.

“Shelberd, you idiot!  Where’ve you been?!  Get me outta here!”

***

I was most worried about the dryads.  I had to find a way to protect my burgeoning fellowship.  I may be able to stall The Pan, but if the dryads came in contact with them, they would need to know how to resist their influence,  They needed to be prepared to contend with these particular Half-Men race subset with something more than brute physical force.  The Ancient Text came to mind again:

“6 So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.” [Romans 8:6 NLT]

This was a critical truth.  I was reminded of how when I was in a company of travelers, I had learned from solid other faithful followers of the One how to survive the enticement snares of a dryad attack.  The satyrs could be fought with weapons alone but not the dryads.  Two principles had sustained us.

Precept and Priority.  That was the only way we had survived the last encounter with the dryads.  The Ancient Text says:

“”9 [Beth] How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. 10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” [Psalm 119:9-11 ESV]

But knowing the One’s precepts alone does not give a person the power to resist the temptation to fall away from The One’s loving commands to protect you from harm.

There is a second component that is necessary and that is learning to prioritize your relationship with Him in your own life.

“28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” [Matthew 11:28-29 NET]

By allowing Him to establish intimacy with you, you will come to value the amazing way He loves you in such a way that it restores you, comforts you and helps you to so desire that fellowship that you find anything that threatens that closeness to be an enemy of your own desire.

***

“Hey, pretty boy!”

Eyes beautiful and moist, blinking large, round and soothing beneath a porcelain brow and under a flaxen brown cascade of curls, rose slowly and casually from the brush, followed by a pair of soft, blushing cheeks, and full pouting lips of crimson, spoke seductively, “Wanna play with us?”

A dryad had found Will crouched and hiding under the rush where Maeven had told him to wait, and lie very perfectly still while the Harpies passed overhead.
As the woman-creature rose up before him, her sinuous, and slender, shapely body barely covered by forest flora, Will decided right then and there, that this was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life in the Surface World or in his teenage, pubescent dreams.  No magazine or movie or siren actress could ever approximate her beauty and carnal sensuous appeal.  Yes, he said to himself, rising towards her, mesmerized by the sight of her.  He most definitely wanted to play.
A fine layer of dust sparkled in his hair and upon his shoulders, as he reached to touch her small extended hand, a grin spreading upon his face.  The dust accumulated on the edge of his nostrils and lips as he unwittingly breathed it in.  Pheromones.
Maeven turned as she heard the rustle from behind her and gasped as she saw Will’s body rising up into the tree canopy above born aloft in a tangled cocoon of extending vines.

The Faeries – Chapter 53

Grum-blud had tied Will to the Onocentaur called Bunt, while he rode upon the other whose name was Dob.  He had no particular preference or fondness for either, but since Bunt was the whinier of the two, he opted to straddle Dob, to be further away from the latter’s annoying protestations.  Despite their complaints to the contrary, the donkey-half of these two still maintained the trait of their Surface World counterparts of being sure-footed and slow-plodding creatures when moving over rough terrain bearing a burden.  This characteristic of donkeys and mules was desirable in the Surface World for slow excursions involving mountain and canyon travel, which was precisely why these animals were employed to safely convey visitors up and down the narrow trails along the canyon’s edge.

Dob and Bunt were resentful and relatively sullen, as Grum-blud urged them on through the forest trails at a pace they were not accustomed to.  After all, they were part human.  He knew the fire would be coming soon, and if they did not hurry they would be overtaken by it.  They were at least a half day’s journey from the rendezvous point with the agents of The Pan.  He worried what exactly he would say when he met up with them without the Manticores in his company.  He wondered where that fool Shellberd had run off to when he was supposed to stay with the onocentaurs until after the siege.  When Grum-blud had fled the interior walls of Azragoth, he’d barely made the gates of the Barbican before the fiery manticores came plunging through shrouded and lit in a ghostly light.  The oil and tar on their hides burned first before the heat of the flame lit their skin and fur.   He’d climbed up on the gate, was nearly sprung off of it before he’d caught the rope of Mogawr and been pulled free.  The Manticore dragged him as it ran, its hide afire, but its large segmented tail still free of flame, as it bounded through the forest ahead of the others.  Grum-blud had jumped upon his tail, the halter rope held tightly in his fist and his arms hugging tightly to the segmented arch for as long as he could until ultimately, he fell off as the Manticore juked back and forth through the brush and low limbs, heedless of its rider.  Flames licked at Grum-blud as he struggled to stay on as the tail pumped and flexed up and down in the erratic winding run.  When the oil flames reached his arms and ignited his hair he rolled off screaming in agony and anger, cursing the Manticore his bad luck and the pain that curled and burned his arms until he was able to roll and smother the flame.  He’d scrambled away, found the onocentaurs, no sign of Shellberd and they’d taken the road downward away from the growing fire.  Finding Will had been a sudden turn of his horrible luck.  Finding the group of outworlders, and marking them for death, was only a matter of time.

***

Maeven moved into the brush along the side of the road when she saw the grass turned down and pine needles disturbed where someone, most likely Will, had hastily moved off the winding road to lay low behind a stand of trees. The light was poor because of the thick cover of trees and the interlocking branches and canopy of leaves towering a good twenty to twenty-five feet overhead.  A short declivity created a bowl behind the stand, allowing a person ample room to hide effectively either to allude or ambush the travelers moving down the forest road.

The rest of us waited for Maeven, knowing that if we crowded her, we might obscure the tracking signs she was looking for.  We had lit a torch to aid her sight, but she had held us off when she noticed the signs that the roadside brush had been disturbed.  I stood as far as she had given me leave, holding forth the burning torchlight as it flickered in the darkling dappled light.  Once she’d moved behind the roadside tree blind, she’d discovered the pressed brush and felt the moistened ground and felt some oily slick substance on the dried leaves.  She came around from behind the stand of trees rubbing her fingers together, with a curious look upon her face, looking closely at them as she came into the brighter light.  Her eyes lifted, and the torchlight flame danced in gleams of twin golden reflections in her eyes.

“Blood,” she whispered, letting the implication hang in the cool stillness of the air.

“What did you find back there?” I asked.

“Looks like Will or someone, was hiding back there.  It appears they might have had a slight injury, and someone else may have dragged them back from their hiding place for a short distance, but they walked out of here, through the forest.  If this was Will, I do not think he was given much choice in the matter.  If we leave the road, however, the chances are high we’ll get disoriented and perhaps lost since there is no real trail that way.  Whoever has Will, they are avoiding a confrontation with us for now, but they may be following us from some distance.”

“Doesn’t seem like the Protectorate’s way of doing things, does it?”

Maeven shook her head, soberly, “No it doesn’t.”

“Who else might it be?”

“If you are seeking a list of who might be our enemies here, you have a lot to choose from.”

“Yes, but many of them would not hesitate to confront us aggressively, so that narrows the list down a bit.”

“We’re gonna have to be careful and watchful as we go on.  I would like to fan out a little and angle behind, perhaps catch some sign of them running parallel to us, see who they are.”

“It’s too dangerous for us to get separated.”

“That’s true, so you will need to lead the others along the road, keep whoever is watching focused on you all so that I can slip away behind unnoticed and find out who they are and perhaps get to them before they do anything to Will.”

“They won’t do anything to Will,” I responded.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because they took Will because they need leverage to deal with us.  Will is too valuable to them right now.”

“Do you think Will would sell us out?”

I couldn’t answer that question and found myself looking off thoughtfully which provided Maeven with all of the answers she needed.

“Then there isn’t much time.  Take the others onward.  I’ll find out what I can and come back to you.  Follow the road.”

“Do you know the way?”

“I know enough about these woods to get through them.  Storm Hawk, remember?” she grinned.

I smiled and nodded, “Go to it then.  Be safe.  Come back soon.”

***

I returned to our company as they waited while Maeven and I conferred in private.

“Did you find Will?” Miray asked.

“Not yet, my dear, but we’re working on it.”

“So, what’s the plan from here?” Christie asked.

“We’re to proceed down the road as planned.  The forest behind is burning and it won’t be long before the wind shifts and drives it more this way.  The woods eventually yield and thin out.  There is a slough in the woods ahead which might explain what we’ve all been smelling.  We need to stay close and together.  James still has his halberd weapon.  I have the honor sword.  Mason, you still have Maeven’s bow and the quiver of arrows.  Begglar, I assume that staff is for more than just walking.  Christie, be prepared to use that saber and dagger.  Matt, Laura, Tiernan, Dominic and Chris, as Ezra said, there are more weapons available to you than those with a sharpened edge or pointed tip.  Use your eyes and ears to be watchful.  Seeing and identifying the approach, direction and nature of an enemy can be just as important as any parry or strike.  If we have to fight, even though you are unarmed, we need you to be looking in the direction we cannot.  Let us know what you see that we don’t.  Stay in the center, between each of us who have a weapon, but watch beyond us.  Some enemies may even descend from the trees so don’t just look to the left or right of you.  You are our eyes and ears.  Pick a direction for each of the five of you.  The four compass points and the trees above should cover it.”

“Where should I look?” Miray asked, not wanting to be left out.

“Why, I thought, since you were already down there, short-stuff, you could keep an eye on the ground ahead of us.  Ezra taught me an important lesson, remember?  Be aware of the ground upon which you stand to fight.  That makes your perspective extremely important.  Don’t let us down, missie.”

Miray giggled, delighted with my answer.

“Does Maeven want her bow back?” Mason asked.

“I expect when she does, she’ll ask for it.  You keep it for now.  I will never forget that eye-shot you made with that Moon Sprite.  It strobing away and you put out its lights, just as cleanly as any marksman.  I expect she would be honored to let you bear it a while longer.”

“Where’s Maeven going?” Nell asked.

“Leave that to her,” I answered, “She’s running a brief errand and will join us soon.”

Begglar smiled knowingly but didn’t seem to agree with my assessment that the scent we were encountering was merely the sewage seep of a deep wood slough.  The thick arched eyebrow was one of his tells.  He kept slightly sniffing the air, looking from one direction and then another.  His eyes shone forth under a furrowed brow, lit again with that old rascal fire, that I’d once seen in them.  As a father now, he was mindful of not causing premature alarm with young ones, as he gently stroked Miray’s red hair, delighted by her youthful exuberance and more than willing to shield her, for however much longer he could from the harsher realities present in this Mid-World.  A wistfulness shone in his eyes as well, stilling his tongue from saying more.  Life handed out brutal acquaintances with the brutality of mankind and the curse of a fallen world at odds with the One, in doses of time.  While time was inexorable and sometimes seemed deliberately slow when our wanting was placed upon the uncertain future.  The pace of time’s march shifted by one’s perspective.  To a child, the lengths of growing up might seem like forever, but to a loving and engaged parent, that time seemed to be sped up and slipping away all too quickly.  Awareness of evil, signified the loss of innocence, much like with the fruit of that accursed tree in the ancient Surface World garden where all mortal life began.

The smell he’d detected was more than just the organic putrefaction of a stagnant slough.  It was that of rotting flesh.  He’d remembered the distinctive smell from his days aboard a ship when Xarmnian ships had plied the waters and captured the boat of a friend of his, which he’d later found floating derelict and adrift.  He’d recognized the vessel, and he and his crew had hailed it with no response and no flag signal.  When they came close enough to board her, he saw why there had been no response.  From the mast to the mizzen sail rigging, the boom and cross sails hung with the dangling bodies of the sailor crew.  The smell of that terrible sight stuck forever in his memory.  It had not gotten any better when he and his men climbed the ropes to the topsails and worked their way across the boom, cutting each and every one down, to give them a more dignified burial at sea.

***

The lights of the mysterious creatures moved through the dark forest, illuminating the boles of the trees, flashing this way and that with blinding speed.  Maeven had barely left the company when she witnessed the distance brilliant spectacle of their passing flickering in the distance through the trees.  She moved as quietly and as quickly as she could, knowing that the woodland faeries did not often reveal themselves unless they were on a distinct mission.  And if one was careful enough, and could get close enough, one might have the pleasure of hearing them sing.

The faeries could appear small or large depending on whatever suited them, for size was also not a limitation for them, but an aspect of their physicality that they could change at their whim.  When in motion, however, especially when moving rapidly through such a dense forest, they often appeared small to easily sweep through and around trees without the constraint of a larger mass.  In smaller form, however, their quadrupedal wings appeared to flutter in a circular motion with a distinctive brilliance scintillating on the tips of their wings, moving in such rapidity, as to appear like they moved within a brightly glowing ring of light, folding and enfolding upon itself.

***

Maeven wasn’t the only one to witness the bright shining lights coming rapidly through the back forest.  Grum-blud also saw the flashes behind him and panicked.  He drove his boot into the flank of Dob and grabbed the short hair ridge of the onocentaur’s neck mane.  “Get going, you good-for-nothing, jackass!” he shouted.  Dob, flinched and kicked at Grum-blud’s harsh treatment, but found no hoof contact that satisfied him.  Dob ran into the back of Bunt, almost toppling Will to the ground, had he not been securely tied to the packs the ono also carried.

“Get us outta, here!  The wood is haunted by faeries!”

The light behind then grew in intensity, and arc welder-like streaks whooshed passed and overhead, banking and then curving around and doubling back upon them, buzzing them, close enough to strike their heads.

Grum-blud flinched and ducked under the swoop barely able to stay on Dob, as he bucked and spun in fear of the creatures.

“You got us into this, troll!  Bad luck follows you everywhere!”

Bunt brayed loudly, bouncing off of trees, attempting to run, but finding no good place to get into the trees but by following the barely discernable footpath trail they had been following.

“Curse you, you stupid troll!” Bunt brayed angrily, “May the satyrs eat your eyes out!”

Bunt took off in one direction, abandoning the trail, and Dob took off in another, their fear of the diving and swooping faeries far greater than any abuses to which Grum-blud or The Pan might put to them.

Grum-blud kicked harshly at Dob, but Dob paid him no heed, running faster and faster over the uneven trail, cutting through brush, bouncing off a buried boulder, crushing Grum-blud’s leg and calf between the donkey’s flank and the rock, causing Grum-blud to curse all the more, but lose his grip upon the reigns and roll, tumbling head over heels off Dob’s backside and land face down in the dirt and fallen pine needles of the forest floor.  Dob raced away, kicking his hind legs sporadically, but disappeared into the forest without looking back to see where the others had gone.

The rope holding the packs, and Will to the back of the Ono named Bunt, snagged on a jutting branch and Bunt twisted and jerked, side to side trying to get free.  At last, the coarse rope broke and both Will and the weighted pack fell to the forest floor beneath a fern-like plant, as Bunt took off in the opposite direction also disappearing into the darkened woods.

***

Maeven saw her opportunity and she took it.  The faeries had provided a distraction and she’d witnessed the piggish faced troll go down, separated from the other creatures, Onocentaurs, it appeared, and Will, who had been bound and gagged fell as well.  In the melee, and under the flashing lights whizzing to and fro, casting blinding flashes of light through the dark, she could stay low, and get to Will while he lay down under the low forest cover and snatch him away from the Troll.  She had not brought a weapon with her, for she had expected this only to be a scouting mission and not a confrontation.  The Troll would be on her if he spotted her, and she had no way of knowing who else of the enemy was in the area and might soon respond and rally to the commotion.  The faeries continued to dive-bomb the Troll so that he dared not get up until they passed.  One touch of the faerie wings of its burnished body and his head would turn into crumbling ash and salt—faerie dust, indeed.

Maeven crouched low, knowing that a touch by the faeries would prove disastrous to her as well, but she did not believe these were haphazard in their persistence to cow the troll and keep him down.  She crawled and ran through the forest brush, weaving around the dense trees, finally arriving at the place where she’d seen Will fall and dove down under the ferns.

Will lay winded, the gagged pulled tightly against his neck, his nostrils flaring to compensate for the breaths he could not take due to the gagging cloth.  Maeven reached down, snagged his arm and dragged him towards her.  Pulling out a short blade from a belt she turned him over, slicing through the rope that bound his hands, then proceeding down to free the one tied to his feet.  She jerked at the knot binding the kerchief like cloth binding his mouth, and when she could not pull it loose she slid the knife between his hair and the cloth, scoring the fabric enough to begin ripping it apart.  Once loose, Will reached up and snatched it away, his breath coming out in an audible wheeze.

“Oh, that stunk!” he gasped, “So glad to get that out of my mouth.  Smelled like that troll wiped his rear with it.”

“Might have,” Maeven hushed him, and Will blanched and looked like he was going to be sick.

“Don’t think about that now.  Hush.  It’s still out there and it has that sword you put between your shoulders.  Bad move, that.  You can never get to it when you need to.  It’ll never clear the scabbard.”

Will winced and groused, “Little late to be telling me now!”

“Stay down under here for a moment.  Let me see if I can spot him.”

Maeven eased up poking her head just above and between the ferns trying to determine if she could see over the top of them without giving their position away.

She saw the faeries swoosh over a spot where she figured the troll was and saw the flash of a blade swipe at the air where the faerie had been.  Two faeries crisscrossed over him and the blade slashed wildly about, trying desperately to hit and ward off the creatures buzzing him.  All at once the silver of the blade did strike and appeared to hit one of the diving creatures, and the blade rang with a metallic clang and a shower of sparks erupted as the sound of the Troll exulting bellowed forth from the brush, but it was short-lived.  The blade that had made contact fizzled with further sparks as its tip, heated to white-hot, fell from the top of the blade and dropped onto Grum-blud seeming to scald him from the sounds of his howling, and a string of foul obscenities, that Maeven had never heard before or since in the Surface World or the Mid-World belched out of the angry troll, such that if it were possible, just hearing them would scald a person’s ears anywhere within proximity.  And suddenly, the faeries did something that caused Grum-blud’s cursing to cease and he howled, stopping his ears, and the sound of his running form crashing through the brush and fleeing the area, could just barely be heard behind the most mellifluous and beautiful noises that Maeven had ever heard.  The faeries had begun to sing.

***

We had not gone very far down the old road before we heard a rustling over the tops of our heads.  Laura searched the canopy sensing something was above us, but could not make out what it was, for the treetops swayed and rustled, and gently clacked and popped as branches swayed and collided with the high breeze flowing over the tops of the trees.  But the sounds were more than just that.  Something or somethings were moving through the treetop canopy as if running across the roof of the leafy ceiling.  The others were tempted to look upward, away from their focal directions, but I admonished them not to be distracted.  This was just the sort of scenario that would require eyes all around.  Those in our company with weapons stiffened not knowing exactly where to point their sharpened aim, blade-edge or striking blunt, but I bade them wait for the direction of assault to be identified and approach it with calm and cool, if possible.

More noises were heard skipping from the upper boughs as we proceeded down the road, blades drawn, arrows ready, and turned down the curve of the road.  At last, we saw what had been causing that horrendous odor we had all detected.  A haze of smoke wafted across the roadway, with a phosphorescent glow somewhere behind it, similar to moonlight.  Begglar was the first to speak, but it wasn’t to me.

“Miray, are you watching the ground, lassie?  Please focus on the ground, darlin’.  Keep us safe.”

Begglar did not want her to see what we saw silhouetted in front of the smoky phosphorescence over the road ahead, and I did not want Miray seeing it either.  If we could spare Miray’s innocence for just a few seconds more, they were worth it.  Every moment of innocence is precious.  This forest was haunted indeed.

The Haunted Forest – Chapter 52

When Mattox had approached the archer on the wall, he never had expected what he saw when the man turned to face him.  Nor had he or anyone in his company expected the man to shoot him.  Four other faces along the southern wall turned and faced Mattox and the company.  Four who all shared the same face.  That of a person they had sent out from Azragoth before the siege had begun.  The face of one who had openly and publicly accused The Eagle of being a traitor to Azragoth and had raised his sword threatening him before the eyes of the soldiers and citizens who placed implicit trust in The Eagle to lead their warriors and armies against Xarmnian oppression.  A man whom those in his company called Mr. O’Brian.

***

Though the shock of seeing what appeared to be an ally suddenly turn in aggression and fire upon their commander caused the retinue to hesitate for a moment, that moment between shock and response did not last long.  Two of the four other Mr. O’Brian’s shot arrows into their group causing their horses to rear, as other men-at-arms were felled from their mounts under an arrow assault.  The remaining two O’Brians were stretching their bows, making attempts on the remaining company, when the horses veered away from the group, spurred by their Azragothian riders, to stretch out the battle unit and divide the center mass grouping so that the archers would not pick them off easily.  Two men, rode to and across the path, right into the rain of arrows, towards their fallen general, using short buckler shields to fend off the sharp points, from hitting vitals but charging towards Mattox to see if the arrow that had hit him had been as deadly as it appeared.

Mattox had slumped from his saddle, shifted and fallen from it to the cobblestone street, blood stained his emblematic crest, and the piercing arrow had appeared to strike him through the heart.  The soldiers witnessing the shocking turn of events, though they did not wish to believe it, had assumed the worst, but the two trusted bodyguards could not leave their general in such an ignominious position.  They rushed and rallied to his aid, arrows glancing off their bucklers, but whishing through their legs, bouncing and breaking upon the hard cobbled stone street, glancing off their leather brigandine, pinging their rerebrace epaulet plates, yet not halting their determined and single-minded purpose—get to the general.

Mattox blinked and stared up at the smoky sky, the breath knocked out of his lungs when he’d hit the pavements, his chest awash in fire.  The tip of the arrow that had pierced his body has been awash in flame, no doubt dipped in the fiery oil running across the top of the burning wall.  He’d bled from the wound, but the heated tip, prevented more blood loss because it had cauterized the wound created going in.  He blinked hard again, unable to catch enough air to fill his lungs and allow him to move, turn, roll or get to his feet.  He’d been struck hard, point blank, and the shock of seeing O’Brian in the city, upon the wall, when he’d personally escorted him and his company out of it, gave the archer the two seconds needed to get a deadly shot off.  The arrow strike had winded him, the fall compounded that, but the strike, though severe and penetrating, had not pierced his heart at least, though he could not be too sure about his lung.  It had definitely notched and scored a bone and its diamond-shaped point would not be pulled out of him without some further excruciating pain, but he would deal with that at it came.  At the moment, his prone position could not be tolerated.  It would demoralize and discourage his company, and the non-militia citizenry.  Though he’d tried to discourage it, the people saw him as a symbol of hope.  The Eagle, indeed.  When they’d proudly presented him with the emblazoned crest and battle wear, he had wanted to reject it as impractical for what he needed to accomplish, but they’d all celebrated the presentation day, and his men and women fighters needed the encouragement in the face of the odds arrayed against them.  The Eagle crest marked him, made his rank clear, and focused the training soldiers’ attention waiting on his command without first having to identify himself.  It also marked him as a target for the enemies lying in wait to strike him down.

At last, he was able to take in a series of short breaths, as one of his men-at-arms appeared over him.

“General?”

Mattox took in a short breath and used it to speak to his man.

“We’ve got to close the gate to the Keep.”

***

Though the sun shone somewhere overhead, the branches shading the forest road were dense and allowed only muted light to filter down to our path.  The Protectorate soldiers would have to take the wagon through the forest roads, for the footpaths and horse trails were too narrow to accommodate a wooden buckboard.

The Azragothian wagon was newer than Begglar’s wagon we had lost on the highland route, and its wheels were thicker and its seat wider with better springs and an under-seat box for additional storage.  The superior replacement salved Begglar sadness at having to give up the older one with sentimental value, but the loss of this new one, in addition to having their party of travelers kidnapped and taken while trying to save Maeven’s life seemed to add an individual insult to that injury as well.  Begglar, who would have been more fearful of the Xarmnian Protectorate thugs from his years of past experience and abuse from them, was now full-on angry and was feeling a degree of courage and hope for a chance at personal vindication in the pursuit of these Xarmnian thugs.  He knew vengeance belonged to the One, but he could not deny his feeling.  He’d allowed these Xarmnians to strip him of the dignity and honor and respect he’d once had when he’d openly fought alongside O’Brian, and been able to hold his own on a battlefield.  Being a bigger man in his day, he’d fought with a cutlass, a war hammer, and half-shield and could stand toe to toe with any man in a sparing ring when they’d trained for resisting the Xarmnian incursions beyond the boundaries of the Lake Country.  As they had plied the waters of Lake Cascale, they had thwarted weapons runs across the waters, and he’d been labeled a pirate back in the day, by the Xarmnians and had had a bounty put on his head.  Back then, he’d been known under a slightly different name, back before fatherhood, back before his son had trouble mimicking his father’s Irish accent, and had only succeeded in calling him by the moniker Begglar, a loose phonetic equivalent to the name under which he had been known and wanted for piracy, treason and high crimes against the self-declared regional governors of Xarmnian occupied territories.  A name that had struck him as both poignant and funny at the same time.  Once a prince and scourge of the high seas now reduced to a Beggar of sorts, cashing in both his fame and his fortune for a much quieter domestic life in the idyllic countryside.  O’Brian knew both names and life iterations equally well.  How the Innkeeper and erstwhile baker had left the dangerous life of being McGregor the Pirate.

The meek, unassuming persona adopted, and the drastic change in both girth and carriage had reduced him over the years to a man whom no one would recognize as his former self, and Begglar had been ashamed of that fact, especially since he had to maintain that demeanor when in the presence of Xarmnian’s oblivious to whom he once was, and the younger impudent set growing up without the knowledge of his infamous exploits against the Xarmnians when they had first tried to claim and occupy the highlands and failed.

Now, feeling more of his ire return, and with no further need to maintain the pretense of being only a displaced and dispossessed Innkeeper and baker, he was beginning to sense the wanderlust of his former days once more.  Of course, when they finally reached Skorlith, O’Brian would need not bargain for more than the ship as he already had, among his travelers and companions, a very capable sea captain to pilot it when the time came.  As Maeven and O’Brian moved furtively ahead scouting for signs of passage along the way, attempting to gain some indication that the others were still alive and captive, Begglar, reflecting back on his glory days, could almost feel the spray of the sea on his beard and face, and almost smell the salty sea.  Almost.  There was a slight pungency in the air that was not only the smell of turning leaves.  A scent he’d become too familiar with over the last few years.   A smell of death.

This uneasiness he felt was made all the more poignant when Miray suddenly asked, “Aren’t we gonna go find Will first?”

***

Wheels within wheels.  Flaring and pulsing flashes of light, streaking through the tall woods, dodging trunks, bursting through bushes with a crackling rustle of leaves, making a pitty-pat, pitty-pat fluttering noise as these zipped, dipped, wove and whooshed through forest, glen, and glade, reflecting a golden dance of light quiet upon the wet surface of babbling brooks that passed under the wood.  The radiance of four small translucent wings made these bright flying creatures appear to be small globes of light, vibrating and oscillating with tireless pulses of energy.  Their small golden faces, like burnished brass awash in warm yellow light, were difficult to discern, for they seemed to vibrate in and out of focus, phasing between Sapien, bovine, leonine and aquiline aspects.  There were dozens of these, flashing in and out from between the trees ahead of the crackling and roaring firelight that filled the woodlands with a dense haze of smoke.  One might have thought, only for a brief moment that these points of light were floating embers wafted and twisting and spinning upward upon the heat wind of the raging fires behind, but for no longer, for these moved with their own determination and speed far greater than that produced by the driving wind.

These were what had begun to be known as Faeries, yet their existence pre-dated any legend existing of them in both the Mid-Worlds and the Surface World.  A human had encountered them once in the Surface World, and once in the Mid-World expanse as well.  Two men whose experiences were separated by around six and a half centuries of Surface World time.  Many had viewed these fantastic beings to be representative or symbolic, but the Ancient Text treatment of them gives them no such illusion.  They are described in detail with the language and frame of reference by both the first-century man and the man encountering them in his six hundredth century context.  This is his account of them:

4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness [was] about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also out of the midst thereof [came] the likeness of four living creatures. And this [was] their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. 6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 7 And their feet [were] straight feet; and the sole of their feet [was] like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. 8 And [they had] the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. 9 Their wings [were] joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 11 Thus [were] their faces: and their wings [were] stretched upward; two [wings] of every one [were] joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. 12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; [and] they turned not when they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance [was] like burning coals of fire, [and] like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. 15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their work [was] like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work [was] as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: [and] they turned not when they went.  [Ezekiel 1:4-17 KJV]

The first-century man, transported into a region described as the third heaven, gives the same physical account of these beings:

5 From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God. 6 In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal. In the center and around the throne were four living beings, each covered with eyes, front and back. 7 The first of these living beings was like a lion; the second was like an ox; the third had a human face; and the fourth was like an eagle in flight. 8 Each of these living beings had six wings, and their wings were covered all over with eyes, inside and out. Day after day and night after night they keep on saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty–the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” 9 Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), [Revelation 4:5-9 NLT]

So, when I am asked the question, Do I believe in faeries?  My qualified response, establishing that what we are talking about as witnessed by these two men is the same, I say, wholeheartedly, yes, I do.  Do I call them faeries?  Not particularly, no.  I’m sure they have another name, that I cannot comprehend or am not even qualified to speak, for the Ancient Text only calls them ‘Living creatures’, in absence of their real names.  What I believe is that they are multi-temporal creatures, which is why they seem to phase and vibrate between some interdimensional existence, hinting to me that they may occupy some aspect of life that is not bound by the limits of space or time.  What I do know is that the effortless motion in which they move or fly about never seems to tire them, and that one may never touch them without the loss of the place in which they made contact physical contact.  The finger, hand or net which tries will disintegrate and fall to dust and ash instantly.  This is one of the many reasons why satyrs hate and fear the Faeries.  They are not half-men, nor are they any sort of animal, fish or insect, or hybrid creature, but something else entirely.  Something birthed beyond our finite understanding, serving the pre-existent One.  Their descriptions come only by our frame of reference, but do not fully explain what they are with any definitive clarity.  Suffice it to say, they are living mysteries that mortals may never fully understand until we find a greater clarity beyond this life.

The one thing I am sure of, however, is that they are emissaries of goodwill towards those committed to the call of the One.  They only intervene in those instances where they are given leave and direction to do so.  A person does not seek out the Faeries.  If a person is to receive any assistance or intelligence from them, they will seek him or her out because they were sent to them.  And on this one particular day and in this one particular time, they were being sent to find me.

***

‘Where’s Will?’ had become nearly a mantra phrase.  I admit it.  It annoyed me that every time we planned to leave or needed to get somewhere in a hurry, we were first having to go find out where Will had wandered off to.  I was tempted to make him put on a red and white striped long-sleeved shirt and wear thick black circular framed glasses, and a red and white stocking cap so that we could make a game of finding him.  Instead of “Where’s Waldo?” it would be…well, you know.  I knew he was going through some issues, but I couldn’t let him endanger the rest of the company unnecessarily with his stubborn and self-centered agenda.  If he wanted to constantly leave the company, I was of half a mind to let him have his own way, and discover what would happen to one traveling unprotected, unaware and alone in this country might bring him.  Will had become a liability.  And I was irritated enough to let him find out what that would get him.  But like Begglar, I had begun to pick up a scent on the chilled breeze, that disturbed me enough to think Will might already have found out the harsh lesson of going his own way.

Nell had smelled it too.  I saw her eyes wince, nose crinkle and her face grimace.  Death was near.  Its presence was wafting through the woods behind the rumble of the fires to the east of us and Azragoth’s hidden road winding upward into the smoking woods.  Azragoth’s terrible history had left it the legend of being haunted.  But it was not the only haunted place in these lands.  The forests grew thicker ahead of us, the branches of the trees older and gnarled by time and drought and decay.  The waters in the woods grew more still and stagnant as the flow of the stream lingered, trickled and pooled, saturating the ground with moss-laden goop from a slough and quagmire of alkalized run-off.  The mud had grown black with decay, and the residue of the old city wastes and landfill dumping had taken a toll on the environment.  Clouds of midges and flies swarmed the area, and something blending in with the swarms called in the Mid-World by the name hooliches.

“Which way did Will go?” I asked Miray, and she pointed up the winding road in the direction down which we had come from the top of the Trathorn Falls.

Maeven looked past me, and then back towards the direction in which the Protectorate had taken the others.

Miray came over to me and took my hand in her smaller one and looked up at me with sad eyes.

They were leaving the decision to me.

I so wanted to call a vote, but somehow, I felt that would be yet another way I was shifting my responsibility to lead this company, and in my heart, I knew that was wrong.  There was no easy decision to make.  If we went back for Will, the others would get further ahead, and they were already on horseback and more than likely being led to Dornsdale or another one of the Xarmnian occupied towns on the way.  At least I had an idea where we might be able to find the others, but as to Will…I just did not know.  The fires of Azragoth had slowed in their burning through the forest, and if Will had eluded us on the road down, he would not be making much progress that direction, which meant he would have to double-back and turn to follow us, whether he wanted to or not.  We could wait for that to happen or just go up the road a piece and might catch him coming back down toward us.  Irritated as I was by him, I really did not wish him ill.  I was uncertain what to do when I decided to just close my eyes and seek guidance from the One.  The smell of death was growing stronger moment by moment and I did not know exactly from which direction it was coming for it seemed to swirl around us as if pushed by the heat of the fires behind us.  My eyes suddenly popped open as a verse from the Ancient Text came to my mind and startled me with its implications.

“4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” [Luke 15:4 NASB]

My way was clear.  Though it annoyed me in some respects, I knew the right thing to do was to begin by finding Will.

Scorched Ground – Chapter 51

Satyrs are vile nasty creatures.

Do not believe what you may have read in Greek mythology about them.  They are not the little half-goat pipers that have short clipped beards, small knobby horns, an impish grin and a propensity to trot and skip around a campfire prancing about like a little ninny.  There are similar elements of these traits that are true, but the parallel similarities fork drastically on some points.  Satyrs are vicious, conniving little snots that, as a rite of passage, file their teeth to jagged needle points so that they can bite and tear flesh easier, making that “impish grin” all the more creepier.  They are hairy, unwashed and stink as if they have soiled themselves and allowed the result to collect in the shaggy mess all down their backsides.  Their beards are wooly and unkempt, lice-ridden, not at all trimmed and combed.  They are drawn to fire and do frequent campfires, snatching coals and charred branches, with which they mark themselves so that the upper half of their bodies are coated in ash and soot.  They are wild and savage and vulgar creatures, given to debauchery, and fermented drink, if they can steal it.  They are six-fingered thieves, for their hands almost always have that number of digits, unless they have met with misfortune or severe punishment.  And they have a great fondness for dogs.  Not keeping them, or playing with them…Eating them.  They take great sport in killing a dog.

Satyrs, like goats, are both climbers and jumpers, vaulting and scaling great crags, making their habitat in both forests and high mountain caves alike.  They are very fast, and over short distances, may even equal the speed of a horse in full gallop, but they cannot sustain a longer run.  The nails of their hands are grimy and dirty, often unusually long and thick.  They haunt forests, often playing tricks on wayward travelers in particularly dark wooded stretches, marauding and injuring their horses.  As I said, mean little snots.

Like trolls, these are not to be trifled with.  They are not cute forest creatures and are not natural to this or any land.  If you have the opportunity to dispatch one to its eternal consequences, don’t hesitate to do so.  If the opportunities are reversed, these will have no reservations or compunctions to return the favor, unless they are of a mind and mood to torment you first.  They are not the fauns of Narnia.  These are cousins to The Pan.  Not near as big as he, but every bit as vile, though less cloaked in the semblance of ancient intellect.

These are the things you need to know before we encounter satyrs.  I had hoped we would be spared dealing with them until we reached the stone passes, but they have been known to extend their hunting grounds into the forests, especially if they pick up the scents of dogs or any canine species, wolves, coyotes or even foxes.

Oddly enough, these beings do appear in a reference within the Ancient Text, though the word varies from translation to translation.

14 The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there and find for herself a place of rest. [Isaiah 34:14 KJV]

The Hebrew term used in reference to these creatures is śě’îrîm, (שָׂעִיר in Hebrew), often translated as “he-goat”, but sometimes refer to demons in the forms of goats.  The One forbade his people from making sacrificial offerings to them in Leviticus 17:7 and in 2 Chronicles 11:15 there is mention of a special cult established for the śě’îrîm of Jeroboam I.

There is only one natural-born enemy here in the Mid-World to the satyrs who have invaded this land.  Some beings that these beast-men cannot abide and fear.  It is one reason why I am further surprised to see these coming this far into the forests.

Maeven rose and looked at me questioningly.  Not because she did not know what I was referring to but wondered if it was time to reveal these other creatures.

Both Begglar and Nell also knew to what beings I had alluded to, in fact, we had seen such from a distance on the edge of the forest before the burnt Manticore crashed through the brush and entered the basin lake below the Trathorn Falls.

The strange lights dancing on the edge of the forest.

[Prior reference inChapter 33: The Manticore and the Moon Sprites”, Word search thesparkles of lightappearing along the edge of the dark wood, near where the Manticore entered the lake.]

***

Grum-blud held the jagged blade roughly under Will’s neck, drawing a slight nicking cut enough to prick Will’s skin and form beads of blood on the blade.

“Make a peep, boy.” he growled taunting him, “Peep, peep!  Oh, please make a peep!”

Will stiffened, closing his eyes, trying desperately not to cry out.  Fear sent ice pumping through his veins, even though the Troll’s foul breath was hot and steamy on his cheek, its crowding stocky body and coarse, muscled hide also exuding body heat and the pungent smell of scorched flesh and burnt hair, and the smell of smelted tar.  This creature, holding him, pinning his arms back with a rough forearm and clenched fist full of his hair, smelled like burning radial tires.

“That your company? Your friends?” the Troll asked.

“No,” Will croaked barely about a whisper.

“What say, boy?!”

“No.  They are not my friends.”

“Not yer friends, ay?” the Troll twisted his hair tighter in his meaty fist, causing Will to gasp in pain.

“Well, them’s the ones that torched my brother, and you’d better hope you’re not in league with them.  But, I’ll give you a chance to prove it to me soon enough.  Someone’s gonna bleed for it.  And I don’t care particularly much if it’s you or one of them.  Perhaps that little girlie there, what do you think about that?  The pretty, pretty’ll squeal like a stuck pig.”

Will stiffened despite the knife.

“Do you have a name, boyo?” Grum-blud said, as he pulled the cold blade back from his neck, releasing his hair, and snaked a scalded, redraw forearm, that had once been covered with thick black hair and some blackish substance, around gripping his wrist, turning it and shoving it back behind Will’s back.  The bloody spritzed blade, now tucked away, the troll man-handled Will, pulling both hands behind him, tying his arms together with some coarse fibered rope, pulled painfully taut.

“Speak up!” the troll barked, jerking Will up shakily to his feet.

“Will,” he whispered.

“Will what?” the troll pressed.

“Just Will,” the boy responded, slightly louder.

“Okay, boyo!” the troll hissed, shoving him forward, “My name’s Grum-blud.  And Grum-blud WILL be the one you will last see before you die if you do not do exactly as Grum-blud says when Grum-blud says to.  Got it?”

He waited for an answer and slapped hard at the boy when it was not forthcoming.

“Got it?!”

“Alright,” Will responded, “I got it.”

“What is this?!” one of the Onocentaurs asked, as Grum-blud emerged from the brush, forcibly shoving the bound young man in front of him as the end of his blade.  “We can’t carry this boy and your packs, troll?!  Are you mad?  It is enough of an indignity that we let you straddle your fat bottom upon our backs.  Why didn’t you just kill this lump and let us return back?”

“Because you don’t show up to The Pan, telling him that all twenty-six of his Manticore sentries are dead and burnt to terns, that your mission to slaughter those remnant rebels in Azragoth failed, even if you are burnt like this, without something to show for it.  Might as well gut yourself with your own blade, rather than suffer what they’ll do to you before you die.  This outworlder is a trophy, a bargaining chip and something that will ensure I’m not given to the satyrs for their sport.”

“Satyrs are just nasty,” the other Onocentaur joined.  “We just carried the packs and transported the troll, Dob” he said to the other, as if Grum-blud were not present, “The Pan’s not gonna hold us responsible for this failure, is he?”

“Of course not,” the Onocentaur named Dob, rejoined, “If this pudge couldn’t get the job done with sixteen Mants, how is that our responsibility?  We did our job, Bunt, even if he failed miserably at his.”

“You really are an Ass!” Grum-blud growled, “Now shut up, you two or you’ll give away our position with all your mouthy whining.  There are a band of outworlders close-by on the road ahead that may come looking for this piece of trash, and no telling what they’ll do to your half-ass carcasses if they catch us.”

“You mean we aren’t taking the road?” the Ono called Bunt whined, “My hooves hurt.  The trails have roots sticking out across them and it is too easy to catch one and stumble.”

“Step over them,” Grum-blud hissed, “Now be quiet!”

“Easy for you to say, two-footer!” Bunt retorted, still not lowering his voice, “What you got in these packs?  Rocks?”

“Mule meat!” Grum-blud cuffed him, “Now shut up!”

“I like the Other troll better,” Bunt groused one last time, but then kept his mouth shut, wincing as once more Grum-blud raised a threatening hand.

***

Shellberd, the other Troll, who had been supposedly minding the onocentaurs in the fore-woods descending down from the hidden city of Azragoth, found himself in a hot mess.  Literally.

He had climbed a tree to get a look at the goings-on as Grum-blud has proceeded towards leading the direct assault on the dead city of Azragoth.  He had intended to watch the battle from a safe distance and imagined the shouts that would come as the Manticores vaulted the walls and descended upon the city, bringing the wrath of The Pan down upon them.  That was his plan anyway…before he fell asleep, cradled in the boughs of the tree.  His head had eventually lolled back and he found a crook in the branches where he could get more comfortable while he waited for the show to begin.  Only the wait was a long time in coming, and he and Grum-blud had traveled a lot overland, and then he had been sent alone to ask for help from The Pan.  Grum-blud knew The Pan terrified him.  That he was so scared he’d peed himself the last time they went to have an audience with The Pan.  And he knew that was precisely why Grum-blud had sent him alone.  Grum-blud liked making others suffer.  He did in some ways, but not near to the extent that Grum-blud did.  And in the waiting, he fell asleep.  And he snored.  Loudly.  There was no hiding his position, when his grunts and loud, protracted snorts echoed and buzzed through the treetops.

He awoke suddenly with a start, as sparks of light wafted by him, dancing on a very hot wind.  His startled jerk almost made him fall from the tree, for he had forgotten where he was, and the disorientation confused him.

“Faeries!” he jerked and trembled, mistaking the wafting rain of drifting sparks for something that filled him with far greater dread than he’d ever experienced before The Pan.

His feet dangled, and his chubby butt slipped out of the fork, and frantically he hooked a stubby forearm around a branch to keep from crashing down through the boughs below.  His eyes turned towards the area where the old city lay, and his face winced at the orange flashes and a wall of fire, blackening the skeletal trees, headed his way.  The city of Azragoth was afire.

It looked like Grum-blud’s plan had gone well.  ‘Yay, for him!’ Shellberd thought, as an ember took light and started burning in the dry branches and leaves above him.  He jerked his head upward, eyes widening in the glow of the firelight, now spreading through the treetop.  “Oh, poop!” he groaned, as a flaming branch broke above his head and began to descend downward, towards the very limb he dangled from.

He dropped about five feet down, smacking a lower bough, bouncing and rebounding from it before toppling in a barrel roll down to the next one.  Each impact caused him to grunt and cough as if he barked all the way down in his fall with every strike.

The onocentaurs were nowhere to be found, he noticed as he caught himself, upon a lower branch, wincing from the hard strikes from the plummet.  Grum-blud was gonna be mad, he knew, but the fire rain was coming further and further down the tree, and he had to get ahead of it and away through the forest if at all possible, or Grum-blud’s ire would have its only vent if Grum-blud ever found his body after the conflagration and kicked repeatedly and frustratedly at his fire-blackened corpse.

“Damn the donkeys, and damn Grum-blud too!” Shellberd hollered, as he crunched downward upon the scorched ground, dancing over the licking flames, hopping in puffs of hot ash, and smoke, as he ran through the forest, as fast as his short stumpy legs, and scalded, groping knuckles could carry him.

***

Azragoth was awash in golden light and rapid activity.  The archers upon the secondary wall gangplank walk scanned the flame scorched horizon, as the fire continued to burn along the leading edge of the inner walls and in the oil troughs along the ramparts.  The tower turrets had been doused and drenched with large barrels of water, and large sacks of sand had been stored within to soak up and smother the oil fires, with the water used to reduce the chances of floating embers burning the dry timber substructures holding the stone works in place.  The heat shimmer and thermal wind made seeing down into the fronting forest difficult but not impossible.  The outer courtyards of the killing fields and the dead zones of the city had burst into flame, peeling back over twenty years of uncheck wild growth in a matter of minutes, leaving the charred bones of the old city bare again with a rage of smoke twisted scrub, smoldering mats of crisping vines disintegrating under the angry curls of flame.  Grey smoke raised a cloudy wall both within and without, roiling over the outer walls, boiling orange and yellow and red in the tops of trees and dropping ash and floating sparks and twisted embers, allowing them to rise upon the downward pushing wind weaving into the woods, igniting the fallen pine needles, bursting pine cones with loud pops, and breaking branches, baring them and coloring them grey and black with the ash and smoke.

Mattox and his horsemen retinue rode within the city walls, receiving feedback and intelligence from the men and women watching down from the walls.  The Manticores had been successfully routed and, considering how thoroughly they had been coated in pitch, they had most likely perished, but they had to be certain.  Reprisals would be swift and violent, and in numbers that would require planning.

His men had counted twenty-six total Manticores during the assault on the walls, and all but one had fled enflamed outside of the curtain wall and into the forest.  One had fallen and been entangled in the mats of vines and had been trapped within the killing field by the fire spreading around it.  Its immolation had been terrible but brief before it succumbed to the smoke and descended into the resulting bonfire.  The others had streaked through the forests, setting the woods on fire in each direction, so that their progress in flight was tracked and marked by trails of fire until they ultimately fell.

Only one had gotten further than the flames of the forest, as it had less of the pitch coating its body.  The watchers could not be sure if that one survived, but if so, it would soon report back to The Pan that whatever designs it had had for the total destruction of Azragoth had failed.  The two trolls were, at present, unaccounted for.  The one Manticore that had not been counted among the confirmed dead had been the one wearing a rope collar, so it was assumed that the Troll responsible for collaring the Manticore, must have attempted to flee upon the Manticore’s back, with the collar used as a makeshift halter.

The two onocentaurs were nowhere to be found either, so they must have fled before the fires reached them.  The woods now smoking with the conflagration were too hot to venture into after the unaccounted.  Live flames still licked and flared from blacked and whitening branches devoid of leaves.  The ground smoked with ash and black soot, red and orange embers dotting the scorched landscape through a haze of dust red and black smoke.  It would perhaps be days or weeks before the area would be safe enough to ride iron-shod horses through them.  The old road might be stripped of enough weathered grasses by the fires to finally reveal the age-old wheel ruts that wound up through the fire path to the broken portcullis gate of the city’s Barbican, but at least for the moment, no one, friend or foe, would be venturing up towards the fiery city.

***

Nem surveyed the city’s defensive response from the upper terraces, sighting Mattox and his core retinue’s progress as they moved from street to street along the inner wall.  As Mattox and his riders came to the southeastern end of the firewall, Nem witnessed The Eagle ride to the archer posted there to receive word about the sector he monitored from his vantage point along the wall.  He saw the archer turn from the Barbican and approach the general, suddenly raise his bow and shoot him in the chest, before the attendant retinue could respond or prevent it.

The Gathering in The Woods – Chapter 50

Find the road.  Find the trail.

These were the two objectives that the young woman, her two unnamed compatriots and Matthew, and Will were turning to pursue when Dominic, Miray, and Mason, halted them.  The three were focused on the canyon rim and the area near the spillway of the falls when they spotted the figures silhouetted on the edge of the cliff, under the strobe flash of the pealing lightning.  They waited for the next flash of light to be certain they weren’t just seeing things, but the time between the rumblings and the light display was lengthening.  The strange storm had pushed back the approach of the dawn, sliding a sheath of high atmospheric clouds over the bright eye of the rising sun, like a grey, swollen eyelid.  But the dawn was peeking through again, revealing the land below once more, shredding and stretching the clouds with its golden rays.  The figures they had seen might be who they hoped they were, but they could also be spies or agents of the Protectorate Overwatch and they were worried.  As O’Brian had admonished them, be wary of strangers.  Everyone is not your friend.  Now that they were unarmed and isolated, that admonishment seemed more pertinent now than ever.

“It’s them,” Miray stated emphatically.

“Don’t be too sure,” Dominic cautioned, but he too felt the rising hope and a deep need for her words to prove true.

Miray started to cup her hands to her mouth and shout to the figures on the cliff, but Mason spoke up quickly, “Wait, Miray!  We have to be sure.”

“It’s them.  I know it is,” she turned, “You’ll see.  We have to get up there.  Tell Mister O’Brian about the others.”

Matthew had come back down toward the shore, and knelt down, facing Miray, whose eyes were beginning to tear up.

“Hold on, princess,” he softly touched her shoulders, “O’Brian would want us to be cautious.  We don’t know who else might be around in these parts.  If we call out to them, others who we don’t want to hear us might get to them before we do.  Much as you and I want it to be them, even if it is, we don’t want to put them in further danger, now do we?”

Miray wiped a tear from her eye, and shook her head ‘No’.

“Let’s be careful and quiet,” he took her hand, as he and Dominic led her up the muddy bank towards the area where they had once parked the wagon.

“If it’s them,” the young woman smiled down at Miray, as they came up to the more level area, “we’ll find them.  Wait and see.”

“Guys, we do need to get back from the lake,” one of the young men said, “If it’s O’Brian and the others, they’ll come back down to us.  They do not know the others have been taken.  We need to get out of sight.”

***

I scanned the horizon, seeing that while one of the sky lines had begun to cloud and dim, many of the others were still very dark and jagged as if the canopy of the diffuse atmosphere were the stretched fabric of a tent that had gashes in it revealing the blackness of space and the endless night beyond.  These were the sky lines, the scars in the sky, that worried me the most.  One, in particular, was not only dark but widening, bleeding the atmosphere out into the void beyond.  To the southern horizon, a series of nine dark marks scored the edge of the cliffs stretching away from us as if chased into shadow by the growing sunlight.  There had always been signs in the heavens here, but the tale they revealed to me while comforting in some respects was disheartening in others.  There was a prophecy written in the stars beyond the day sky, but its message was being lost in time and memory.  If he’d been more aware of the situation and less distracted by his dread of losing Maeven, he might have thought to ask Hanokh again of those mysteries which he’d shared with him so long ago.  The Ancient Hebrew Mazzaroth.

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?  Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?  or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?  Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?  Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?” (Job 38:31-33 KJV)

The shocking parallel of its signs pointing forth to the prophecy of the ages revealed in the One’s coming and mission within the Surface World.  The crux and center-point of all journeys converging into Purpose.

The pulling away of the nine dark bands meant something, and I was determined to find what it portended.

The light from the dawn grew stronger and we were able to see more into the shadow of the basin below.  I scanned the shoreline looking for movement or some sign of our party waiting in the shadow of the shore below.  The edge of the lake looked different than I’d remembered it from before going out in pursuit of the Moon Sprites.  The surface of the lake had returned to its liquid state, as I suspected it would have, with the Pearl now safely tucked away in the pouch on my belt.  I scanned in dread as well, for the evidence of floating bodies, possible of Matthew, Mason and Will and the three others that had come to our aid in saving Maeven.  No sign, but that did not free me to hope yet.

The Trathorn Falls were alive again, roaring down into the lake below, but the face of the cliff seemed to have imploded, more than I remembered as if the force of the water had carved away a large cupola from the rock face.  Water still fell from the precipice about, but it no longer danced down the surface of the canyon face.  A jagged assemblage of broken stone jutted sharply out from the strike point of the water, building further froth into its white-crested beard streaming away down the mountainside.

“Begglar, do you still have one of those astrolabe sextant devices, you told me about?”

Begglar turned, unslung his pack from his shoulder, turned the flap and rummaged about in it for a moment before he produced the odd metal object with a sighting glass-lensed loupe on one side and a hinged half-moon shaped gage on the other.  I brought the instrument to my eye and looked through the loupe, scanning the lakeshore and riverbank.  The water had overflowed the banks, and I could see the muddy evidence that it had receded almost as fast as it had risen above its shores.  I found the place where we had left our party but could see no sign of them standing under the tree line.  Where had they gone, I wondered.  Since the water had broken over the shore, my guess was that they had retreated further back under the canopy to avoid being swamped and drawn into the lake.   I watched for a few moments, seeing no movement or visible sign of our party.  Nine sky lines had moved away to the far south.  Eleven of our party had remained on the banks as the rest of us had come out onto the lake.  Eleven minus two left nine.

“We need to get down there,” I said, handing the instrument back to Begglar, “Something’s wrong.”

***

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” the young woman said, “I am leaning more and more to Miray’s position.  They have to be them.  Who else could they be?”

Mason, Matthew, and Dominic, along with the other young men, and Will, who had not said a word, since the argument with Matthew, stood upon the covered road, where the wagon ruts had climbed the bank and many more horses, and large animal prints tracked up and down the bank from the lake to the hollows.

Dominic offered, “I hope it ’tis, more than you all, but there are dangerous men about, and Da and Mum taught me to hold until certainty shines true.”

“What does that even mean, you bog-trotter?!” Will groused.

Dominic stiffened at the slur, his farmer’s hands and fists clenching, as he struggled to bite his tongue.

He’d been told that Surface Worlders could be insensitive, clumsy and rude, and not to mind too much what they said, but this stung and felt deliberate.  He’d never encountered someone so full of nastiness, that he literally begged to get a clout right in the mouth, but there was always a first.

“Stop it!” Miray cried, covering her ears.  “You’re a mean idiot!  People try to be nice to you, but you’re mean to everyone.  Your daddy should have taught you some manners or beat your butt!”

“My daddy is dead,” Will said flatly with an even voice devoid of emotion, “Forgive me if he wasn’t around long enough to teach me much of anything.”

Will stalked away, leaving the others quietly looking from one to the other.

“Well, I am sorry about that for you,” Miray said in a softer voice to Will’s receding back, and Will halted, but didn’t turn.

“Well get used to it, kid.  Life is cruel.  If you want to survive it, you have to quit caring so much.  Sooner you learn that the better.”  And with that he proceeded further down the dark road, leaving them to their decisions.

“Wait,” the young woman spoke up.  Will kept walking as if he hadn’t heard her.

“My name is Lindsey,” she said, moving after him, but Mason put his hand on her arm.

“Let him go, Lindsey,” he said quietly, “He’s not in a place where he cares.”

She turned sad eyes to Mason, then back to Will and then sighed.

“We didn’t…”

“Does it matter?  Bad things and circumstances happen to all of us.  He’s not the only one.  We can let those things make us stronger or make us bitter.  It’s still a choice.  O’Brian said that he suspects Will is still sorting through those choices, but he needs some space to make up his own mind.  Leave him be, for now.  It’s his decision whether he wants to be part of us or not.”

Matthew stepped forward and offer her his hand in friendship, “I’m Matthew.  Nice to finally meet you, Lindsey.”

Mason grinned, “He’s the lady charmer.  You gotta watch this one.”  But before Matthew could say anything, Mason offered his hand to her as well, “Mason’s my name.  Pleasure.”

Lindsey shook both of their hands simultaneously, offering each with a smile.

“My name is Tiernan,” one of the young men came forward.  And the other followed.  “Christopher,” he said, “but call me Chris.  And call me when dinner’s ready, too.”  Mason, chuckled as he shook Chris’s hand, “Nice to meet you, Chris When-Dinners-Ready!”  And they both share a laugh, which the others joined.

Introductions were made all around, and a feeling of togetherness seemed to bond them in the sharing and exchange.

***

The trees covered the rutted road as it coursed through the woods running alongside the sounding distance from the river Trathorn and lakes and streams beyond.  A bluish twilight covered the shadowy road, though the sun had emblazoned the sky with light over the tops of the forest canopy.  Branches twisted and rose to archways like the solemn nave of a gothic cathedral, yet the tangle of the limbs, bathed in ghostly blue light, added a sinister quality to the roadway that descended into the gloom.  As we cautiously wound our way down the forested path, eschewing the trail closer in along the edge of the lake we had previously traversed, it was with some trepidation that we received the noises beyond us.  Laughing.

At one time a joyous sound, and in another context an eerie one, we could not yet determine from which context the sounds should be taken.  The voices were blended, male and female, yet weighted more so on the masculine scale.

For at least one of us, that balance had shifted, and Nell, being the Seer among us, and holding some degree of respect in perception, she gathered her skirts and began to run ahead of us down the roadway, getting far enough ahead that she rounded a bend and was out of sight for a full minute before we caught up to the eclipse in the road.

A cry of nervous delight sounded, as she sighted what must’ve brought on her certainty that the noises heard were to be welcomed rather than feared.

As Begglar, Maeven, Christie, Laura, James and I rounded the bend, we saw Nell running with enraptured delight, laughing to herself as she spotted the figures gathered in the roadway ahead of her.  “Dom!  Dominic, my boy!” she bubbled, relief and joy intermingled with her voice, pirouetting around the delight in her step, her arms spread wide in preparation for an anticipated reuniting embrace.

“Mum!  Da!” came the replied answer back, as I noticed Begglar breaking away from us hurrying to join the reunion.

It was touching and warming in such a way that only the moistening of my eyes could express, to see Nell fall into her son’s arms, and their father join them all in a bear hug around them.  One of those he had been famous for, as a much younger and larger man.

Matthew, Mason and young Miray saw us approaching from the distance behind, and Miray launched forward into a run, the sheer delight of a child accentuating every step as if she skipped along towards us with short leaps, squealing with both affections and giggles that could melt through any toughness we might wish to pretend we had.  The girl bounded up to me, throwing her arms around my leg, hugging me fiercely and disarming me from keeping any sense of professional distance in leadership, as I had once thought was so foolishly necessary.

“I love you, Mister O’Brian,” she said unreservedly, and I melted, leaned down, picked her up into my arms and hugged her back every bit as fiercely as she hugged me.  “I love you, too sweet girl!” I said, finding it impossible not to say those words without tears streaming down my face.

“I knew you weren’t dead.  I just knew you weren’t!” she hugged me without reserve as only a child can, and I squeezed her tight, laughing and spinning her around and around.

“Not yet, my dear.”

Miray twisted back, looking at the others, Mason, Matthew, Dominic, and whom I would come to be introduced to as Lindsey, Tiernan, and Christopher, though I would be told, by Mason, to call him Chris When-Dinners-Ready, whatever that meant.  With her own degree of Miray’s unique impish panache, Miray cast accusatory eyes back at the others, and said, “See!  I told you so!  I know things too, y’know!”

Which brought its own level of laughter equally shared around.

***

I have delayed saying much about Miray, but now I feel the time is right for it.  Miray is something else.  I don’t mean that in a negative way, or in the sense that one other semblance of a little girl appeared to be.  You know who I mean.

What I mean is she is something extra special.

She was the first of everyone joining me on the beachhead, back at the beginning of this quest to give me her name.  She just up and approached me and announced emphatically with her hands on her hips, “I’m Miray.”

I knelt down to her level, extended my hand and said, “Well, hello there my dear Miray.  My name is Brian.”

She shook my hand, one emphatic pump only, smiled crookedly and said, “I am not a deer.”

And I responded, “Well then, are you a rascal?”

She beamed, winked at me and said, “Maybe.”  And then she skipped away back to the group to make other acquaintances.  I do believe Miray is the only one who knows all of the names of the people in our company, sly fox that she is, but I have refrained from exploiting the gathered intelligence of her free-spirited approach because I understood what giving names do here.

Miray did admit to a few things, however, that I have thought about, but was hesitant to think about more.  I am afraid I dismissed what I thought was the playful ramblings of a child, but in hindsight should have given them more weight.

The two men who were killed on the hillside, who had deserted our company.  Miray said they would not tell her their names, so she called them what she got from the exchange.  Mr. Go-Away-Kid, and Mr. Seen-and-Not-Heard.  I doubt the exchange had been pleasant, but Miray was not one to hold grudges, so she jokingly dismissed their rudeness, with branding them according to their given appellations.  But the one man, of the three who had left, who was disarmed enough, and charmed by her to let down his guard, did give her his name, but I asked Miray not to tell it to me, in case there was still hope for him.  The two who were killed died here, and since they had not given her their names, so did their memory of this world, upon reawakening.  But the one unaccounted for, the one man who had turned back to go to the Inn for a drink for the road, before leaving…he was still unaccounted for.  We did not see him brutally killed, but I had assumed he had been.  If not, he was being held a prisoner of the Xarmnians, and that might as well have been a death unto itself.  Depending upon what he had learned or been forced to tell them under torture or duress, I could not be certain that what we faced on the road ahead, might be the very path right into a trap.

***

“Where’s the wagon?” Begglar asked.  “Did ya move it?”

The temporary celebratory atmosphere suddenly took an ominous turn.

Maeven, who had been quiet and subdued, had softened somewhat during the reunion of those who had joined us on the ice, and she had been especially moved and brought to uncharacteristic tears when Miray, unabashedly ran up to her, threw her arms around her and said, “I knew you would be alright.  I prayed for you.”  Maeven too, picked up the little girl, holding her fiercely, burying her face into her hair, silently weeping a mix of gratitude and loss, drawing from a reservoir of unspent tears.  She held Miray for a few minutes before the girl squirmed and moved to be released.  Miray was not one to be held still for very long.  When Miray was down, I saw Maeven stand a little straighter than she had since we’d proceeded down through the forest.  Her eyes seemed more focused again like she was more in this reality than the one from which she’d returned.  She quietly, spoke an odd word, more to herself than to anyone else, which further seemed to bolster her reserves of strength.  “Geese,” she had said simply, without qualification or explanation.  Remember the tale she had told us on the way to Azaragoth, I believed I had an idea of what she meant by it.  Or at least the meaning the word signified for her personally.  I could not be sure, since the forested canopy covered the sky, but I believed there was another darkling sky line beginning to mend and fade.

As grief so often does, it hits us in waves, cycling the emotional pressure of loss into a tide that both crashes in and recedes as we phase through a day or moment coping with the new, unwelcome, tragic reality.  Maeven’s shift from a widow and grieving mother to focused and assessing warrior, tracker, and hunter, came at the brief relenting of that tide, as she moved forward, towards where the path down into the side shoal had been where we had left the wagon and the others.  Without a word she knelt down, under the shadowy canopy, studying the wheel tracks, the clusters of footprints, not expunged by the lake water that splashed and washed out the former prints leading down to the lakeshore.  Mud and seagrasses, moss and small fish lay strewn about the shore.  The wave that had carried these inland had struck the ground with a powerful blow, but the evidence was not limited only to within the reach of the water.  She moved forward to the two trees that had stopped and lodged the branch she had insisted that they bring with them onto the frozen lake.  She placed a hand upon its weathered surface, saw the fracture of the wood, where the fork had almost split it in two.

Mason and Matthew came behind her, observing her as she studied the signs of what had happened, before offering their account.

“You saved us, Maeven,” Matthew said, “If you had not insisted that we bring that log, we would have all drown out there.”

“I really need to take swimming lessons,” Mason offered his two bits worth, “Thank you.  Do you have anything else you want me to carry?”

Maeven, turned, gave him a short smile, and then walked past them back up to the road and knelt down, studying the prints once more.

After a moment, she asked, “Have any of you been further down this road, going south?”

Begglar harumphed, “Guys, what happened to the wagon?”

“It was taken by the soldiers!” Miray broke in.  “They took everybody, ‘cept me.  I got away.  They had big, mean dogs.  Scary dogs.  Not like Ms. Benson’s Rottweiler down the street, back home, but much scarier.”

“What’s this?” Nell asked.

“Uh-huh,” Miray nodded emphatically, “There were these big mean men, that took them.  They beat up Cheryl.  Sic’d the dogs on her.  Said that if we didn’t come with them, we would all die here and now.”

I approached Miray and knelt down to her, “How long ago was this?”

She wrinkled her nose and looked to Mason and Matthew for help.

“She came running across the lake when we found her,” Mason said.

“Couldn’t have been more than two hours ago,” Matthew guessed, “I don’t know how long it had been before she saw us gathered at the log.”

I looked up at Begglar, “What do you figure?  Three hours lead?  Four?”

Begglar nodded, “Give or take.”

Lindsey spoke up, “We’ve lost most of our weapons when the Falls collapsed.  They’re at the bottom of the lake.  We had all we could do, just holding on to the log when the water rose and pushed us towards the shore.  We didn’t know if you all had survived.  Look out there.  The face of the falls seemed to have sunken in.  We had planned to try to make it back to Azragoth or hoped to be picked up by one of the Azragothian patrols and brought back.  They took everything.  Our wagon, our supplies, we’ve no weapons and we weren’t sure where we were or where those Protectorate soldiers might be taking them.  We needed help.”

Maeven stood and turned back to us, “You are exactly right.  We all need help.  We need rest, and we need both weapons and supplies and a way to transport them.  Fortunately, there is a place ahead where we can get all of that.  A hidden cache we keep in the Forests of Kilrane.  Kept by someone you know, O’Brian.  You too, Begglar.  Though he may or may not be happy to see you.”

“Seems to be my lot,” I mumbled.

Maeven dusted her hands upon one another, and rose to her full height, “And there is something else you need to know.”

Tiernan spoke up, “What is that?”

“There are other things following that group of soldiers.  Perhaps for different reasons, but still they are ahead of us.”

Chris chimed in, “What things?”

“Those mean dogs, you mentioned, Miray,” Maeven continued, “They are called Cerberi.  These things hunt and eat those dogs.”

“Cerberus was described as a hell hound, some are depicted with three heads” I offered that bit of literary knowledge.

I turned to Maeven, “What eats a devil dog?”

Maeven pointed to a half-twisted print in the dirt, and a series of others that came out of the forest, cutting through the grass with spike-tipped points, making a large, splayed hoofprint with a cleft in the front depression.

“Those aren’t horse-hooves.”

I came closer and peered down, recognizing the characteristic signature print, and my breath left me for a moment.

“Satyrs,” I closed my eyes remembering for a half-second, “We need to hurry.”

***

Will had not gone far before he heard the murmured sounds of low conversation coming down through the blue hollows of the roadway, and the laughter of the “fools” he had left behind him.  Miray was too naïve and simple to understand anything.  He regretted being harsh with the little girl, she didn’t deserve it, but neither had he deserved half of what had been coldly served to him in his life, even when he was her age.  Pay it forward, right?  But he took no satisfaction in that.  It only deepened his secret self-loathing.  One more thing for him to be ashamed of.  Why couldn’t he seem to keep from spewing venom at every opportunity?  The dig he’d made at Dominic: bog-trotter.  Where had that come from?  Dominic was born here.  He’d never been to the fens of Ireland.  Probably didn’t even know what a fen or a bog was.

He had thought to step aside and climb back a little way into the forest by the roadside, and then come up behind the approaching group, just to show them all how foolish they were for letting down their guard.  None of them really appreciated the dangers of this place as he did.  None of them had suffered as much because of those dangers here.  He had crouched low behind some wayside ferns growing along the ditch, and behind a nest of trees block the view of travelers from seeing his hidden position.  So it was with some degree of surprise, consternation and self-recrimination that Will suddenly found himself suffused with a foul odor of something burned to char, the gust of horrendous breath breathing over his shoulder, brutally jutting its rough bristled and sandpapered jaw against his cheek, his hair pulled up and back and a knife’s blade pressed sharply against his throat.

A guttural voice, growled into his ear, “Make even one little peep, Boyo, and I’ll cut you from glim to gullet!”

The Sky Lines – Chapter 49

The light that had shone from above into the darkness, was now accompanied by pealing thunder.  A tympanic thrum and rumble, striating the bruised purple sky with white etchings of silver light, as if the Moon Sprites had been gathered together, had ascended en masse above the roiling clouds and flashed angrily from their prisons beyond.  The dawn had come, but its early light had receded before this darkening bank of storm clouds.  Somewhere, high above the towering thunderhead, the sun’s rays may have warmed and bathed the high ceiling in golden brilliance, but below the darkness prevailed, extending the night.

Mason stood back from the group, watching the dark wall of clouds flash angrily, as Will spat angrily at Matthew, his hostility seeming far too excessive to be warranted.  O’Brian had not coerced anyone to follow him, nor did he designate anyone to follow him out onto the lake when they’d confronted both the Moon Sprites and the Manticore.  That had been Maeven’s doing more so than anyone’s, but even she had not compelled them to follow.  Will had something else in his craw that was bothering him and carried some bitterness towards Mr. O’Brian that was external to anything done so far in the Mid-World.  Mason wondered if something resided inside Will that was not as it should be.  At the mention of Torlah, the Banshee, Mason thought it best to step away from close proximity with Will, in case he proved to actually be another monster in masquerade.  Yet, he had passed Begglar’s test.  According to Mr. O’Brian, neither a monster nor a Xarmnian could achieve such with ease.  Yet the ingratitude in him fueled his anger, augmenting it to the point that he had become insufferable to be around.  It would further be dangerous to turn one’s back on him in a fight.  Facing an external enemy, Mason suspected that he would be the one most apt to come from behind and stab you in the back.

And what the others didn’t know is they had had a visitor, Hanokh.  A man of ancient times with acquired wisdom, a patriarch of the first order, and a keen sense of evaluating the measure of those passing under his scrutiny.  Yet, this wise one did not dispute or disparage O’Brian as a leader but rather affirmed and encouraged him.  Mason did not know why the man’s judgment impressed him as being so insightful, but because that man seemed to vouch for O’Brian, that was good enough for him.  Flawed though O’Brian might be, Hanokh saw something in him, that he trusted, a potential that O’Brian may have doubted in himself, but Hanokh saw past that, as he did in his evaluation of Mason.  There was something emboldening about having Hanokh’s approbation.  A confidence and surety about him, that Mason gave weight to.  No matter what the others may do, Mason determined in his own mind, that if Mr. O’Brian was still alive, he would help Miray and Dominic find him.  The falls in the distance roared with power, but he had a feeling that somewhere, deep within the caverns underneath such power, O’Brian, Maeven, Christie, James and Dominic’s parents Begglar and Nell still occupied the land of the living.  It did not make sense seeing the collapse of the cliff face, but somethings you just trusted and took by faith.

The two other young men seemed to waver between the two opinions of whether they should cut their losses, and attempt to return in the direction of Azragoth and hope they were found by the scouts, or seek to approach the rise and climb up to the Trathorn river’s edge and see if there might be another way down into the caves below the falls with the chance that the others had survived.

The young woman spoke up and offered a sort of compromise, seeing that Matthew and Will’s argument might soon come to blows unless it was temporarily mediated.

“Guys, let’s take a breath a minute and look at this thing,” she admonished stepping between them.

“In either case, if returning to Azragoth, or searching for O’Brian and the others, we will have to go back up the trail and to the top of the basin cliffs.  Let us see what is there before we make any hasty decisions.  If there is a way to enter the caves other than below the falls, we might at least explore the possibility that they survived.  If it looks like the caves are completely crushed and there is no possible way in, then we will at least know we tried to find them, and then return to Azragoth and seek help.  We’ve come too far just to write them off.”

“What about the others?” one of the young men asked.

“Do we just leave them to the Xarmnians?”

“No, but we alone certainly cannot go after them without weapons or a guide, or some strategy that will keep us from being taken too.”

They all were quiet for a moment.  She made a lot of sense and it was clear that, at least for the time being, they could all agree to go in the same direction.

Grudgingly, Will pulled back from his offensive posture and shifted his eyes to the young woman.  Rather than give her the acknowledgment of brokering a temporary armistice between himself and Matthew, he stared at her suspiciously for a moment as if searching her eyes and expression to see if her interference might hide some ulterior motive that could be read in them.  Finding none, he merely grunted and stepped back, turning away as if dismissing both her and Matthew.  She looked at Matt for a moment.  His face was flushed, and his neck muscles tensed and reddened by the rise of his blood pressure.  His face was, at first, inscrutable and his eyes showed a cool calmness, though his adrenaline pumped, and his blood rushed to his extremities, readying them for defense or attack.  Whichever one seemed warranted.  Matthew had endured Will’s arrogance, his seeming belligerence towards Mister O’Brian, without regard for how his attitude or challenge affected the morale of the group.  He had heard Will’s snide remarks, muttered and overt, had witnessed his condescension, heard him laugh at others’ misfortunes and he’d just about had enough of it.

Not only was a storm brewing on the brow of the distant cliffside, but one was also brewing within their surviving company.  If the physical altercation between Matt and Will did not come immediately, it would come soon.

A bolt of lightning struck from the overhead dark cloud bank and hit the surface water of the lake with a loud pop and crack.  The water churned and sloshed, spraying a furrow of water into the air as the current zipped along the surface and eventually expended itself.

The bolt had lit up the night sky and the massive column of clouds to the north, but its brilliant flash had revealed something else as well, standing along the edge of the cliff ridge, near the head of The Falls spillway.  Figures, maybe four or five, sky-lined against the purpling night.

***

The tall woods stood rank upon rank at the edge of the slope that ran down to the top spillway at the edge of the falls.  Large boulders, half-buried, turned in a jagged assemblage as they dug in against the slow but continual push of water over the edge of the falls.  When the falls had flash-frozen, the slow but inexorable push became a hard shove, as the water solidified into great bony hands, back built against the strength and weight of the river Trathorn’s water flowing down from the Mid-World highlands.  Centuries of gravel and sediment that had accumulated and anchored these great monoliths on the cliff’s edge were displaced and shifted, and the resulting fractures bled into the deep caverns below, like a dentist’s root canal surgery.  The upper bank from the edge of the trees had once sloped in a series of naturally carved steppes, bared to rock, and then accumulated green growth as sufficient sediment accumulated along the spine and ribs of the mountain canyon until it dropped sharply to the water’s edge.  Each steppe had formed when the river’s delta broadened, due to irregular mountain melts and rainy seasons interspersed with periods of drought.  At its broadest point, now at the first steppe down from the feet of the forest, the river Trathorn had been younger and the rains and melt carved away the river’s chin into its broadest grin, as its water peered over and tumbled laughingly into the basin lake below.

I and my immediate companions, Maeven, James, Laura, Nell, and Begglar, emerged from the rocky fissure into a shallow, stony tributary that had a small offshoot stream running down a narrow, ragged gulley that had been scalloped out of the forest and had a small wooden clear with deadfalls and broken limbs strewn about.  We stood upon the bank of the tributary, about twenty feet up the bank from the main water chute of the river.  Rain patter hissed down upon us from the dark black and purple brow of the sky, pealing with thunder and flashes of lightning etching and illuminating the lamp globes in the towering thunder-banked clouds.  The fronds and leaves of the brush, ferns, and bushes nodded in time to the drums of the heads, as the sky broke forth in is wailing and weeping lament.  The clouds were so grey and dark that I knew it would be impossible at this point to see the shocking dark blue varicose veining of the Mid-World heavens that I knew would be revealed when daylight prevailed again, and the storm had passed.  The sky lines.  Evidence of muted cracks in the atmosphere, strange and terrible to behold.

As lightning illumined the sky, Laura peered back down into the crevice we had escaped the caverns from and down the junk pile to the old light blue sedan with its trunk still gaping open, wrenched and torqued as it had by necessity been to free her from its hold.

“I so hated that car,” she mumbled within my hearing, and I helped her move away from the place up onto the grassy shelf, where the others stood peering down into the basin, the rippling lake, and the roaring froth caused by the re-awakened falls again hitting the water below.

“Were you familiar with that vehicle below?” I queried.

“Of course, she looked up,” her expression phasing between a grimace and a dismissive smile as she shrugged its effect off, “I was my dad’s car.  The one he took that night from us when he left.”

A sigh escaped her, as she closed her eyes, trying unsuccessfully to distance herself from the Surface World memories.

“It was…,” she wiped a moistening eye, bravely trying to shove a painful memory away.  She breathed deeply and then turn to me, “It doesn’t matter now.”

She seems so small, standing there, shivering slightly in the cloak that we’d wrapped around her, water falling down on us all, yet beading and rolling off of the cloak.

I stepped behind her, untied the rolled hood portion of the cloak and pulled it up over her head, to further help keep the rain off of her.  I squeezed her shoulders slightly and leaned into her ear, “It does matter.  You are part of our company, now.  We’re not quite there yet, but we’re becoming a fellowship of family.  As much as we can, we stick up for one another and do care.  What harms one of us, harms all of us.”

She patted my hand on her shoulder, gratefully acknowledging the statement, but said, “Then perhaps I should not have come back here.  I have a lot of issues.”

I chuckled, “We all do.  You’ll see.”

Laura sighed and smiled wistfully, finding the emotional strength to continue.

“That is not the first time, I’ve been locked in that trunk.”

“But it will be the last,” Christie said, turning to our low conversation, and making sure the cloak properly covered Laura.

Nell and Begglar stood on either side of Maeven, their arms around her, supporting her with comfort against the chill of both the rain and the pain she had expressed.  We had all suffered so many things in our individual lives, yet had remained silent about their, choosing to bear our own burdens in shamed quiet rather than let anyone past our brave fronts.  It is an illusion to think that suffering borne meekly and silently is evidence of courage.  It is not.  Rather it is symptomatic of deep fear and distrust.  In our effort to protect ourselves from shame and vulnerability, we allow our hurts to burrow inside of us and eventually cut us off from the way out of our darkness onto the path of healing.

“My dad did it,” Laura said, offering us a rare and precious view into her vulnerability, “and then later, stupid me, I did it.”

She turned to me, looking up from underneath the hood, her tears mingling with the splattering slant rain that wet her rosy-pink cheeks.

“I won a small teacup pig at a county fair,” she laughed despite herself, “I had never won anything before so I was shocked when my name was called.  Mom had given me five one-dollar bills to spend at the fair, rodeo, and carnival.  I gave two dollars on a chance to win the pig and help this kid with leukemia out that went to our local elementary.  I wasn’t thinking about it being a contest or anything.  I just wanted to help the kid.”

“Big mistake,” she lowered her head allowing the water pooling into a fold on the top of her hood to run off onto the ground.  “Dad came to pick me up in the evening, and my friends made me go get the piglet before I left.  I told them they could have it, but they insisted, and I just wanted to make them happy.  I didn’t know what to do with a pig.”

She shrugged, and then looked back up again, “Well, just as I had suspected, when dad pulled up and saw me clutching the wriggling runt, he flipped out.  But my friends were watching from a distance and I could not let them know…”, she sighed again, “Well, it was not their concern.  Not wanting to make a scene, I tucked the oinker into my arms and climbed into the back seat.”

“What do you think you’re doing?!” he says, that slow burn beginning early this evening, without its usual aid of alcohol.

“Please, daddy,” I said, “Please don’t make a scene.  I’ll try to find another home for it, I will.  As soon as I can.”

“That pig is not riding in this car,” he said, glaring ahead his hands tightening on the steering wheel.

“What do I do with it?”

“You should have never taken it in the first place.  Remember Stimpy?” he said.

“Stimpy was a cat we had whose tail had gotten broken when it was run over.  Stimpy died in the street.  I got blamed and cuffed for it.”

“Then my dear, dad, climbed out of the car, pivoted around and opened the back door and said, ‘Give me the pig.’  He kept his voice low and quiet because people were still milling around in the grassy parking lot.  He did care somewhat about perception, but not enough for it to matter when he eventually left us destitute.  I had no idea what he was going to do, but I didn’t dare tell him no.”

“He took the pig from me, opened the trunk of that blue car and tossed it in and closed the lid.”

“The pig went wild, bumping around in the dark back there, screeching and making a terrible noise, that scared me and I started to cry as he climbed back in, slammed the door, turned the ignition and peeled out of the grassy parking lot, cutting divots and a furrow in the grass as he sped away.  He was mad, and I knew I was going to catch it when I got home.  The noises coming from the trunk both humiliated him and enraged him, but he would not let that pig out of there though I cried and begged him too.  The little thing was scared, and I tried to stop my ears from hearing its terrible noises.  He saw some of his co-workers next to their cars as he was leaving and waved to them and they waved back, puzzled at the noises coming from somewhere inside our vehicle.  I had ducked down and was curled up into a ball on the back seat as Dad just continued to drive through the lots and across the cattle guard and out onto the county road.  He told me to ‘Shut up’ or he’d put me in the trunk with the pig, and I could only whimper and try to control the sobs.  He didn’t want to drive through downtown with that pig making noises like that, so we went the long way to our house, going outside the city limits and then coming back around from the Interstate.  He drove until the pig quit making noises.  I do not know how long that was because I fell asleep on the back seat, having cried my eyes out, and then just…fell asleep…and forgot…”

I woke up in my bed the next day, and mom got me up for school.  I got dressed, ate some cereal and then hurried to make the bus.  I didn’t remember about the pig until I got to school and saw my friends.  I didn’t know what happened to it.  Dad never said, and I was too afraid to bring up the topic to him.  I just assumed he drove out into the country while I was asleep and just turned it loose out there to fend for itself.  I only found out when…”

She shuddered, “I was a stupid little girl.”

“That night when mom and dad fought, I did not want to be with either one of them.  I just wanted a place where people didn’t hit one another, didn’t scream at one another.  I had to find another place to live.  I had to get away from the town and everyone who knew me.  Start a new life, where no one knew the screwed-up little Laura girl.  Poor Laura.  I..”

“I don’t know what I was thinking when I climbed into the trunk of his car when he was distracted.  I closed it over me, heard the lock mechanism click and then smelled that horrid smell.  My dear daddy had left that poor pig in the trunk for a week and it died in there.  He had thrown the carcass out, but that smell never left.  I think that pig’s death haunted him.  At least, the smelled did.  I didn’t last very long in there.  I could barely breathe that terrible odor and at one point I started screaming.  That memory has been a nightmare I have on occasion.  I haven’t had it in many years, but last night, it came back in vivid detail and I just could not get out of it.  I felt so helpless, and then I remembered you guys.  I could not believe it when you finally opened the trunk and got me out.  I still don’t know how that happened.  Why it happened.  I keep pinching myself, but I am here.  I am really here.”

Begglar, Nell and Maeven had drifted back over and had heard Laura’s very raw, very vulnerable account of her traumatic memory, and we pressed in around her, as a family might, comforting and empathizing with her tale and reassuring her that she was no longer alone, but had people.  At last, what she had so longed for, a place where she belonged, she’d found here with us in the Mid-World.

Standing there, as we were, listening to Laura, we had not noticed that the storm overhead, had begun to die down, and the daylight was at last breaking through the gray, purple of the thinning clouds, casting shadows and errant beams of light, silvering the edges of the clouds that had threatened to extend the dark.

I was just able to see past a thinning cloud to the canopy of fading stars overhead as they paled into dawn.  The sky lines, what Nell had referred to as “the gray fingers”, that I had expected were there, but there was one vein in and among them that seemed to be fading and closing up as if its fissure was in the process of healing.  And I knew why, though I was not at liberty to tell the others just now.

That healing sky line was representative of what was happening to Laura.  She was at last on the path she needed to be on, with a fellowship of friends, who loved her and supported her…were so happy that she had returned.  And at least, with this new development, the sky was in one respect beginning to mend.

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Climbing Into the Light – Chapter 48

A hard, crackling and ripping sound rumbled ominously from the rocky aperture where the glowing beam of light pierced the cave.  The sensory power of the terrible disjointed story left us breathing heavily, almost gasping.  Adrenaline pulsing in our ears.  This story, Laura’s connection to it, and its ominous tones of threat and dehumanization left me sick to my stomach.  Tears welled in my eyes and I could barely hold them back.  I glanced sideways at Nell and saw her pained, stricken look as if she had just been told again of the deaths of her parents.  The raw feeling and burden caused by her Seer’s gift weighed heavily upon her, and I saw her lean against Begglar to mask the weakness she felt from it and to steady the trembling in her body as the experience of the shock-wave took its toll on her.

A rotting, black-skinned, swollen carcass, about the size of a small dog, lay tucked into a corner of the trunk, its legs splayed outward, small hooves on the end of each short stumpy leg.  The smell was overpowering, and we covered our noses and mouths, our eyes watered with the pungent assault.  Death’s distortions had made it unrecognizable, at first, but it was clear that the animal was or had once been a small pig.  Begglar reached in and grabbed one of its trotters and jerked the mass out of the trunk and tossed it away, down onto the lower portion of the junk pile where it bounced and exploded with a sickening pop of sulfurous gasses, and then tumbled with a plop down into the bluish-green water below, bobbing with an oily film spreading out over the water.  The smelled had lessened considerably, but its presence haunted the interior of the compartment where it had been festering while entombed with Laura.

Laura visibly shivered, gasping as if she had taken her first breath of clean air in some time.  Cataracts that had occluded her eyes and had revealed tiny convex reflections of other places began to darken.  As she drew in deep, heaving breaths of raw air no longer tainted with the scent of death, she exhaled misty shadowy grey plumes of vapor from her mouth and nostrils.  The strange otherworldly gleam reflected in Laura’s eyes had seemed to resolve back into the normal dilation of her pupils, and the grey-blue of her beautifully large irises seemed to focus on us at last.  The wild-eyed terror and panic she’d expressed from within the hollow darkness of the trunk compartment seemed to lessen as she began to affect the possibility that we were really there with her.  With frail fingers, she lifted her trembling hand and pulled strands of her hair aside from her face and field of vision.  Straining hard to see us, her eyes at last growing accustomed to the stray beam of light bathing her in a cool glow from the top of the junk pile and surface overhead.
Recognition dawned upon her, as she looked up at us from face to face.

Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke her name.

“Laura.”

She made a sharp Ahh sound, swallowed hard, and whispered aloud to herself, “I thought it was only a dream.”  Her voice, raw and raspy from the hours of unheard pleas, broke into ragged sobs of relief and hope cast a ray of growing searching light into the shadowy corner of her soul.  “I had to come back.  I had no place else to go.”

As gently as we could, we all leaned in to help Laura crawl out of the trunk.  She was so weak, and her body was frail.  Once so headstrong, independent and healthy, she looked as if she might bruise and break easily.  Christie, laughed through streaming tears of joy, as she steadied Laura to her feet, almost carrying her.  I so wanted to hold Laura and hug her close, assuring her that she was now safe and in the company of those who cared deeply about her, but I did not want to make her any more uncomfortable than she already was, having been found in such an ignominious fashion, barely clothed, malnourished and dehydrated.  None of those things mattered to me, in the slightest, but I saw her look down at herself, cover her bare legs with the tail end of her shirt and blush slightly.  They mattered to her, and that was enough.  What she needed to know is that we cared about her.  That her life mattered and that the words of her father could have no power over her is she would only choose not to believe them.

“I had so hoped, you would come back,” Christie was saying, as she held Laura, cradling her arm around her back.  We placed gentling hands on her shoulder, head, and upper arms, giving Laura the warmth of caring human contact.  I slung my knapsack off my shoulder, rummaged through the open flap, searching and finally found the extra rolled cloak I had buried within.  I pulled it free, allowing its thick woolen fabric to unroll, slinging the shoulder strap back onto my back with my free arm and offered it to Christie to drape over Laura, giving her additional warmth that our hands and hugs alone could not supply.  Laura looked up and smiled gratefully at me, as Christie, Nell and I covered her, and also gave her the dignity she also so desperately needed.

I have so many regrets, but the one that stood out in my mind at this moment was not being able to persuade her to stay with us before she returned to that.  But she was alive and here, and with life, there is always the chance to find a new path and a new way to live in freedom and find triumph.

Maeven too was a miracle.  She too had been given back to us, as Laura had been, and the mysteries of their stories and individual tragedies were deep waters that we would eventually have to bring life to.  And James.  His story puzzled me.  I did not know if he was conscious that the story emanated from him when he’d stepped into the ghost pool because his expression seemed unreadable after it.  Like he was in some way disassociated with it.  I seriously needed to talk to Nell again as soon as possible, but it would have to be at another time.  Right now, we had an unstable hill of junk to climb, and we needed to get out of this cave as soon as possible.  The others would be waiting for our return.  Probably were extremely worried by now since the cave in pushed us further in to these deeper caverns.  I had the Pearl safely tucked away in its map pouch.  Eventually…  The Pearl.  Oh no!  Oh NO!

Maeven had said not to remove the Pearl from the ice.  And I hadn’t.  It had shown up in the caves, had flash frozen the poisoned Ghost Pool, rolled across and landed on the dry cave floor near my feet.  When I had retrieved it, it had not been on the ice.  A technicality, but still consistent with the instructions given to me.

The boys had gone to fetch the log, at my bidding, and the three others stood guard outside of the entrance to the caverns beneath the falls.  If the Pearl was off the surface of the lake, as I suspected, the lake water would thaw, even as it had mysteriously flash frozen.  The thoughts of panic and implications of what I’d done, threatened to overwhelm me.  I may have sent all of them to their deaths.  Mason, I knew, didn’t know how to swim, but even if he had, the temperature of the water would be too cold to survive in it more than a few minutes.  The three others, who had trusted me, had joined us out on the frozen lake, two young men, and the young women who had stood by me when the party had considered whether I was fit to lead down at the granary, before the Shibboleth test and the Banshee had been exposed.  Had I put them at risk too?  When the falls came to life, and the ice thawed, would they be crushed by the avalanche as the Trathorn awakened again?  My world was crashing in on me.  But I had to know.  I could not let my fear and terror and this rising dread cripple me again as it had once before so very long ago.  There was a reason why the One called me.  Why He would not let me stay in self-appointed seclusion.  There had to be some purpose for all of this.  Some good that would come of it.  I had no choice but to either choose to yield to fear or trust that something good might come of the choices I had made to follow.  The commitment to take responsibility for my actions and the choices I made in leadership.  I had to remain calm, knowing that the immediate course of action was to ensure that our group here at least made it safely out of these caves.  What tragedies lie ahead, and what came of my decisions would have to be faced with the knowledge of what we encountered when we surfaced again.

Maeven had been found and for all practical purposes had physically recovered from her wound.  Laura had returned to us, though the way in which we’d found her disturbed me, and the implications of her projected story was chilling.  I did not know if the tale was connected to some personal experience or some view of herself, but it would require unpacking as would James’ tale.  Something connected them to these.  A view each had of themselves, expressed by their projected stories.  I was glad to have Laura back, and I could not bear to lose her again to the nightmare she lived in under her Surface World life.  Gathering my composure, I did not wish to throw a damper on the short celebratory feeling we felt in finding both young women again.  But we had to move.  And move very soon.

“We have quite a bit to catch up on,” I said to the group, “but this is not the place to do it.  Let’s get outside if we can.  Follow the light beam overhead.  Be very careful.  Watch your footing.  We don’t know what else is in these caves, but we need to rally back to the group.”

“Did you bring the branch to the falls,” Maeven asked.

“We…,” I turned to Maeven, “the boys went after it, while we entered the caves behind the waterfall.  They were supposed to bring it and we would meet them outside.  When the Pearl showed up, we were carrying you into the central Ghost Pool.”

Maeven took my arm to steady herself, “The Pearl showed up?” she took a deep breath.

“What do you mean the Pearl showed up?”

“It rolled into the cave and sealed off one of the poisoned pools,” Christie offered.

Laura was weak, but puzzled by our conversation, “What is this about?  What Pearl?”

Nell had her arm around her and gently hugged her shoulder, “Bless you, child,” she comforted, “There’s a lot that’s happened since you left us.”

Maeven looked around the cavern walls, and down the precarious perch of junk she had been standing on, “I do not remember this place.  How far away are we from the front of the falls?”

Begglar entered the conversation, “Best forget about that, lass,” he huffed.  “There’ll be no goin’ back that way.”

“Why not?”

Laura’s neck was stiff and painful, but she was trying to follow the conversation, but could not keep up and was having difficulty turning her head much less standing on her feet.

“Because,” James said, “the cavern collapsed.  That way is blocked by tons of stone and dirt and water.  The Trathorn River must have fractured the rock bed at the top of the canyon under the weight of all this ice.  The pressure of the river flowed to the edge but had nowhere to go, but down.  We barely made it further into these caves before being buried alive.  We found a bit of light filtering in down one of the tunnels and found our way here.  This pile of rubbish and cars were in the back of the cave.  We found you both in this old car.”

Maeven’s hands went to her temples, her fingers pressing through her dark bangs pressing as she closed her eyes for a moment trying to find some sense in what she was being told, so find a sequence she was missing, “What do you mean?  Found me?  Wasn’t I with you when you carried me in?”

I gently touched Maeven’s shoulder, trying to comfort her, “We thought we’d lost you.  You were with us, and then you weren’t.”

Maeven’s eyes popped open, a tragic, stricken look came over her, as some terrible realization flooded her mind.  I moved forward, barely in time to catch her as she crumpled nearly collapsing.

A miserable, mournful cry of anguish escaped her lips, as she fell into my arms, and I held her there as she wept into my shoulder, shuttering with such terrible sobs of agony, of spirit and mind and grief.

“He’s dead,” she clenched her teeth, a cough of pain racking her body, threatening to darken over us.  “Nory, my babies.  They’re all dead,” she shuddered, and all I could do is hold her close and cry with her.

***

Below the junk pile, at the water’s edge, distorted images swirled amid the oily substance spreading outward from the floating, bobbing carcass of the shoat.  It’s glazed yellowed eyes, once bulging with the cranial pressures behind them, had sunken into its elongated skull.  Its porcine flesh had suppurated and split open with the explosion of gasses when it had struck the hard flat and jagged metal surfaces below, and the slick of those draining fluids, now occluded and clouded the bluish water with a smoky haze, birthed colored and moving images, with no clear definition except for smearing smudged edges.  The images, however, were beginning to clarify as they slid away from the oil slick and moved like watery projections across the pool’s rippling surface, swirling around the ghostly light beam that pierced the darkness of the cavern.  Buzzing blackness and amorphous shapes skirted the faded edge of the light beam, occupying the shadows.  These darted here and there between and around and through the coloring images, that were now beginning to take more shape and substance.  Lengthy shaped tubes articulated and formed appendages, moving alongside columnar swatches of color and form and shadow.  These resolved into further form taking definition until they were recognizable forms of people, seen as though they moved behind frosted and scored glass.  Occasionally a bright white point of dancing light danced over the head of these forms, and these illuminated ones seemed to glow with their own inner light source, taking further definition in form ahead of the other beings still swarmed in shadow.  The cave pool’s surface swam with similar images, swirling on odd planes, blending into and ghosting transparently over other images.  Where ever the tableau stretched into the darkness, if the collaged images bore a figure bearing the overhead flame, that area projected a rippling brightness onto the cavern ceiling and walls in twisting rings of light.  A rushing, boiling noise of multitudes speaking, voices blending, conversations cresting creating a din and growing crescendo in the cave, that pulled us away from our shared grief.  Distracting us from it for the moment.

“What is happening?” James asked, moving around the back of the light blue, rusted sedan, straining for a better look, as columns of light cast swirling, lighted projections on to the ceiling of the dark and blue-veined rock.

Nell answered, “The blood.”

Christie and Begglar stiffened and held Laura steady, moving in protectively to prevent yet another danger from threatening her.

I held Maeven close, but a free hand slipped down and found the hilt of the Honor Sword by my side.  Maeven still breathed heavily, unable to turn and see what was happening in the water below and beyond, unable to take in one more thing beyond the intensity of the grief crippling her now.

“Nellus?” Begglar spoke calmly but directly to his wife, beseeching her for further clarity.

“We need to get out of here, quickly,” she said.

She paused looking to each of us in the stunned silence and carefully chose her next words.

“Blood in the water of a Ghost Pool brings things…”

She needed to say no more.  Hard as it was to turn away, we gathered together and carefully began to ascend the junk pile, moving from buried hoods to dryer tops, to twisted cable stacks careful not to get our feet entangled in these nests of coils.  James offered to carry Laura on his back, but she shied away, instead preferring to allow Christie to assist her.  Maeven moved mechanically through the process, numbed by the urgency, almost despondent, but still moving.  Something terrible had reached into this world and shook her to the core.  When we were safely far enough away, I planned to see if she would help me understand what had happened, but now was not the time.

Less than twenty feet ahead of us, the junk pile detritus gave way to slate grey rock and blackened stone, the beam of light above flickering as the sound of thunder accompanied our ascent.

“What is the plan, Mr. O’Brian?” James asked as the light above flickered and pulsed above, coupled with a stream of water splashing downward trickling into the cavern.

“We climb into the light,” I responded, carefully not to lose my footing on those few remaining steps as my hands felt the cold stone, and I reached back, assisting Maeven with an outstretched arm as she stepped across a gap in the junk pile that yawned into a crevice of blackness below.

“Maeven took my offered hand, and I help her swing across the narrow opening, and she looked up, her face brushed with the silver light from above, tears still wet upon her cheeks.  We locked eyes for a moment, and she nodded as something unspoken passed between us.  My words spoken to James must’ve taken a different meaning and shape in Maeven’s hearing, for though she was barely able to the edges of her mouth seemed to smile, and her eyes shown with what seemed like gratitude as she looked up at me and then beyond me.

“Into the light,” I heard her whisper to herself and sigh as she passed by, and then ascend the last few feet of rock through the aperture back out onto the surface.

***

“The banshee was right,” Will muttered aloud where all could hear him.

Eyes turned to him and the woman frowned, “Whatever do you mean?”

“Torlah,” Will said, grimacing at the memory, “the girl who turned out to be a banshee.”

When he had the other’s attention he began in earnest.

“O’Brian’s been leading us right smack into trouble from the very first day.  Torlah said that he was gonna get us all killed, and so far, he almost has.  He’s full of crap.  If he is dead, then good riddance.  If not, then I say we ditch him and tell him he can go straight to…”

Matthew turned on him and shoved his shoulder so that it almost spun him around, “Shut up, you!  You’re not the one who gets to decide for the rest of us.  O’Brian risked his life for us out on that ice.”

Will growled, “If it wasn’t for O’Brian, none of us would’ve been out on the lake, in the first place!  There’d be nothing he’d have to save us from.  Those Sprites would’ve killed the Manticore and Maeven would not have been injured.  I’m telling you, just like Torlah told us.  You follow him, you die.”

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Double Sight – Chapter 47

Christie and James looked down at Maeven, and she looked up at their surprised and relieved faces, looking down on her inverted.  They had heard the noises in the vehicle and had climbed up carefully onto the floating junk pile unsure of what or who they might find.

Begglar, Nell and I were the last to ascend the pile, and the climb over tangled cables, around sharp unstable pieces of rusted metal and battered car parts that could just as easily slice and cut through flesh if we made a misstep in our ascent.

The junk pile was not accessible from where we entered the cavern without attempting a swim through the water, but we were hesitant to do so.  As serene as it might seem, the clear bluish water was too perfect.  This was not a Caribbean isle, with pristine ocean blue waters and white sands, typical of a Sandals Resort commercial, but an underground cave with seepage from a junk pile.  No telling what chemical mix might be within those waters.  What acidic component might cause burning the moment we entered the waters.

James had found a floating piece of an aluminum wing, bumping gently along the shoreline, and with some effort, we were able to draw it towards the rocky shore and utilize it as a makeshift raft.  Its surface was mottled, and patches of paint had flaked off, but we could tell it had once been a dark blue with a large white star on the end of the wing.  It was made of riveted aluminum and floated just as easily as any flat bottom boat would have.  In the construction of such aircraft, the gas tanks were often within the wing of these styled planes, and when we stepped upon it and tested out weight, it buckled slightly and seemed to be hollow, like a pontoon.  The fuselage of the wing was nowhere in sight but could have just as easily been somewhere submerged within the water below.  The wing had torn and had a ragged sharp edge of twisted panels, but enough of the hollow sealed plating kept most of the water out.  Something about the appearance of the wing jogged a memory, but I could not be sure that its shape was more than coincidence.  The wing was not of the modern F-Series fighter jet types, but more in line with the period in which the old cars were in fashion.

A mysterious disappearance.  A lost propeller-driven fighter plane, a squadron that had mysteriously vanished around the time the old cars and other battered appliances were in modern use.  These were navy planes.  TBM Avenger torpedo bombers to be more precise.  If my suspicions were correct this might very well be a wing of one of the missing Flight 19 training squadron that vanished just off the coast of Florida back in 1945.  In an area that had come to be known as the Devil’s Triangle.  A region whose vertices were drawn from islands and major cities Miami; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Bermuda.  An area known also as The Bermuda Triangle.

It made my head spin.  How could this and the other Surface World items have gotten here?  What other mysterious did this Mid-World hold that had a connection to unsolved disappearances?

This had been my speculations, but since I could not corroborate them, I just made a mental note to file the details away and search out what I could not have known from popularized stories later that might have been sensationalized for the public for dramatic effect.  Like any official investigation of suspicious activity, officials often hold back information from the public and press briefings so that they may assess a credible source from a huckster’s tales seeking their fifteen minutes of fame rather than providing useful details that might solve a case.  With the held information, they are able to detect some inconsistencies or credibility in accounts that are phoned-in tips provided to the investigative team.

Since the mysterious disappearances were over seventy years old, more of those held back details may have been released within the literature surrounding the incident.  Every plane has some uniquely identifiable markings so that they can be distinguished in a salvage operation, and each piece will have an issued serial number that could link back to the plane, its line, and its manufacturer and model.  The numbers were like a fingerprint that could be cross-referenced.

Begglar and I used the wing and his staff to pole push the makeshift raft through the water to the base of the debris pile, ferrying our intrepid team from the rocky shore’s edge to the back of the cave.  James and Christie had gone first and were the first to hear the distinctive cries coming from the blue sedan precariously balanced twenty feet up from the water surface.  Sure enough, the blue water had a slight corrosive effect on Begglar’s staff as he plunged it into the topaz deep, pushing the craft from the bank.  We were again right to be suspicious of it.

Begglar, Nell and I were the last ones to come to the edge of the junk metal mound, when we heard James and Christie’s discovery.  Quick as we could, we exited the raft, scrambled up the hill to be a party to their miraculous discovery.  It had been perhaps a half hour or so since Maeven’s disappearance, and to find her translocated in another part of this cave system was mind-blowing and surreal.

Maeven stared, unable to believe her own eyes.  She had tensed, her fingers curled behind her knuckles her breathing coming in rapid panting as she almost flung her fist savagely upward to thwart the plans of her perceived attackers.  Finding instead her friends and companions, she caught herself before doing damage.

“How did you…?  What is this…?  Where is the hospital…?  How did I get here?”

Both James and Christie laughed in delight and relief.

“You’re back.  You’re safe.  Nell says you awakened in the Surface World, but you’re back so soon.”

Maeven put a hand to her chest, “Let me catch my breath.  I think they gave me a sedative.  What I don’t understand is why I am here and what happened outside on the ice.”

Begglar and Nell managed to get up to the car door level and add their smiling faces to the witnesses of this joyful reunion.  “You’ve been in hospital quite some, young lassie,” Begglar volunteered, “The shifts come in the night as we sleep.  O’Brian said it before.  We are occupants of both worlds because we have been called to seek and find in this one.”

A muffled, plaintive plea came from the trunk compartment, interjecting into the surprised conversation.

“Can someone help me?  Anyone out there?”

“Who is in there?” James asked, jerking toward the trunk, holding his halberd at the ready, his head whipping back to look to Maeven.  “That wasn’t you?”

Christie and James had buttressed up against the vehicle a little and now attempted to hold it steady, careful not to stand before the front of the car and risk it falling further.  A back wheel had caught one of the many steel cables and now seemed to have a pretty good hold on its shredded tire and wheel.

“I have no idea who it is,” Maeven responded, now able to sit upright in the seat and edge closer to the open door, “I just woke up here and heard noises from the back.  I tried to get up, but the car slipped further down, and I did not know what to do except lie still and then I heard other voices.”

James moved to the back of the vehicle.  The old car trunk was indeed locked and looked as if it had rusted shut.  It had a corroded turn handle, but no key lock.

“You inside,” James called, “Can you move back to the seat edge away from the bumper end of the trunk?  I am going to try something to get you out, but I don’t want to injure you doing so.”

“I…I don’t know,” the small voice sounded terrified, “I cannot see in here and there is little room.  I don’t know where you are.  I cannot…ugh…”  Movement and straining noises came from within.

A despairing cry issued forth from inside, “I think…I think, there’s something dead in here.  Oh, dear God.”

Heavy, panicked breathing, sounding as if she was hyperventilating, “Get me out…[sobbing noises]…Please get me out of here…[sniff]…whatever you have to do…[shuddering]… Just please…hurry.”

James raised the hammer end of the halberd, holding it carefully but steadily in a two-handed grip, raised it and swung downward, hard and with powerful striking force, hitting the handle lock, bending it in the metal with a [thwack!] then it popped loose.  The metal of the curved trunk denting severely, but now absent its exterior locking post.  The edge of the trunk metal buckled just enough that its edge gaped a little above the truck seal along the backside of the vehicle.

The trunk had indeed formed a rust-seal and red coppery powder dusted James with bits of oxidized brown flakes for his trouble.

Begglar pointed to the raised metal lip that had buckled, “See if you can use that blade tip or spike to prise open the bonnet there, lad.  Jimmie it open, if ye can.”

James did as Begglar had indicated, and eventually, with much wrenching, the old metal groaned, and the trunk lid sprung open.

A girl, or young woman, I should say, lay nestled within, curled into a shivering fetal position.  Her hair was dark, stringy, and matted with sweat, her body abraded and scraped, barely clothed.  She wore a shift-top, like a lacey bed shirt, of the fashion worn, by women of Azragoth for evening attire.  Fairly modest, but of a light cool material, for sleeping but not outerwear.  Her legs were scratched but bare, her small curled fists looked like they had bled and been abraded.  Dried and wet blood stained her fingers and knuckles.  She wore a kind of panty-underwear that did not seem of the modern Surface World but could easily fit in this world.  Her skin was pale, slightly emaciated as if she’d been locked within the trunk for two or three days with no food or water.  She smelled ripe of sweat, urine, feces and was understandably humiliated and embarrassed.  Whoever, or whatever had done this to her, whether in human form or not, was truly a monster.  A spindle wheel well, jutted into the trunk cavity, giving the girl little to no space to move about.  She was as weak and feeble as one might expect someone to be who had been confined into such a small space for any length of time.  Her body shivered as we tried to reach down and comfort her and help her raise up.  Her face was obscured by her hair, and turned downward, as it was obvious that she had difficulty moving her neck.  To get her out of here one of us would have to carry her up the debris hill towards the purplish blue lighted cut above.

When she finally turned her head upward, James, Begglar, Nell and I were visibly stunned.  There was something strange about her eyes.  Reflections within them, glowing over her pupils and irises, showing an illumination and reflection of a place that had no counterpart reflection within the cavern in which we occupied.

The girl was seeing and experiencing and interacting with some other realm while being present with us.  As we looked into her strange eyes, all of us present, for Christie had helped Maeven exit the vehicle, and join our gathering higher up and around the back of the vehicle, felt the dread and terror of the girl’s story begin to emerge.

And as this connection bathed our minds, those of us who had been present at Begglar’s Inn at Crowe, suddenly recognized the young girl for who she had been when she’d been bathed, fed and more modestly dressed, before she’d endured this terrible ordeal.

Laura had come back to us in the Mid-World.

…And Laura had been right.  There was something else rotting and dead in the trunk.

“State of Panek” – Story #9

A man stood in the middle of the dirt road, legs firmly planted, breath steadily chugging smoke into the frosty night air—One fist spastically clenching and unclenching at his side, the bent rod of a tire iron swung loosely in the other.  With the sheen of animal eye-shine beneath thick eyebrows, he scowled at the approaching car as it slowed, headlights revealing him in a sickly yellow glare beneath the twilight gloom and overhanging tree cover.

At about twenty feet away, the car, a black Camero with red racing stripes and garish neon plates, braked to a grinding stop.  The smoky dust train behind it formed a dimming corona as the stirred caliche particles, reflecting moonlight, slowly drifted earthward.  Billows of dust plumed on either side of the car and wafted forward, blanketing the car’s hood and windshield, enveloping the man in the road in pearling fog.

The driver and his female passenger glanced nervously at each other and back ahead, as the man in the road began to stride purposefully toward them.

The girl turned her head slightly, keeping one wary eye on the approaching figure.

“Denny, I don’t like this.”

The driver, Denny Jessup, eyes kept forward, briefly considered revving his engine, throwing the gearshift in reverse and fishtailing backward, but he held his ground.  Not one to back down first, he smirked and readjusted his sweaty grip on the steering wheel and gearshift.

“Just relax, Carly.  Perhaps he’s broke down somewhere.”

“What’s that in his hand?” she asked leaning forward, squinting.

Dappled moonlight glinted off the dull black metal bar in the man’s clenched fist as he approached, steadily closing the distance between them.

Carly, leaned back in her seat, nervously pulling a strand of hair behind her ear, “Denny, there’s something wrong about this guy, let’s go . . . NOW.”

The man, now ten feet away, nodded to the driver, and crossed against the headlights to the passenger-side of the vehicle.

“What’s he doing?!  Denny?!”

The girl reached for the gearshift but Denny caught her hand.

In horror, her eyes met Denny’s and her mouth gaped, shocked.

“Oh, my god! Denny, what are you….!?”

The cold night air swiftly entered the car, as did the fisted, gloved hand of the man through the shattered passenger glass.  With a firm grip on the girl’s ponytail, he yanked her backward, grabbed her flailing arm, and pulled her through the passenger window, safety glass raking her struggling body as she tried to wrench free.  With a loud crack, and a wet burst of blood, the tire iron struck the side of her head and all conscientiousness and fight went out of her.  Her limp body crumpled over the car door and slumped onto the dust of the caliche road.

The feral eyes of the man lifted and peered in at Denny, as he clenched and unclenched his sweaty palms on the steering wheel.  A sheen of sweat silvered his upper lip and his pale face illumined green by the glow of the instruments in the dash.

Fear etched across his face as he trembled at the savagery of what he had just witnessed and been a reluctant party to.  Heart pounding, in short breaths that blossomed in the now cold interior of the car, he shuddered and set his jaw.

“Are we square?  You’ll leave my sister alone?” he asked, just above a whisper, eyes not daring to make contact.

“Square,” came the raspy voice of the man at the window, “Thanks for the pig.”

***

She woke to what smelled like the heavy scent of diesel fuel; confined in a five by eight foot cage, reinforced with welded rod iron and pipe.  The side of her head throbbed painfully.  Her vision was blurred.  And her face was swollen, tender and wet with what she could only imagine was blood.  She lay on a thick, coarse blanket and burlap feed sacks, barely dulling the chill she felt in her aching bones.  A low rumbling sound, like animals grunting, buzzed in her head.  She turned on her stomach and smelled the earthy, fecund scent of mud mixed with raw feces and urine.  Beneath the raised aluminum flooring rails, through half-inch-wide gaps she could faintly see a dark, wet gutter of concrete and draining sludge slowly moving towards gray light.  Wincing at the odor of the filth below, she groaned and turned on her back.  A heat lamp glared above the four by four inch mesh roof of her cage, out of reach, barely emitting enough warmth to keep her shivers down.  To her left, something slimy and wet pushed into her arm, and she stiffened.  Eyes clearing, with a shudder, she slowly turned her head . . . and screamed.

Cacophonous, echoes of her throaty terror pierced the night air, reverberating off the aluminum walls of her prison, forcing her to cover her head and ears against the terrible sounds that followed.  Curled into a fetal position, on the filthy blanket, shivering in pain and terror, she wept uncontrollably praying that this was all just a very bad dream.

***

The snarl of trees defied her—reaching with rough jointed arms, grasping with dead leaved fingers, rustling with her every shuddered step in forward flight—the panicked noises of crackling brush sending out the alarm, dark birds above flapping in response, lifting noisily into startled flight.  The rough bark crumbled in her grasp as she sought to steady herself, the hair of their hoary heads, fallen to skirt the sloping floor with mounds of shriveled and decaying scales.  With warding hands, she guarded her face against their wooden claws, scratching and tearing her at defenses as she stumbled ahead.  Fording through nests of brambles, her clothes snagged, and her heart and labored breaths pounded against the once eerie quiet with each frantic footfall.  The man was coming—her hope of slipping away, thwarted by the dense foliage and sloping terrain.  He would find her gone in a matter of moments and would find her quickly, thrashing about as she was.  As she scrabbled up the hill through the leafy detritus, she knew the furrows and wounds of exposed dark earth where her feet had cut the ground, the traitorous broken limbs that had snapped in her desperate fingers and the strands of snagged vines would eventually lead him directly to her.  He would grip her by the hair, brutally backhand her into unconsciousness, and carry her back to her cage in the hog barn.

The beatings would start again, and another pig in a cage next to hers would die.  Such horrible piercing shrieks.  Terror flooded her mind, adrenaline coursed through her muscles as she shuddered at the thoughts of what he would do to her even if she survived.  His version of human was not something she could bring herself to imagine.  He would feel this betrayal, and nothing she could say or do now would satiate his rage.  Two more cages lie next to the one she had escaped from only moments ago.  Two more chances, he had said.  Two more days to become human—to become . . . his.

***

Will had promised him his life for a favor.  A favor.  What was to stop him from demanding another.  Denny’s sister or his girlfriend.  Didn’t matter which.  If he didn’t deliver one, Will would take both.  His life for theirs.  His life…  What kind of life could he have after what he’d done?  This wasn’t life.  Better if he had just said, “No deal” and died there in that tunnel in Afghanistan.  No kind of life was worth living after such a betrayal.  But Will would have had them either way.  He would have left him there to rot, starve and die of thirst.  Denny did not know which would have killed him first, gangrene in his wound, dehydration from blood loss and the sweltering heat, or the gnawing hunger when he finished his last remaining MRE.  Perhaps he would have passed out from the blood loss and just died in his sleep, but who would have warned them, stopped him.  He had to live.  The oath was insane, but so was Will.  Any other guy and Denny would have believed he was just having his chain pulled, but Will…  Will was different.  Will was a real psyche job.  Will should have been put away behind several kinds of closed doors in a little rubber room for the rest of his born days.  The army brass should have done it, but Will was committed, intimidating and Will was dangerous.  Most of all Will enjoyed the killing.  And those things were highly valued and rewarded in a time of war.

***

“I made a deal with the devil.  What do you think about that, preacher?”

“I think you’re a fool.  The Devil makes deals with a stacked deck.  There is no way you win with him.”

The Broken Sky – Chapter 46

Someone was locked in the trunk.  Mewling and pleading, gagging and weeping noises came from within.  The small muted voice, though unintelligible, judging by tone and timber alone was female.

When the old blue vehicle lurched with Maeven’s sudden movement, she’d thought that all was lost.  It had hung precariously upon the collection of rubbish in the junk pile, but though comprised of a collection of vehicle parts, tires, oil drums, construction materials, broken cinder blocks, beat-up appliances twisted and torqued beyond salvage or use, parts of the pile and stacks still bobbed and floated upon the interior pool below.  If that had happened, both she and the person in the trunk would most likely drown.

“Hold on!” Maeven called to her, trying to calm both the person in the trunk and herself if that were possible.

“I need to figure this out,” and then she muttered to herself in a much quieter and lower voice, “C’mon Mashugana Maeven, figure this out!”  A Yiddish term for fool or foolishness.  So long since she’d spoken in that tongue.  It reminded her of her grandmother.  Her grandfather often joked that her grandmother could easily carve the Hanukkah Beef Brisket with her tongue.  Not knowing when to leave well enough alone, he added, lowering his voice so that only his granddaughter could hear and giggle, “And that is quite a feat because the meat she cooks is as dry and as tough as shoe leather.”  To which, her grandmother, with prescient knowledge, and keen hearing, would reply, “I heard that, yutz!  No latkes or challah for you!”  And in mock humility, he would wince like he’d been struck, raise his eyes to the ceiling, hunch his shoulders, with his palms upward and petition heaven for mercy saying, “Why did You have to give her such supernatural hearing?  Oy!  Isn’t it enough I suffer with the kvetching?”

But this was a terrible time to smile at such memories.  How she missed them both.  Taken from her way too soon.

She needed to focus.  Find a way out of the vehicle without causing it to slide further down.  The thought of family stung her in ways she could not think about now.  Focus, Maeven, she admonished herself again.  She sounded like her mother.  Child, you are too happy to be serious, she’d say, One day you’re going to laugh or smile or say something at the wrong time that is going to get you into trouble.  Mark my words.  At least do me a favor and don’t smile at funerals.  It’s embarrassing and creeps people out.  Only idiots are happy all the time.  And I’m not raising you to be an idiot.  Whether Maeven had wished too or not, she had “marked her mother’s words” and took them to heart.  In hearing her mom’s repeated chastisement, she had finally taken it to heart, but she’d essentially boiled it down to this: Don’t embarrass me.  After that, she’d withdrawn into herself in her teenage years and had never really come back out.  Her mom would then say, “Where is that happy child that you used to be, eh?  Keep frowning and your face’ll stick that way.”  Again, the affirmation of her boiled down assessment of herself peeled off another layer of her self-worth:  Maeven, you’re an embarrassment.  You can’t do anything right.

Humor, even dark humor, had been her go-to coping mechanism whenever her stress level hit a certain pitch, and she felt overwhelmed.  But it was oddly funny now that in this moment of desperation to find how to get out of her present predicament and rescue whoever it was trapped in the trunk the old retreat to a bright-side was not working for her.  Too many memories buzzed in the back of her mind, each vying for attention, but she could not focus on even one.  Except for a growing feeling of painful loss, these seemed trapped within the deep fog of her brain.  Only the strange memories of her grandparents and her mother remained and presented themselves.  She was teetering.  Not just in the physical sense, feeling the pivoting weight shift and distribution of the old car she had awakened in, but between maintaining her composure and losing her mind.  It was almost as if she heard voices, beyond the sounds made from the woman or girl in the trunk.  She could not lose it now.  Whoever it was back there needed someone heroic to save her, not some basket-case, nervous wreck.

***

The assemblage looked like an underground hill comprised of the discarded contents of a scrap metal junkyard, a used car lot of storm-damaged classic 50’s era vehicles and an antique appliance store.  Old broken-down cars and at least one truck, none of which appeared of modern make, were partially stripped, smashed, weathered and buried within and jutting out of the cascading mound of battered sheet metal, canted and dented oil drums, old shredded threadbare tires with wheel rims, twisted corrugated tin panels, thick metal wire cabling of an unclear nature whether it had been salvaged from electric powerlines or naval coiling of shipping lines.

Busted and jagged glass windows and windshields webbed with impact fractures, scintillated duskily in the ghostly beam of light that shone down from an aperture in the rock above at the top of the pile.  Rust-spotted fenders torqued far out of their original factory shape, angled upward, giving the hill a jagged and treacherous look.  Something that appeared to be a piece of an airplane wing and struts lay submerged beneath the water, while the rest of the upholstery, metal, foam, rubber, and glass had been left to molder, rust, disassemble and sink into this dank underground pocket of detritus.

“What can you see?” A voice called from around the bend in the caves and tunnel behind me.

“You’ve got to see this for yourselves,” I answered back, confident that the sight would shock them as much as it had me.

With some carefully placed steps, passing what remained of our packs hand to hand, and barely managing to avoid falling into the deceptively shallow silt pool, the others skirted the edge of the water trap and joined me in the crux on a short land bridge between to two pools.  Gathering one by one at the bend in the tunnel beneath the golden ray of light that shone from a high break in the ceiling, I and the others gawked at the turquoise pool and the Surface World ejecta cluttering the back end of the cave.  A disconcerting as it was seeing a junk mound of items that did not belong in the Mid-World, and the horrific implications entering my mind, and perhaps that of Begglar and Nell too, the presence of the pile did offer us a treacherous but conceivable means to getting back up to the ground surface of the Trathorn Falls.

***

Meanwhile, the eight survivors of the lift, off the lake, stood dripping and dumbstruck before the striated sky and the wall of roiling grey clouds that sent what appeared to be swirling snowfall down upon the cliffside, as if the heavens had opened like a higher plane of cataracts pouring down upon the shoulders of the cirque canyon.

Mason waited for a few moments still staring ahead at the collapsed face of the canyon, now roaring with water, sending a foggy mist up into the air, pounding the jagged underbite teeth of the falls and then spoke up.

“We need to go back.”

“Back?” Matthew asked, “How can we go back?  Look at that thing.  The whole face of the falls is gone.”

“Can they still be…?” the young woman started to ask, but then glanced at Dominic, still wrestling with the horrible possibility that his parents were both gone.

“I don’t mean go back to the falls,” Mason said, “I mean back to Azragoth.  We have lost all of our weapons.  We are in a wild place, where we do not know what else might come out of those woods, and we have lost all our supplies and horses.  If we still want to continue this journey, we need someone who knows the land and its dangers.”

“I don’t know if we can find it again,” one of the other men spoke up, “Remember how we got here.  We followed the dry creek bed, but then there were those forest switchbacks.  I tried to remember what Maeven did, but there were too many hidden turns to keep track of.  Azragoth has remained in secret for twenty years.  That doesn’t happen easily.  They’ve kept it hidden.  If we are to get back to Azragoth, then the Azragothians will more than likely have to find us first.”

“Good point,” the other man rejoined, “Perhaps we can get advice from General Mattox.  At least we have to try.”

“But what if they aren’t dead?” Miray broke in, “We have to help them.  We can’t just leave them.”

The woman came up behind Miray and stroked her hair gently and reassuringly, “Dear, I want to believe that there is a chance but look at those falls.  It doesn’t seem possible…”

“No!” Miray refused to hear it, “I don’t want to hear it.”

Her eyes welled up with tears.  She moved forward and took Dominic’s hand and placed hers in it.

“We’ll look for them, Dom,” she stated as if her mind had already set on a plan, “Let them do what they want, but you and I will go and find them.”

Dominic’s eyes teared, and he bent down and picked Miray up and hugged her tightly.

“Bless you, sweet girl.  Yes, we will.  You and I.”

Miray put her arms around his neck and buried her head into his shoulder and they both wept together.

***

It is a terrible thing to experience the loss of the good, while in pursuit of the should.  Many things there are that we think we should be doing, but sometimes pursuing these can cause us to lose sight of the good things we must maintain.

This is the power of the creature I called Distraction, but I am getting ahead of myself.  More on that later.

It is hard focusing on one objective so much that it becomes our obsession and we lose sight of all around us.

I had led us here, or allowed Maeven to lead, and failed once again to take and hold responsibility for what happened to those under my care.  I had pursued the Moon Sprites, had confronted the Manticore, and felt compelled to lead others into the caverns of the Ghost Pools under the frozen falls, but look where it has gotten us.  The company waiting for us back at the shore probably wondered what happen to us.  My not holding us back from going onto the frozen lake, allowed Maeven to be injured or dead, the jury was still out on that, no matter what Begglar and Nell assured us.  So far, I had done nothing but bring calamity to everyone.  We were buried under the canyon cliffs.  There could be no going back the way we had come in.  Hanokh had been exactly right about that.  We might be able to scale the collection of junk, but it was dangerous and appeared unstable.  And what it contained shocked me.  Though the vehicles were old, I could not imagine how they had come to be here.  Any prior effort to bring modern items from the Surface World had always resulted in the same scenario.  The item became something else very different, but something that would not serve the use for which the person bringing it had intended.  The portals simply did not conform to the traveler’s wishes, but rather served something else, or someone else.  Never had I ever seen contrivances that were not hand-fashioned.  No electronic gadgetry of any kind was ever found within the Mid-World nor machine-tooled item, forged or mechanically cut or molded.  As such the Mid-World had always seemed simpler and more removed from the driven pace and frenetic pull of the Surface World.  No cell phones, no automatic weaponry, no computers, no televisions, no vehicles or airplanes or mass transit.  Just mankind and monsters and half men creatures and a certain kind of mysticism behind the order of this world of dreams working akin to but different from the Surface World.  Human ingenuity had only approximated what was known as the medieval times in Surface World history.  Ironically, those Surface World times were known to posterity as The Dark Ages.   A time between the 5th and 10th centuries when record-keeping had been neglected, innovation had stagnated, and the people live under the scourge of warfare, famine, and blight.  A time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the age of the Renaissance, Plutarch writes (Africa, IX, 451-7), “My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”  His reference to the age in which he lived was referred to as being dark in the pejorative sense.  Paradise had been lost, and he lived in the betweenness before Paradise could be found again.  Rome had fallen due to its own corruption from within and its political power struggles which distracted it from the fact that through military conquest it had built an empire, it could not rule and hold if it did not rule and hold itself intact.  Rome had once been the prize capital of the world, a powerful city on an Italian hill, but had ceded its place because it could not serve under its own ideals and its emperors and rulers could not bear the implications and responsibility of serving as a god for its ruled peoples.  The period following the Dark Ages, known as the Enlightenment or The Renaissance or The Age of Reason, though some scholars and historians may dispute the terms, did rise to a certain collective and societal search for answers in faith sought only in the aftermath of such tragedy and wandering and brutality.  The religious community would not have been given such deference and ultimately state power which they later abused, had the suffering people not turned to faith, and the Sovereign of the Heavens and to the study of religious clerics who sought to find meaning from the Heart of the One despite having survived through such a chaotic period of history.  These times within the Mid-World were not so different from those in Surface World history.  Arguably, despite modern contrivances, societal “progress”, as the moderns term it, and the enlightened ones, self-proclaimed gurus of the modern age, for all practical and all observable purposes, the Surface World was descending back into an Age darker than any other in history.  An apostasy, a paganism, a worship of things created rather than the Creator.  A failing of learned scholarship in self-study.  A forgetfulness of those lessons of history and tragedy that once woke up a generation of suffering people desperately seeking purpose and hope.

This collective pile of junk from the modern world was poetic justice in its representation.  Sometimes we Surface Worlders have to be willing to climb up over our own pile of junk collected over time before we can come back to the light of the world above.  As much as I may be tempted to believe that we Surface Worlders were the more enlightened and more advanced because of our modern society and our experience, I was humbled by the fact that on a basically level, we moderns had not succeeded in our humanistic rise to make life better, but had in fact receded into becoming weak and dependent on our junk pile and could not curb the tide of our falling decent into our maddening “brave new world.”  If there were more than flesh crossing over into this Mid-World, then somewhere overhead, the Mid-World Sky was broken and if it fractured enough, the Darkness would descend upon it.  The storms we’d experienced heretofore, would be nothing like the storms coming.  The lands of the Mid-World would be plunged into an Eternal night, and the storm that came would tear away the atmosphere of this place killing every breathing creature, plant, animal, insect or organism within it.  The mountains would be upended, the seas would evaporate, and the Mid-World would break apart and be drawn through the portals to rain down as fire and brimstone upon the earth.  The Surface Worlders would never see it coming.  The two worlds would collide and implode.  The Surface World would be overrun by the metaphysical creatures given flesh and bone in the Mid-World, a long nightmare of terror would begin, and Hell would erupt on Earth.  A legion of demons waiting to be borne would be unleashed, and Apollyon would ascend to an earthly throne.

This band of travelers, though they do not know it yet, were brought here to serve a purpose.  Each one specifically called forth through their dreams.  Each one is important.  Each one purposed to fulfill a Higher Calling.  Each one whose stories, though they may not understand it yet, they were meant to find and finish.

***

Maeven lay as quiet as she could back down upon the bench seat, careful not to make any noises.  She had heard sounds outside in the cave, voices nearing.  She did not know how or why she had found herself lying in this battered heap, and this old abandoned car from a bygone era.  Was she asleep?  Was she dreaming?  The vehicle seat and musty smell of the moldering seat cushions seemed real enough to her senses, but the location was disorienting.  The vehicle had long been our of functioning commission so she could not have been driving it.  Had it fallen into some sort of sinkhole?  Were she and the girl in trunk sedated and kidnapped, possibly from the hospital, and deposited in this old car while their abductor had to deal with some pursuer?  Would he be back?  What did he want with them?  Would he rape and kill them?  How had the old car gotten down into this underground cave?  Was there a sinkhole below the junkyard that collapsed?  Was the water below a pool or an underground river?  Perhaps storm runoff replete with phosphorescent chemicals and antifreeze.  A toxic sluice of flammable and acidic blends forming and swirling into a poisonous river running beneath the suburban neighborhoods above, seeping into their city water system to take down an entire city population before they knew what was killing them?  In any case, she knew she could not be found here without defenses.  Her body was too weak.  She felt none of the strength that she had before as Storm Hawk, fierce and daring leader of the Lehi horsemen, daring to raid the stolen spoils of the Xarmnian Protectorate and return them to the oppressed peoples being crushed under their iron fists.  A Mid-World Robin Hood.

Now the thought of being in this weakened state and being ravaged by some creepy psychopath and then being summarily murdered and discarded as refuse, incensed her, but she could not be hasty.  The voices outside seemed oblivious to their presence, but she could not be sure that those who approached were friendly rescuers or in cahoots with the sicko who’d deposited them here.  Her best and only move was to stay still and silent.  To make them think that she was still sedated and wait for an opportunity to strike them unaware before they tried anything.  She rolled her eyes trying to search the floorboards, seats or side door pockets to see if there was anything she might be able to tuck away and use as a weapon should the opportunity arise.  Where was she?!  She hated being so disoriented.

Suddenly she heard clattering and scraping, a splash and then a slight rocking as the car shifted its precarious weight on the pile below, being surmounted by others ascending upward with some degree of effort.  Suddenly the car rocked to the side, and Maeven slid downward, bracing herself by her feet against the door.  More noises.  Not from the outside, but from the trunk, this time more coherent and louder.

“Help me!  Somebody!  Anybody!  Help me!  I’m locked in here!  That creep locked me in here!  Get me out of here before he comes back.  Oh God!  Hurry!  Before he comes back!”  And then the voice dissembled into agonized weeping.

Suddenly, the car door opened, behind Maeven’s head and she panicked, bracing herself to jab and gouge the eyes out of whoever it was who “was coming back.”

A voice not unfamiliar to her spoke her name in shocked bewilderment.

“Maeven?!  It that you?!  Is it really you?”

She almost fainted when she saw who it was.

The Way In is Not The Way Out – Chapter 45

As far as we were concerned, all hell had just broken loose.  The walls, the ground, the ceiling shook and fissured, tumbled and tore loose, as great pillars of rock and calcite cracked and twisted, and the ceiling lurched above us, causing stone knives to rain down and stab at the floor behind us.

Water spewed down from jagged breaks in the rock, spraying us with cold and wet, threatening to douse our torches and swallow us in darkness.  We ran…as fast and as quickly as our weary legs could carry us.  Bounding off of granite walls, dodging the rocks that fell before us, threatening to obstruct our path.  While being pelted by tiny bits of stone and silt and sand swirling into our nostrils threatening to choke us of the very labored breaths we still had, we stumbled, crawled and scrambled through the dark musty caves twisting and bending in the deepening darkness ahead of us.

I heard shouts within the cacophony that I could not make out as being either human or animal, as those ahead of me careened off of the narrowing walls.  A large stone slab had fallen from an upper shelf of rock, slamming downward with a thunderous impact, lodging across the top of the two great stones between which we were passing. Its ponderous oblong shape forming a top lintel, much like one of the monolithic stone formations of Stonehenge, just outside of Wiltshire, England, and west of Amesbury.  The slab chipped and pelted us with small sharp fragments off its face, but did not fracture and pound us with more significant breakage.  If we survived this pelting, we would be lucky to only have received abrasions, small cuts, and bruises, rather than contusions, fractures, and gashes.

Water jets sprayed down behind us, forming a hissing curtain of wet rage chasing us into the darker throat of the caverns, driving us with a fury we could not dare look back on.  Great claps of thunder coughed billows of smoke and debris, as parts of the ceiling fell, rocks pinging off stone plunking into pools deep and some shallow, giving forth noises that pounded our eardrums with a persistent ringing that drowned out all other sounds beyond us.  In a half turn, under the fluttering light of our torches, we saw that the way behind us had been sealed off by tons of fallen stone and gravel, ensuring us that this would be our certain grave and fate if we found no other way within the darkness ahead of us.  Billows of dust, silt, and roiling smoke extended outward in plumes, like spectral arms reaching out from within an open, but rapidly filling, grave, pursuing us at our heels threatening to extinguish our firebrands, choke us with grit and ejecta and bury us where we fell.

We pressed through another narrow passage and our torchlight waned to curling embers upon each pole, barely enough to see through the blackness, but once on the other side of the narrow way, the room opened up, and the flames once again awakened to bright, flaring and spattering light, causing our long shadows to jump and dance along the walls and reflect in golden tremors upon a submerged floor in roughly two to three feet of shallow water.

Witnessing the rebirth of the nearly extinguished flames, Begglar spoke forth a verse from the Ancient Text, which echoed ominously within the great cavern, and, signified by the sound, that the room was even larger than we’d supposed it to be.

“5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” [John 1:5 NLT]

“Amen,” Nell added to her husband’s quotation as she and Christie held their torches higher so that we could take stock of ourselves.

We were a mess.

White powder covered us from head to foot, caked and streaked in places by the spritzing.  We were scratched and bruised but no worse for the wear.  But more importantly, all accounted for.…except for Maeven.

It had seemed so terrible to abandon the place where we had lost her, like a betrayal.  But I knew despite my conflicted feelings we had done what we were supposed to do.  The direction had come to me within my inner spirit, and its voice was clearly not that of my own.

Despite what Nell and Begglar had assured us, I felt sadness and remorse that we had not been able to be certain of where she went or where we had lost her if indeed she was lost to us.  Grief delayed is no less severe than grief realized, and I knew that both Christie and James shared my feeling of loss.  Somehow, we had done what needed to be done, in spite of our frantic instinct to try to search the Ghost Pool more thoroughly before we abandoned it.  But if we had done so, we all would be dead.

A curved passage bent ahead, as if the great pool and chamber that contained it was kidney-shaped, and there was something odd about the edge of the bend.  We could see its outline, without the benefit of the torchlight.  Somewhere, further in there was light above.  And if there was light, there just might be another way out.

***

Outside, the massive wave surged towards the shore, the group of seven brave souls clinging to the large log with all of their might.  The water ahead of the wave receded from the embankment, peeling back its wet lips into the front curl of the rising mound of water, revealing rocks and boulders once submerged below, now laden with wet green moss and interspersed with flopping fish caught in the breaks and crevices and pools below.   Green mossy skeletons of unfortunate land creatures, most likely victims of the Moon Sprites, lay strewn upon the lake bed now revealed as the wet skin of the basin and river shrank backward before the coming violent surge.

Almost within seconds of the recession, the brow of the wave lunged forward, its crest of water smoothing into a slope downward, as the water returned with a rush.  As the lead edge of the water slammed into the embankment, streams of water jetted upward into the trees and forest beyond tearing limbs and shoving mightily upon the undersides of the lower boughs.  Branches crackled under the onslaught of water and pressure, but the great trunks of the forest guardians stood strong against the barrage.  The water splashed up the embankment into the deepening forest beyond, sweeping pine needles upward with other forest detritus, until the force of the wave was expended, and the resulting streams fell backward into the lake borders below.
The log had magnificently borne the remaining company upward, over the rocks lining the shore, and as the water fell backward, the large limb lodged between two large fir trees and its forked limb caught between a bough and the trunk, nearly cracking the branch, but stopping short of it.
Matthew and Dominic had done their best to keep Miray from losing her grip on the log during the violent depositing, but their strength had been expended, and it was all they could do to keep their own grip upon the tree.

Miraculously, there were no injuries to any of the group, and as the water surrendered back to gravity’s call, the group slid off of the log onto the muddy grass that had once been a lush green embankment along the shore.

***

Maeven’s heart rate and pulse pounded as she began to feel a panic seize her body.  How long had she been down?  Where was Nory?  Was the nightmare real?  It must be.  Oh, God, she began to weep, realization pressing her downward, it must be.  Voices buzzed about her, she could not focus on them.  Why couldn’t she speak?  What had they done to her?  Where was this medical facility?  How did she get here?  Nory?  She’d last seen him flung from the vehicle, disappearing into the cold darkness.  He’d plugged his laptop into the lighter socket of the SUV and had been working.  WiFi was terrible between the peaks of the mountain ranges, but they’d picked up a faint cell signal passing through the last town that was named Cuchara, the Spanish word for Spoon, and they hoped to cut across to Trinidad and reach Interstate 25 and then on down into Sante Fe, New Mexico before it got too late.

She remembered attempting to crawl out of the vehicle, but something furry and smelly blocked her path and some sort of a bird.  Black feathers.  It didn’t make sense.  The cabin of the crushed SUV reeked of blood, and rotting flesh, and vomit.  Remembering brought the terrible smells suddenly back, burning her nostrils with the putrescent assault and she almost passed out from the memory.  Her throat was raw and burned.  She was intubated.  A breathing mask covered her mouth, but a trach tube was fed through an incision in her throat.  Uh, it was too much to take in.  Her hand was bound but the other one…she felt downward toward her abdomen.  Oh, dear God, no, No, No, NO!  Her eyes burned as tears spilled out over her cheeks, pooling and distorting the room and ceiling under their watery weight as a deep and profound sadness and pain plunged her down beneath them.  My babies…oh God, not my babies too.

Her abdomen tapered to a small belly, emaciated with time, and lack of exercise.  She was frail and weak.  She had lost time, memories, and sense of place as remorse, dread and guilt slammed terrible weights down upon her.  Her eyes squeezed tightly shut, trying to block out this terrible reality.  She felt pressure as hands reached out to grab her within the darkness and pull her deeper down into blackness and despair.

She felt suddenly cold as the dark enfolded around her, and she had an awareness of a trace memory that involved ice.  A lake full of ice.  And terrible, mesmerizing monsters with burning eyes…

***

“The sedative is taking effect,” Sereta observed as Maeven’s body finally surrendered to the drug they’d injected into her IV line.  Judy, the head night nurse, had returned to the room, with the authorization from Maeven’s physician, Dr. Corsi, to provide a sedative if needed, to avoid her going into distress.

“I wonder if it was the right thing to do,” Dora offered quietly, “She’s been down so long.”

“Five years, poor thing,” Sereta agreed, “Lost her husband in the car wreck AND the twin babies she was carrying.”

The three of them observed their charge’s heart rate even out to a steadier rhythm, and her pulse and respiration began to normalize as the medicine coursed through her veins settling physical her into the numbing fog of sedation.  But for her metaphysical state, that was a quite different story.

“She’s got enough to deal with when she wakes,” Judy remarked, “Best let her sleep, for now, a bit more.”

“Chart says she’s Jewish,” Dora whispered, “Should we call a local Rabbi to be here in the morning when she wakes?  She’s gonna need someone here when she’s told.  Does she have anyone we could call?  Family?”

“Not local,” Sereta shook her head slightly, “She’s got a half-sister in New York.  Family disowned her when she married.”

“Isn’t her married name Stein?  Isn’t that a Jewish surname?”

“Now that’s none of our business, ladies,” Judy took charge of the conversation, “We’ve got enough to do tonight with the other patients, so scoot.  Leave her be.  Chaplain Gibbs’ll be by in the morning.  Same as he always does.  Praying for her.  Reading an encouraging verse or two over her to give her calm.  He always visits the coma patients, even when their own family and friends eventually tire of it.  Some say it doesn’t matter much, but he thinks they hear it somehow and if you watch their monitors they seem to be at ease when he comes.”

***

The eight survivors of the harrowing ride across the lake clinging to a dead tree could barely believe the sight before them.  The cliffside crescent of the Trathorn Falls had seemed to collapse and implode, creating a much deeper descent off of the rock face into the basin lake below, and water barreled downward from the precipice with a pounding fury.  Great vaporous mists filled the air as the driven wet, roared into the lake below with a deafening and constant exhalation.  The concavity beneath the thundering cascade had collapsed under the weight of the water above, backfilling under the accumulation of pressure beneath the ice caps, cavitating and bearing down on the crest of the canyon lip until the ledge and chin jutting outward above the passage to the caves suddenly could no longer bear such pressure.  An assemblage of broken rock and scree from the cliff face, cause the pounding water to send monstrous white plumes of mist up into the air, forming a beard of moisture around the base.

If Mr. O’Brian, Christie, Maeven and James and Mr. and Mrs. Begglar were anywhere near the edge of the falls when the collapse occurred, there was very little chance that they had survived under such incredible destruction.

They would be on their own now.

Lost in a world they knew very little about.  Most of their party had been kidnapped and taken by the Protectorate Guards.  No doubt the horses were already appropriated by their captors.  They were afoot in the wilds, for the most part, stripped of their weapons which had fallen beneath the waves and lay at the bottom of the lake, with no help, supplies or guidance in sight.  Dominic was the only native of this land present who might still help them, but he too was witnessing the devastation with a mask of fear and shock, and no doubt was struggling with whether to believe what his eyes told him or hold out some faint and remote hope that somehow, deep inside the caverns, his parents might still be alive.

***

Deep within the heart of the caves beneath the collapsed-face of the Trathorn Falls, within an interior cavern of standing water, smooth and still as if formed of polished glass, we hesitated to move forward along the interior ledge to round the bend where the edge of the walls lightened.  It seemed almost a sacrilege to disturb the calm serenity of the smooth pools, and we were not yet certain whether it was, in fact, safe for us to enter these waters, nor how deep the seemingly shallow bottom was, nor how stable or solid it might be if we tried wading into it.  Some cave pools had been known to be deceptively shallow but were in fact filled with several feet in depth of a kind of sucking cave mud that would pull and eventually drown the unwary and foolishly intrepid soul foolish enough to enter it, without first ascertaining its true bottom.  Yet we had no choice.  Behind us was such devastation that we could never hope to dig their way out.  Before us, lay the edge of light breaking through from above somewhere up ahead, but a narrow sloping ledge that did not extend all the way to the lightened bend in the tunnel would prove treacherous to get around the pool without entering it at the last, before climbing up on the far end.  One might attempt to swim across without touching the bottom, but there was no guarantee that the smooth water was deep enough all the way across to avoid touching the bottom entirely.  We could attempt to use The Pearl once again to flash freeze this pool but were not certain exactly how its mysterious properties worked.  Without Maeven’s confidence and experience, I was extremely hesitant to risk losing it in the deceptive cave pool mud without some other assurances but Begglar and Nell could give me none.  They had been just as surprised as I and the others were when the Pearl had done its wonders.  Nothing in their experiences had prepared them for what they witnessed from it.

***

When Maeven came to herself, she realized she was once again in someplace where she shouldn’t be.  Something was very wrong.  She lay across something hard and musty with a slight give, but somehow old and barely recognizable in the gray half-light.  She could just make out some sort of instrument panel, hidden in shadow under the dark brow of a dashboard, and an old-style, white-grip steering wheel.  She was in some old abandoned car, lying across its front bench seat, it vinyl cover crackled with age and perhaps sun and neglect.  Old tuffs of cotton poked through the cracked seat, and hard spring wires once encased deeply within the cotton batting now were hard and pressed up uncomfortably against her hips and body like a griddle.  Old worn leather panels had faded over time, and parts of it had rotted or been chewed by goodness knows what.  All she knew was she should not be there.  The car, for one, was not stable.  It was canted and lay front downward, such that her knees and hands extended kept her from falling forward into the rotted-out floorboard.  The windows were dusky, with a fine layer of accumulated dust covering its splintered glass, but she could barely make out some sort of bluish stone walls, under the sole beam of some ray of light that came from somewhere above and behind her.  She tried to adjust her slanted position and pull herself upward for a better view, but the old car itself moved, creaked and groaned with her slightest motion or shifting of weight.  She thought for a moment that she might be in their old SUV, but nothing looked right.  This car was much older, and from what she could tell of the windshield posts and side-view mirrors almost occluded with dust, the car was a baby blue color.  She’d never been in a vehicle like this.  It’s make was long before her time.  Some foreign make or manufacturer.  Since the car had bench seats she could not see between the seat or into the back seat.  It had no headrests.  Another sign that it was a very old make and model.  Was she in a junkyard?  If so, how did she get in a junkyard.  She remembered a hospital bed, some nurses, orderlies, a lot of wetness, and blood.  Some painful memories on the edge of her mind were present but unclarified.  A sense of loss.  Painful and dreadful loss, but nothing more than that deep saddening feeling.  She didn’t belong here.  The outside looked to be made of stone.  Bluish stone.  Since she could not see beyond the car’s interior, she couldn’t be certain but…we she in a…large cave?

There was a slight noise behind her.  Somehow distant but not too distant.  Was something in the backseat?

Ummh!  She froze.  Had she heard right or was her mind playing tricks on her?

The sound was muffled, compartmentalized.  Partitioned away from her.

Ummh!  Uh-uh-eeuhh!  A knocking noise, sounding like something was struggling and crying…no mewling.  Crying or sobbing into a rag or somehow something muffled the voice.

Bam-Bam-Bam!  EEee!  Uh-uh-uh! Crunch! Ah-ah-aaah!

Something or someone was behind her, but not close enough to be in the backseat.

She heard muffled sobbing again.  The sound of despair that she knew and recognized all too well.

Someone else was close, but pinned or trapped or bound…or…in some confined space…

Maeven’s eyes went wide as suddenly she knew…whomever it was making those pitiable noises of struggle and despair was doing so from within the trunk of this very car.

She lurched upward, grabbing the back of the bench seat to pull herself up into a sitting position.

And then the vehicle began to lurch and rock and roll and bounce downward, throwing Maeven forward into the dash, knocking her forehead against the dusted and shattered windshield, spiderwebbed with jagged and gummed glass.  She was, indeed, atop a junk heap, and there was deep turquoise blue water below.  The beam of light from above and behind her made it look like a lake of antifreeze coolant, for the water was an unnatural shade of blue.

***

As I edged along the lip of the ledge, my feet slipped but my grip on the jagged crevice in the cave wall kept me from plunging headlong into the pool.  It was indeed full of silt and mud.  James had tested the water depth with the handle end of his halberd, and its tip easily penetrated the false bottom stirring the water into a murky dull brown in the yellow firelight as James fed the shaft, hand over hand down until he had to hang onto the barbed cap at the top of the pole weapon, but still could not feel the bottom with the blade almost into the water.  His weapon was at least six feet in length, and we knew that had we tried to wade or swim through that pool, it would have been a death trap.

I had volunteered to attempt the narrow ledge around the deep pool to see if the way forward was even passable.  If the cave terminated shortly thereafter, or if the shaft of light was at an impossible angle or too high up to reach, this way would do us no good anyway and we were better off going the other way around the kidney-shaped pool to see if there was another tunnel that we could explore beyond this cavern.

As I rounded the bend on the tiny sloping ledge, teetering, but clawing my way along the wall, reaching into every crevice I could find, I had almost made the bend when I slipped, my foot scuffing the edge and splashing into the water, creating wide concentric ripples across its smooth and deceptively serene surface.  The skin on my hands and fingers were raw, and slightly bled from gripping the black and bluish stone, but I held on, catching myself with the other foot, my heart racing and breath heaving, as I drew back from the water, rising up again to lean against the rough wall.

The light had grown brighter, and there was indeed a shaft of early morning sunlight, dust motes dancing in the golden beam, streaming down from an almond-shaped aperture high above the cave floor.  I looked upward, discouraged and disappointed, but then with a sigh, I looked to my left and beyond it.  A new pool of water extended beyond and around the bend and was separated by an assemblage of rocks and a brief land bridge dividing the silt-filled brown dust pool reflecting the arch and lighted ceiling above it, and a rock-strewn pool of some of the bluest water I had ever seen.  The dark blackened rock along the cave walls seemed to also have a bluish tint to it like it had veins of copper along with black granite and basalt.  But to the far end of the cave was a mountain of junk extending forty-feet upward below a cool silver-blue ray of sunlight.  The junk seemed to be an assemblage of rocks and shapes and objects that seemed out of place and suddenly my breath caught in my throat.  They were out of place…and out of time…and should not be here…

This was bad.  Very bad.  Dangerous.

My heart stopped, and my breath audibly wheezed out of me in shock.

This pile of detritus in the far corner of the cave, leading upward to the light above was Surface World junk.

There were old rusted drums half-submerged in the water, tangles, and masses of coiled and jumbled cabling, broken appliances, twisted and battered metal cabinetry, and teetering on the edge about fifteen feet above the water was an old blue rusted car.

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The Sky is Falling – Chapter 44

The Mid-World was once called the land of Nod.  In the ancient tongue, the word ‘Nod‘ merely meant ‘Wandering’.  So, in essence, this place and these lands were essentially the ‘Land of Wanderers’.  The portals or doorways to this land were not always closed to mortal man in the waking state.  They were held open pathways of light that bridged the entire vastness of the created universe, which tangentially touched the earth at eclipse points, where the morning and evening path of the Sun’s light kissed the horizon of the earth in those briefest of seconds before the circle of the planetary plane, seemed to lose or gain the solar light of Sol, our Surface World Sun.  It was only in recent times when those Surface Worlders who have, by a measure of faith, come to traverse these portals and experience the Mid-World lands within their dreams.

At one time, in Earth’s ancient history the One came down into a beautiful garden of His particular delight and creation to meet with and fellowship with two of his creations, a male and a female, who were given something no other life form in the entire universe was given.  A binary imprint of Himself.  A triune being, having three distinct yet harmonious components with which to enjoy, perceive and celebrate their existence and find the particular favor of the One who created them to be something nothing else in all His creation could be.  Sons and daughters.  They were given physicality in a corporeal body that could sense the material world, with sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell and grow in stature, strength and muscle skill.  They were given their personhood in the form of a soul which allowed them to know differences, delight in discovery, and find a uniqueness in themselves that assured them that no other being was exactly as they were, so they occupied a place within the universe that only they fit into.  The soul also allowed them both to appreciate sameness and differences in other beings such as they were, but in their uniqueness, they were given a particular purpose and reason for their specific existence.  That personhood was like in some ways to others which allowed them to commune and agree, but in areas where they were different, these differences allowed each of them to learn something new and gain meaningful knowledge from those interactions.  And finally, these beings were given a spirit which beckoned and stirred them to look beyond what they saw, felt, heard and perceived about the world and see behind it another layer of mystery, and an awe of something so vast that the other two components of their being could not qualify or classify.  Their vested spirit gave them the capacity to commune with their Father/Creator, and it called them to seek and yearn for more than even the body or soul could perceive.  To have the possibility to know something beyond the limits of their awareness of themselves and gain an awareness of Him who cannot be contained by any limitation.  A grand Giver of Discovery and Wonder, beyond all that could ever be imagined.  It also gave these beings the capacity to be overwhelmed and celebrate in the delight of knowing and being loved by the One who gifted them with their individual personhood.

Light, throughout the cosmos, behaves according to an imprint of order given by its Designer.  Everything created by His Word and Hand, in the shaping of all, retains something of the laws and order into which it came into being.  No evil is inherent in anything created, because it came from the Hands and Mouth that speaks only truth and perfection.  Therefore, when chaos was introduced into the world, all created things behaving according to design, resist and will not live in harmony with disorder.  It is said, in the Surface World, that nature abhors a vacuum.  And this is true.  A void or vacuum represents an imbalance in the order of all and creation seeks to correct that imbalance, by serving justice at all costs.

Chaos that can be perceived in a seeming resistance to order, is actually a struggle between two principles that have an observable physical component.  The rules of order are what holds everything together and they are precisely balanced, but it is disorder that shifts that balance into what seems to be contention or conflict.  Death permeates existence to such staggering effect, that it is hard for created beings to imagine or perceive that there was ever a time in history where it did not exist or seem to prevail.

***

When we realized Maeven was missing, Christie, James and I feared the worst.  That she’d slipped out of James’s arms, was drifting downward and if she had not been dead already that she most certainly was now, and we’d find her drown body somewhere at the bottom of the pool.  In the seconds of that realization, we’d prepared to dive in and look for her, but we both were shocked when Nell and Begglar prevented us from doing so.

“She’s not there, lad,” Begglar reached out a hand to steady James.

“Aye, lassie, don’t you be fretting.  This is good news,” Nell said putting a comforting arm around Christie.

“Good news?!” I asked, incredulous, “How can this be good news!?  Where is she!?”

Nell looked at me with an arched eyebrow, and a wry grin on her face, “What’s happened to her is what happens to all of you Surface Worlders.  After all these years, she has finally awakened.”

***

As dawn pushed the darkness back into evening’s envelope and mailed the deferment through the horizon, the sky celebrated the golden coming of the sun.  At the hem of the frozen skirt of the falls, the three erstwhile sentries watched as the three young men converged on the area where they’d left the fallen log that Maeven had referred to as a branch.  Beyond them, they could see the edge of the lake but could not see the shore itself or their waiting company because they were cloaked under the shadow of the tall forest.  Yet there was movement.  A small figure was coming toward them across the ice at a run.  Something was wrong.  Very wrong.

***

“Where did you guys last leave it?” Will asked as he, Dominic, Mason, and Matthew jogged carefully across the ice sheet, ice grit crackling and shushing under their footfalls.

“We used it to take down the bull,” Mason offered, still a bit unsure of Will after the cold stare he’d received from him when he returned his spear.  He’d introduced himself, giving the young man another chance and the benefit of the doubt, but Will had only snatched the spear away from him and ignored Mason’s proffered hand of friendship.

Will had never been pleasant to be around.  As far as Mason was concerned he always seemed to have a certain air of contempt for others within the company, never really trying to get along except with one of the other guys about his age who also seemed to be up to no good.  Matthew was generally liked by the group, a good-natured and willing guy, eager to help and always volunteering to chip in.  With Matthew, what you saw is what you got.  He was not given to pretense or some hidden agenda, and in his company, you felt at ease.  Dominic was an easy-going fellow as well, good-humored, but had a sort of sadness behind it and a world-weariness that defied his youth.  He seemed more deliberate and considered in his actions, and while he was welcoming enough to the Surface Worlders of the group, he had a sort of guarded caution with them as well.  He knew they were not accustomed to what might be ahead and would be perhaps frightened if they knew all that he knew about the lands and the beings that populated it.  He also had a sort of oldness about him because of the terrible things his young eyes had had to witness growing up in the Mid-World in occupied territories, with his family living under suspicion for so long.  Dominic knew secrets he was not allowed to tell or share, and as such he was in some ways a private person.  Affable, yet reserved until a degree of trust was earned and experience over time permitted him to place confidence enough to extend friendship.  Like his father, he seemed more like a person hosting a group of city-dwelling visitors with natural good manners of rural country folk.

They spotted the log up ahead off to the left, barely visible along the surface of the ice because its surface had been dusted with windblown frost and snow.  A slushy irregularly-shaped pool of broken ice lay treacherously before it.  A waiting trap for the unsuspecting approaching the log from the front.  The ice had broken as the body of the bull Moon Sprite had been torn from its frozen pocketed prison, cutting a sidelong furrow to the hole making the broken pool more ovoid in shape.  The broken ice settled back in place, however, creating the appearance of a false surface, with a powering of dust seeming to smooth out the disjointed jagged pieces of floating ice and slush.

“Circle wide, boys,” Matthew cautioned, “The edge is deceptive, and that water is icy cold.”

“I can vouch for that,” Mason quipped.  His legs only now beginning to feel less of the numbing effect from having partially fallen in.

Will, Dominic, and Matthew circled wide trying to come in at the log from its backside.  Mason lingered in the front, suspicious of where exactly the stronger ice ended and the faux surface portended death by hypothermia or drowning.  The ice was just as dangerous as anything they fought upon its surface.  Its depths would swallow them in an instant.

The boys approached the log cautiously, testing the stability and integrity of the surface, with each creeping step, balancing their weight on their back leg and then slowly shifting forward.  Dominic reached the curved limb that rose like an extended skeleton bone upward from the central trunk, its tanned, bark stripped surface polished smooth by the abrading stones as it had been carried downriver through the deepening river and eventually over the precipitous falls to eventual fall and drift towards the bank of the falls basin where they had found it.  Now that tanned wood had a grey look, with ice collecting along its limbs and sparkling in the light of the dawning sunrise to their east.  The others reached the log and placed their hands on the limb extended plaintively upward, as if the tree was reaching for them as well.  Together they tugged at the limb but found that the base of the trunk was partially frozen to the lake surface and a portion of its twisted root extended into the broken pool.  With not much leverage, the boys knew they would have to manhandle and rock the limb and log loose of the pool’s edge, but that would increase the danger of one or more of them falling in.  If their pulls and tugs fractured the edge of the ice too much they might find themselves in even greater danger it the ice leading up to the back of the log did not hold.

Matthew looked over at Mason, still hesitating on the other side of the broken pool.

“Dude, you wanna give us a hand with this?”

“If I do, who will rescue your icy butts if you guys fall in,” he grinned, “I’m doing fine over here.  I have confidence you guys can get it loose.”

Dominic looked and Matthew and Will and shrugged with a grin, “Lad’s got a point.  If the ice gives way, we’ll be needing someone atop it, to lend us a hand.”

Will remained unconvinced and muttered, “Coward,” but Matt and Dominic let it slide without comment.

Dominic and Matt put their lead foot up against the base of the log and placed both hands on top of each other, wrapping their cold chilled finger around the narrowing limb.

“On three,” Matt directed, but Will stood back a little, hesitant to join them, looking at the snow dusting the trunk of the log and the curve of the root extending into the black scar into the water beneath them.

“One, two,” and on the unspoken ‘three’ both Matt and Dominic threw their weight backward, extending their arms tugging mightily on the branch while pressing against the log’s base with their lead foot.  With a crack and crunch, the log lurched and then twisted, its frosted root clawing and then wrenching free of the broken pool, fling stinging water spray outward, spritzing Mason on the other side of the pool.  The drops of water stung his face like icy bees, and Mason gasped and stepped backward, almost falling on his tail end.

Will guffawed and then laughed aloud, making no apology at taking savage pleasure in Mason’s sudden discomfort and shock.  Both Dominic and Matthew landed hard on the ice below them, as the end of the log slid away from the pool’s edge and the extended branch turned downward, lift the other extended limb from the lake surface.

Matt and Dominic cast resentful looks at Will and shared a quick conspiratorial look at each other.

“Methinks this lad needs a shellacking,” Dominic muttered quietly to Matthew, “What thinks you?”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Matthew rejoined, “If I didn’t think it might do him in, I’d say he was ripe for a quick swim in this pond.”

“Aye,” Dominic agreed readily, “More’s the pity tis not summer.  We’d give him an attitude rinsing indeed, wouldn’t we?”

“In a heartbeat,” Matt rejoined as he and Dominic rose up from under the limb and climbed to their feet.

Just then a warbling sound of soft cries came from behind them.  They turned, to see a girl running toward them, soft unintelligible cries coming from her as she ran towards them as fast as her small legs would carry her.

“It’s Miray!” Mason said as the girl came close enough for them to identify her.

“Miray!  Over here!” Matt shouted.

The girl had spotted them and was crying with a blend of relief and sheer panic.  The others came around the pool and joined Mason and moved toward the running figure.  Within moments she reached them and fell breathlessly into Mason’s arms as they kneeled down to her level, trying to calm her fright and reassure her.

“What’s wrong?” Will asked.

“They’ve…,” she breathed heavily, trying to catch her wind, “They’ve gone.  Were taken.  All of our supplies.  The wagons the horses.  They just came out of the woods.”

“Who,” Matt asked, “Where have they gone?”

“Pr-Protectorate guards,” she stammered, “Caught up with us.  Tracked us with those horrible dogs.  Cheryl was bitten.”

Her eyes were still wild with fear and panic.  “I didn’t know what else to do,” she pleaded for their understanding, “I just ran.  They came up on us so sudden.  They were gonna let the dogs kill her.  We begged them to stop.  To call off their dogs and we would do whatever they wanted, but they just laughed and kicked him away, and threatened to trample him with their black horses.  I just ran.  I didn’t know what to do.”

Mason held her close while she trembled and patted her, trying to calm her, but knowing it would do little good.

Dominic put a steadying hand on her shoulder and pulled a strand of unkempt hair from her eyes.

He cupped her chin and cheek gently and spoke in low calming tones, “Miray, you did the right thing, lassie.  You came to us and we’ll be needing to tell the others.  We’ll find them, dear.  There are others who can help us, but we need to let O’Brian and my Da know.  Take courage, dearie.  You did the right thing.”

***

The three sentries saw the four young men and the girl come together and form a distant group huddling around her, and they were drawn toward them, curious to see what may have happened.  When they had gone several paces out from the edge of the falls, they suddenly heard a loud crackling noise behind them, and each pivoted searching for the source of the noise that now sounded like a low rumble.  Pieces of ice tumbled down from the high cliff above the falls, and struck the ice formations, pivot and careened and bounded off of jutting stones and the bare rock facing striking the frozen false ground below, with percussive explosions.  A thundering rumble following the fissuring of a large slab of ice as it too ponderously fell to the foot of the falls, bursting through the frozen base, splintering the crust with a loud bang, water displaced from beneath bursting forth from the gaping hole, sloshing in waves out into the trench below the base.  A tide of slush and ice pursued them as they backed away from the frozen teeth of rock and ice, as the silent falls seemed to awaken with a yawn of froth and the sky overhead split in two, sending a cascade of water and powder and ice shards raining downward.  Before they knew it, the three were running, looking over their shoulder, wondering what would become of their party inside the awaking mouth and what might become of them if they did not get far enough away when the great sheets and pillars and towers of ice glistening up the cliffside, finally toppled down to the base with thousands of tons of weight and water pressure.

The young women hesitated even in the midst of this rumbling warning, as the pieces of the frozen water towers splintered, burst and twisted downward.

“What are you waiting for, we’re going to get killed delaying like this?!” a man to the left of her shouted reaching out to grab her arm and pull her, if need be, away from the danger.

“I’m looking for the Pearl!” she shouted, “Where is it?!”

“It is too late for that now, c’mon!”

He caught her arm and pulled her reluctantly away from the falling face of the falls, now bursting with explosions of white, wet spray and broken ice and rock.  Walls and great plates of ice seemed to fall and fracture, exploding downward as they tumbled to the skirt of the falls and great washes and waves of water fountained and spilled and ruptured outward, pushing the ice sheets upward from below till it seemed like a wall of water was rising from the falls base and moving outward towards them as they ran further away from the base for safety, hoping that the lake itself would not shatter and leave them to drown or swim if they could still manage it ahead of the tsunami building behind them.

“Run!  Run!  Don’t look back!  Run for your life!” they shouted at the four young men towing the large log behind them, the young girl leading the way.

A fracturing, cracking and rumbling thunder roared behind them as they came within fifty feet of the small band who had frozen in shock at the rising wall of water now pursuing the three who had been left to guard the base of the falls.

The ice surface of the lake seemed to curl and mount up behind them as the three reached the boys and the ice below them splintered and crackled, sending fissures like lightning strikes through the frozen surface around and past them extending and racing with blinding speed toward the shore.  Within seconds of reaching the boys and the girl, each of the new party, took hold of the large log as the icy ground beneath their feet transformed into liquid cold almost as fast as it had frozen when the giant Pearl first rolled onto its surface.  Beyond the rising mountain of water, the Trathorn falls came to frothy life as shards and plates of ice fell from the sky above the cliff, tumbling and blending in with the tons of water that followed it down in great cascading showers.  The river above had back flowed and gathered under the ice sheet for as long as it could before the weight of the water below the ice had grown too great to be bound by the ice that dammed it.

The rising tide slid under the log and branches that the clinging company had fastened themselves to, and thrust it upward rising higher and higher towards the rolling hill’s crest.  Miray had straddled the trunk and clung fiercely to the outstretched arm of the forking limb, and Dominic and another of the two men help steady her while they themselves clung for their lives to the great tree.  Matthew, Mason and the young woman were further back, but firmly grasped the tree and trunk lifting them now to the sky upon a mound of water, their clothes soaked and sodden, but the desperate struggle to survive claiming their attention over the discomforting chill lingering in the water below them.  The tree had served them.  So far it had preserved them against a sure water burial as it continued to ascend and bear them up on a large crest racing towards the edges of the lakeshore.  If Maeven had not insisted on them returning for the fallen log and tree limbs, they would all have perished.  For them, Providence had moved to protect and preserve them, should they survive the coming impact with the shore ahead.  They could not be certain, but it appeared they were heading either towards the rocks of a brief stretch of grassy embankment, but it was impossible to tell which would be their fate for the log was slowly spinning as it topped the crest of the great wave and then began to fall downward in a rush within twenty feet of the shoreline.  As the cresting log turned, the fiercely clinging group noticed the roiling cloud bank standing at the top of the cliff’s edge, just above the lip of Trathorn Falls.  The cloud looked like the white and grey edge of a great cyclone, its base flinging debris thousands of feet into the air, its middle a bulging white potbelly of pressurized vapor, wind, and barometric chaos, threatening to spill further outward over the canyon cliffs and downward into the descending valley.  Specks of debris, too far to clearly make out were thrown up and down with violence, turning end over end in the sky, as large white jagged pieces of something unidentifiable rained down from the tower top of the storm head like large pieces of snow and ice, great teeth appearing to flash inward and outward from the edge of the storm chewing up both the land and the sky.

***

When the walls began to rumble, we knew we were in trouble.  When the Pearl showed up within the caverns and rolled across the top of the black pool behind us, flash freezing its surface, we were certain of it.

Words spoken to me by the mysterious visitor Mason and I had encountered before we left this cave and brought Maeven into it, suddenly jumped into my memory with a clarity that I knew was given to me from outside of my own heart:

“Remember this, though it may seem strange to you now.  Within these caverns, there are mysteries hidden and mysteries revealed.  Take care that you are not deceived. The way in is not the way out.”

The Pearl rolled up onto the embankment, leaving patches of frost and ice in its wake and stopped short of the edge of the pool in which we stood.  I knelt quickly and scooped it up sliding it back into the rough leather purse into which I had carried it this far.  The rumbling increased, with great explosive concussions sending tremors through the stone walls, causing the stalactites hanging precariously like suspended daggers above to shake and sway.  James backed out of the pool, dripping onto the shore as the others turned to me.

I gave them all one directive and gestured to the darkened aperture at the back of the large grotto in which we stood where our mysterious visitor before us had disappeared.

“We’ve got to get further in.  Run.  Now.  As fast as you possibly can.”

The Wake – Chapter 43

She didn’t see the dead elk lying in the narrow two-lane road until it was too late.

She’d rounded the curve on Colorado Highway 12 under the shadow of Boyd Mountain, West Spanish Peak’s snowy top jutting upward to the east above the tree line.  Everything happened within seconds that seemed to stretch out into eternities in slow motion.  A flurry and storm of black feathers, the thud, pop and crackle of an impact, screeching metal, the sound of tin thudding against roof slats in a strong wind, a vision of her childhood home in Kansas as nor’easters pelleted the glass with hailstones, a half-filled thermos cup of coffee floating end over end through the air, brown hot liquid stinging her arms, flashes of light as the illumined screen of a silver-white laptop tumbled end over end, flashing a white ghost of the Apple Logo winking like some photonegative sinister pupil under a silvered brow, as the screen flexed and splintered glass erupted and spidered outward from its LED portal.  An arm, tanned and well-toned, strong and yet gentle flailed at the air through a haze of long dark ribbons of hair, as bright stars sparkled and burst into the cabin in a nova of light.  Digital numbers in amber, red and pale blue light glared like an accountant’s nightmare from a dash instrument panel as blades of dark limbs slashed through the fractured windshield with a high-pitched note that seemed to linger like the sustain piano pedal had been held on its strike of a far-left ivory key.  A loud boom signified a sudden drop in tire pressure as the rubber on the left front radial folded under the chassis and the edge of the metal wheel rim converted itself into a roadway plow.  The world rolled and tumbled, the ceiling caved, hot amber liquid mixed with a spattering of warm dark wetness.  Hard flat lines of some sort of strapping, dug into her pelvis, and a hard, cruel unrelenting tightness cinched around her abdomen with such force she coughed blood.  Boom, screech, thud, blended into an awful cacophony of terror.  The world spun, fur and blood, hooves and claws, black feathers raked her face and arms.  Thousands of tiny star cubes danced and careened before her eyes, abrading the air like the hailstones back on their Kansas farm.

Nory?  She called out but wasn’t sure if she spoke his name out loud or just thought she did.  The crash and smash of the vehicle echoed in her ears, as the black Mercedes SUV ground away its polished and waxed paint-job, fenders open to the sky like the small wings of a flightless bird, as pavement, gravel, and stones ground away at the exterior of the vehicle in sliding rumble, spinning and slinging a mountainous tan, black, and white fur body wrenched and twisted within the frame of the bent window posts, abrading away its skin, baring blood, bone, and muscle, flooding the interior of the vehicle with stench and rot, causing her to wrench away, catching only the dark silhouette of “Nory” as he was flung limply, upside down, tumbling and then swiftly ejected through the starry fractured windshield into the night.  And then suddenly and mercifully all went black.

***

Maeven awoke in the bed from the nightmare, choking and flailing, wrapped in some sort of tubing and in a strange room with pitted tiled ceilings and an overhead spigot of metal with a spinner jutted from the ceiling beside an unlit recessed light panel.  It was dark in the room, quiet except for an incessant beeping noise to the right of her as something that looked like a tall skinny robot with two gelled bladders for ears stood over her, humming with its heart monitor…she realized where she was.  A muffled shushing noise came from something behind her and to her left that she could not see, yet somehow it’s dry steady coughing filled her throat with dry cool air.  She clamped down on a plastic breathing tube and fought the nagging urge to vomit.  She felt a cool dry cotton fabric in her fists, and the top of her knuckles stung with the clenching and unclenching of her fists.  Salty tears stung the corners of her eyes and ran down the corners of her face and into her ears.  She hated that.  Could not stand water getting into her ears.  Her breathing came in short gasps as the ventilator attempted to keep up with the pounding of her heart rate.  Her temples throbbed, and she felt unpleasantly wet.  Crimson embarrassment flushed her sweating brow as she thought in horror, “Oh no, I hope I didn’t wet the…”

A door in the room pushed open, and sudden light flared from the boxed recessed panel overhead.  Maeven attempted to shield her eyes from the stabbing glare but found that her wrists were bound with a short tether.

“Oh, my God!” A female voice shrilled off to her right, just beyond the angle of the track curtain.

“Serita, get in here.  Room 203.  Stat!  I need some orderlies and new linens.  The patient is bleeding out.  Notify Dr. Corsi.  Quickly!”

Maeven winced and squinted.  Feeling disoriented to be suddenly in a sterile white hospital room, blank lid-less TV monitor bolted on a pivoting arm from the corner, the ubiquitous faux wood-grain wardrobe cabinet, and single uncomfortable guest chair, with broad dove grey material matching the window drawn curtains.  The nurse, a woman in her early to mid-twenties, appeared over her, her brow furrowed, but heroically attempted to smooth the worry lines out into a comforting smile.

“Welcome back, sleepyhead,” she brushed Maeven’s brow with soft cool fingers, slightly pushing an aberrant dark curl away from her field of vision.  “We’ll get you cleaned up in a jiffy.”

She turned her head and her worry lines returned as she shouted over her shoulder, “Sereta!  Dangit!”

Eyes turned again back down to Maeven as she continues to stroke her forehead and temples.

The pneumatic piston on the hospital room door wheezed as another two persons entered the tiny room, pushing a gurney.  Maeven struggled to look downward, but the breathing tube made it painful to do so.

“We’re gonna get you patched up, girl. Don’t you worry.”

Two male orderlies, a black man, and a Caucasian man looking to be in their late twenties to early thirties came up to the bedside and the nurse pivoted out of their way.  Maeven rolled her eyes, her embarrassment spiking, and her heart monitors signifying it with an increase in her pulse as the orderlies peeled back her cover blanket.

Blood soaked and saturated the sheets, soaking her thighs and hips and buttocks.

“Untimely, time of the month?” one of the orderlies smirked, to which the nurse barked a curt but firm “Shut up, you idiot!” in reply.

The black orderly gave his compatriot a hard glare and growled, “That mouth of yours is gonna feel pretty bad, if you don’t shut it, right now.”

“Where is she bleeding?  This is a lot of blood,” the voice of another female woman asked, as the two orderlies put on their latex gloves, preparing to remove the bloodied sheets and thin cotton and plastic absorbent pad under her buttocks.

“We don’t know yet,” the first nurse, most likely the night charge nurse, answered quickly, “Guys, she’s gonna need some privacy.  Take those sheets to the laundry.  Sereta and I will roll her onto the gurney and get her checked out.  Wheel that trauma cabinet over here.  Sereta, gloves, please.  I need the blue nitrile ones.  Tell the desk to see if they can reach Dr. Corsi, tell him his patient is awake.”

The two men peeled the sheet carefully back and away, doing there level best not to spill blood on the mattress and floor, catching the wet sheet with a further unwrapped cotton and plastic bed liner.  Which they unceremoniously dumped into a hazardous dirty linens hamper with a foot pedal that lifted off its plastic cover.  The half-cover thin gown barely covered Maeven’s pelvis and upper thighs, but was soaked along the edges and would have to be removed as well.  Sereta shooed the orderlies back and grabbed the privacy curtain drawing it around the bedside just shy of the open linens hamper.

“We’ll buzz you when we’re ready, guys.  Now do as Judy told you.”

The two orderlies left the room, and Maeven’s eyes roved the ceiling, finding Judy-the-charge-nurse’s face, doing her best to express her gratitude for the last vestige of privacy.  Sereta appeared over her as well, as she tried to mouth a ‘thank you’ but the tubing prevented it.  Sereta smiled sweetly at her, “Hush, dear.  We’ll take care of you,” and she looked over at the side monitor screen checking her patient’s vital readings.

“BP’s 95 over 61, not good but better than it was a few minutes ago when the alarms went off.”

They carefully lifted her gown peering underneath, for a minute or so and then looked back at her.

“Was she moved up in the bed at all?”

“No.  Absolutely not.  No one’s been in here since I came on my shift at seven.”

Judy-the-charge-nurse slid her gloved hand behind Maeven’s shoulder and lifted her slightly upward, unfastening the top snap of the hospital gown, freeing her shoulder from a sleeve, and then freeing the other.  Sereta and Judy carefully peeled away the gown and wrapped it in another cotton plastic pad, and tossed it into the hamper and closed the lid.

With cotton gauze and moist antiseptic towelettes, they cleared away the blood and used disposable sponges and warm water to gently bathe the top of her body.

“This does not appear to be her monthly visitor.  But I cannot tell where this is coming from.”

“Ready to roll her over?”

“I think we should,”

And they turned to Maeven, who felt like a guppy in a fishbowl between two cats, as they talked over her.

“Sweetie, we’re gonna have to turn you over on your side to see where you’re wounded, okay?”

Maeven tried to answer, forgetting the intubation, but only managed to squeak.

Nurse Judy extended the flexible tubing over the top back head of the bed, allow them enough slack to make the reposition feasible.  Sereta came around on the other side and untied her wrist from the bed railing and unwrapped another bed liner napkin and unfolded it, tucking the edge of it under the blood-saturated one.  She helped Maeven pull her arm across her body and grasp the railing on the right side of the bed.  Together she and Nurse Judy pivoted and shifted Maeven into a side turn and steadying her, looked down the back of her, searching for the source of the wound flow.  Pink welts striated the back of her right thigh, which they wiped at with sterilized gauze and moist towelettes, clearing the blood away, but strangely locating no wound capable of producing as much blood as had been present.  Together they thoroughly cleaned the back of her thighs and buttocks area and lower back where the blood had pooled into the bed napkin.  They cleared her, with cool sterile liquid, that slightly stung and dried quickly, but smelled of astringent.  A light lotion and powder were applied which felt good and emollient, to the soreness in her back.

“BP’s climbing.  110 over 70.  This makes absolutely no sense.  I cannot find a wound on her.  There is redness when her pressure points have pressed into the mattress, but that is normal for a person in a coma as long as she’s been down.  Bedsore prevention maintenance, though.  Wouldn’t want these to get any worse.”

The pneumatic huff of the hospital room sounded again and another nurse beeped from the bedside intercom speaker.

“Judy, Dr. Corsi, asked about his patient.  Said if she’s doing well and her vitals are good, he’d be by to see her first thing in the morning.”

“BP seems to be heading back to normal, but her pulse is getting stronger but…  Is he still on the line, Colleen?”

“Yes, on line 4,” the reply came back.

“Better let me talk to him.  I’ll be right there.”

“Got it.”

A young nurse approached the bedside from around the curtain.

“Can I help?”

She wore a pink patterned top, what hospital staff traditionally referred to as a candy striper, and Judy nodded.

“Perfect timing, Dora.  Yes, help Serena get miss Maeven her into a new gown and change these linens, and I’ll send the boys back in to take her down to the examination lab.  Doc may want a CT run and a hemostat analysis.  He’s on four and I’ll let him know what we’ve got.  Glove up, dearie.  It’s gonna be another long night.”

With that she stepped around the bedside, pushing the IV pole and Medi-Stat monitor out of the way so that they could get the gurney aligned with the bed.  Dora donned some disposable latex gloves and moved to the bedside, smiling down at Maeven.

“How we doin’, sweetheart?  You hangin’ in there?”

Maeven nodded as best as she could, drawing in a deep breath, yet struggling with the tube and face mask covering her nose and chin.

Both Dora and Sereta glanced again at the monitor and watched the numbers and pinging heart rate monitor signifying its systolic and diastolic climb and fall.  Her pulse was beginning to even out to a steady lub-dub, lub-dub rhythm as she relaxed as Maeven tried to calm her breathing.  Her throat was parched, she could use some cool ice water.  Ice.

Her eyes, widened with the memory and her pulse and breathing suddenly quickened and shot up.  She remembered where she had been before…

***

Deep in the cave beneath the falls, we all stared in wonder at the images that had spun outward from James’s body as he and Maeven entered the central Ghost Pool.  Hanokh had told Mason and me that these were Calling Waters, and I had not understood what he’d meant by that at the time, but I was beginning to.

I knew then that James must be projecting an experience he had, from a terrible ordeal in the Surface World.  How much of this was experience and how much was fiction, I could not tell, having known James for only such a short time.  My guess was that it was real enough to him, and I should take it at face value.  We often give ourselves to the illusion that we have things under control, only to realize and be confronted with realities that are clearly beyond it.  It is in these times when we feel the most helpless that we finally are made to recognize the Hand of Providence moving in and behind the scenes of our lives working all things to our betterment and our good.  Even things we do without conscious effort as a matter of routine responsibility.  He moves, we learn and we listen.  All things, tragedy, triumph, loss, and gain, can be molded and shaped by our Father’s Hand to bring forth good into our lives.  A greater good.  Not sought after in the strength and by the will of man, but of one tied to the Heavenly Will, and according to His working out our own salvation from among the bared teeth of this life, cursed by our progenitors, but redeemed by a Savior committed to help us realize that we do not walk through those valleys and under that darkness alone.

Having been so stirred and moved by the experience of witnessing James’s story, we all at first failed to realize that something else had happened while our minds and focus were within the bounds of the story.

Maeven was no longer in the water of the pool with James being held within his arms.  She was gone.  Vanished.  Missing.

***

Outside of the frozen mouth of the falls, standing guard along the broken columns of ice and the crushed spikes driven through the ice berm of snow where the base of the falls had flash-frozen, the young woman who had stood up for me when it seemed the others might lose confidence in my calling to lead the party, watched with the two men who had joined the procession across the lake to convey Maeven to base of the Trathorn Falls.  They had taken sentry posts to ensure no more of the vermin Moon Sprite brood showed up to corner us in the caves.  Three gaping holes had been broken through the ice curtain and the bodies of the dead Moon Sprites and their young had flowed through these breaks, drawn by some unimaginable pull back into the pits from which they had emerged.  Like tendrils of smoke, these unseen powers had lingered and eventually dissipated into the cool wind, leaving only a sort of unidentifiable but sweet fragrance in the air next to the cliff base.  It smelled like some sort of incense one might associate with heated essential oils or fragrant candles, but it was not cloying or overbearing, but evocative of a serene and clean environment one might associate with a spa setting, under a warm towel.  As it was breathed in it seemed to clear the mind, and soothe the spirit.

A rarely referenced verse from the Ancient Text rose to my mind as we had parted from these three upon carrying Maeven into the caves, and perhaps it is worth adding into this chronicle of our quest at this point, since James’s story was so fresh and happening concurrently, to these three who experienced our company coming together to serve and save a life of one of our own.

“15 Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. 16 To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” [2 Corinthians 2:15-16 NLT]

We, they and the others who had gone back across the lake to fetch the large log, per Maeven’s wish, were putting our lives at risk to love and assist her in a desperate attempt to save her life, by a means, we did not understand.  Another verse arises to my mind akin to this and reads thus:

“13 “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13 CSB]

We had no certain idea of what the fragrant smoke might signify in the Mid-World lands, but if these verses were any indication of the supreme authority behind our joined and shared cause, that fragrance might just signify that our quest received a blessing from above all that is or ever was.

 

Passages – Chapter 42

Standing at the frozen base of the Trathorn Falls, we all gathered around the sled bearing Maeven.  She was so pale that I feared it was already too late for her, yet her mouth moved to form words that lacked sound.  She breathed so shallowly, that there was barely enough breath behind her moving lips to give tone or timber to what she struggled to say, but I leaned down close, taking her hand, trying to reassure her that we had brought her where she desired to go.  The cold and ice bruised her lips into a gray-blue, yet I rubbed her hands trying to get the circulation flowing again as much as I could.  Her eyes flickered unfocused and then focused on me for the briefest of seconds, and though it must have cost her a great deal of pain, she fumbled with my fingers and hissed what little words she could, “Did,” she swallowed with difficulty, “they bring the branch?”

“Maeven, we don’t need the log, we are near the falls and will go into the caves and the pools.  The Pearl is still on the ice and it is frozen solid.”

With a hard swallow, she winced and said, “Bring the branch.”  Her eyes pleading with mine.

I looked up at Dominic and Matthew and Mason, and now Will who had recovered enough to climb off of the sled, but stood aloof from us and very quiet.

“Guys, we’d better do as she says,” I looked to each of them.  “How fast can you guys go get it and bring it to the falls?”

Matthew hung his fingers in his belt and roused by my words, over the worry and concern he felt for Maeven, he said, “We’ve got this.  Just make her better.”

Mason nodded in agreement and Dominic and Will turned to go with them, trotting away across the ice towards the distant place where they’d last left it.

“James and Begglar, we’d better haul her up.  The ice sheets are broken and the way is treacherous, be careful not to slip or drop the sled.  Nell and Christie, please help steady Maeven on the sled, one on each side so she doesn’t roll off.  She is tied somewhat but we cannot be too careful.  I’ll grab the front and you two grab the runners on each side.

We hoisted Maeven and carefully made our way over the strewn colonnades of it, the lip of the cavern is just four to five feet in.  The lake flash froze so there is a thick spongy carpet of wet green moss along the floor until the rock takes over.  The pools are about fifteen to twenty feet in, but there is one, in particular, we need to get to.  Watch that you do not step into one of the black pools.  We were warned about them.  Hurry now, but be careful doing so.”

We lifted Maeven and the sled over the scraped ice where the Moon Sprite bodies had been dragged and rammed into the columns of ice.  The mouth of the falls looked like a sinister white-bearded Santa Claus with broken and jagged teeth and just a few black gaping gaps in its clenched, sneering jaws.  Clearly, this Santa was more suited to giving out only shovel loads of coal rather than the latest toys and gadgets.

Once inside, beneath the daggered ceiling of icicles and frosted knuckles that had not collapsed when Mason and I were contending with the pursuing Moon Sprite children, James, Begglar and I set the sled down for a quick breather.  The ice berm we had climbed over had cracked, and the large pieces tumbled and clinked, but miraculously we had not lost our footing.  Christie quickly checked Maeven’s wound binding in the bluish half-light as much as she was able, and strove to warm her hands and other leg by rubbing them, but Maeven’s skin was feeling cooler and cooler to the touch.

“What’s next?” Christie pivoted on her heels as she knelt by Maeven, tears of desperation forming in her eyes as she looked up at me, “I’m losing her.  Please hurry!”

We picked up the sled serving as a litter again and trudged forward, towards the tunnel bend where we’d encountered our reclusive host when Mason and I first entered.

The topaz color of the water had darkened, and the wash of light rings on the ceiling of the cave merged, expanded, collapsed and folded into themselves with an eerie sort of light, as the outside world beyond the cave began to brighten with the glowing edge of the dawn.

Nell walked up to the water’s edge, staring into the swirling mix of darkling colors beginning to take shape, form, and definition while continuing to undulate and swirl.

“It is beginning,” she said, without explanation as she stared into the watery depth as something far deeper below began to bubble and froth and wisps of black oily tendrils cast a metallic sheen across the surface of the water.

James and Begglar started to lay their end of Maeven’s litter down next to this pool that occupied Nell’s fascination, but I spoke up.

“No!  Not this one.  The one we want is further inside, along the edge of the falls.  This one is full of death.  I inclined my head to a far rounded corner of the pool that had been partially hidden in shadow.  The robed skeletal remains of a person hung halfway in and halfway out of the water, its hands withered but still clawing at the gravel at the edge of the pool where it once sought refuge and retreat.  It’s threadbare and ragged clothes moldered and mildewed in a corner beyond its reach, not covered by dust and some viscous ooze, with a few white-capped mushrooms grew out of the folds in the clothes, somehow surviving and thriving after its former occupant’s demise.

“Eew gross!” Christie exclaimed upon seeing the body and the decomposing clothes, “What happened to that guy?”

“I think we just fought and killed a few of what happened,” I conjectured, as we continued on past the edge of the blackening pool.

The front-falls-end of the pool was too narrow and covered by frost to safely carry Maeven through to the other pool beyond, so we were obliged to carry her deeper into the cavern, where the former priestly occupants had maintained a sort of makeshift apartment within the caves.  The ground had been scored and tiled with rough paver stones made of slate and limestone rock not typically present within this type of granite grotto.  Other shallow water pools ran deeper into the cavern under the lowering cave ceiling, and in the torchlight, we could see the shallow bottom of stone and cave silt.  Those waters were still and seemed not to be contaminated by the oil slick and black striations of the deeper pool.  These were more of a wading variety and probably supplied by seepage from the river falls above.

Many other passages and stone corridors branched off the main shelf hollow beneath the frozen falls, but the glow of the dawn’s edge managed to extend into the cave through the broken and jagged holes in the ice curtain left by the pummeling of the dead Moon Sprites as they were mysteriously consigned back into the mysterious pools from which they arose.

Begglar carried the back end of the sled and James, the taller, carried the front end maintaining the incline of the wound over Maeven’s heart.  We waded into the water of the declivity, careful not to let Maeven roll with the bearing as we trudged through the deeper beige mud and silt along the bottom.  Christie and Nell bore the torches Mason and I had lit while exploring the cave before and the orange and yellow flames sparkled and danced up the water, and flickered with stretching and spinning shadows along the ceiling sparkling in the quartz and calcite dripping from the myriad needles of stalactites overhead.  A chandelier of mid-sized and tiny daggers.  Columns formed from the older stalactites that had joined their twin stalagmites building like rising mushrooms from the floor rock-strewn floor below.

We ascended dripping and wet, the beige mud sliding from our calves and feet as we topped the land bridge shore on the other side.  Tiny insect-like creatures skittered away scuttling into the darkness, their carapaces pale and greyish white with a yellow cast from our firelight.  These may have been a sort of crayfish, but their scattering made positive identification too difficult to discern.  Dust gathered and caked our feet as we climbed upon a raised stone rib of rock pitted with small pits of mud.  Nell led the way ahead and we could see the central pool just ahead, its water catching the wavering rays of our firelight.  Beyond and deeper into the cave shelf, along the channel, we could hear the roar of falling water, and a grayish amber light illumined the distant pool revealing a great deal of plunging water pouring down into the underground basin from a shaft opening above it.  The central pool and our desired location barely rippled but seemed to have some luminesce coming from below with a greenish-blue tint.  Formation of some twisting images reflected upon its surface, much like that of the first pool we had encountered, and Nell had remarked upon.  A faint sort of mist rose from the water’s surface and it was difficult to tell whether the shimmering images were reflections if this hanging mist and vapor or of something more mysterious still.

We worked our way further back onto a narrow shoreline of about six feet in dept before the rock formations rose and slanted upward to the ceiling like roots attached to the massive boles of a stand of mangrove trees.  Begglar and James carefully eased the sled pallet down along the dusty shoreline and Christie and I set about untying Maeven from the cords and rough netting that typically secured the packed cargo upon the sled.  Christie had loosed the tourniquet and stowed Maeven’s personal pack to the side of her.  She unwrapped the water bladder she had used to seal the wound, and James knelt on hands and knees preparing to lift Maeven into the water.

“I am so worried that she might bleed out,” Christie said, looking from the paleness of Maeven’s skin and up to me.

“Not everything that happens here works as it does in the Surface World,” Nell whispered softly, “Some things operate by laws governing this land alone and everything in it.  Maeven, herself had a difficult time grasping some of them as well, her being from the Surface World, as you are.  Giving up some ways of thinking come hard for most people, but some things need to be unlearned before new knowledge can be gained.  Just trust in the One, dear.  He loves Maeven too.”

Christie looked from me to Nell and then back to me again, nodding, a tear coursing down her cheek with the strain of releasing Maeven into this strange sort of care we had of putting her into a dark cave pool.  Something that would prove fatal to anyone attempting it in the Surface World.  It was why those attempting and succeeding in suicide were all too often found in dead in their own bloody bathwater.  Water draws from a wound the lifeblood and keeps it from being able to coagulate and clot and close up the severed vessels.  Blood loss causes the victims to slowly fall asleep unaware of their final moments of life as they exsanguinate.

Suddenly the water’s surface, once smooth, serene and calm as glass, began to ripple as if something gently touched its surface somewhere out into the center of the pool some twelve feet out from the edge of the shore.  Something was stirring and brushing the surface of the water, like an invisible wind that we neither felt nor saw, save in the concentric rings that rippled towards the shore.

James came up from his knees, resting his weight upon the front balls of his feet, his hand supporting Maeven’s back as he gathered her into his arms.  Christie and I gently lifted her pelvis and bent knees upward, following James as he stood up with her, bearing most of the weight of her small but compact frame, and we shifted her legs over his other arm so as not to put pressure on the gash wound, now dripping with more of her lifeblood.

With pained and fearful expressions we looked from one to the other and back at Maeven.  Her lips were nearly grey, and her mouth was slightly parted…and she wasn’t breathing.

Oh dear God!  She wasn’t breathing.

Panicked Christie and I realized in the same moment that we may already have gone past the point of resuscitation.

“Nell?!  Maeven, she’s…oh God!  Dear God no!” Christie began to weep copiously and James bore an expression of pained shock, tears also coursing down his cheeks and into his short beard, as he we