The well was not as I thought it would be. As I slid off the rusted and slimy grating I tumbled and smacked down on a bed of wet moss about seven or eight feet below. The moss was moist, thick and sponge-like–sodden and very warm, almost hot, but not to the degree of scalding.
I heard Nem hail me from above and shouted back at him.
“Why have you done this to me?!”
He called back, “I have committed you to a course of action, Mr. O’Brian.”
We were back to that again, I thought in annoyance. He knows my name.
I responded in mock laughter, my irritation with him wearing no mask in the hollow, resentful chuckle.
“So what do I do now that you’ve trapped me down here?! And why is this moss bed so hot?! I thought this was a well?”
“It was a hot springs bath, Mr. O’Brian. It once was used by the women of the city and had large thick curtains that hung from these surrounding columns for privacy.”
Incredulous, I called back, “You’ve locked me in the drain of a bathtub?! Why on earth would you do something like this? What if this hot spring had been filled with scalding water?! You would have boiled me alive?!”
“The water has long since drained out of it. Despite what you may think, I was not trying to kill you, Mr. O’Brian. I’m trying to save Azragoth and our people from the thing that has been following you, stalking you invisibly and is now undermining the foundations of this city.”
I shook my head in amazement, his words registering with a growing uneasiness.
“Do you mean to tell me, you’ve locked me down here with some sort of creature. One that I did not know was following us?”
“Mr. O’Brian, that creature has found its way into the caverns that are buried deep below the foundations of this city. And that creature has begun to dig through the foundation walls, and will ultimately breach the reservoir of wet filth that is stored in the cavities within the front facing walls. When that happens, Azragoth will have lost its secret advantage against a full-frontal assault of the Xarmnian armies. They will soon learn that Azragoth is not a dead and forgotten city as they once thought. We believe that even now they may already suspect it. Further, if that creature breeches those filth-filled cavities, it will contaminate and deluge our only other means of escape from the city. Surely, you do not think that we still use the old roads to go to and from Azragoth?”
No, I did not. Like everyone else I had believed Azragoth had become a ghost town. I had no cause to believe otherwise before we were let into the inner walls. Even then, I had not considered the method in which this secret inner city might reach the outside world without revealing themselves. Of course, it would have to be by means of some sort of underground tunnel system. And those of us arriving as unknown strangers into Azragoth would not be entrusted to be shown and led through the secret ways.
Pondering this, I shouted back up to Nem, “What am I supposed to do now?”
“I have returned the honor sword to you. You must seek the answers to those questions from within yourself. You have everything you need to face and defeat this creature. All you lack is the will and the joining of your being into wholeness to experience the quickening once more. You said it yourself. You Surface Worlders struggle with dividing the components of your being. You were given the Breath of Life. You were designed to be expressed as a whole being and not think of yourself with double-mindedness. Join your whole being by faith into The Vine and you will experience the quickening again. You are body, soul and spirit. These are designed to function together as one. Let your spirit guide you with knowledge of what is true. You have been re-awakened for this purpose. Commit your soul–your mind will and emotions—to being the leader you are called to be. Engage it with your passions. Set your heart upon it by faith, in the guidance that comes by the knowledge delivered to you in your spirit. And finally, join action to these and set your body in motion to perform the tasks you are given. In this you will find the quickening. When you are wholly aligned in spirit, mind and body. When you have done this, you will find the nature of that honor sword you bear to be imbued with a light that will shine in the darkness, and aid you in doing what needs to be done.”
I could feel the hint of something stirring within me as Nem spoke these words of guidance. A bolstering affirmation, and the rise of memories surfacing from a past I had tried to bury under a layer of loss and grief so long ago. These admonishments were the key to my surviving the next few hours, and I knew it. Nem had committed me, whether I wanted to be or not, to facing this unknown, and invisible demon, so that I could not only save myself and my company and the people of the city of Azragoth, but rise to become the warrior I needed to be once more.
I called to Nem, unsure if he was still there or within hearing distance.
“Yes, Mr. O’Brian. I am still here.”
“I know I needed this.”
There was silence, but I continued.
“I know you did what you had to do for Azragoth, and for the loyalty you have for its people.”
“I know you owe us interloping Surface Worlders nothing, and that we have brought a threat to your city that we–no I–am responsible for. But a little warning would have been nice.”
A pause ensued and then Nem responded, “I did not have the luxury of brooking a refusal.”
“Both Ezra and I publicly received your commitment to be responsible for your people and anything done that might threaten our city and its secrets. Take it as you may, but we considered that as much of an advanced warning as we could give to you. Your followers and our citizens witnessed your response and we are merely holding you to that commitment. Your former reputation, and eye-witness accounts of past exploits also tell me that you once were equal to this task of ridding us of this hidden creature, so I have every confidence that you can do this for us as well. It is why we are willing to aid you and your company. We are serving you by giving your company food, shelter, supplies and training . Now you are serving us, especially since you brought this threat upon us all.”
“Fair enough,” I assented, “So where am I supposed to find this creature and how will I recognize it?”
“When you find the oneness within your being, the honor sword will guide you to it. Follow the water tunnels of The Cauldron. The hot vents will be on your left and the cold streams will be to your right. These underground streams were once joined to make the scalding water bearable for bathing. The bearing wall that once dammed up and held the water was broken through.”
“Wait a minute. What did you call this place?”
“The Cauldron. It is just a name the founders gave it, when they were laying the foundations of the city and quarrying the rocky cliffside to bear it. The hot spring was mineral rich but too hot to be anything that could service the water supply to the city, so underground channels were dug to route the cold waters of the Trathorn to blend with this natural stream and form a unique bathing fountain. They used sluice controls to feed the cold water in and manage the temperature of the pool. The fountain basin and pavilion were built above it, and the city then had a public bath. The affluent of the city had access to it, but for a fee, visitors could pay to use it.”
“Surely this is not how you get in and out of the city?”
“Of course not. This bath was the closest way in to where we think the creature might be now.”
My pulse quickened, realizing that a confrontation with the creature could be imminent.
“What does it look like?”
“None of us have seen it. It is presently invisible.”
That bit of information did nothing to slow my pulse, but rather raised my suspicious ire.
“Then how do you know there is even anything down here?!”
“We sense it. And since I am the rebuilding architect of this city, I and my builders have noticed a pattern in the destruction happening below. Structural cracks are appearing in the inner city wall. The ground beneath is being undermined. The weaknesses follow the paths of the tunnel system we have mapped for this city. Clearly something big is moving through them underneath us. The damage being down is not due to a natural settling that comes over time. It happens at irregular intervals and within hours of each other. These started with the arrival of your company.”
He let me ponder that a moment.
“The creature would not have been able to follow you through the sally-port entrance. The stairwell is too narrow and the door closed and was locked after the last of your company entered. This creature would have had to have found another way in. The inner walls are coated with pitch, so it could not have climbed over the walls without having revealed itself. Invisible or not, the black substance would reveal its form. Light-benders can be coated and exposed.”
“What causes you to believe this creature is big?”
“Now that IS a foolish question, Mr. O’Brian. I am surprised at you.”
“I am in an underground pit with an invisible creature about to find and devour me, if I cannot get the quickening back. Pardon me if I’m not thinking clearly here.”
“Point taken. The creature would have to be of substantial size, and have powerful arms and claws to be able to dig through as much rock and dirt as would be needed below to impact what is going on with our structures above. Moving that volume of earth at such a rate could only mean that this thing is of substantial size.”
“But how can you be certain that it is invisible if it has been underground? When would you have had occasion to see it? We have only been in Azragoth a few days now.”
“Did you think you were not seen coming in the back way? Did you think we were so surprised when Maeven announced that not only Begglar and his family had arrived but that a party of Surface Worlders had joined them?”
“The inner bridges that you crossed getting here were damaged by something far heavier than horses passing over them. Your company were being pursued by Xarmnian dogs, trained to track, sniff out, hunt down and kill anyone their masters directed them to. You surely didn’t think Maeven’s story about the family of skunks would stop such trained killers, did you? That creature following you has kept them at bay. The beasts are killers but not stupid. It may be invisible but it still has a scent those dogs recognize and associate with danger. That thing may be the only reason you were not overtaken in the backwoods before now.”
“But wouldn’t Maeven have…”
“Maeven is a Surface Worlder. She is family by adoption but she was not born here with the sense of this land that we know intuitively. She is immune to some of the things that would fell us, but not to the things coming from her birth world that would naturally deceive your kind. It seems that we both recognize and get a sense of the otherness that is different from our worlds. That is why we allow Surface Worlders here. They can perceive what we cannot, and we perceive what they cannot. There is no knowing why this should be, but it is.”
I heard him clear his throat.
“Mister O’Brian, it seems to me that you are stalling for time which you do not have. It is far better that you attend to what you need to and then find this creature before you let it find you.”
“Nem, if I succeed in this, how will I get out of these tunnels? How will I know how to get back into the city?”
Nem was quiet. So quiet that for a moment I thought he had already left me.
“You have heard us speak of The Eagle, have you not?”
“I have. I was told he and others went to the mountains to get a sense of the troop movements of the Xarmnian and Capitalian armies being mobilized because of their Builder Stones. I was also told that your counsel expects him back any day now.”
“I am now free to tell you that they have returned, but they are being kept outside of the city.”
“Kept out? Why?”
“They are guarding the underground entrance. Ensuring that the beast below does not escape capture.”
“Can they kill it?”
“This creature is bound to you. You must expose it, and only then may it be subdued and killed.”
“What about Maeven, and her path forward?”
“Maeven and any others that follow you will not survive if they follow you as you are. We only have confidence in entrusting her safety within your quest, if we know that you are being led and quickened within. Every good leader must first become a faithful follower and earn the honor of that position. But there is no time to discuss this further. You have what is needed, so I will now take my leave of you, O’Brian. I wish you all success. Mark well what I have told you. Find the wellspring of your spirit, abide in the One, and you will find both resolve and empowerment to do that which must be done.”
And with those words, he left me to prepare myself for what was coming.
The air in the pit around me was hot and humid, smelling of a pungency I could not identify. Though the warm moss hugged at my form, beckoning me into despairing oblivion, I knew I could give no more place to uncertainty. I had to choose to fight this beast, to resist it, calling upon the authority of the One who called me to this quest.
I cleared the scabbard of the honor sword and my feet found some degree of shaky footing upon smooth rocks below. A weak light effused the water well, such that I could just see the broken edges of the retaining wall before me, and beyond a pitch black darkness, that threatened to envelop my every sense of balance and direction should I dare to proceed further.
But like Nem said, I had no choice.
As I’ve stated before, in this land and on this quest you all will see and experience things that may be beyond what you’ve come to experience as naturally occurring in the Surface World. Sentient and malevolent creatures moving invisibly in the Surface World on a spiritual plane, take on a pernicious physicality here.
An echo may sound similar to the voice of origin, but there are differences in tone and quality as it stretches, reverberates and bounces back to the hearers. It is the persistent expectation of sameness to the Surface World that will cause some to falter and feel unstable and insecure here. I know. I went through it myself many years ago. That is why I persist in telling all of you that the transcendent Truth that holds all together is the Ancient Text, the Word of the Creator. That is why I hold so fiercely to it. Without the study, knowledge, and remembrance of the Ancient Text, there can be no quickening.
The Koine Greek word [ζῳοποιέω], from the language in which the text was written, is pronounced, Zoe-ah-poi-A-O. The word means to cause something to arouse to life by supernatural power. Honor swords, unlike standard weaponry, are connected to covenant, and by that connection, it can be imbued with power so long as it serves under that covenant. The very words of the Ancient Text are living and powerful, because of the Source from which they arose and were brought together. They revealed the will of the One as they do the purposes of the One. The Ancient Text, in the Psalmist’s passage states:
“I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me. … I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts. … Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. … I [am] small and despised: [yet] do not I forget thy precepts. … Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy lovingkindness. … I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways [are] before thee. … Let thine hand help me; for I have chosen thy precepts.” [Psalm 119:93, 100, 104, 141, 159, 168, 173 KJV]
In this mid-world, warfare is engaged with both the mind and the body and the spirit unified and battling together. The human enemies may be fought with mind and body, but the creatures drawn from the netherworld will tear you mentally apart if you are not prepared for them. The Surface World has a barrier that they cannot cross, and their limits are only within the power of suggestion and to the level in which a human may yield to their influence.
From the beginning of this quest, there has been a voice within me, sounding to my mind as if it was speaking in my own voice. “Give up”, it tells me. “You are not worthy to lead. You are leading others to their death. You cannot let yourself feel again. Remember what happened last time. You are not worthy of the sword you hold, or this place you wish to get to. You are as much a butcher, as the ones you dare to resist. The stories you seek to mend will no longer burn for you. When the hosts bearing the storied flames realize who you are, there will be no forgiveness for the ways in which you abandoned and betrayed them. There can be no forgiving what you have done. This quest is hopeless. Go back to your exile. Let someone else lead.”
Those voices, I knew were spoken by the enemies of my mission and my calling. If the One who called me to this journey, chose me, then no other choice could have been made. He chooses wisely. Who am I to resist Him? I had allowed those voices to speak to me, and weaken my commitment, and abandon my resolve. It was not my strength of character that I needed now. It was His.
“24 Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” [1Th 5:24 NASB]
I had often enough heard and spoken those words and admonished others with them, but I failed to let them gain purchase within me. As weak and as inadequate as I may be, He did not require my own might. Only my willingness to choose to do as He asks. To listen to the Spirit continually speaking to my spirit and allow that communion and fellowship to take place by yielding my doubts, and placing confidence and trust in Him to see this through.
When my decision and release came, I found my hand moving to the hilt of the honor sword that hung by my side.
I gripped its warming handle, and with my other hand found the bloodline and uncoiled it from the cross-guard it had been wound around. In my past days, I had fought with many swords and weaponry. I had heard of honor swords, but never had the occasion to bear one, before this quest.
I knew that the honor sword could be roused to life for two reasons. Some unknown enemy of inhuman origin was drawing near. And the Word being called to memory, by one connected to a covenant sword would cause that sword to respond in the needed moment for wielding in both visible and invisible conflict.
I gathered the bloodline sash and carefully wound it around my forearm, careful not to constrict the blood flow, but secure enough to not easily lose the weapon as I drew it forth.
For so long, I lived in the Surface World in a sort of sleepwalking state and it took me quite some time before I gained an awareness that roused me into full wakefulness. Nem was correct, in his assessment of me. I was like one who had slept for way too long and was only now coming to full wakefulness. The words of the Ancient Text, came to my mind unbidden, as I unsheathed the blade.
“Besides this, since you know the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is nearly over, and the day is near; so let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” [Romans 13:11-12 CSB]
As I joined these words to my thoughts, the doubts that had so plagued me began to fall away and flee. I no longer heard them in my mind in the pitch and timber with which I recognized my own voice, but instead spoken in some alien, guttural language, with a spitting hatred that I could feel scorch me even as it fled and dissipated from the truth displacing it.
Another verse presented itself:
“29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” [Mat 11:29-30 NLT]
As I believed in and embraced the words of the truth, and permitted hope to enter, my mind began to clear, and the weight of the responsibility of finding leadership qualities within myself, seem to lift from my shoulders.
Before me, the edges of the broken cistern wall became more distinct to my eyes, as if I had been gradually gifted with some degree of night vision. In the suffused light from the grated drain gate above me, the blade of the honor sword seemed to gleam more brightly. Courage stirred within me. And hope began to flower again in what I had believed to be the blighted soil of my soul.
The time for words were over. I knew what my spirit was telling me. I had at last chosen to put my trust in the foreknowledge of the One who called me. It was now time to commit to wholeness, and put my heart right and my hands to the plow. He would do through me what I could not. It was time to no longer view myself as the prey. It was time to plunge into the darkness ahead of me and become the hunter.
“Lying creature beware!”, I said out loud to the darkness, giving voice to my commitment, as I carefully stepped across the scree and over broken stones entering the tunnels below the city, “I am coming for you.”
The naked blade of the honor sword, became sheathed in a silverish light and I knew—the quickening had returned to me once more.