“Mattox!” I yelled, and reached for my honor sword, bearing it out with a metallic ring.
The sword did not ignite as it had before, but I took no notice of this as I swung the blade upward in a defense position, a precursory move easily shifted into an assault posture.
“This man is a traitor! I do not know what he has told you to bewitch you all, but he is a liar and an agent of the Xarmnian Protectorate! He is quite possibly the very reason you find them very near the back way.”
Swords and various other bladed weapons were drawn in response to my unsheathed blade, but they did not move to attack the man I accused, but rather their bearers stood together with their blades pointed at me in order to defend him.
The man who I had identified as Mattox held up his hand to still them and walked toward me amid a forest of blades, suddenly turned upward at rest position.
“That dubious honor is more likely yours and yours alone, Brian,” he spoke my name calmly as if doing so might placate me, and make my accusation seem to be a result of a mind that still had not recovered from the ordeal I had been through.
“These already know how completely I have severed all ties with Xarmnia and broken fellowship with my kinsmen. But, there is no time for this now,” he said under his breath, low enough for only me to hear without acknowledging my charge of prior personal experience to the larger crowd gathered around us in response to the warning of Xarmnians approaching the city from the secret back trails. He cast an accusing glance at Maeven and Christie, “They should have allowed me to see you sooner!” Then turned his steely-eyed, focus back to me. “All is not what it once was. Nor what it might seem to be. You have been away a long time. I am much surprised to see you as well. I thought you were dead.”
He handed me a weighted bag, with something round, slightly heavy and completely wrapped in cloth so that it could not be seen as he offered it to me.
“This belongs to you, as the spoils of your kill. You will need it when you eventually reach the Lake Country. Don’t reveal it to anyone and do not unwrap it except in private or with those in whom you have absolute trust.”
Anger flared and flashed in me, “Why should I take anything from your hand?! Keep it. I want nothing from you!”
“All the same, this is yours. Fairly won. It is essential if you hope to cross the great Lake of Cascale to reach the Woodlands beyond and then cross the plains before the Xarmnians field their armies. Even now that may already be too late, but it is your call to make.”
I lowered my sword, sheathed it and grudgingly took the wrapped parcel and thought to toss it away, but he grabbed my arm with a fisted gauntlet preventing me from doing so. Our eyes locked in a tension of wills.
“You do not wish to do that. This is highly valuable. Do not throw it away until you have learned what it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me there are preparations to be made before the Xarmnian Protectorate arrives and time is of the essence.”
Nem and Ezra approached us and could tell our meeting was tense and strained.
“Is there a problem here?”
Mattox released my arm, and I stepped back away from him, never taking my eyes off of him, lest he move for his own blade.
“Brian, or Mister O’Brian as I hear he is called now, and I have a history from before I came to Azragoth. A history from my former life as a Xarmnian general. We met, then, as enemies. Apparently, those memories are still very fresh in O’Brian’s mind and, given their violence, I am very doubtful that he is willing to accept the possibility that a man such as I was, could ever fully be changed and remade to be anything else.”
The claims made by those words could not easily gloss over the raw and painful memories and suffering that I endured under the orders, thugs and yes, under the steel of this man. The man I knew had a cruelness unlike any other I had ever known. It was hard to see him in any other and my mind balked and revolted at the thought. How could I extend forgiveness to such a man? Much less how could I ever join forces with such as he?
He was known to make terrifyingly visual statements to those he captured. To mess with their minds before throwing them in dungeons and oubliette cages, positioned within the sewer run-offs ditches beneath the cobblestone streets of Xarmnian cities. He also did this where his troops were quartered during their conquest marches, subduing and pursuing the resistance, conquering and pillaging town after town until they succumbed and paid tribute and swore fealty to the Xarmnian Overwatch.
They drove people out of their homes, took over their lands, burned their crops, slaughtered their animals, stole whatever valuables and family heirlooms these people had, and cast them out of the cities. Leaving them to starve and survive harsh winters, wet and rainy seasons, and dry, hot summers. These men under Mattox’s command waited for the worst possible weather, to carry-out their forcible eviction notices with no warning or inkling of who would be their next target. There were no appeals. If the Xarmnians were in town, they in effect were the law. No courts, no juries, just a forced sentencing before the Xarmnian in local command. The Xarmnian central governing structure had grown so powerful that no one individual could stand under its ire. There was no concept of individual rights. Everyone under Xarmnian rule served the collective because everyone was made to depend upon it to survive. This, in their minds, was the greater good. Whatever township or village dared to resist the Xarmnian collective, or dared to harbor a resistor without reporting them, lived on counted and borrowed time. And the Xarmnians would collect it back in due course, with terrible interest.
Mattox’s trademark demonstration was to enter a town in full battle armor, with a retinue of Xarmnian soldiers, and parade through the street, daring anyone to challenge or impede them. They would ride into the most heavily populated centers of the town or village and form a ring of soldiers around the perimeter of the crowd, blocking every street or alleyway, forcing the people to press into the center of the site for their “town’s demonstration”. Soldiers in armor would select, separate and stand behind children, their cruel hands resting on their shoulders, a vise-like grip, signifying a threat, daring the child to attempt to struggle and wrench free, forcing both parents and children alike to watch the demonstration.
Mattox was known to carry two tied baskets, which he removed from his warhorse and would set down in the middle of the circle for all of the captive audience to witness. A macabre theater in the round. From one basket he, with a metal sleeved gauntlet, would unfasten its catch and reach in and pull out a long, black, writhing venomous viper and cast it upon the ground. The crowd closest to the snake may try to move back away from it but would find that the press of the crowd behind would not allow them to do so. The leader or mayor of the town would be called forth, and if no one volunteered to identify themselves, someone at random would be selected. A burlap sack was then thrown to the ground and the man or woman was then told to pick it up. From the second basket, Mattox would reach in and draw out one of many mice. The interior of the basket was sheathed in a wire mesh so that these mice could not escape their basket enclosure. Mattox would then drop one or two mice into the burlap bag held by the leader of the town, and tell him to coax the snake into the bag he held so that the townsfolk would not be bitten. The serpent, he said had a regular diet of live mice and would sense them. Invariably the terrified bag holder would ask what if the snake attacked him or her. To which, Mattox consistently replied, “Then you had better hope it prefers the mice.”
The person would then be forced to try to collect the serpent and coax it into the porous bag, whimpering and repulsed, but carefully watched by the townsfolk as to whether their leader valued their lives, the lives of their children, or his own. In the course of the demonstration, Mattox would tell the terrified bag holder that if he allowed one or more mice to escape the bag he held, they had an even bigger bag that would hold one of the town’s children, for each mouse freed. The burlap bag would not contain the mice for very long, so the bag holder had to be quick about it.
For those town leaders that successfully captured and lured the venomous snake into the bag, Mattox would stride forth and take the bag from its erstwhile bearer, and hold it up for all to see. The bag would writhe and twist and jerk, as the terrified spectators looked on, tearfully imagining the fear of the trapped mice to be akin to their own.
“Let this be an example to you all,” Mattox would shout, “Xarmni is the serpent. Those who resist us are the mice. You are the witnesses to our power and what we can do. Pray that you never become the mice.” And with that he would throw the bag and its prey and predator conflict back into the serpent’s basket, to allow the snake to finish its meal in private. The soldiers would then hold the town leader and bind them in chains, and march them through the streets as an example that the leadership of the village had been overthrown. Then the leader would be forced to surrender his house and servants to Mattox and his men at arms, and the leader along with the leader’s spouse and children would be made to serve them as household domestic servants. As long as the leader and his family remained servile, they would be spared their lives. If they refused or resisted, they would be publicly hung from the city gates, their bodies left to dangle and rot over the heads of everyone coming into or going out of the town.
This was the kind of monster I was supposed to believe had a change of heart. A man who invented ways and means of cruelty. A favorite son of the High Court of Xarmni and their revered champion of Xarmnian might and conquest. I could not imagine such a change in such a man. It strained credulity to such a limit that I refused to turn my back on him for the slightest second. How could anyone forgive such as this? How could one forget his crimes?
Then as swift as a lightning bolt out of thin air comes a missive from the storehouse of memory into my mind. An invisible arrow from my Surface World study of the Ancient Text. Invisible to others here because it was not directed toward a physical and supernatural enemy from the Surface World, but directed towards my own heart. And not launched and ready for an assault mission, but for the purposes of helping me see something I was missing in the heat of my deeply held outrage and anger.
“9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” [1 Corinthians 6:9-11 RSV]
Another verse, swiftly came alongside it, like a tugboat directing a larger ship into a narrow harbor sloop and dock.
“16 All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” [2 Timothy 3:16 KJV]
There was no doubt in my mind, that I was being reproved. Particular phrases stood out to me from these verses and resonated a message in my quickened spirit that I, in my wrath, was attempting to deny was possible for such a hated adversary.
“And such WERE some of you.” Though delivered to me in the quiet, still, small voice in my inner being, the implication to my mind was thunderous and almost deafening. The “WERE” being in the past tense, was a pivotal word. A hinge point turning the seeming finality of the first part of the verse on its head and extending hope into the deepest darkness of condemnation and despair. A revolutionary light that pierces through all inevitability and ransomed condemned souls from their death row dungeons as they despondently counted out what remained of their days towards a very just execution. Incomprehensible mercy, extended from a Holy and Righteous Judge, who suffered the most from their offenses and yet had astounding measures of compassion. I realized what was being expected of me, though in my inner man I struggled mightily against it.
How was I supposed to forget all the wrong done and the evil treatment I and my friends, my brothers, and sisters in arms, had received from the hands of this hated Xarmnian? How could I possibly forgive and extend the Grace I, myself, had been given? Would doing so be a betrayal of their sufferings? What sort of task must I put this man through to finally believe such a transformation was even possible?
It would take more than I could muster in myself. I had to allow the quickening to take over once more. To surrender my will to it, if such powerful evidences of Faith, Grace, Mercy, and Forgiveness were to be able to make me more, in the moment, than my weakened humanity could ever allow me to be. Strangely, this test was a harder challenge to me than all of my struggles and battle below with the brutal Dust Dragon. The vile and sinister creature undermining the city, threatening my friends, my fellow traveling companions, and our mission.
“The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.”” Exodus 14:14 NLT
Odd, how the nature of the Ancient Text shifted and directed itself to my specific situation as it came into my mind. Like it was conversant with my predicament and conversational in a way that was uncanny and sentient. A voice ready to speak to me, teach me, defend me, guide me and encourage me, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Clearly, time spent in that Ancient Text was profitable to me, because these inspired words took on life and a persona that could not be explained away. They delivered wisdom into my soul and spirit, beckoned my body to action, and aligned me with the wisdom of The Voice of The Ancient of Days in such a personal and intimate way. Somehow knowing me in a way I did not even know myself. Another immutable truth, seemingly running counter-intuitive to human understanding, was that the path to victory over any enemy human or creature, any circumstance and any difficult path ahead of us, whether here in the Mid-World or in the Surface World above, lay through complete surrender to its instruction.
“12 For the word of God [is] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things [are] naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” [Hebrews 4:12-13 KJV]
As an affirmation of my thoughts, these words unfailingly came to me guiding me to understand the nature of the living word. And too, came the following verse, affirming its authority over all realms and kingdoms to dispense with as the One saw fit to do so. Using us as His instruments, for better or for worse, according to the degree in which we yielded to the Voice.
“17 This announcement is by the decree of the sentinels; this decision is by the pronouncement of the holy ones, so that those who are alive may understand that the Most High has authority over human kingdoms, and he bestows them on whomever he wishes. He establishes over them even the lowliest of human beings.'” [Daniel 4:17 NET]
Despite how dire the situation might seem, the One assured me that He had dominion over what would follow in the days to come, even under the threat of impending conflict between the warring nations here, the Xarmnian Protectorate now hard upon our trail and approaching the city they would soon find blocking their path and pursuit of us onward. Though evil may rage and seem to rule and threaten us for a day or many days, there would eventually come a reckoning and a sealed and terrible judgment for them. Those counted among them would be racing unaware to their utter doom. Who was I to deny the possibility of redemption to one of those among them who chose, even at the last and penultimate moment to turn away from such a fate, and seek forgiveness?
It was time for me to choose. The Xarmnians would soon reach the massive city wall standing at the edge of the forest. Their dogs would smell the path our horses were led to around to the postern gate. They would puzzle over the gathering of our human scents in the place that we dismounted, and they may bark furiously at the small iron door of the sally port where we entered the city of Azragoth.
They would not be certain by the behavior of the dogs whether we had entered the city or merely remounted our horses and road onward along the narrow path under the shadows of the great wall and the forest canopy to find the alternate entrance. If the dogs found that the scents led them up to a closed postern gate, would they seek to nosily, batter it down and gain entrance…thereby, alerting us to their presence? Or may they assume that someone inside remained and granted us entrance into the ill-famed haunted city of death and disease? Would these, perhaps younger, Xarmnians even know and recognize the back of the city into which we had come?
There was not time enough to discuss these possibilities, for we did not know how long it had taken the messenger to receive the alert and arrive to share the news of their coming. I would have to rely on the judgment, knowledge and tactical skill of those standing in the courtyard before me. I would have to extend my trust to them to utilize their knowledge of the city, and their sense of anticipating the potential moves of the enemy, to bring about our next course of action.
How many trained soldiers could we call to our aid? Did the Xarmnian’s have any idea how many strong we were?
I need not have worried. For I soon learned that every adult in the city of Azragoth carried a weapon and was well-trained in how to use them. Part of the reason for that was that there were traitors among the surrounding villages that did not want to see Azragoth rebuilt ever again. These traitors had for some time sent marauding thugs into the forests to undermine the secret rebuilding efforts. They had toppled and raided the wagons bearing building materials into the city via the old roads. They had burned and destroyed usable woodlands, needed for timber. They had attacked stone smiths attempting to quarry, shape and transport stones for the rebuilding until the workers who would attempt to retrieve the materials found the journey too dangerous to attempt without employing a significant amount of armed guards to do so. Guards who were badly needed as workers to continue the secret repairs to the city.
It was only then that the pathways through the caverns beneath the city were discovered. For all practical purposes, the attempt to repair and restore the city of Azragoth had seemed to cease. The marauding bands, finding no further activity in the quarries soon lost interest in defending the pathways leading there. The leaders of the thwarting effort, fearing reprisal from the Xarmnian’s for the impudence of Ezra and Nem’s restoration campaign, thought all efforts had been abandoned, so they felt no need in alerting the Xarmnians for they believed they had effectively quelled the uprising.
Little did they know that the building efforts had progressed much more aggressively since the Azragothians found ways to mine stone beneath the city without weakening its structure. And the cavern floors and paths were graded smooth to allow wagons and carts to travel and deliver badly needed supplies into the hidden city.
Having maintained their secrecy for so long, and even with a former Xarmnian general in their midst, I had to trust them that they knew better how to handle this business.
Discernment is learning to see and perceive beyond the moment in which you stand. To get the sense of a larger and more vast perception of reality that cannot be explained without acknowledgment of the supernatural characteristics of the life in which we live. At last, I felt I could finally understand something of which Nell tried to tell me about her gift. When I finally realized completeness and felt the quickening come back, I realized that I too was learning to see.
All of these thoughts seem long in the telling, but they came to me swifter than I could relate.
I nodded assent to Nem and Ezra, signifying that I would do anything they needed me to do, but they turned and sought counsel from The Eagle, General Mattox in these matters, so I was compelled to follow suit. Grace bigger than I allowed me to release the past, at that moment, and a feeling of liberation flooded my spirit, as chains I had placed upon my soul through long-held bitterness fell away.
Mattox looked at me and I looked up and back at him and our eyes met for a moment, with some knowledge exchange that went unspoken but caused him to dip his head in understanding and look at me through different eyes, that seemed less fierce than I had imagined them before.
The wrapped parcel sack he had given me, I affixed to my belt, as an unspoken indication that I had resolved to trust according to the inner promptings of my spirit. Mattox seemed satisfied by the gesture and then turned to all of us.
“It is not the time for revealing the secret of Azragoth to the Xarmnian guards. They will hear from us soon enough, so it is best that Mr. O’Brian and the others of his company be taken out of the city by the secret ways through The Keep. As Ezra has said, we should do as we have done before. Wait and watch. Bear arms and watch over these if they attempt to enter the city through the old ruins. Only if it is absolutely necessary, do we engage them. Let them look around. Find nothing there. Come to the realization of where they are and flee the city if they are intelligent enough to do so. Otherwise, if forced to engage them, leave no survivors. Kill their beasts as well. Do we have an agreement?”
All nodded assent and signified with a fist raised to shoulder height.
“Thrax will hold the gate and station archers to the south and east watchtowers. Let no one walk upright across the battlements. Remain unseen. Have the young children brought indoors into the homes furthest from the walls of the inner city. Allow the youths old enough to bear and carry swords to stand as pages to the soldiers manning the heights. Have them carry extra quivers to feed arrows to the archers if need be. Draw up the tree nets from the old courtyards, and set them as covers on the stone walls in the old courts. They will look to be mere overgrowth to an old city surrendering to the wild, but spikes within will sweep them to their deaths if the need arises.”
The soldier/messenger who had delivered the news, asked, “What of Lorgray’s company in the backwoods?”
“Lorgray and I have spoken of this possible scenario before. He knows what to do. They will ensure there are no stragglers left to report what may transpire. If any Xarmnian posts are left behind, they will deal with them. If any reinforcements follow this company, they have orders to destroy the bridges and secret way left still intact after the passage of the light-bending dragon creature.”
I weighed in, “How can we help?”
Ezra addressed my question, “Leave Azragoth to us. It is our city and we know best how to defend it and keep its secret. We’ve been doing it for many seasons now. There is some great potential among your company to gain the needed skills quickly, but they still do not know our city like we do. There will be other fights for your team to be ready for ahead of you. I’ve given them a start, but they must acquire the additional skill in travel. City fighting is much different than the warrior skills needed to survive the wilds of the open road.”
Maeven spoke up, “What can the Lehi and I do?”
The Eagle, Mattox, remained silent, but Nem turned to her and spoke for both of them.
“It has been decided that the time has come for you to follow Mr. O’Brian in this quest with the other Surface Worlders.”
Maeven stared at Nem and then at Mattox in shock. She turned to Ezra, “Did you know about this?!”
Ezra reached out to take her hand and said, “Maeven” but she pulled it back, feeling betrayed by her adopted family.
Mattox, who had trained Maeven in the ways and skills of warfare, and had helped her to build up her confidence and overcome her once shy demeanor, spoke quietly to her, with a gentleness that I had a hard time imagining could have come from him.
“We spoke of this before, Maeven. You knew this day would one day come, and you know why it is particularly important for you. You will always carry us wherever you go, but it is vital that you learn how to return before it is too late to do so.”
Maeven breathed, inhaling deeply and exhaling as if trying to find a way to stay calm. And something else was in her expression that I had not expected with all of the bravado that she had demonstrated before as leader of the Lehi.
We were gathered together as a company, my fellow travelers and I, joined by Maeven, Begglar, Nell and Dominic, as they had considered Nem’s and the people of Azragoth’s invitation to stay in the city, but chose to decline it, in favor of life on the open road with us. Corimanth, elected to remain, as he had seen his share of adventure and bore the scars and wounds to show for it. The Lehi, the specially trained elite horsemen and women, whom Maeven had led for a season, were joined back into the regiments of The Eagle, as he would have need of them in the coming days. A detachment of The Eagle’s regiment would be left to buttress the defenses of the city’s inner walls and guard the cavern entrances below the city to ensure no further unwelcomed man nor beast would discover and enter by the secret ways. Both Nem and Ezra had pressing duties that required them to take their leave and say their goodbyes to us and wish us well on our continuing journey into the interior of the Mid-World lands. They said if they did not see me again in this life, they were certain to meet me again in the next one. They spoke to each one of us individually, and to my shame seemed already to know the names of my company whom I had yet to receive. Each was given a choice weapon from the weapons array in their armory, and Ezra seem to know instinctively which one was suited to each person’s skill potential, carriage, and bearing. How long had they trained with Ezra while Nem and I had had our discussion and I had been rudely shown the underside of the city of Azragoth, I wondered? Ezra had lived through many seasons as he was an aged man, but his insight and keen eye was as sharp as it ever had been. He saw potential in people, and that made him naturally endearing, and imbued them with a confidence that they could be what he told them was possible for them. Nem’s mind for planning and organization, was shown as he seemed to orchestrate the quick preparations for our journey onward, dispatching Azragothian citizenry to bring traveling garments and packs suited to each person to distribute gear according to each’s ability to carry it while walking. A plan had already be set in place ahead of us, where we would rendezvous with cached supplies, be provided with horses for the plains, stable and transition from horses to wagons to bear a shipment of supplies into one of the villages in the lake district to support the resistance, and seek passage across the lake to the Xarmnian country and the forests and mountain range beyond them where the Capitalian cities resided beyond the pass and the great wall separating the two warring kingdoms. But first we must get through the stone mountains, on the other side of the valley, before making the plains. That trip would be dangerous, as the rocks and ledges were unstable and wild and ancient creatures lived within. The Half-Men. Even the Xarmnians feared and avoided the Half-Men creatures, if they possibly could. These were the only inhabitants of the Mid-Worlds whom they did not try to conquer, or demand tribute or homage from and they did everything they could not to provoke them. But the time for speaking of these has not yet come. We will get to these others in due course.
When we had said our last goodbyes and thanked the Azragothians for their hospitality and for taking us into their homes and their confidences, it was The Eagle who waited, to chaperone us out of the city by the secret way.
Armed, packed, geared and loaded, we rallied to the end of the courtyard, and Mattox addressed me, as the others waved goodbye to Nem, Ezra, Corimanth and Morgrath, the captain of the city Sentries departing from the opposite end.
“We must go to The Keep. It is the only entrance into the caves, aside from the one you and your dragon created outside the pub.”
Still feeling leery and a bit strange about the turn of events and my new commitment to extend Grace to this man, I hesitated to respond. My suspicious mind told me that this man could still be leading us to our deaths below the city or directly into the hands of the Xarmnian Protectorate troops that had pursued us this far, but my spirit tempered these thoughts and beckoned me to remember the transformative power of the One whom I claimed had called me to this mission. Hard as it might be, I was being led to trust him, as these Azragothians had with their secrets and their very lives.
“Is there a problem we should be aware of?”
“Your company has no idea what is ahead of them. The Pan has savaged the woodlands cities, and you will be in grave danger going through the great stone mountains for there are many rock Trolls living there, and creatures you will have to see to believe they could ever exist. The Half-Men have suffered bad seasons lately and they are growing more wilder than they have ever been before as their blood thirst increases. They have even taken to eating their own kind, but would be delighted to change their current fare if they discover your company passing through their lands. Be careful. These are not the same creatures you and I fought in days past. They are not so dull-witted or easily fooled. Their animal nature still is at war with their ancient flesh of man. And there is a sort of brimming madness about them, that has finally allowed them to subvert their bestial nature to serve the primary interests of their tormented and cursed half-human minds. Such that, now they demonstrate a cunning deceptiveness they once did not have. There is something else, some otherness, within them that seems to have come from the Surface World of your time. If you have the unfortunate experience to encounter one of them, do not think you can treat them as simple-minded as we once did. You will regret it as they close in to eat you and your company alive.”
I nodded, having had only past experience with The Half-Men creatures, and did not know they had become more trouble of late as they were always a sort of clannish reclusive bunch that shied away from heavily populated areas.
Rarely seen back then. I knew now more than ever that Nem had done me a great service by forcing me to deal with my pursuer and thereby find the strength through the quickening once more.
“There also is another thing I may need to mention to you before we enter The Keep just ahead.”
I looked up at his suggestion and saw a great stone building reaching several stories upward, spanning several meters across, with a rampart crowning it above, and a joined tower jutting from its side ahead of us. Its base stood upon the edge of the city wall, and below in the wilder courtyard, it was festooned with purple flowers, white iron weeds, and green bushes around the sloping road and a widely paved stair.
A rook tower blocked part of my view, but Mattox saw me gape in amazement at the sheer size of the edifice and city’s stronghold.
“What is it you should tell me?” I asked after a bit.
“That you and I and all who follow us here will have to first go up to the top there before we can go down into the caves below. It is the first test of how well your company may endure the climb in the mountains beyond. There are stairs in the adjoining tower there that lead upward. But the one and only descending stair that leads down into the caverns below begins at the top of the turret battlement. There is a winch and pulley system that allows heavier gear to be lowered below, but it is not intended for people. There are granary chutes where grains gathered below are poured into the cavities of one of the hollow towers within, but it is filled with grain such that the inner stairway only goes down to the level of the grain stored within. All lower levels are filled with the tonnage of grain, allowing us to survive and make bread enough for a city under siege and walled secretly within. The Keep serves as our main storehouse and is our way into and out of the city, save by the old unused paths through the outer gates.”
It took us over an hour’s long journey to make the ascent and finally descend into the caverns below the city. By the time we reached the cavern floor, we were exhausted from such a climb. If climbing and descending the stairs of a tower was this tiring to us, I could scarcely imagine what a climb through the mountains ahead of us might be like.
As we filed through the corridors and tunnels, where I had once tracked and fought the dust dragon, I had the uneasy feeling that something was still left unsettled. We passed a partially collapsed tunnel that I felt somehow drawn to. It may have been this place where I first encounter the Dust Dragon, but I could not be sure. I raised my torch and saw a little of the interior beyond which looked to be filled with stalagmite columns, so I dismissed it as being nothing more than that. Much to my regret, I would later learn differently. That I should have followed that urging in my inner spirit to take the time to investigate. But, I did what most of us have done many times when we feel a particular prompting. I dismissed it, and rationalized it away. There was some connection between that interior and the dust dragon, I could sense that strongly. But, Mattox and Nem both had assured me that the creature was dead, that by cutting out its tongue I had ensured that it would never rise to hunt us again. It had died, not from the fall that broke its back, but from the poison it had ingested flowing from its own tongue. This was after all, a spawn representative of Deception. A kind of beast roaming the outer ring between our Surface World and this one. As Surface Worlders pass through the portal, they invariably permit one or more of these supernatural set of creatures to follow them into this one, because of the blood curse that is upon all mankind. That, Mattox said it the reason why Mid-Worlders are reluctant to welcome a Surface Worlder visit. The baggage they bring with them is more often than not something sinister and supernatural. That is why very, very few portals were permitted to remain after the Earth’s great flood. Why the surface of the Earth was reshaped by the megatons of water bursting from both the firmament below and the sky above. The Great Sculptor was taking the clay and reshaping it using both physical and Living Waters. The path of light and its connection with gravity, no longer gave entrance easy entrance into the mid-world lands through the places among the stars. The physical path to the Holy Mountain was forever closed to all mortals. The One Way, chosen by mankind was through the paths of pain, suffering and death until all corruption falls away and only the eternal part of man remains. The Doorway to the Holy Mountain, and to the Throne of the Creator remains open only through One Way, and One Man who paid a terrible price for that entryway to remain open to all mortals of Earth. A joining into the Vine and a fellowship of Spirit made knew. Man must be reborn to see hope, and must be cleansed of all mortal and soulish corruption to survive a face to face meeting with his Maker.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t for the purposes of the story, reveal what was in the corridor that I did not investigate. But this far in, I feel like I should. What I had believed to be stalagmites, were rank upon ranks of standing pillars. Each standing pillar was composed of a curing mud and clay mixture, each of varying height, and girth. If the light had found its way into the chamber, the rows and rows of pillars would look vaguely familiar. Each stood in regimental attention, with roughly human features, akin to the terracotta statues of warriors standing in rank in ancient burial tombs, waiting to serve, in a future afterlife, the eternal spirit of the warlord or king whose human remains had been entombed there, upon his day of resurrection. The arms, legs, and torso of each figure were compressed as if the body form was bound in a sort of clay cocoon. The faces of each of these statues lacked definition as if these were metamorphosing into individuals which awaited something further to happen. Some catalyst to complete their final transformation. Four of these statues had progressed from their transitional state into a more advanced stage of definition. The clay and dust, flakes and silently drifted to the floor. These were identical in height and form, arms and legs, chest and shoulders defined with uncanny and eerie detail. Like the other hundred or so forms beyond them, only their faces lacked definition, but that was beginning to change as well. In time, these would be able to stand across from me on any field and within any room, and I might only mistake them for a moment as being a mere reflection of me in a mirror.
The Dust Dragon has evidently been beneath the city of Azragoth before, and this legion of transforming statuary had been the product of its consuming the rock and earthen foundations of the city above it. The formations had passed through its mouth and been through the mixer of its unique salivary wash, formulating a clay-like substance called Marl that could then be reshaped into a hollow, bloodless husk that approximated human form. The word for such malleable clay-like form was a golem. The golems formed and expelled through the creatures molding gills, awaited only one more component to give them the semblance of life, so that they could pass for and walk among humans. A breath. A spirit and some form of intellect, which would infuse them, and interact with others in such a subtle way that those they walked alongside might never know their sinister secret and difference. These were why the Dust Dragons and the wind spirits, we came to call Banshees, had such a unique and symbiotic relationship. The wind spirits needed bodies, the Dust Dragons could formulate them at a cost. The Banshee who takes and inhabits a body formed by a Dust Dragon, must serve at the bidding of the Dust Dragon as its agent and slave. But most often, the creature’s interests were one and the same. Deceive and torment the citizens of the Mid-World, and particularly target any visitor to these lands coming from the Surface World. These especially must never, ever discover who they really are or what they are meant to become, nor meddle too much in the affairs of the peoples of these lands.
The regimental lines of faceless golems awaited within the dark stillness of the caverns. Without the Dust Dragon to mentally summon the Banshees, the wind spirits rarely if ever blew through the cavernous underground to be able to reach these golems. But as we proceed along, under the city towards the secret way through the surrounding forest, I distinctly remember feeling an oddly chilling breeze at my back. Had I but investigated the rooms, and seen the figures standing there, awaiting faces, I would have been able to displace them all into dust with a mere touch of the honor sword. As it was, however, and in my ignorance, I took the only known honor sword in the area (for many of them had been lost, destroyed or repurposed to serve some more obsequious purpose), and bore it with me on a quest into the interior, and considering what was ahead of us and behind us, perhaps never to return to Azragoth again.