The Creature in The Cauldron – Chapter 25

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.

“Nem?”

“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 paused.

“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.

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The Quickening – Chapter 24

“Mister O’Brian, if I might, I would like a word with you.  Are you willing to release your company into the care of Ezra for a few hours for training?”

I yielded and Ezra and his attendants led the others back down to the Warrior’s Court below.

Nem and I watched in silence from the terrace as the group fanned out in the courtyard and Ezra resumed his training lecture on the use, advantages and disadvantages of certain weapons from the training table.

After a moment Nem brought my attention back to the matter at hand for which he had called me aside.

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“Walk with me.  There is something very particular I need to show you.  Something we need your help with and some private issues we need to speak about concerning your leadership.”

We walked together in silence for a bit, moving away from the hearing of the others until we reached a stone stairway that led down into the older remnants of the city.

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“This quest you are on…,” he began, “It will take one of us from here with you into unknown dangers ahead.”

Intuitively, I knew who he was speaking of, but did not interrupt.

He paused, carefully navigating the broken steps downward that had become covered with wet moss, lichen and an ever spreading, ever-growing carpet of vines that seemed to swallow the crumbling steps in a throat of leafy greenery.  He lifted his feet high, indicating that I should do the same, to keep our feet from being caught in the treacherous tangles.  Our footfalls, pressing on the top of the vines, crushing the leaves, and crackling thin branches underneath caused the mat to give off a sickeningly cloying custard-like odor.  A dusting of bile-yellow pollen covered our boots and legs as we carefully scrambled over the tops of the densely woven mat.

Soon, we found a partial clearing of stone again and the semblance of steps resuming downward into a thickly overgrown courtyard enveloped in leafy kudzu and gnarled branches that twisted and descended into and out of the overgrowth, dislodging stones from the walls and the ancient structure buried beneath.  It was almost as if this leafy green surface was some alien ocean in tumult, where the surface of the water had been replaced with foliage and some monstrous Kraken-like creature from the fathomless depths below extended its wooden twisted tentacles through the floating mat, seizing and tugging anything it could wrap its searching, probing and coiling appendages around.  Once standing again on a small flat island of stone, in the midst of this leafy ocean, Nem resumed his address to me.

“While we are on the precipice of war and can hardly spare anyone, we understand the vital role of these quests.  Others and I agree that it is now Maeven’s time to go with you on this one.  We knew this time would eventually come, but it is hard now that this time is upon us.”

Nem paused thoughtfully.  Reflecting on memories of her with a wistful smile.

“She has been adopted into the village of Azragoth.  We are like family to her and she to us, though we know she originally came to us from the Surface World.  She has grown much and learned far more than others of your kind who pass through here.  But she is still part of your world, and her future depends on finding for herself what your quest will offer her.  She is like a daughter to us.  One who has brought much delight to us as she grew up among us, and like doting parents, we struggle to release her into finding her own life for herself.”

We continued forward, again stepping from the stone shore of the green sea, to walk across the crackling and spongy surface of its verdant and tangled waters, making for a break in the wall and another set of vine-covered steps leading upwards and beyond.

“I know why you have come, perhaps better than you do.  I can sense your uneasiness, your self-doubt, and your feelings of inadequacy.  But you should know that what you were called to is very important, and something our erstwhile daughter needs to be able to find the wholeness she has been seeking her entire life.”

I sighed involuntarily before realizing I had done so.  It seemed that he might be making more out of my calling than I was, and embarrassingly, I had the deep down sense that he was correct.

Nem studied me a moment with disturbingly perceptive eyes that seemed to probe and unpack my secrets and my every weakness.

“For anything you set out to do, Mr. O’Brian, you must always…Always,” he emphasized, “Be able to clearly state the purpose for which you undertake the task.  If you are not clear on this point, you doom your enterprise and everyone who may hope to follow you into it.  Since you will take a daughter of this city into your particular undertaking, I cannot allow you to proceed with such uncertainty, so let me restate the purpose of your mission for you, as I perceive it to be.  Afterward, if you see it differently, I need to know it now before we commit her to go with you on this quest.”

I hesitated, but Nem did not, and like a father protecting the daughter he loves from the ill-defined intentions of a prospective suitor, he restated and clarified the essential nature of my purpose for being here, and my having been given the quest in the first place.

“You are here to bring awareness to the daydreamers who have lost who they are.  Those who have become disconnected from their own self-worth and from the memory that their stories are intertwined with our histories.  They have escaped, for lack of a better term, into the dream but have found only the nightmare because they are ungrounded.  Split between who they believe themselves to be and what they at one time wished to be.  Despair has clouded their vision and made them believe that to hope for anything else is a foolish myth.  You too were under that delusion, but I think you are finally waking up to it now.  But you have a difficult task ahead of you.  You are still groggy from the restlessness of being roused to awareness, sorting through the real and the unreal, belief and doubts.  You speak words of the Ancient Text, and swiftly call them forth from your memory in warrior fashion, but you are still disconnected from the reason they come to you, and the power they offer to restore your ability to become more than you are now.  Faith without works is dead, Mr. O’Brian, and you are still shrouded in funeral garments, yet you purport to lead these others who are presently unaware themselves of why they specifically were brought here through the portal between our worlds.  What roles they are yet to play in the discoveries yet to come.  Nell is not the only Seer here, you know.  Azragoth has others within our township who dream as well.  Some of your company are known through those dreams, yet your people are unaware of this.  We have kept our Seers from interacting with your people because they might recognize them and not yet know why they do.  I needed to speak with you first, before allowing those meetings.  To assess what steps have been taken to make your company a unit and a family who could survive the rigors of what is ahead of you when you leave Azragoth and prepare them for the psychological shock of finding out that all of them have been here at least once before, yet have lost their memory of it.  Their stories will come back to them in time.  But you must be prepared for it.  For how it will affect each of them when they do.  But before you can do that you must first contend with who you are and come to terms with it.  Then you must come to know each of them and earn their trust.”

Something within me.  Something integral to my very soul and spirit resonated in affirmation of what Nem was saying, and I could feel the truth of it even as he spoke it forth.

“How do you know such things?  How can you…?”

“Because Mr. O’Brian, or Brian as you are known in the above world,…In this world, I am the particular Seer who has dreams of what your life is in the other world.  I feel I have known of you before you even knew yourself.  Each of us, here in the mid-worlds dreams of an other’s story.  It is part of the inherited connection we have genetically with our ancestors who first came here from there.  I happen to be the one person in this world who sees you and foresaw your coming back here.  It is the only reason you were allowed into the city and into its secret of existence.”

He was silent a moment, allowing me to recover from my shock at this revelation.

He proceeded up the stone steps to the remnants of a stone structure that looked in part like a pavilion or gazebo.

I hesitated and then followed.

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When I had reached the top, I could see that beneath the stone pavilion, there was what looked to be the remains of a fountain basin with a series of recessed and concentric pits gradually descending in depth until the smalled inner basin revealed a grate covered well in its center.  The fountain was dry and no water remained in it, but its floor was strewn with the remains of dead and decaying leaves, grayed and blackened with rot over time.  Though the gazebo/pavilion was raised on a tree-shrouded hillock within the city walls, the air there felt dry and still.  Musty in some way.  As if the stone canopy were the ceiling of a cave smelling of lyme, smoke and fire-scorched earth.  The fecund and sickly-sweet smell of rotting leaves one might expect to smell from the floor of the fountain was instead replaced with the slightly coppery tang of dry dust that had aged well beyond decay until all moisture was leeched out of it.

We stood together at the raised edge of the fountain basin looking down into its waterless cavities, and into the iron-grated dark blackness of the central basin.

“If you can see who I am back in the Surface World, and knew I would one day be coming here, leading an expedition, can you also see what will be ahead of us?”

Nem shook his head.

“It doesn’t work like that.  I could only catch glimpses of what would be up to this moment.  When the time of your journey and our times join into the present, no Seer, no matter how gifted can see beyond it.  We are not soothsayers, Brian, or fortune-tellers who can give you sight of a future in which you are a passive player.  All future steps are accounted according to your choices and actions from this moment forward.  As it is written: The just shall live by faith.  And you are justified and accountable for the choices you make.  Only The Word can say what will be beyond these moments, for only He knows the end from the beginning.  It is folly to seek knowledge of the future in anything other than this.  Neither you nor any other being in all of creation from one end of the heavens to the other can get out of The Word’s permissive will.  Your safest, and most fulfilling course is to seek the path He desires for you, and experience the goodness that will certainly come of it.  If you would rather seek your own will, and your own definition of good, you will find the hard and lonely path of His provisional will.  It is your choice to make.  Either route you take, you will find always that His Will will be done in the end.”

We were silent for a time, each pondering the words spoken and the responsibility they portended.

“What do you think Azragoth represents to the outside world?”

“A memory of a great commercial center.  I am not sure what you are asking.”

“Death, Mr. O’Brian.  It represents loss, death and destruction.  In a way, it is the very thing you need right now because otherwise, you will be an agent of death to these followers you lead.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Every great quest begins with a kind of death.  For one who is called to lead, that death is their own.  Have you ever heard the concept of dying to live?  That one must surrender their desire to master their circumstances, otherwise, they will become mastered by them?”

“The concept is not unfamiliar to me.  I am reminded of the Ancient Text’s words on that.”

“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” [Luke 9:24-25 NLT]

“Ah yes.  To my very point, which is why there is some hope for you.  You do seem to have a sense of what is the right thing to do, even if you are not grasping the way to get there.  But if you do not get there, you will still endanger everyone who follows your lead and tragically so because you knew what you must do, but failed to execute upon it.”

“What do you mean?  How is my leadership endangering them?”

Nem was quiet a moment, letting my question linger between us before finally considering an approach to answering it.

“I am told you bore an honor sword when you arrived through the backwoods.  Why did you surrender it?”

“We were told to surrender our weapons or we would not be let into the city.”

“That is true, but you are evading my question.  Why did you surrender the honor sword?”

“I was promised I would get it back again.”

“Were you?” Nem studied him, “Was getting into Azragoth more important than the lives of the company you lead?”

“I am not following.”

“Nor are you leading, Mr. O’Brian.  You are presently in thrall of an invisible creature and you represent a grave danger to us all.”

“I don’t feel like I’m in the thrall of anything.”

“Yes, you are.  If you weren’t you would never have surrendered your honor sword, nor would you have allowed your people to be led blindly into a city that represents death to the outside world.  A city of plague that even the Xarmnians have feared and let be for a season.  There are some others in this city that also know you from the before times.  The time in which you were something much different than what you are now presenting yourself to be.  Did you think we would not find out, who it was that we allowed into our confidences?”

I sighed involuntarily, feeling exposed for a fraud and a certain embarrassed shame colored my face.  I leaned across the fountain’s edge, my hands clasped together, breathing deeply, carefully thinking through my response.

Nem continued, allowing me the dignity of not being pressed to say something I might regret later.

“You have a reputation that precedes you, even if most have forgotten it because it was so many years ago.  You once were what Maeven as the Storm Hawk has become now.  A legend, a hero, a fierce fighter and crusading leader against both the Xarmnians and the races of Half-men.  She has filled in the gap of what you left.”

“Then I certainly pity her for it,” I said, revealing more bitterness than I intended in my tone, “She does not know what she is in for.”

“What has happened to you to make you so different from the stories?  Were those who remember you from back then deceived?  Are they wrong?”

“As many legends are, they were exaggerated into something I could never live up to.  I felt the weight of them, and I tried very hard not to disappoint people who were inspired by them to hope.  But I failed them, and I failed those I loved in the worst way.  I was eventually captured, tortured and my family taken from me.  I betrayed them and everything I ever stood for to seek relief from the pressure of being more than I could humanly be.  The expectations of people, even well-meaning people, can become a cruel taskmaster, so eventually, I sought seclusion and withdrew into what I thought was a quiet existence.   Until I was found again.  By the very creatures, I unwittingly brought over from the Surface World.  My own personal demons, who bound me and drove me to the brink of utter despair.”

“So here you are again.  Leading a quest with people who do not know you.  For what?  Penance over past failings?”

“I was given a second chance.  And was called out of the past darkness into which I tried to hide myself.  I don’t know why.  I don’t feel up to this, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know of my past.  I cannot live up to it, so these should only know that I am called and am hoping that the equipping and the quickening power comes back to me as it did before with the calling.  I figured enough time had passed in these lands that those I knew would have forgotten me.  These travelers from the Surface World are a mostly strangers to me and Begglar and I have a history not so dissimilar to each other.  We both left the crusadership about the same time and sought a quieter life.  Though Begglar not so much as I.  He derives a certain energy from interaction with others that I have difficulty with.  So he opened a bakery and then an Inn.  Me, I found a small cabin in the mountains near a brook.  Planted a small garden, and lived monk-like as much as I could, occasioning visiting Begglar and then Nell when they married and few times later before they had Dominic.  Begglar was the only one of the old company that I have had any contact with in years.  I had been to Azragoth during trade days, before the attack and plague, and have sometimes wandered the forests and hills, and lake country, avoiding heavily populated towns as much as I could.  Never staying anywhere for very long, to avoid being recognized again.  I’ve put on a few pounds here and there, this slightly greying beard is new.  No one who knew me then would easily recognize me now, …or so I thought.”

“So, how do you envision things will be different this time?  This different identity that you’ve built up around yourself as this meek and bumbling and confused leader serves what purpose, do you think?”

I shrugged, “I don’t really know.  Perhaps it sets the bar of their expectations lower for me.  Perhaps it feels a little liberating to not carry the weight of former victories in a new company of those unaware of them.  To be underestimated.”

“It sounds like a lazy man’s way out.  It will inspire no confidence in those you are leading and will make them afraid to follow you anywhere.”

“Perhaps they should be afraid to.  Some degree of fear is wise and makes them cautious.”

“It will also make them hesitant and unsure.  Those things will get them killed in a conflict.  You want your enemies to underestimate you, not your friends.”

“For me, friendships have become a liability.  I try to maintain a professional distance so that I don’t lose objectivity and play no favorites.  It is hard enough to commit others to take personal risks for the benefit of the group.  It becomes extremely harder to do so if those with whom you risk their lives are personal and intimate friends.  I did that with a dear friend before and it cost them.  After losing that friend, I could not focus for the grief and ended up leading others into danger and near death because I could not recover from the loss to remain clear-headed in battle.  Worry and fear for my friends crippled my leadership.  I bore the responsibility for putting them in harm’s way, and when Caleb died I could not take it any longer.”

“Have you made plain the risks that are involved in this quest to your company?”

“I have…up to a point.”

“What do you mean ‘up to a point’?”

“Somethings are hard to believe coming from a Surface World experience.  I do have to address them from their context.  Some of the dangers here have to be shown and experienced before Surface Worlders will believe them.  We, Surface Worlders generally have a very hard time acknowledging the dual nature of existence.  That we are both physical and spiritual beings with both being real and connected in the same instance.  We separate the possibility of the supernatural from the natural world and insist that the one we are more comfortable with, the physical being, the empirically measurable world, is the one more important when the opposite is true.  The presently reigning god of our Surface World is very astute in his pernicious ability to blind their eyes to that critical truth.  Even the called forth in the Surface World, who allow into their beliefs the truth of the supernatural rarely see it presented in their experience and are often lured back into the dual thinking of a secular and non-secular existence.  We have labels that we put on everything there.  Faith-based, non-faith based.  Religious, non-religious.  Such things were never intended by the One who created all things.  Almost everything they experience here seems both natural and supernatural.  That is an advantage of perspective that this place has over the Surface World.  The effects of the first death are not as advanced here in this younger world with its own time flow.  For all of our advances in the Surface World, we come under greater deceptions and illusions there than those living here in the dream image.  They so fictionalize their faith until it seems ludicrous to rely upon it.  It is our deadly vice and a product of our age.  In their minds this place cannot exist, because they can’t measure it empirically and they must keep their image of a Creator and Purposeful God, for those that claim to believe in Him, small enough to fit into their limited experience and interpretations.”

“You do that.”

“Yes, I know.  But I am aware I am doing it, and struggle with that paradox raging within me.  Being in the world but not of the world is a very hard balance to keep.”

“A balance no one is intended to maintain alone.  Much like this waterless and dry fountain.  You will not find the quickening coming until you acknowledge and seek to clear your connection to the authority behind your calling.  For that to happen you must die to self, and let The Vine cause you to be fruitful once again.  So I ask you once more.  Why did you surrender the honor sword that was bound to you?”

“What would have happened, if I had refused to give up the sword?  My company narrowly escaped a hunting band of the Protectorate.  We came by trails unknown to find a walled city lost in a wood.  A fortification that might provide some temporary place of refuge until we could move on to the next place.  I cannot lead them if I cannot go where they go and face whatever they face.”

“Yet even now, you are separated from them so easily.  Even now you place the care and responsibility and welfare of them into the hands of others.  You are evading leadership because it requires a death to yourself.  The mantle of leadership is a cross you are refusing to carry, to die upon so that others may live.  You underestimate the power and need for friendships among those you lead.  Friends are not so easily separated as strangers are.  Your team needs the cohesion of relationships if they are to stand together and aid in the mission of your quest.”

I considered Nem’s words and the wisdom in them.  My focus had been only on my personal struggle with the responsibility of leadership but I had failed to see how addressing my own shortcomings and uncertainties were clouding my sight to the larger vision of what needed to be done and how to help my team survive it.

“It seems our coming to Azragoth was fortuitous.  I needed to hear this before going further.”

Nem fielded another question.

“Who told you to come to Azragoth?”

“Begglar told me we needed to get there.”

“And Begglar is called to lead this quest, is he?”

“No, but a person who leads cannot follow his own counsel alone.  He must rely on and extend trust to others to provide context and experience to the decisions he makes in leadership.  I was never called to a dictatorship.”

“You are correct; however, you would be wise to remember the consequences that may come of extending trust are to be laid at your feet.  Be careful whom you place your trust in.  Especially if you have not been in contact with them for a while.  A friend of the past could come to meet you on a battlefield as an enemy.  I’ve seen it happen.”

“I trust Begglar.”

“Yes, but do you trust everyone he trusts?  Ultimately, you may need to decide on a course of action even when those you would trust in all other cases are against it.  What will you do then?  Will you defer and hesitate or be quickly decisive?  Maeven has been recommending that Nell and Begglar and Dominic all come to Azragoth, but we were against it for some strategic reasons.  But Maeven only saw the danger and feared for them.  Decisions made on fear alone are often not the best choice.  She’s the reason Begglar and Nell and Dominic were coming here to escape their former life.”

“Your coming was not planned for by the others, but it seems your involvement with a Troll was the catalyst for them leaving the Inn.  Begglar’s position was tenuous, I’ll grant you, but his value as a spy and delaying agent against the Xarmnian’s forward forays for those fleeing and our agents was often times the very difference between life and death.”

“By now the Inn will have been burned so that no potential haven for travelers fleeing from Xarmnian oppression or others from the outside coming through our land exist in the outer reach country.  With no one to run the Inn at Crowe, there will be no need to let it remain.  Xarmnians are hasty and short-sighted but they, like we, benefited from Begglar’s presence so they did not wipe him out before now.  Friend and foe alike have stayed at that Inn.  It was the only neutral ground still remaining.”

He left me to ponder that point, while he reached into his cloak, released some tie-back on his belt and brought out something I recognized…the honor sword taken from me while outside of the city.

“I believe this is yours,” he said, handing it to me, lying across his open palms, its blade sheathed in a scabbard that seemed to belong to it.  I took it from him, feeling its weight only slightly made heavier by the gilded and leather scabbard.  When I had wrapped the belt of the scabbard around my waist, and pulled the belt through the cinch ring, Nem had stepped back from me, and stood closer to one of the pillars of the pavilion, near a rusted wench and chain intertwined with smaller vines that had wrapped the around the column, but had been cut short of interfering with the wench mechanism, so that, for whatever purpose the wench served, it could still be operated according to its function.

I turned to face him, my back to the fountain now.

“You may have noticed that we arrived at the location of this fountain, by means of a path untended, and untraveled.  I brought you here to this place by that route so that our discussion would not be overheard.  What I have told you, I told you in confidence.  And what happens next will also require that we are not seen or overheard by anyone of your company or the general citizens of Azragoth, for they will not understand what must happen next and what has been happening underneath the city since you and your band of travelers arrived.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is time for you, Brian, to remember your past, and to reconnect with those abilities you have neglected while in self-appointed exile.  To be the leader you ought to be, you must die to yourself and your own will and seek the quickening once again.  It is also time that you face and deal with the creature that holds you in thrall.”

Before I knew what was happening, Nem quickly moved forward and shoved me over the edge of the fountain wall and into the ever-deepening basins that sloped down to the central well.  The edges of each concentric step were rounded and sloped so that I slid backward upon a bed of dried, dead leaves slightly jarred by each drop until I found myself sprawled across the moss-laden grating and the blackness of the pit below.  I turned back upward, seeking to understand why Nem had done this, trying to make sense of this seeming betrayal, only to find that the grating was hinged on one end and was being mechanically dislodged from its catch on the opposite end of the hinge works.  The grating canted and then tilted downward, and frantically I grasped the grating bars, only to find them caked in a brown slimy moss that felt like mud between my fingers.  Unable to gain purchase on the grating, I slid down into the darkness below.

 

Learning to See – Chapter 23

Those dwelling within give a township its life.  For, while a place may evoke many pleasant memories, its true life comes from the value of its people.  There is a poem written by a poet from India that reads thus:

Today, I am going to walk past your village,
A place from where I was not able to move away in the past,
Where I always was looking for some excuse to go.
What excuse? The truth is that you were the real reason
Who had made that village a place for pilgrimage?
What a beautiful name it had,
How exciting it was to just listen to its name.
Looking at its trees from a distance would take away all tiredness,
It seemed like their branches were giving me a signal to come close.
Standing under their shadow was heavenly.
Today, I will walk by those trees.
Nothing is pulling me towards them,
Neither do I feel the loving touch of breeze coming from your village
No one is there to meet me with affection
Or waiting for me,
Hiding behind the Kikkar trees, and alone
I am passing by your village
As if it is a graveyard, not a village.
[Translated by S.H.R from original Jagrate]
Shareef Kunjahi

I imagine this is what travelers in the region, who used to make the journey to Azragoth, must have felt like passing the old quarantine sign on the road that once led up through the forest to the city.  Perhaps they stood there lingering at the crossroads, considering the blackened fields that burned for days, trying not to think of the terrible things they might find if they dared to venture across the fields.  As summer’s heat and autumn’s turning of the leaves passed, and then gave way to winter’s blankets of snow, I wondered what those people who had lost loved ones in Azragoth, and those merchants who once sojourned and sold their wares there must have thought as the snowy fields melted around the old abandoned road, and gave way to the greening and blooming of the spring season.  Year after year the cycle of time and the changing of the season came and went, each year adding new growth that steadily covered over that abandoned road.  As winds blew they eventually uprooted the quarantine flag that marked the pathway and lay it aside to fade in memory, lying somewhere along the shoulder of the main road that once passed by the rutted path to Azragoth.  I imagined for a moment what Nell and Corimanth must feel being back here in the place that held both the brightest and darkest of memories for them.  The places beyond the interior wall where they once saw the sights and sounds of a bustling city, and once guided the carts and horses in from which they sold their home crafted goods and some of the local farm-produce from the town of Surrogate.  Begglar had bought the House of Bread Inn at Crowe, several years before meeting and marrying Nell in the village of Surrogate.  He often bought wheat and stone-milled flour there from the local farmers.  Since Azragoth was surrounded by forests, its crops and farmland were limited only to small gardens kept within the city.  As such, the town required trade with the local communities, and as it was once a festive place, the farmers and travelers routinely visited and bought and sold there and joined in the regional celebrations in the city after the grain harvests.  Great parties were given, and lantern lights festooned the walls giving the city a feel of gaiety and wonder.  Stranger and friend alike were once welcomed in Azragoth, which is why the strict closure of the city now felt so odd to me.  But times had changed as did the nature of the people who came from far and wide to visit the once famed city of lights.

Nem had withdrawn from us and had given us leave to look and consider while he finished other matters with his builders.  We looked down upon what he had shown us and little by little others left their place at the railing.  But I stayed.

As Nem had said, the region between the outer wall and the interior wall was both dead and yet alive with wildness.  The absence of people living there made it a graveyard as much as the fact that many had perished there as well.  The wild beasts and stray animals moving among the thick grasses gave the place an eerie feel.  Their rustling and bleating and occasional growling sporadically heard beneath the leafy canopy of overgrowth.  As I watched the movements below for a while before, I noticed Begglar and Nell and Corimanth at the railing beyond me.  They stood together in the moonlight, looking down from the terrace into the broken courtyards, where the main market area used to be.  Remembering.

I approached Begglar and said, “Do you mind if I speak with Nell privately a moment?”

Both Begglar and Corimanth looked up, looked at one another and nodded.

When they had withdrawn away, I leaned against the railing next to Nell.

“Begglar mentioned that you could teach us to ‘See’.  What does that mean exactly?”

Nell wiped a brimming tear from the corner of her eye, returning back from a memory to the present, “I am not sure ‘See’ is the right word, but it serves, I guess.”

“Forgive me for asking this, I do not mean to trivialize your gift, and because I am in ignorance of it, I hope you will forgive this, but what is so important about this way of seeing?”

Nell was quiet a moment before answering, but then finally spoke up, “Mr. O’Brian, what is it that you plan to do here in our world?  What is your quest here?”

She had caught me off guard, and I cleared my throat.

“Excuse me?”

“Why is it that you are leading this group of travelers, and why have you involved my husband and our family?”

I was puzzled, “Begglar said the Inn was a bust and that your family was in danger.  Don’t you remember the Troll?”

“I do,” she answered, “and why do you think we both weren’t aware of it?”

“What are you saying?”

“Begglar and I have been part of the resistance for years now.  We both have known Maeven and her Lehi horsemen.  She has been running forays against the Xarmnian guards, and we have on more than one occasion provided them with provisions and a fresh change of horses, while they were being pursued by the Overwatch.  Only recently have the Xarmnians sent out The Protectorate Guards for them, because the Overwatch was being lured from the towns, and the people were taking advantage of their absence and distraction to take back from the storehouses so they could survive and fund the resistance effort.”

“So you knew all along that there was a Troll watching you when you were aiding that family?”

“Of course we did!  The Xarmnians wanted us to give them a false sense of security and delay them until they could arrive.  The Troll was sent to spy on us because the delay tactic we were supposed to employ often did not work and those we helped were able to get away before we could detain them further.  The Troll was, in fact, leaving to report that the family had arrived, not that we planned to help them.  Did you not see me come to the heart and stoke the fire as if I was oblivious to its presence?  Scattered some hot ash and coals on him as he was scrambling for the flue.”

This was all more of a revelation to me.

“I am not fooled by Trolls any more than I am the other creatures your kind has brought here to our world.  Oh yes, I am aware that your beasties are here because of you Surface Worlders, as are the Azragothians.  It is why your kind are not allowed to intermarry with them.  Be that as it may, and I say it without malice, for I love my husband dearly, though he came from your world, your being here is quite disconcerting in a time of gathering war.  The half-men are here because of the ancient Surface Worlders that came with the Pan creature long ago.  Your modern creatures are here because of you.  So again, I say, what is it you are called to do by the One?  Why does your calling place the further risk on our family?”

“I was sent to find those lost in this world who have stories of their own making, people who come from the Surface World but have lost their way in this in-between world and have forgotten who they are.  I am to help bring them to Excavatia on the other side of the portal.  To invite them to a place where their stories can come to life again and remind them of who they were.”

“And that, Mr. O’Brian, is why you need a Seer.  It is important to know the connections being made in this Sub-World and the Surface World above.  Perception is the word I would use for the gift I’ve been given.  Each person you know, by name, is connected in some way with each story.  Often times, that story is their past and you are witnessing them as a character in it.  We call it mirroring.  And mirroring only happens with Surface World people, though each of us has a story to tell.  With mirroring, you will see it, like watching a reflection in water.  Some stories will have a distance, that causes you not to perceive a connection at first.  Mirroring only happens when you are near the Surface World person whose past experience is being projected.  In all of your efforts at creating stories, and subsequently abandoning them, you were holding these stories hostage in this world and fragmenting them.  Because they are fragmented they have forgotten who they are.  The more of your kind who come here, the more your kind bring the beckoning of monsters with them.  Those creatures will pursue you through the portals, and wreak havoc here.  The more you bring the more the sky becomes fractured and the veil separating our worlds from each other becomes unstable.  We cannot stop your kind from coming here.  In fact, at one time you all were meant to come through here in the procession, but your World was closed up for a purpose when the Great Flood of Judgement reshaped your world and gave us a respite.  But now in the returning your kind has been allowed in once more, and I need to know, that if my family is to be at risk with you, that you are committed to seeing this through.”

“I am.  And I need to be clear, what you can see, to help us make that happen.  We’ve encounter six stories so far in what you called mirroring and one of them involved animals.  Who of us is connected to such tales?  You said they would all be Surface Worlders.”

“Yes, I did.  My gift allows me to find who it is that is causing the mirroring of story unaware.  That is what it means to see.  It clarifies especially if they give their name, so it is important, if possible to ask for the names of all of your fellow travelers, save the two I mentioned who are from these lands and disguising themselves as Surface Worlders.  We will eventually discern their purpose for infiltrating our company, but let’s leave that aside for now.  It is sufficient that they know we are aware of them, which is why I spoke out about it to Nem.  The Azragothians have a right to know who enters their city be they friend or foe.  These two are less apt to try anything nefarious if they know we suspect them and are waiting for any sign they might give to reveal themselves.  They may not know this, but by putting them on their guard I am also saving their lives, at least for now.”

“So I have been given some names in our company so far.  Can you tell me which of the six stories belong to whom?”

“I can, but you can easily guess one of them, though he will most likely not be leaving with you to Excavatia.  My Begglar is the Shop Keeper and the Collector.  His story is a latent memory of his former life in Dublin.  It is why he has a sense of the nature of people.  We go where he goes.  There is much to do here first.”

“Understood.”

“That family who told their story.  It was clear that they were mirroring, though I do not know how they came to be citizens of Xarmni.  That is perhaps a further tale we must find out when we meet them along the way in the seaport of Skorlith.  They are supposed to wait for us there for boat passage across the great lake.  If our hidden Skorlithian is to reveal himself, I would bet he will do it there.  Maeven, you already know to be the subject of The Falcon and Eagle tale.  She told it as an animal tale because she is not aware of her being the principle in it herself.  She is the Falcon of the story.  It is one of the few times that Begglar has made the trip back to the Surface World to find out more about her, though she does not know that.  We also found out why she remains here uninterrupted for so long.  Begglar told me that her Surface World presence remain in hospital, hooked up to machines that help her to breathe.  Begglar calls her perpetual sleeping a coma.  A tragedy that is.  Her husband and children were both killed in the Surface World, and the accident left her in that condition.  She had a waking moment but then was lost in this dream until she found her way here.  Poor thing.”

“Does Christie or Laura have a connection yet?”

“None that has been revealed so far.  They are very rooted in the Surface World at the moment.  Laura was not here long enough to reveal her tale, but I do understand that you spoke with her and found out why she chose to leave us.”

“I did, but her story was a very personal one and I believe she is still in the formulation of it.”

“Christie’s will come in time.  She is very intelligent and perceptive, but also a very private person.  Give her space to share it when she will.  Be patient.”

“Is the story by letter relevant?  The one about the brother and sister?”

“I cannot get a fix on that one because it did not come about by mirroring.  Something about it resonates though.  There is something I am missing there, that seems as if I should know more, but cannot grasp it.  I don’t feel it pointing to anyone outside of myself.  Perhaps it is linked to the lady you met who sent it to you.  It could be that it is someone we will meet along the way.”

“So there are two left.  One came to us strongly while we were on the precipice near the Stone Marker.”

“Ah yes, that one I could have told you without the gift.  If you had been noticing his reaction to the sound of the Protectorate dogs pursuing us, you would have recognized the connection as well.  He was cowering and curled into a fetal position in the wagon.  The sounds brought the haunting memories back of the terror we witnessed with him when he unknowingly mirrored his story to all of us.”

“He was the child in the tree?”

“Yes.  It is also why he challenges you so hard.  He resents you because you remind him of the father he lost.  He blames his father for the abandonment.  For the calling and mission.”

“What do you mean?”

“The clarity is in the odd title that comes with his mirrored story.  The Cleft Cross.  What do you think might cause a wooden cross to receive a cleft in it?”

“It would have to be struck by something sharp.  An ax blade, perhaps?”

“No.  It is what happens when a cleric resists a soldier.  The cross he bears received the blow of the striking sword coming down upon it.  It receives a cleft that binds the sword into the wood so that it can be wrenched free.  Hence the cleft cross is the symbol of a soldier turned into a cleric.  Have you not heard the saying that ‘Those who live by the sword will also die by the sword?’  The wisdom is in the exchange made from the soldier to the cleric.  The sword of the Lord as opposed to the sword of man.  The Ancient Text reads thus:

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” ” [Hebrews 4:12 NASB]

“So that would have to be Will.  His father would have had to have been both a soldier and a cleric.  That was why he wanted to ask about Surface World weaponry, being brought here.  To perhaps avenge something that happened to his father?”

“I will make of you a Seer yet, Mr. O’Brian.”

I happened to look down and noticed words engraved in stone at the base of the balustrade, and I stepped back to read them.  They were from the Ancient Text:

“‘The sword is outside and the plague and the famine are within. He who is in the field will die by the sword; famine and the plague will also consume those in the city.” [Ezekiel 7:15 NASB]

“What is this?”

From behind us, a voice answered, as Nell also moved back to read the text.

“It was a prophecy given.  A warning that Azragoth leadership should have paid heed to, before the ominous truth of those words came to fruition.  I had it engraved here as a reminder to anyone looking down upon Azragoth from this terrace.  Like Ezra says, one must pay attention to the ground upon which one chooses to take their stand.”

“But this is amazing.  This is exactly what happened to Azragoth.”

“Just as it did for the land of which it was first written.”

Nem stepped forward and joined them at the railing.

“Idolatry.  Azragoth had become a town filled with wealth.  We had left our beliefs and descended into pantheism.  We believed in the nobility and the virtue of animals, and so they became the objects of our worship.  We formed an allegiance with the creatures of this world.  An ancient race known as the Half-Men.  The Greeks and Romans of your world once worshipped these beings, and so we followed in like manner.  We were fascinated by the Surface World.  The stories of it, the people who came to our lands from it.  We learned much and sought to know much more.  We believed in the One, that had come to your world and Whose Presence resonated through ours.  There is not a corner of eternity not felt by Him.  No world or land that can wholly contain Him, for He is Creator of all, and by Him and through Him all exist.  The Ancient Text says that in the beginning He created, formed and fashioned the heavens and the earth with spoken word, saying, ‘Let there be.’  And all that was came from that being.  That mighty Word extending and piercing through the void transcending time and space to cause life to be.  Have you ever had the occasion to raise your voice in the well of a mighty canyon, or stand upon a peak and shout down into a valley?  The voice you hear answering back.  What do you call it in the Surface World?”

“An echo?”

“Yes.  This is what those in this world are reluctant to admit.  Our world was formed from the echo of your world.  That is why there are so many similarities between the two, yet differences as well through the return of the voice from which it originates.  There is but One source, but the sounding is as the voices of many waters crashing upon a seashore.  We live in the gifted worlds once intended for man’s expansion through the universe.  Imagine for a moment what life in the Surface World would have been like if there had been no death.  This place is locked away from the physical universe because of the narrowing of mankind’s choice on the origin world.  This place was reserved for the Two who have yet to die.  It is a place that was once intended to be for perfect man and woman and their myriad descendants to discover and explore once they had experienced all of the wonders of the world in which they were born.  A mere stop on the journey to the great and holy mountain where the throne room of the Most High sits in all splendor.”

The travelers began to gather around to hear Nem’s words, stunned by the implications of it.

“Are you saying this place is real?  That we are not just dreaming all of this?” one of my skeptics asked.

Ezra joined the gathering coming up from the courtyards below, having heard the words spoken from the balcony above.

“The Ancient Text has a way of reverberating and resonating in the heart and through the experience of all mankind.  It is why, ancient as it may be, it lives in parallel with our daily experience and takes on life answers as we live through time.  Prophecies given by the One may be spoken for both the moment at present and the moments ahead.  The same way words echo back to you and you experience them once, twice or many times.  When finality is spoken there will be a cessation, but if not, that word aptly spoken may rebound from life to life.  That is the nature of a Divine Text that is not limited by time or distance.  It is also why the cautions of the past can still be relevant for the future.  Why those truths written in the Surface World are pertinent here in our world.”

“But how are any of these things possible?  I do not remember anything like this in my place of worship back home.”

I then spoke up and offered an answer, “Is it possible that the limits we place on God are measured out only by our ability to receive them comfortably in the way we want to perceive the world?”

“What are you even saying?”

“I am merely asking if you are willing to conceive that the vastness of who God is might make you uncomfortable.”

Anger flickered in the questioner’s eyes.

It is hard to serve something more than the God of our understanding, but to only serve that kind of god, is to serve a caricature and trinket god, rather than The Almighty.  It is humbling to think that we so often need to downsize the One to fit into the limitation of our routine experience and once we have Him figured out only then we can serve Him, but that is our hubris.  An idol that I routinely stumble over while attempting to serve a God vastly bigger and grander than I could ever imagine.  My little shrine does nothing more than skin my shins, as I fall prostrate over it each time.

A verse from the Ancient Text arose from my memory and came to me in that moment:

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For His Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets.” [1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NLT]

Undistracted, I answered opening my palms in appeal, “If we would know a God greater than the limits of our understanding, we must become willing to yield to the fact that if there is a God worthy of service and have something to teach us, then He must by very nature be bigger than our understanding and never fit into the little box we attempt to coax Him into.  Imagine you are a father who lovingly dotes over his child, but the child willfully misbehaves.  Would it be right for you to reward the misbehavior by giving the child the gift you prepared and intended for them?  If not, is it possible that God as the perfect father has so many gifts He would lovingly bestow upon His children, but in His greater love for our well-being, chooses not to reward an unyielding heart that could have accomplished the good?  As He is a God of Justice, should He become unjust merely to reward an obstinate people?”

Ezra stepped to the head of the crowd and quoted the following passage from the Ancient Text, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:” [Acts 2:17 KJV]

“Nem and I have spoken many times about why after all these years, that Surface Worlders are showing up in our lands, through their visions and dreams, and why a prophecy seemingly fulfilled might also reverberate in these times, and we have come to only one conclusion.  Something of great import is about to happen in the Surface World and in this one, and the time is very near for it to commence.  The verse continues thus: “In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants–men and women alike–and they will prophesy. And I will cause wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below–blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and glorious day of the LORD arrives.” [Acts 2:18-20 NLT]

Nem stepped up beside him and joined, “If that forgoing verse were already complete, what event has served witness in the Surface World that could qualify as having both wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below?  This is what we mean by echoing.  Portions of the prophetic voice clarify to the hearer through the listener’s unfolding experience.  Prophecy is not given merely so that we might have the ability to know the future.  Prophecy is given so that we might know Who holds the future.”

The Black Tongue of the City – Chapter 22

Nem was a man of brawn and strength.  Ezra led us up the stair to the terrace overlook where Nem worked with attendants on a large miniature model of the city of Azragoth.  Ezra spoke privately to Nem, who cast glances back at us and then finally nodded.  Ezra brought Nem forward to meet us as we assembled along the outward balustrade of the terrace.

“O’Brian, I would like to present the governor of this region and the chief restorer of Azragoth.  This city stands as a testament to this man’s faithfulness and love for this city and his commitment to carry out the will of the One.  He will instruct you in the foundational ways and then bring you to me for the handling of your armaments.  He will answer the questions you have been seeking to understand.”

With that, Ezra stepped back and returned to the stairway leading down to the Warrior’s Court and Nem, arms clasped behind him, stepped forward taking in our measure with a keen eye.

“I am told you would know more of the Breathing Sword, but to understand it, you will need to know something of foundations.  That is where I come in.  For as you may see of our work here,” he said gesturing back to the scale modeled map of the city, “We are the rebuilders of Azragoth.”

“I am also told that you were brought in from the back wall of the city, so you have seen but a little of the work being done here.  As part of the cleansing, last evening, you will be somewhat familiar with the streets of the interior by now, but there is something more you must see.  We do not often allow visitors to Azragoth, so, as travelers, you should know that you have been given a certain dispensational privilege by the city council.  Further, you are Surface Worlders, which is even more irregular.  We have Surface Worlders among our citizenry, but they are few in number and not permitted to hold leadership positions here or intermarry with any of our clerics.  To live among us, they are required to adopt our ways and customs, even to the point, as necessary of leaving their own.  As we are a quarantined people we too are a set apart, people.  These are the terms upon which you are permitted to reside within our city and learn of our methods and ways here.  As you may have surmised we are a city rebuilding in secret.  Every lineage of every citizen is known here.  This city is mutually bound to one another and under covenant with each other.  Together, in the very heart of the city, we all pledged to this covenant, hand upon shoulder until the human chain reached the inner court with the central leaders placing their hands upon the honor sword of the city.  I was born in Azragoth but was taken from my home at an early age, before the plague killed many of our people.  I served in another court in Capitalia for many years until I was given leave and provisions to return and rebuild Azragoth.  I found it in horrible ruins.  Its city walls burned and breached.  Rubble filled the streets where I used to play with friends.  It was overgrown with thick vines and weeds covering its former glory with a sickly green shroud of death.  We were warned in each city of the plains and lake country not to return, that sure death awaited us if we ever found it, but I could not help but find what had become of my former hometown.  While staying in one of the towns, I was impressed to leave it under the cover of night without announcing my intentions to press onward.  I found it at last under the light of the moon.”

For a moment Nem was quiet, a mourning sadness creeping over his countenance, that made us feel his loss.

“Most of the people I had known were long dead.  Killed both by the Xarmnian attacks and the contagion.  Wild animals and strays from abandoned herds roamed the broken environs.  Donkeys brayed at night, their bleats and trumpeting echoed through the husks of decrepit buildings that partially stood among the blackened char.  Beams had collapsed under the raging fires so that no roofs remained in the dwellings that had any weight bearing capacity.  Seeing the mournful state, I was given a vision and a dream of what I must do to restore it.”

“I met Ezra on my journey and learned that he too had felt compelled to return to Azragoth and that he was to teach the ways of the sword there, as my mission was to restore its fortifications.  The city was to be resurrected from its ashes and reborn, but doing so under the Xarmnian edicts of quarantine would be extremely dangerous and would be seen as an act of insurrection and defiance.  We were fearful but had a strong calling and sense that this shared course was ordained by the One Master whom we could never deny.  To begin the process, we would have to be on our guard, and each fellow worker must be committed to fighting to see it accomplished.  So we joined forces and began our recruitment, seeking out the scattered former residents of Azragoth if there be any left.  Azragoth had once been a city of trade and protection for the region, and many born there had expanded into the regions and towns beyond it.  Because of the stigma attached to it, many of the Azragothians by birth chose to conceal their heritage among the towns in which they lived.  Azragoth was considered a town of death and cursed.  Its very name, if spoken, was only done so in a low whisper with ominous tones.  It had been the one major city that had defied Xarmni and refused to pay tribute, and its ensuing destruction had served as a warning to all of the other towns.  The Xarmnians made sure that was the story and lesson told.  But there was another truth, that those who had lived through those times knew.  Azragoth had neglected to keep to its founding and had failed to observe its own keep.  Relying rather on its prominence in trade and resulting wealth and its reputation as the city on the hill protecting all other lands below.  It had become a place complacent in a land of dangers.  Its clerics did little to dissuade or warn its citizenry until the great tragedy did the work for them.  They declared, Peace where there was no peace.  They declared safety, where the seeds of war were already bearing a fiery harvest.  They declared festival music to the tempo and backdrop sounds of war drums echoing in the surrounding hills.”

“So we and those who had traveled with us disperse into the surrounding towns to see what we could find and learn if there were any Azragothians left who would join us in the rebuilding effort.  We found a remnant, but not where we expected.  In what we thought was the dead heart of the city, we found people living in the shadows of the worn buildings.  These had witnessed the worst of the destruction of Azragoth but had miraculously survived it.  Maeven was one of them, but she was a visitor in Azragoth at the time of the invasion and in the days following the occupation and outbreak.  By all accounts, she should be dead.  She is an outworlder.  She has never left, and so we assume something has happened to her where she comes from in the Surface World.  She is perhaps the reason why the council has chosen to allow you Surface Worlders to stay.”

Nell spoke up, just then, “Not all of us are Surface Worlders.  There are at least two of the travelers, besides myself and my son, that are from these lands.  One is Capitalian, though he will not own up to it.  The other is from Skorlith in the Lake Country below, yet I believe he may be sent from someplace, not of his own choosing.”  Someone in the back of the crowd flinched at her words, but it was unclear who.

Nem looked to Nell and nodded.

“You are known to me, yet I do not remember from where.”

“We met in Sorrow’s Gate, many years ago when you and your company were traveling through.  I served you at the Inn where I worked with my brother Corimanth.”

“Ah, I remember,” said Nem, recognition widening his eyes and forming a smile, “You were the Seer.  The one who could sense connections between tales told and the people whose stories were being told.  A prophetess among the women.  You exposed the lies of Noadia when she tried to deceive us.”

“And for it, you and The Eagle took my brother from me?!”

Nem stood up straighter and took in a deep breath.

“You have not heard of why we intervened on his behalf?”

Nell stepped forward and stood defiantly before Nem.

“My parents died in this place.  Corimanth was all I had left.  I gave you the truth and you repaid me by enlisting my brother into your scheme and kept me in the darkness, grieving the loss of all I had that I could call my own.  What do you mean you intervened?!”

“Your brother and the others with him were soon to be discovered and would have been marked for death by the Overwatch.  The Xarmnians did not have a name but they would have soon discovered him because of the people.  We were seeking craftsmen and stonemasons, and all who had some connection with Azragoth or desired to see it restored to its former glory when it could have defended and intervened against the Xarmnians.  Emissaries had been sent to Capitalia, but by then the wall had made the only path to get there an attempted trek up over the mountains.  Few made it through, most were intercepted by Xarmnian patrols.  Of the ones who made it, few had knowledge of Azragoth, after the Xarmnian siege.  Capitalia is still feared and grudgingly respected by the Xarmnians.  An edict born by the kings of Capitalia once commanded respect and caution not to interfere with Capitalian messengers, but the Xarmnians are becoming more emboldened.  Your brother recognized that the Xarmnian’s maintained a wary distance from us when they learned we were from Capitalia.  When he came to us, he wanted to know why and if we were coming in response to the seemingly long ignored pleas for assistance.  He and the others tried to distract us and made a rather clumsy attempt to steal the golden bound scrolls we carried with us.  This effort was easily put down, and we could have turned him and the others over to the Xarmnian Overwatch, but we thought to have mercy.  Your brother’s anger was one of desperation.  He hated the Xarmnians for the death of your parents.  He was helpless in dealing with that rage so we offered them a bargain.  We enlisted their service and swore them to abide by our code, and we would spare them their lives, and in return, we would solicit aid from the Capitalians with whom we had grown in favor.”

“Then why does my brother wear a binding about his chest?  Where did he receive such injuries that he struggles to speak, and why is it that he has not communicated with me in many years?”

Corimanth emerged from the end of the courtyard terrace and walked forward to the gathering.

“I can answer that for you, Nellus.”

All eyes turned toward him.

“I trained here in Azragoth, yet kept some semblance of my weight in check.  I assisted with the rebuilding and was given a place here, should my mission succeed and I return from it.  My skill with a halberd developed and it became a weapon best suited for my size.  I was taught how to control my aggression and channel it for constructive use.  The Azragothians reminded me of what honor is and what it means to live with a noble purpose, the same as what father taught us.  Once the timber had been brought in from the back forest an opportunity opened for me to blend in with a gathering of young men being conscripted and marched back to Xarmni to serve in their armed court.  Swordsmen and spear throwers and archers were the most needed in their marching armies, but for palace guard duty, they wanted stout fighters skilled with halberds to stand watch by their doorways and council halls.  My proficiency proved useful to them so I was given a sentry post near the donjon.  Within they kept their sacred builder stone.  I had seen it through the doorway, a few times before.  We were given quarters in the wall units so that we could be close to hand at any alert sounded during the evening watch.  I served under a company of men, under the command of Captain Jahazah the Crusher.  He was a brutal and bloodthirsty man, known for mangling and crushing people through various means.  It was from him I received the wounds that require my binding.  I had to fight him the night the Lehi came for my report.  Thankfully, they were not far when he confronted me from the shadows, brandishing my own halberd.  I was slashed in the ribs before I was able to get it free from him.  We grappled and fell down stone steps, but the prideful Captain would not call out for the other guards.  He wanted to kill me himself.  He broke four of my ribs in a crushing squeeze.  I heard them snap and the pain was intense, but I was able to get free by striking him in the throat.  The Lehi returned and bear me up and into the darkness.  The last site I remember of the Captain, he was on his knees spitting up blood and coughing.  We were barely far enough away before he gained his voice enough to alert the other guards to pursue.  If it wasn’t for the Lehi, I would have been a dead man.  Travel was excruciating, but the Lehi were well-trained in field medicine, and when we were far enough away they dressed my wounds, staunched my blood, set and bound my ribs with this truss and tied me to my mount.  I am told I passed out several times during the journey, that I suffered feverish rants, and a sort of delirium until they found some medicinal plants to ease my suffering.”

“So, it was Corimanth who delivered the intelligence of what is happening with the Builder stones,” Begglar remarked.

Maeven stepped forward from the group and joined, “Yes.  I did not know he was Nell’s brother though, or I would have told you before.”

Nell shook her head in bewilderment, “Some seer I am.  All of this going on under my very nose, and I had no inkling of it.”

Begglar patted her affectionately, “Now don’t be too hard on yourself, Nellie dear.”

Nell carefully embraced her brother, tearful eyed, mindful of his wounding, “You’ve done me proud, Cori.  And no one can say less about it.  It was a brave thing you’ve done.  Foolish but brave, and just as courageous as father hoped you would ever be.  ‘Tis a shame they were not here to see it.”  More tears poured from her eyes as she held her brother, sniffling into his shoulder.  But then she pulled away and lightly cuffed him on the cheek, “But you could have told your sister something, stead of making me think as I was!”

Nem observed the exchange and then spoke to them, “Your brother now lives with honor.  He brought the secrets forth from the Xarmnian fortress.  He told us of the mysterious movements of the Builder Stones and what may come of it.  It is the reason we have sent The Eagle to the summit of Mount Zefat.  To study the terrain, see the positioning and progress of the tribes as they are drawn out following their stones and align their paths to see if what we all suspect is happening is true, and to predict the convergent points at which the conflicts may erupt between them.  The mountain of Zefat was appropriately named.  Zefat comes from an ancient language and means a place of outlook.  The mountain is situated in such a way it becomes a perfect vantage point for the whole region.  From its summit, one can see the whole of the plains, peek into the valleys beyond the hills, and see nearly all the Xarmnian towns and the wall separating the lands of Capitalia and the regions beyond.  It is by gathering and considering this direct intelligence that The Eagle may plan for the uprising that is to come.  Which brings us back to your training.”

“From this terrace, I could see you in the Warrior’s courtyard below.  Ezra usually begins his lessons with proper footing and foundation, and an awareness of the ground upon which you will face an assault.  The same is true in life as in all things.  To begin anything you need to fully understand and rely on where you are positioned.  You must have a certainty about it, a confidence before you lift your eyes to build or face your enemy.  By the same token, you must also have a sense of where your enemy stands and assess the relative strength or weakness of their positioning.  The same is true with buildings and fortifications.  And it is true of relationships as well.  Even those we think we know can fool us.  Rather than listening and perceiving, we run ahead into interactions based on assumptions derived from what we anticipate to be.  Take the example of Nell and Corimanth here.  If you’ll pardon me for the example, Nell.”

Nell nodded assent and Nem continued.

“I imagine as brother and sister, the two of you grew up knowing each other through many circumstances and at some point began to anticipate the responses and feelings of each other about your shared family life.  It was perhaps, I may suggest, that at this point your misunderstandings of each other and perhaps arguments began.  The point at which you became so familiar with each other that you ceased to listen and learn what each other was feeling.  Perhaps you, Corimanth, thought you knew how Nell might react to your anger over the loss of your parents and your frustrations over the complicity of the locals who yielded in fear to the Xarmnian butchers who brought about the deaths of those you loved.  You saw your thefts as a means of resistance, yet exposed the fear you kept hidden by preying on your fellow townsfolk, rather than directly upon the Xarmnians who oppressed you.  You held them in contempt for their unwillingness to resist the Xarmnians, yet your actions towards them showed that you held that very same fear that masked your secret shame.  You each dealt with your grief over your parents separately.  Corimanth with bottled up rage, and perhaps you, Nellus with a driving need to retain goodness in the midst of so much injustice.  This is perhaps why you discovered your ability to see, and sought out Noadia, to learn from the prophetess, more about the visions you were having.  It is also why when you learned that even your teacher, could be corrupted, you felt compelled to share with us, her deceit.  You needed honesty and integrity, and goodness to succeed.  It was perhaps, a service to the memory of your parents and the things they taught you before they were taken from you.  You as the older child felt the mantle of their legacy upon your shoulders.  Corimanth has often spoken of your parents.  While you held forth courageously, championing their legacy, he struck out in frustration ashamed of his cowardice to do anything else.  He assumed what you might think of him, and I daresay, you may have made assumptions about what he might have thought of you.  As you now know, Corimanth not only needed a way to honor your parent’s legacy, he also needed a way to bring honor to you.  A sister whom he dearly loved, yet so often disappointed.  He sought to protect you by not telling you of his mission, and he needed your misunderstanding as his cover. But when forces are joined and a mission is shared, each of you must depend on one another.  You need to come to understand each other, to communicate and function together if you hope to succeed.  You need to have a foundation upon which to build.  A foundation of faith in each other, and a sense of mutual trust and ongoing communication.  If you cease to communicate that leads to you making assumptions to fill in for lack of knowledge and that is a recipe for disaster and will doom your mission at the outset.  It is essential then, that before you embark on your quest you must first become a team that communicates well with each other.  Many of you are isolated and periphery to your group.  Very few of you have given your names, and so you have no identity and no clear function within the team you hope to assemble.  If you proceed this way, you are marching straight to your deaths.  You will need to share a belief in the goals of your mission.  You will need to gain confidence in one another by coming to know who you are and what skills and talents each of you bring to the team.  Because of the way we train here in Azragoth, you need to know something of the symbolism of the city and of the symbolism of your mission in this world and beyond it.  So please come and join me at the balcony.  I have something very important to show you.”

Nem motioned us to follow him and we gathered together at the balcony beyond the scaled city map, a high point of the city almost extending beyond the treetops of the surrounding forests.  The panorama was extensive, courtyards, market bazaars, terraces, shops, stables, fountains, gardens and small tree-lined parks formed the heart of the city inside the inner walls, with the arrayed homes facing the interior walls across a peripheral street that encircled the city.  Each rise was a bisection of concentric streetways that radiated from the central park down to the bastions built into sections of the interior wall.  the-ruins-of-the-2819250_1280Beyond the interior wall was a choke point of wildness, where vines and the encroaching forests had over the twenty years following the overthrow of Azragoth, breached the city and made the environs of the outer ring a fading reminder of the extent to which the city once presided on its forested hillock at the base of the plateaued cliffs beyond.  Beyond the old and abandoned barbican, still visible from its stone back, yet blanketed in vines and leafy carpets of kudzu, a stand of trees fronted the city, but with the green leafy blankets covering the outer wall, the city could not be seen beyond the line of trees in front of it.  An open field, grown wild with tall grasses spread out beyond the front path to the city, with any semblance of a roadway now covered and overgrown with lack of use.  The grassland had once been the field from which the Xarmnians had staged their assault.  The abandoned siege machines long since burned to ash with the consumption of the field and trenches of bodies of the dead.

Nem came to join me at the wall and spoke quietly to me before stepping back to address the assembly.

“When Ezra began his training in the courtyard below, he called you out as the leader.”

“Yes.”

“And when he called you out to stand and be armored for the demonstration, did you notice what was at your feet before he struck your leg and you fell?”

I turned to him unsure of what he was telling me.

“I thought not,” he continued, “Ezra will often give you a clue as to what is about to happen if you are listening closely to what he tells you before it happens.  Did he say anything about the ground upon which you were standing?”

I thought back and remembered, “Yes.  I believe he said we needed to be aware of the nature of the ground upon which we were standing.  And he said the blade is not the only weapon I bear,” I added, remembering the words spoken over me as I lay prostrate in the dirt after he swept my footing out from under me.

“He was correct,” Nem added, “He positioned you among anchor points staked into the ground, which you may not have noticed.  Pieces of wood staked into the ground which had you looked down you would have seen.  They are used to serve a purpose for foot placement.  A warrior stands with the lead foot against one anchor point, and his back foot against the other.  Had you positioned your steps accordingly, you would not have so easily fallen.  Had you kept a sense of the ground, even if you did not know the purpose of such staked blocks, you may have circled beyond them and retained your footing.  Also, as he said, the blade is not your only weapon.  Your sense of purpose should also be part of your drive, your cognizance of the nature of the assault and the countenancing of your opposition should also be part of your arsenal.  You must know that you must fight with your entire body, and not just your blade, and your mind should be as keen to what is going on as well.  As you are the leader of this band, it is critical that you learn the first lessons so that you may lead in them by example.  The Xarmnians are flesh and blood the same as you and me, but the monsters here have abilities that you must be aware of and fight with both with your mind and your soul under the empowerment of The Word, the first sword made into flesh that lives and breathes and is breathing still through you.  It is you, who are a breathing sword.”

He let that sink in for a moment.

“I am told you are familiar with the Ancient Text, and that you can call it to mind as circumstances present themselves.  This is essential when fighting the creatures that stalk our lands.  Do not let novices who have no understanding or familiarity with the Ancient Text attempt to fight the monsters of this land, or you will guarantee their defeat.  Only the Ancient Text will cause them to succeed, but they must know it enough to handle it against the mind assaults of their adversary.  Flesh and blood may be defeated with practiced skill, but the weapons needed to defeat the creatures are not made of metal and steel alone.  Their arrows of the mind cannot be turned by armor plating, finely linked chain mail or the parry of a masterfully wielded blade.  Do you understand this?”

“I do.”

“Then let’s begin.”

He stepped back from the railing and ascended a side stair to a platform with a stone balustrade.

“As you can see below, Azragoth has the appearance of deadness in its outer ring.  It is choked with vines, and unchecked growth of weeds and wild animals roam the crumbling streets and abandoned houses that once extended our city to the outer gates. Anyone entering the breached walls would think this city has no life remaining in it.  That Azragoth is, as the legends tell, cursed, abandoned and haunted by the long dead memory of its former splendor.  From all appearance, for those entering or stumbling upon our city while wandering the wilderness and forests, that would all appear to be true.  forest-371223_1280But beyond the outer deadness, there is an interior wall, separating the deadness from the life that is within.  The exterior side of that inner wall is coated with pitch and black tar.  Anyone touching it or attempting to scale that wall will become coated or soiled by it.  So too, anyone attempting to enter Azragoth’s interior, without entering a gate with a key will be stained as an imposter and spy, and our guards and citizenry will easily be able to identify them on sight.  Like the latent filth we routinely purge from under our city streets, that person will be marked for the death they bring upon themselves by attempting to breach the sanctity of our city.  No one comes to the inner gate without a long key.  No one puts their hand on the door without getting the dark pitch upon it, forever marking them as an enemy of the city.  Had anyone of you bore a black hand, you would have been executed by the doorway guards upon entry.  We cannot be too careful.  Azragoth is a city that has been reborn upon its ashes and is being renewed from within.  Its outer exterior is corruptible, but its interior is being strengthened and built up to endure.  The interior wall has been fortified and each family living in the outer courts has been responsible for the interior wall’s repair directly in front of their homes.  You might say, they have a very vested interest in making that portion of the wall very strong because it stands between them and the death rings beyond.  There is a passage in the Ancient Text that reads as follows:

“”Don’t you understand either?” he asked, “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” ” [Mark 7:18-23 NLT]

“For you see, in the same way, anyone unauthorized who enters will be easily made known and readily dealt with.  But the corruption coming from within and flowing outward must be addressed and purged.  That is why we cleanse the city and remove from us those things that might cause disease and death on a regular basis so that what is being built on the inside may not defile us.  Azragoth represents the body, soul, and spirit of mankind.  In a real physical way, we see it as being regenerated from within.  Like the body of man, the outward is corruptible and is on a constant journey towards death under the curse of all flesh and blood.  The body dies, but the soul and spirit remains and endures to serve an even greater purpose.  The filth that drains from our city streets is pushed to the edge of the interior walls and descends below the outer walls into a deep reservoir below the courtyards and streets beneath the dead sectors of the city and they fill the hollows of the outer wall with corruption.  The outer wall is full of the waste of the city.  It is why the people have withdrawn from it and live beyond the inner wall.  The outer wall has been repaired enough so that this filth seeping within does not flow back into the city or the protected interior.  Anyone walking in the outer rings is walking mere feet above the buried moat of filth that flows out of the city.  Should the city of Azragoth ever faces siege assault again, the attackers will be forced to contend with breaching the outer wall and in so doing will meet their death in such an attempt.  In case of a breach, the waste will spill onto the outer field and woods beyond the gates of the city creating a murky slough of disease and plague, killing all who approach it.  The black tongue of Azragoth will flow from the breach, licking them up in death as it spreads across the field beneath the grasslands and flows through the stands of trees that line it outer gates.  Once outside of the city, if you ever think to return to Azragoth from the south, be warned that you will surely die it you approach it after seeing the black tongue upon the golden fields.  Such filth will kill the trees and grass, and all manner of man or beast which go before it.  It is only by going through the narrow way that you may ever return to us once that black tongue goes forth.”

The Breathing Sword – Chapter 21

“Every warrior who faces an enemy must first learn how to stand,” Ezra began, after we had finished our breakfast in the dining hall and were assembled in an area known as the Warrior’s Court, “And in doing so, they must be aware of the nature of the ground upon which they are positioned.”

The evening before had been a humbling and learning experience for most of us, but for some, it had been angering and humiliating.  I had heard more than a few muttered complaints from my fellow travelers and a couple of barely veiled threats from two, whom I could not yet tell if their words were seriously meant of in groused jest.  One had lost their shoes, in the cleansing exercise.  Angry, vigorous use of the Monk’s spade had caused the muck to slosh out of the trench and spattered their footwear.  Because of the smell of the vile, putrefying filth, the person’s shoes had to be removed and burned.  They were given replacement footwear that was actually better than the shoes they had surrendered to the fire.  The person was humbled, apologetic and grateful for the gracious treatment they were given by the elder and Azragothian citizens who witnessed their ordeal and did not remark upon the person’s barely disguised frustration at being asked to perform the cleansing with them.  I was told that the elder herself, knelt down and helped them remove their contaminated footwear, and a basin was brought, and to the traveler’s surprise, the elder washed and cleansed their feet, despite their protest.  The person was so moved by the gesture, that for the remaining journey through the streets they worked diligently and respectfully alongside the elder and pondered what the work here signified.  This morning, after a night spent in reflection, the person, a man in his mid-thirties, came to me at breakfast and introduced himself to me, and gave me his name and told me of his experience.

“Mr. O’Brian,” he said, “I want you to know that I am with you in what you are doing here.  I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am.  There is something about this journey, this quest that I need to be part of, to learn more about.  These people here are unlike most of the people I encounter in my waking life in the Surface World.  If they have stories to share they are worth knowing about.  If we can save some of them, they need to be given that chance.  So I want you to know, that my name is James, and that you can count on me,” and he extended his hand.

I was moved and touched, and could not speak for a moment, but took his hand and clasped it in grateful friendship.

“Thank you,” I managed to say, and he nodded his understanding, perhaps seeing in my eyes the more heartfelt, articulate words I wanted to say but left unspoken.  As he turned to go join the others in the breakfast line, I pondered what the Azragothians had shown us as well, something that had a more meaningful dimension to it.

My conclusion was this:

Underneath the surface of each of our lives, buried in hidden tunnels beneath the streets of our daily experience, there is a stream of vile filth that ebbs and flows in the human heart.  Many move through life, unaware of it, taking no notice until the detritus in the tunnel builds and leaks out or unleashes a plague of devouring rats into our lives that wreak havoc and misery.  Our illusions of our surface-self break down until we are forced to confront the source of the plague, and deal with it in some fashion, or succumb to its deadly consequences due to our neglect.  To deal with it alone makes us susceptible to disease which will ultimately take our lives and destroy us in the process.  We require something more than our own efforts.  Something that will protect us from the certain contagion.  It must be dealt with if we are to survive it.  There is no moving away from it, for the outside world has quarantined us, and someone is bound to eventually recognize us if we try to leave it behind.  We cannot hope to survive if we do not recognize its danger to our own life as well as to the lives of those around us.

What was it that Maeven had said?  And as if upon command, her words suddenly came back to me again…

We held to the hope in those words and believed in their promise.  When no man or woman could save us and we only had One left to trust in…we chose to believe His words.  And they came true for all of us who chose to and dared to believe them.”

The implications were clear.  Belief and Faith had brought about their present Salvation and with it, their present immunity, to the extent that they were able to handle and remove the dead from their city without also succumbing to the disease that had taken those lives.  A word from the Ancient Text came back to me.

“I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” [Psalm 119:11 NLT]

Maeven had recited her Ancient words from memory.  Clearly, they had taken root in her heart and coupled with belief, a miracle had been brought forth into her experience.  Had she caused the miracle?  No.  No one can decide to become immune.  But had she permitted it? Most certainly.  The One who had promised it fulfilled it.  The Word had become experiential in the flesh.  Another verse of the Ancient Text came to my aid:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:14 NASB]

The promise given of those ancient words took root and by faith Maeven and the others in Azragoth at the time had survived and saw the glory of that miraculous survival come to fruition.

Another verse sprang to my moment of reflection.

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” [John 15:7 NASB]

What does it mean to abide?  That point is of critical importance.  And it is pivotal in learning how to conduct warfare here in the sub-world.

“”Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” [John 15:4 NASB]

Evil, war, disease, famine, pestilence, and death roam these environs and have done so for centuries.  Yet hope persists, and life continues its struggle.  What is it that makes the struggling worthwhile?  That gives life meaning in the face of such vicious obstacles to it?  The only possible answer that I could see was in the abiding.  And within that abiding is a call to a purpose that gives will and empowerment for the journey.

It was interesting to me that these veins of filth that run underneath were called gullets.  The term was essentially synonymous with a throat with which something is swallowed or expelled in as much as it was a water channel.

So too, as both good and bad make their liquid passage, so also a person may speak good or bad by the same measure.

One would expect, as in the customs of the Surface World, that guests would be well received and permitted to share in the finer things, and be shown the best vistas of the city to bring forth praise and honor to the hosts for their largess.  But here in Azragoth, we were shown the unseemly side of the city.  We were taken in by a guarded reception, yet shown the vileness that remains, even within a resurrected city.  This was no place for tourism, assuredly so.  And our intentions were soberly measured by our reaction to such treatment.  As I have said before, but it bears repeating, “Everyone is not your friend.”  This is a lesson taken to heart in Azragoth.  And so with it, the words of the Ancient text offer their clarity to me:

“Counsel in the heart of man [is like] deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out. Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” [Proverbs 20:5-6 KJV]

Only by acts of faithfulness, will the evidence of good intentions be made known.  These elders were plumbing the depths of deep waters, to see what would be stirred up.

Ezra and the six other council members and Corimanth had led us into the Warrior’s Court for yet one more test.  A test of our mettle and raw, untrained skill.  What the men and women of Azragoth, did not know, however, is that in our younger days, both Begglar and I knew far more about warfare than we were telling.  With some reluctance, I had taken the honor sword from the grove, but my hand was not unfamiliar with the feel and heft of a sword.  At one time, I had almost vowed never to pick up one again, but that would have been a fool’s promise.  I knew that I must, and the days had come again where such timing was ripe for it.

A table, covered by a large cloth was spread out before us, with a large array of weapons laid across its surface.  Many of the weapons we had collected from the granary storehouse were there, as well as the packs and rolls we had brought and secured to our horses upon arrival.  We had been treated fairly yet warily, as any citizenry living in secrecy might, but we were in no wise ready for gladiatorial sparring, as yet.

Ezra, the head of the council and the mayor of the city, served more than a ceremonial role in Azragoth’s reason for existence.  Azragoth was now more than ever, the chief training grounds for people willing to join the resistance against Xarmnia.  It maintained fighting schools and was home to many fine instructors in the art of martial warfare.  Azragoth was a veritable hornet’s nest of lethal warriors preparing for the call to arms that they knew must one day come.

I listened more carefully as Ezra continued to speak.

“If you have the ability to choose the ground upon which you must fight, do so wisely.  Choose ground even and level, or if only a graded slope is present, choose the higher ground.”

As he spoke he approached the table of weaponry.

“Choose a weapon suited best to your ability, that mitigates your weaknesses.  If you are a strong fighter, choose a blade according to the reach of your arm, yet do not select one that is overlong that will fatigue you bearing it forth.”

He hefted a long-bladed rapier

“No sword is more valuable than the hand that wields it.  Therefore you must consider the strength and grip and protection you have for your lead hand.  Feel the heft of the blade.  Get a sense for its balance.  It should become an extension of your arm.  Consider how your hand fits around the grip.  Does the pommel extend too far, such that it binds as you rotate your wrist and the blade?” he said, demonstrating with a slashing motion.

“A rapier is held at length,” he said, extending his arm wrist upward,“Like so.”

“Legs extended,” he leaned backward, bending his front leg at the knee, extending his back leg,“ balancing your weight off center, with your foreleg taking more load than the back, bracing your stance.”

“Always keep your legs no closer than two feet apart, hip distance wide, so that you may pivot or cast your weight into the thrust and slash of your attacking blows.  Your feet only come together at the recovery or briefly in a pass or gather step.”

He demonstrated the move, shifting the sword into a strike and then an aerial parry, while keeping his fore-weight shifted ahead and rounding fluidly with the blade tilted, dipping and sweeping in an upward arc.

“You will want to keep your back foot angled perpendicular to the knee of your front lead leg, maintaining a straight line with your torso and your back leg for stability as much as possible.  Your front knee is your direction of travel.  Your weight should rest on the balls of your feet, rolling heel to toe with each forward lunge.”

“Precision and positioning are built upon practice and persistence. Every fighter must quickly assess their opponent.”

Then, without warning, or pause he swept a long sword from the table of weapons and threw it hilt first at me.

I reacted on instinct, rather than thought and caught the handle in my right hand, raising the tip of the blade, spinning the hilt so that the crossguard aligned parallel to my thumb, my left hand joining the grip near the pommel.

Ezra, noted the fluidity of the catch and addressed me before the group.

“Mr. O’Brian, you have handled a blade before, I see.”

I made eye contact, but only slightly nodded.

“As I have stated before, you have accepted the responsibility as the designated leader of this party.  It is by your example, that these who follow you shall be trained.  Kindly join me.”

In a side glance, I happened to catch Begglar, grinning from ear to ear as I walked forward from the group.  I think he was enjoying this a bit too much.

Armorers came to either side of me, pulling a shirt of mail over my head, snapping and locking rerebrace plates over my upper arms and shoulders and slipping a large brigandine cover over it to hold the pieces in place.  I was given gauntlets, with thick leather armguards which I quickly donned and reestablished my grip on the sword I had been given.  Ready or not, I was about to demonstrate the further extent of my knowledge and experience, or else be reminded of the limits of my abilities and shown the folly of not keeping in practice.

Ezra, took up the rapier again, and I stood before him bearing the long sword.

“Duel fighting and melee combat techniques differ.  The enemies you will face will most likely be in the latter, so you must learn to move in coordinated fashion, striking for a quick kill, without striking down those who are fighting with you.  You will not often fight an armored opponent for most of the armies consist of conscripted warriors, and the steel used for their war equipment is used more in the weaponry rather than in protective vestments.  An attack may come upon you at any moment, so you must be ready for it.”

Suddenly, Erza’s rapier slashed out and rang with a metallic snap against my armored epaulet, before I could raise my sword and parry the blow.  Instinctively I crouched, but Ezra moved in and turned my bent knee with a swift kick of his foot and I reeled and fell face forward onto the ground, stunned.

“The blade is not the only weapon you bear.  Keep that in mind.”

He offered his hand and helped me up again.

“You fight making use of your whole body for combat.  Look for a weakened structure.  Kick at a knee, punch at and unguarded stomach, catch an elbow and shove upward to throw your opponent off balance.  Look for any opportunity to cause your opponent to trip, hyper-extend or lose footing.  Few enemies are able to fight from the ground up, so press your advantage if you can gain it.  If you cannot pierce the body, or slash at the head of your opponent, let your blade slide the length of your enemy’s blade and attack the off-hand.  Work to disable you attacker, and then press your advantages for the quick kill.  To longer the fight, the sooner you will fatigue and succumb in the next bout of protracted fighting.  Be aware of each other, come to each other’s aid and provide relief when possible.  Close ranks and expand ranks around the fatigued or fallen so that they may rest, recover or rise to rejoin the fight.  And in battle, you must never fight under your own name.”

That last statement took everyone by surprise.

“What do you mean by that?” the one who had identified himself as Will asked.

“Your names give you presence here in these lands, but there is but One name that gives you power here.  And under that name, you will be called sons and daughters, and in connection with that you will be covered by the Authority of the One name that is above every name given.”

“You seem to speak in riddles, sir,” added Will, “We do not follow your meaning.”

Ezra looked from me to Will and then to the group gathered, “Perhaps, combat training is secondary and premature.  If you and these others do not first understand what it means to live, then how is it that you plan to place yourselves in harm’s way and hope to survive?  Have you no knowledge of the Breathing Sword?”

“You’ve spoken of this before.  Tell us plainly what you mean by it.”

Ezra looked to me and asked, “You have not spoken to them of the Ancient Text?”

“I have,” I answered, “but being as we are Surface Worlders, it is difficult convincing the modern mind that the key to their survival lies with the Ancients.  We all struggle with the idea that we have progressed and have greater understanding than our forebearers.  Our cultural paradigm is breaking with respect for elders and passed on traditions.  We are being uprooted and carried by the winds of change, and our kind withers and dies as a result.  Family structures are being broken down.  Fathers abdicate their responsibilities to their children.  Our world is suffering under a pandemic of moral decay.  It is difficult to speak of values that sustain a culture when their frame of reference is being broken down.  To teach a truth that is other than their own experience.  Our world has begun to make concessions for this diabolical phenomenon.  When there are differences, rather than seek understanding and resolution, we agree to disagree.  We fracture our communities along ideology.  We suspect, accuse, justify and cover.  We feel the need for civility, yet we build no foundation for it.”

“If that is the case, then no amount of skill will prepare these for the monsters here.  They may fight the Xarmnians, but the monsters will subdue them.  Those creatures fight the mind and strike at the heart as well as the body.  There is no parrying the invisible blades that will cut them down.  They need to build up an arsenal of truth.”

Ezra lowered his sword and placed it back upon the weapon table.

“It is time you met Nem our city builder.  Before we can build up warrior skill we need to have a foundation upon which to build.  He will conduct your training until you are ready for mine.”

“But what is the Breathing Sword?”

“It is not a what.  It is a Who.”

Detritus and Scree – Chapter 20

It begins with brokenness.

Have you ever noticed that at the base of a powerfully, towering, granite mountain there are crumbling and broken pieces of rock and gravel?  Have you ever imagined that the rounded, gradually rising foothills that lead up to the massive mountain you see in the distance, might have been the covered-over layers of such broken rock and gravel?  Broken pieces laid down, layer upon layer, year after year, packed with sediment, and washed with rain and dew, until a carpet of green cover it, and trees found their way up through the captured soil to sprout and aspire to heights in the shadow of the great mountain?  Those trees have a root system that grapples with the buried rock that once was the brokenness of the mountain we see today.  Mountain folk call it scree.  When things wash up on the shore of a beachhead, or lake, the term used by folks in the sea or lake country is detritus.  With enough detritus, year after year, as sand and waves push over and upon it, an island can form where once there was only a submerged reef or rocky shoal.  Both Scree and Detritus are the leavings of something that once occupied another time and space.  So too a life is much like that.  We must become broken to allow the mountain to rise from the flat land and the island to arise from the sea.

When we finished our meal and the tables were cleared away, Corimanth let us out of the refectory up steps and onto to a balcony just barely extending over the tree line.  He heard me remark upon the scene of mountains in the distance, rising on the other side of the large valley below beyond the great lake reservoirs.  On the edge of the lake, we could see the small tree line of a chain of islands just off the distant shore.

“Interesting,” he commented quietly, off to my right, gazing out into the distance, “Your perspective is much farther reaching than mine was.  You may find much in common with The Eagle if you have the chance to meet him.”

“How do you mean?”  I asked, truly interested in what he was thinking.

He gestured away from the fore view to extending walls of Azragoth, which from this balcony, we could see were much broader, taller and thicker along the backwoods section of the city than in the front area near the Barbican.

“Notice the broad walls there, and the wide allure way on top of the rampart.  Those walls were newly fortified, just a year before the Xarmnians took the city.  Do you know why?”

I shook my head, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

He gestured upward, towards the cliff-side towering massively above the back way, its jagged stone faces catching the dim light forming almost an angry scowl down upon the city of Azragoth.

“What you said earlier.  Scree.  There is a fault line running up the side of the mountain ledge’s face.  The area is broken, and part of the massive rock have slid partway down the mountain.  Eventually, that weight will break and crush the stone below it.  Water pools behind the slabs with each rain, and it trapped there.  Winters freeze it, and the forming ice further fissures the rock as the melting and freezing cycle drives water deeper into the jagged cracks in the rocks below.  Azragoth was a prospering city, growing faster than was ever planned for when the land was first cleared.  It was built, perhaps too close to the mountain edge and cliff-side.  One evening the original wall was smashed open when a heavy rain loosed a great slab that slid and tumbled down the mountain, breaching the wall and killing the people that lived in the apartments just below it.  They had believed they were in the safest place in the city, far from the main gates, and the postern gates.  Yet they died in a sudden tragic moment because of…scree.”

I pondered that a moment.  Such a terrible image of the wall crashing down through wooden beamed ceilings, burying those people in the rubble and rock.  Azragoth had had more than its fair share of tragedy.

“Yet out of that tragedy, the back wall was rebuilt and fortified, thicker and taller than it had ever been before.  You might say the backend of the city is far stronger than any other place within these walls.  It is where Maeven and some of the other children hid with the cleric and his family so long ago.  Ironically, sheltering in the very shadow of prior deaths.  You didn’t know that, did you?”

I shook my head, “No I did not.”

“And as to detritus,” he continued after a reflective pause,” there is a custom here observed by everyone of adult age who stays here in our fair city.  It is one, which might cause the people you lead to protest having ever come here.  It is not one we particularly enjoy, but it serves its purpose to remind us of what lead to the plague that killed most of our citizens as well as the occupiers.  Maeven may already have told you of the time and dispensation we received from that tragedy.  We are now into our twentieth season.  A costly dispensation purchased in blood, but began as a foolish oversight.  Our city is served by a series of cisterns in the public square.  These are fed by the rivers flowing from the highland, down through the forests and breaks and into the lower valley basin below.  Our town, like any other town faced the problem of removing waste from the village streets without spoiling the fresh water spring fed wells we all drank from.  Long ago a series of trenches were dug under the street pavements, and gutters were created to wash out refuse beneath the city.  Every street in the city has a small canal of waste water running beneath flat paver stones on the lower edge of the street.  Mortared barrel tiles form their lining.  We call these waterway trenches ‘gullets’.”

He braced himself against the balcony balustrade, looking down into the city streets below.

“Early designers of the city of Azragoth diverted veins from the river Trathorn forming a small branched canal that feeds water to the closed city for this very purpose.  Over time, these gullets were taken for granted.  Water made its way in, under the city walls, and ran down into the sewage gullets and its flow pushed waste water underneath and out of the other side of the city and down the valley.    The cesspits from the garderobes also flow down into the gullet canals so you can imagine the vile filth that builds up down there.  Left to neglect, detritus had built up in the gullets over time, greatly restricting the amount of water that flowed through them.  As the raw sewage built up in the gullets it attracted the woodland rats, which entered the city through these gullet canals.  These rodents lived and bred by the thousands in the sewage, stealing out in the evenings to forage for whatever rubbish and refuse spilled from the market carts or collected in the rubbish bins behind homes and tavern halls which did not make it down into the sewers.”

Here he turned and looked at me.

“Detritus does not just wash up on a beach or riverbank, you know.  It can be anything, from loose rock to limbs flowing down a river…or canals servicing the rubbish-drains beneath a city.”

He paused.

“This is where our custom comes in.  It is a service we all perform in remembrance of those who passed.  Something I was told to bring you and your people to, before meeting with the council.  Ever new thing is built with or upon something broken.  Buildings rise, but before they can the ground must be broken to hold a foundation.  Every stone wall is built of broken rock.  Every sprouting seed is planted in and arises from broken ground.  Every new working idea most often follows upon the heels of many failures.  This is what it will take for your people to learn to be warriors in a dangerous land.  As you say, mountains rise from the land by breaking through the topsoil, when all that is underneath them is in upheaval.  It took a terrible disaster to teach us this.  A master’s work starts with small broken pieces, and is brought together and refashioned into something more than can be imagined.  This is the lesson of Azragoth.”

From the balcony, we were led down another series of steps to a central courtyard where most of the main streets radiated from around a circular central hub with a wide open area and projecting galleries and shops lining the headings of each block.  We assembled around Corimanth and Morgrath and the others soldiers, their swords sheathed for the moment, as townsfolk poured into the stone park from side streets and shops.  This was the marketplace were the first incidents had happened.  This was the starting place for it all.  The vendor carts had all been covered and locked down and rolled off to the various homes and stall ways.  Shopkeepers had brought all of their wares into the shop alcoves for the night.  The area was open, and the sea of brightly colored tent canopies were all folded and put away for the evening.  But for the people, the open-area market was stowed for the night and the crowd had dutifully assembled to perform the custom that Corimanth had spoken of.  Children watched from the balconies and peripheries, familiar with what would happen shortly, but we were still unaware.  A delegation of men and women, in clothes seeming more in line with collecting houses and lenders, came forward through a parted pathway, from a pavilioned terrace.  Each carried before them a large pole with a half-mooned metal blade affixed to the end of each pole, that was mired in blackened filth and smelled awful.  The citizens of Azragoth revealed small metal hooks from their sides, with a blunted and flattened tip.  They moved along the side of each street at the low leeward end of the thoroughfare.  From the radiating center of the courtyard, we could see citizens lining each of the radiating streets from the city center to beyond the view where each street curved away, following the natural contour of the ground upon which the city was built.

I leaned into Begglar, as he and Nell and Dominick were the only ones in our company, save Maeven, who might be aware of what was about to transpire.  In a few more hours, the land would grow dark, and I was not sure of what was coming.

“What do you know about this custom?”

Begglar shook his head, “It has been many years since I have been to Azragoth.  Much has changed.  My trips were only day trips, so I have never had the occasion to be here at dusk.  Nell does not visit here for obvious reasons.  Dominick usually comes with me to help load the wagon, but we have not had the ability to come since the Xarmnians have occupied our highlands.  Whatever trade had been done was meted out by the Xarmnians and we’ve always received the short-end of those deals.  We had no idea Corimanth was even here.  I’m sure she and he will have much more to say to each other in private.”

A gray-bearded man stepped up upon a raised dais in the center of the courtyard and raised his arms for attention.

The crowds around us began to quiet down as all attention focused upon him.

“This evening we have guests in our midst who are unfamiliar with our customs here.  They are here on trial and tonight they will be tested as they join us in this evening’s duty to our citizenry.  You all are familiar with this practice, but for the benefit of these newcomers, I will explain it only briefly before we begin.”

Here he looked down among the crowd and Corimanth pointed me out in the congregation to him.

“You there!” he said gesturing to me, “I am told you are called O’Brian.”

“Thanks,” I muttered under my breath to Begglar.

To which he almost cheerily responded, “Don’t mention it.”

In a louder voice, I answered the gray-bearded man, “I am.”

“Do you vouch for these others you are travelling with?  And are you prepared to be held personally responsible for their actions in our city, as the one who leads them?”

The eyes of those travelling with me on our shared quest turned to me expectantly.

The pressure was on, and they and the townsfolk and the leaders all awaited my answer.

Never let it be said that leadership is an enviable role, when the weight of its implied responsibility is laid heavily and squarely upon one’s shoulders.  What the man was asking of me, was a tall order, and would be even for a captain who had led seasoned soldiers into battle whom he knew by experience could be trusted.  Those I led in fellowship were by and large unknown to me.  I only knew them to be a party of the willing, some of which had already questioned my methods and judgement and who had no knowledge of what I was capable of, or where exactly I was leading them.  Only two had entrusted me with their names.  Three if you counted Laura, who had left our company to return to the Surface World.  One, the young man called Will, had given me his name grudgingly.  Three of our company had deserted and turned back, two of these were slain by the Protectorate guards, as we had together witnessed, and the other was presumed dead as well.  Only Christie had without hesitation given me her name, though my actions in our confrontation with the Troll had not warranted her trust.  It was a hard thing, being asked of me, but one I knew I must be willing to do and take, if I was to lead them any further.  I once asked myself if I would be willing to die to protect them.  If that is the ultimate stand for leadership, this act of vouching for them was a call to bravery, and a test of my own mettle and will to commit to what needed to be done.

As I looked from each of their expectant faces, at once nervous, and tense, I then turned to the elder and clearly gave my answer.

“I will.”

It was time that I put some faith in them, if I expected them to put any trust in me or the calling to which I strove to fulfill.

“So be it!” the elder answered after a pause.

“You are all witnesses,” he spoke to the citizenry of Azragoth within hearing of his voice.

“Tonight and every night at the close of a week since that terrible sickness that took many from us, years ago, we perform this service to our city and for our posterity, a cleansing of the vile filth that runs beneath us.  You among us, unfamiliar with this will learn and participate with us in this cleansing.  We have over time come to refer to this process as ‘Cleaning the baby’.”

Citizens around us chuckled as we newcomers looked from one to the other in puzzlement.

“Like any helpless child, an infant naturally soils itself during the course of a day.  Some children, more than most.”

Laughter broke out and the crowd seemed to be enjoying their shared joke.

“Corimanth was to have told you how our city came to have been ravaged by a plague of disease carrying rats.  That these vile creatures came upon us from the gullets and gutters of this town.  So each night at the close of a week, we observe the following practice before retiring for the evening.”

The man nodded to those carrying the poles with half-moon blades and they fanned out into the crowd coming to stand before each of our party, holding the vile smelling instruments.

“These men and women who stand before you now, bearing the rakes,” he continued, “will direct you by example to perform the ritual with us down each of the main streets of our city.  Watch what they do, and prepare yourselves to take over their duty, alternating upon each street until we come to the walls of the inner curtain.  There the gullets deepen and expand below the killing fields and there our evening duties will end in the dead sectors of city.  No one is to go beyond the inner curtain wall.  Citizens of Azragoth, you each have your duties.  Assist these newcomers as need be, but do not perform the task for them, when it is their turn.  You have your orders.”

And then, in a louder voice, he gave the charge to all, “Now.  Let them be opened!”

The sudden cacophonous sound of metal striking thousands of stones echoed around us, and the sound cascaded through the streets of the city, startling us as we witnessed the use to which the citizens were putting their long metal hooks.  Paver stones lining the gutters were being wedged and levered upward as the flat bladed of each metal hook were driven into the grooved edge between the mortared and cobbled stones of the street and gutter.  A vile, putrescence smell arose from the overturned and exposed gutter running beneath the upended stones, and each of our Azragothian guides called us to attention to watch what they would do next.

The gray-bearded fellow, who had spoken to us from the central dais, descended carrying his own pole with that vile blackened half-moon blade drifting downward as he approached.

“Follow me,” he said, as he neared me, and I made my way after him, as he approached the tapering end opening to the vile smelling trench.  A stream of greenish water ran from a recessed pipeline made of puddled barrel tiling and a sluicing levered gate controlled the flow of water fed into the vile underground trench.  The water from the sluice was fairly clear, but as it progressed down the slanted trench the more clouded and greenish it became.

The elder man pivoted and dipped the curved end of his blade into the water so that the blades edges fit within the curved bottom of the trench.  He shifted the pole in his hands and worked his hand further back to grip nearer the end of the pole.  He turned to me and with his free hand extended, he formally introduced himself.

“I am called Ezra.  I am the head of the council of Azragoth, and also the leader here and mayor of the city.  I have a singular philosophy of leadership, not shared by most men and women in places of prominence, and it is simply this:  A leader is the first in line willing to do what he expects others to learn by his example.  And so I have done, for over fifty-seven years of my life.  I have been where I have asked others to go.  I have done, what I have asked others to do.  These are the things that have brought me success as a leader, and the respect required to maintain it.  These are lessons you would be wise to learn if those sojourning with you are to follow you in trust.  If you do not first commit to them, why should you expect them to commit to you and entrust their safety to you?”

Time for me to take some of my own medicine, I thought.  But there was wisdom in the man’s words, so I took his hand in a clasp of trusting goodwill.  There was much I needed to learn, and I was pleased and astounded, that the one teaching me to lead was also the one teaching me humility by his very example.

“Now watch closely.”

He began to scrape the bottom gently, causing the blackened and green sludge to rise and cloud the trench water, as he moved the pole down the gullet way.  Water sluiced past and began to carry the vile sludge forward, and the citizens on either side of us flipped and set back each paving stone into place as we passed them, and I learned the skillfully demonstrated technique.

Together we worked the trenches, shoveling and pushing muck further down the gullets, me working the moon-toothed pole and blade he called a ‘Monk’s spade’, and alternating with him when I became fatigued.  The knotted and corded muscles in his arms, as he worked the blade through the sludge and muck, sluicing the day’s accumulation down ahead of us, belied his age.  This man was not only a leader, but a laborer and potentially a warrior in his own right, so very different from politicians I was familiar with in the Surface World.  A doer, not just a talking point.  Pavers were turned and then resealed, some individually, some cleverly pivoting upon a hinge and winch system of ropes and wooden pulleys, exposing larger sections of the gullet trench, thereby speeding our progress.

I wondered how the others were faring with their leads.  Over the course of our labor, I learned that this duty was performed once per week and that each of the others leading the effort were elders of the city council.  I was asked many questions, as I am sure the others were as well, and it seemed to me that this was both a disarming and clever way to both test and discover our commitment, intentions and our individual character in short order.  The council could have just as easily, brought us before them and listened to our designated spokesperson, but they would never truly know us until they worked alongside us and made a direct observation on what was an unseemly and very humbling duty.

I better understood the playful metaphor the elder had made about ‘Cleaning the Baby’.  This job was a labor of love, just like any mother’s or father’s task would be in cleaning their soiled infant.  It wasn’t pleasant, it smelled horrid, and the best thing to do was just to get in there and get it done, but be thorough about it, all the while knowing that the precious child wiggling and squirming about, has no idea what this unpleasantness must be done for them.  It is a thankless duty, but a nurturing, loving parent does it in spite of how tired they may feel or repulsed by the extent of it.  They may be finely dressed for an evening out, or attired in sweats and a badly faded T-Shirt, they still perform it because their child has a need for it.  So too, the city of Azragoth was a town that suffered greatly, but its community of suffering brought its people together in a way nothing else could.  Its long-dead former leadership, had neglected the upkeep of the city and sought only to become a great commercial center for the area.  It welcomed all but forgot that it was regarded as the city on a hill performing an over-watch for the smaller towns below.

When our duties finally led us to the inner walls of the city, we closed up the last paver-stone over the deeper gullet way, and Ezra, the city elder turned to me.

“The Monk’s spade,” he said, lifting the blackened blade from the ground, “serves both as tool and a weapon.”

He turned the blade slowly as he lifted and pivoted the pole, letting water drain off of its slick black surface.  The edge of the blade shown silver despite the darkening twilight, its scraped surface sharpened against the bottom of the gullet pipeline we had followed through our course through the city streets.

“Any weapon you take up, you must learn its duality and how to use it to serve both purposes with equal skill.”

The moon-shaped arcs at either side of the blade hissed as he swung the pole in a slashing arc, then caught the pole in a sweeping motion, it blade gleaming in the lowering sun.

“This blade is now one of the seven deadliest blades in the city.  Your people followed the other elders who carried the remaining six.”

He fixed his gaze on me evenly.

“This blade is not deadly because of its present handler, nor because of my skill in its use as a fighting weapon.  It is deadly because its blade has been through the sickness and sins of this city.  A mere scratch from this blade will kill a man because it is a vile weapon used for the purposes we have served here.”

“Consider well the weapons that may be used against you and your company.  Do not rely on your own ability or become complacent in the lack of ability of another.  It is the nature of a weapon employed against you that should cause awareness and your plan of countering it or evading it.  Many skilled and practiced warriors have been felled by novice opponents.  You and your travelers must learn to counter many different types and ways of attacking.  So whatever weapon you choose, you must learn the method for which you will counter and turn the danger of another.”

Ezra executed a posture of assault and then defense, spinning the deadly blade this way and that, deftly handling the pole both mid and end ranged along the shaft.

“But most importantly,” he added, with a flourish and then a slash that landed and sliced in the ground mere inches from his own feet, “be wary that your own blade, does not fell you.”

He stepped away from the blade and the pole, now swaying with the force of the impact, its blade driven deep between the stones of the cobbled street.

An attendant came forward and struggled to remove the blade from between the stones, and with some effort was eventually successful.

Ezra extended his arm and guided me in walking with him as we returned to the market courtyard.

“That is enough for the evening.  Let us retire.  Apartments have been prepared for you and your travelers.  Tomorrow, you and your company will learn of the Breathing Sword.  Now, it is time, my friend, that we all had a bath and a good night’s rest.  There will be much to do in the morning.  My captain of the army, whom we call The Eagle is expected to return any day now.  He will guide you through to the Lake Country and around the movements of the gathering armies.  In the meantime, you and your company will need to learn to see, and I believe you have a highly qualified person skilled in that very thing traveling with you.”

I had heard Begglar speak of this, but now it was coming around from a surprising direction.

“Nell?”

“She is well known in the surrounding parts, even though it has been extremely long since she last visited us here in Azragoth.”

“What does that mean exactly?  Learning to ‘see’?”

He smiled and patted my back indulgent, yet not patronizing.

“At the risk of sounding redundant, my boy.  You will see.”

The Counter Measure – Chapter 19

We entered an overlook along the edge of the parapet onto the rampart.  Stone and tile rooftops spread out below us on multiple levels.  Verdant treetops made the distant land’s horizon green under a gray clouded sky.  Moss and lichen grew in patches, here and there between the grooves of slate, stone and red terracotta tiles aged and discolored by the heat of the sun and the frosts of the winters.

Just behind the opened door to our right, stood a formidable looking man, armored and accompanied by three other fighting men staggered just behind in a small diagonal phalanx formation.  Their swords were drawn, and they appeared tense.  The slightest wrong move and this could go very badly for us.  Maeven emerged and stood before the armored leader of this escort.

“Stand down, Morgrath.  These are not our enemies.”

The one called Morgrath, apparently a warrior of some rank among the Azragothians, looked from us back to Maeven before answering.

“That remains to be seen.  They are to be brought before the council.  Their fate will be decided there.”

With that, the other warriors moved to the solid wall, indicating that we should pass them, near the open railing overlooking the stone courtyards far below.  We did as we were bidden to do, and Maeven, pursed her lips heroically keeping herself from saying something scathing to the man, and led us past the naked steel blades of the warriors to a small stone passageway that continued on along the rampart allure.  The warriors closed in behind us as soon as the last of our party had exited the stairwell down to the sally port.  The heavily studded iron-plated door was once again bolted shut.

For better or for worse we were in Azragoth now, and relying heavily upon Maeven to make our intentions clear before a council who were predisposed to be suspicious of us for mysterious reasons of their own.

Azragoth was what is known as a fortified city or citadel, which should not be mistaken as being the same as a mere castle which houses a royal residence.  There were elements that were similar, and from what I can remember, it had a central keep, watchtowers, battlements, a few baileys, which were essentially open courtyards, both broad and narrow cobblestone streets branching and sloping upward in circular arcs connecting the baileys and terraced homes built of various materials, some of which had thick thatched roofs, some slate, and others of the more affluent merchants occupied homes with much more solid construction with terracotta barrel tile, as I mentioned before.  From the curtain wall to the inner main wall was a cleared area known simply as the killing field.  Its purpose was a place to repel an external attack should the outer curtain wall ever be breached.  A space of land in which the inner archers and others, would rain down arrows and hot coals and ash, or vats of boiling oil, to pierce, burn or scald the successful attackers from attempting a further breach of the inner walls.  Since Azragoth sat at the base of granite cliffs upon a forested shelf just below the foot of the highland descent into the valley below, it was not easily approached from its heavily wooded back but was more easily accessed by the front slopes from which the Xarmnian army had attacked.  Azragoth was once a wealthy prize to be won indeed, which was why Xarmni ruling houses so coveted its takeover.  At the head of the highlands, it was accessible from the main road by a relatively short distance, and from it, highland merchants would supply the trade routes passing near, before they began their trek into the lower valley and from there through the lake country to the foothills of the mountains beyond.  More than fifty major rivers flowed from the highlands to the lower basins of the valley and formed large reservoirs of water that were perhaps larger than any of the smaller bodies of water commonly thought of as “lakes” in the Surface World.  Azragothians benefited from their proximity to both trade routes and rivers, and such was their confidence back in those days of the certainty of their fortunate and happy placement, that they rarely closed their gates to anyone.  The defenses of the city, they believed, were sound and they assumed that they would recognize when and if there arose a time in which they would need to close the gates of the Barbican against such a threat.  So confident had they become, that when the Xarmnian army showed up in the far fields, just below the city’s walls, the people of Azragoth took no notice of the amassed army there setting up war machines and digging trenches.  They had seen military exercises before.  Militia used the plain because it was one of the few leveled-out open areas on the trek from the lower valley basin to the highlands where they could rest their troops and bivouac them before continuing their marched climb up the graded road.  When the threatening party rode up to Azragoth, they found the town wide-open.  The gates were tied back and almost rusted open, from having been rarely closed.  That is also why the Azragothians did not know they were under attack until the soldiers rode brazenly into the marketplace and began violently overturning vendor carts.

From the walls downward, we could see overgrown courtyards and open ward areas choked with weeds, vines, and broken stone.  The place looked like it had been left derelict and no human foot had walked its paths in years.  Yet something moved among the grasses.  It moved casually in an unhurried manner taking its time to be revealed.  I lingered momentarily to see what might emerge from the grass but felt the chill of cold steel on my exposed arm.  The soldier bearing the blade reminded me that this was not a walk down memory lane.  We were being led to a waiting council who would decide our occupancy here within the walls of Azragoth.

I raised my eyes from the lower ward to see a goat emerge from the broken doorway of one of the abandoned houses and chew casually on the badly gnawed frame of the doorway.  It bleated plaintively and then continued chewing.  Grey, rotted shutters hung askance from windows that had been shattered.  A faded placard hung above the doorway creaking and swaying under rusty chains.  The man with the sword cleared his throat, and I found that the blade had progressed from my arm to just below my chin.  Message received.  I moved onward.

We descended more steps and passed under an archway, to another wall that bore a double door, with blackened wood saturated with some oily sticky substance.  The ground below our feet was hard packed, but smooth stone, and perhaps had seen more foot traffic than the other areas we had passed over.  From the street level, it seemed as if a thousand pairs of eyes watched us from the shadowy recesses of the darkened rooms and abandoned apartments.  Morgrath bore a key to the door that blocked our path, and pushed forward into our group, inserted it and turned the mechanism until it clacked with the sound of metal gears releasing bolts.  The gated door swung inward from its solid post and lintel frame.  We were not prepared for what lay on the other side.

It was as if the one part of the city had been left to the ravages of time and this inner court still bustled with life and activity like it occupied a separate time and reality all its own.

Two sentries stepped from either side of the doorway, wicked looking curved blades jutted from the ends of the halberds they bore reminding us, lest we forget, that our welcome here was not yet settled.

Beyond the guards was a flourishing and lively medieval town, active and thriving.  Children danced and laughed in mock swordplay, bearing crude wooden representations of the real things drawn and pointed at our backs.  The irony was so thick….well, I won’t say it.  I could not imagine what the others were feeling, but my sense of regret at surrendering our weapons was beginning to claw at my gut, as being colossally naïve, in spite of everything we had endured thus far.  The term “friend” was becoming murkier with each step further into this place of strange dichotomies.

The place was indeed haunted.  The death of one side residing parallel and unseen along the living and vibrant side of the other.  A central well stood in the courtyard, no doubt fed by the underground stream far below the city.  Water would be crucial to the survival of a walled city.  Especially one besieged and with good reason to conceal its persistent struggle to survive surrounded by lands and peoples who believed them to be long dead.

We were led further into the ward yard, and people began to pause from their activity and watch us as we were escorted into the very pumping heart of the city.  The tall façade of a grand hall with ornately engraved broad oak doors no less than sixteen feet high awaited us from across the courtyard.  Armored sentries attending the doors stood resolutely guarding entrance with wickedly curve-bladed halberds.  They moved in mirrored unison to stand in front of the doors as the one called Morgrath approached.

I overheard him say, “Tell Corimanth that we’ve arrived.”

The sentry so addressed with the charge, pivoted into the doorway, having barely opened it to allow his own frame to fit through.

Moments later, the broad doors were opened, and we were led inside a tall banquet hall with high beamed ceilings and broad candlelit chandeliers on round wheels suspended by a rope, pulley, and winch system from the high ceiling approximately twenty-five feet overhead.  The hall was lit with sconces from the support columns, added to the four sets of chandeliers burning with three tiers of concentric flaming wheels.  Suddenly something registered in my memory.

“Wheels within wheels,” I muttered, gazing upward, then realized we were being beckoned forward.

Maeven took the foreground and spoke to what I understood to be the interim chieftain of the town of Azragoth while the one they called “The Eagle” was away.

Begglar sighed heavily and stood next to me, “This is not good.”

Nell, looking up, saw who it was that would be receiving us, and suddenly her ire came up, and Begglar had to move fast to restrain her.  “Corimanth!” she exclaimed, “Saints preserve us!  What are you doing in Azragoth!?  How is it that you are sitting there, sending these men to fetch us like we were common thieves, and giving yourself the air of a high and mighty!  Whatever is it that you think you’re a-doin’?”

The one called Corimanth, speaking in low tones to Maeven, before taking direct notice of our company looked startled.

“Nellus?” he flushed visibly, then reddened, “Is that you?”

Corimanth was a corpulent follow, with a bulbous nose, jowly cheeks and a shock of red hair about a balding head.  He wore a leather corset to make himself appear thinner than he was, but it could not hide his heft, without constricting his ability to breathe, so that his words tended to come out of him in a sort of breathy huff.

“Are you sayin’ you don’t recognize your own sister, now?!” she stood, hands fisted at her hips, “Or is it that you’re ashamed to look at me now after I publicly boxed your ears when last I laid eyes on ye?!”

Corimanth’s face went from reddening to ashen once more, as he fluttered his hands to somehow beg her to keep her voice down.  Nell was having none of it, and it was now apparent that Corimanth had caused her some sort of vexation in the past that had caused them to part ways and had strained the family ties between them.

“Nellus, would you please calm down,” Corimanth spoke in a more measured and controlled tone, “All will be explained to you.  I just need you to hear me out.”

Nell, folded her arms, but it was evident that it took some doing to hold her temper, and hurt.

Maeven came to Nell’s side and put her arm around her, to give her strength and comfort.  She knew what Corimanth was about to say would come as a shock to her in particular.

The banquet hall was lined with long oak tables, benches, and chairs.  In better times past, it was a place of great feasting and city-wide celebration.

“Perhaps it would be better if we all sat down,” Corimanth said as more attendants and persons not in armed roles moved towards them from the recessed aisles along the nave.  Corimanth and his attendants directed us to the tables.

Once seated, Corimanth adjusted the outer broadcloth cloak he wore on his shoulder and offered his outstretched hands to Nell.  When she did not take them he quietly eased them to his side and began.

“I owe you a sincere and humble apology, my dear sister.  You have every right not to trust or forgive me for what I have seemed to have done to you and our family.  But perhaps if you will hear me out, you will, in the end, think better of me, and know why I had to do it.  I have both looked forward to and dreaded this day at the same time.  It was terrible the way we parted, but so very important that it be done.”

Here he took a breath, the corset seeming more restrictive and tightening than before, such that he took in several short breaths as well wincing in a slight grimace with each.

“Many years ago, before you met Begglar,” and turning to us, he addressed our gathering as a whole, “and before the terrible days following the decline and plagues of Azragoth, my sister and I lived in a small town just south of here called Sorrows Gate.  It wasn’t always called that, though it is a very fitting name for what it has become.  Sorrows Gate was once, very long ago, before the Xarmnian invasion, called Surrogate.  It was a town that stood directly in the gap between two stone ridges before descending into the lower valley and the lake country.  Azragoth was always the fortified city on the hill and a place where all of the smaller townsfolk knew they could flee to, should ever trouble come to ours and the other villages.  Azragoth was the guardian town.  Ours was more common and rural, but an important township in our own right.  Nellus and I used to travel with our parents to Azragoth in more pleasant times to see the delights of the city and to trade and buy and sell in the marketplace here.  Our peoples are from a much older group of travelers who came to these lands long before the families that broke apart and became what is now the Xarmnians and the Capitalians.  There are subdivisions of those groups which have their own people, but by and large, it is a division of philosophical orders rather than ethnic or racial divide.  Twelve brothers, each heads of their families, patriarchs, with one family split between two sons, half-tribes they were called.  Be that as it may, our families and towns were friendly and receptive to those travelers when they first passed through and many years afterward when those groups made annual pilgrimages up from the valley to the Ancient Marker.  We bought and traded with them, and they with us.  Some of our families intermarried with them, and jointly we assumed we would one day become one people.  But it was not to be.”

A flagon was brought to the table and a poured glass set before Corimanth and he took it and drank briefly before continuing.  Quietly and without a word, the attendants began setting similar placements on the table before us, being careful not to distract, but clearly preparing us for a meal soon to be served.

“Xarmnian aggression soon began, after a fall-out between the families, and our towns sort of got swept up into it.  Capitalia built a wall to curb the aggression and incursions being made into it.  Frustrated, the Xarmnians began to tear across the land, laying siege to communities and taking over towns, imposing their rule and might against us.  Where once they were peaceable neighbors, they were now cruel oppressors, demand tribute, seizing our lands and goods when we refused to pay.  We were told that the Capitalians were our enemies, and we were severely warned not to trade with them, and to alert the Xarmnians if ever a Capitalian was discovered or caught on this side of their wall.”

Here pewter plates and wooden bowls were being set before us, along with wooden spoons and metal two-tined forks and cutlery.

Corimanth continued.

“We wanted nothing to do with the feuding of the two family groups, but several of us had already married into the conflict, and there was no separating us from the growing threat.  With Capitalia so far distant on the other side of their wall and the mountain pass, we had no choice but to try to appease the Xarmnians.  We tried to placate them, but they demanded so much more.  They suspected everyone who did not embrace their philosophies, so they demanded that we prove our loyalty.  They conscripted our young men for their armies.  They took our children hostage.  They infiltrated our learning centers and brought strange ideas to our families and demanded our children be subjected to their ideas daily.  Anyone refusing to surrender their child to the learning center each day would be marked and watched, and eventually, their child would be taken from them.  We were in a giant crucible, being grilled over harsh fires.  Food and property began to be rationed, overtaken and then parceled out again, apportioned to the more loyal families.  When Azragoth was taken and afterward when the plague broke out, our parents had gone into the city to trade because it was the only place yet to be conquered by the Xarmnians.  Our parents were not loyalists.  In fact, they were quite the opposite.  The Xarmnians were resentful and attempting to starve us out.  As long as Azragoth remained independent and neutral, we always could get food and have what little we had to sell, get a fair price enough to sustain us.  Mother always did try to feed me extra.  She reasoned that if I were fat, the Xarmnians would not be interested in taking me to their army.  She thought she was protecting me.  On that fateful night, when Xarmni invaded, the lower fields were swarming with soldiers.  No one was allowed in or out.  For days afterward, when they did not return, Nellus and I feared and then grieved and then tried to make do, resigned to the fact that they were never coming home.  We were not allowed to go to Azragoth, even after the armies left the area.  Azragoth was quarantined.  Azragoth was dead.  We had no hope of it ever being a haven for the surrounding villages again.  Only the dead resided there.”

Pewter cups were filled from the flagons placed throughout the long table and set before each of us.  Steaming bowls of pottage, a sort of brothy cabbage soup with barley added, was set before us and we began to eat and drink, as Corimanth went on.

“Nellus is only two years older than I am.  But she became both mother and father to me as best as she could.  We only had each other, and I gave her the worst of it, it grieves me to say.  I was a mother’s child.  A brat and I had been pampered and protected from hard work and fattened up, more than I ever should.  I had a taste for sweets and a way to get them, that I am ashamed of.  A few of the other boys in town and I were ne’re-do-wells.  We learned to the art of sleight of hand.  To palm fruit and sweets from shops and market carts, mostly without being caught in the act.  I became exceptionally good at stealing.  And I rationalized it as being able to survive.  It was the source of many of our conflicts growing up.  Nell could not abide stealing, and I would not own up to it or call it that.  Nell was right.  I was wrong.  We had lost our parents and I was always angry about it and took my frustration out on my poor sister and everyone else who had something I wanted.  Nell said it many times, that it was a mercy that our parents weren’t there to see what I had become.  I acted like I didn’t care then, but I did.  I was angry at myself mostly, but it came out badly because I bottled it all up inside.  Anger taken in is like giving a guest room to a conqueror.  Its nature is to take over, and it will dominate and harm all of the other guests before all is said and done.”

Nell had unfolded her arms at this point and was thoughtfully stirring her pottage, not yet having found the stomach to eat it, but attentively listening to the words of her brother.  Tears were forming in her eyes, though, and Begglar squeezed her free hand reassuringly.

Here Corimanth stopped and turned to his sister.  When she raised her eyes to him, he spoke directly to her.

“I was ashamed of what I had become.  How I treated you, the things I made you suffer and for bringing shame to the memory of our parents lost in the tragedy of Azragoth.  I am not making excuses for it.  I am only telling you what I should have told you long ago,” he cleared his throat, “before The Eagle approached me and the others.”

Nell, closed her eyes shaking her head slightly.  This was too much.  All of the anger, resentment, self-doubt because she had so failed to control her own brother, the pain from having it go so wrong in the end and the terrible things she said to him before they parted ways, rushing back to her now.  Tears poured from the corner of her eyes as she dared once again to hope, she was mistaken about her brother.

Corimanth gave her a moment, tears beginning to well up in his own eyes.  Tears that she could not see while looking away from him, into her own pain.  From the folds of her dress, in a hidden pocket, she pulled a small kerchief with which she brushed tears from her cheek.

“You were a seer,” Corimanth almost choked on the words, the pools of tears beginning to escape from his eyes and course down his cheek and beard.

“If I could not fool you, there would be no way, I would fool the Xarmnians.  It was my chance to do something worthwhile.  For you and for everyone in Sorrows Gate and for those friends lost in Azragoth.”

Nell opened her eyes and turned to Corimanth once again, “What are you telling me?”

Corimanth swallowed hard and looked directly at his sister, tears wetting his reddened cheeks.

“I was asked to be a spy for those resisting Xarmnian rule.”

Nell’s eyes widened and she flushed, heat rising, shock registering on her face, “You were asked to be what?!”

Corimanth nodded and shrugged slightly.

“Improbable I know,” he bowed his head slightly, turning his eyes to his hands, which Nell noticed were scarred on the backs of meaty knuckles.

“But that is what the Eagle said made it useful.  No one would suspect a coward and a hot-headed thief to do anything so…,” he trailed off but Nell finished the thought for him.

“Selfless,” she said quietly, only now taking his hand, a gesture of new found trust forming between them again.

“I knew you would never agree to it.  And you would never believe my sincere desire to do it.  We had to make it look like you and I…”

Tears formed new again, from the well-spring of Corimanth’s long-hidden grief.

Nell nodded understanding.  Words were not necessary the painful memory of their public parting so clear in both of their minds.  Xarmnian spies in the town would have seen and heard of it too.  The Eagle and those joining the resistance were counting on it.

“I stole from those I thought had turned traitor.  Afterall, the only vendors, merchants, and tradesmen which had food or goods to sell were the ones who had shown some appearance of loyalty to the Xarmnian Overwatch.  I wouldn’t listen or believe Nell when she told me that they were still our neighbors and friends, only that they were too scared to defy the Xarmnians.  They feared for their families so they capitulated and cowed.  Many had so much to lose that they could see no other way to survive.  Whereas we had practically lost everything.  There was little more than the Xarmnians could take from us, except our lives, and feeling as I did, I figured I had little left to live for.  Only my Nellus, and she was known as a women who had strong opinions and fierce courage.  Just like father did.”

Here he looked up and around the room.

“I am sorry, you were not received in a better fashion, but there is, in this city still great fear offset by courage.  Azragoth is very wary and cautious of strangers.  Those from the Surface World, especially so.”

The woman in our group, who had rallied the others, in my own season of self-doubt, asked, “And why is that?”

Corimanth, leaned over and spoke briefly to Maeven, and she gestured towards, me, which caused him to look my way.

“O’Brian, is it?”

I glanced at Begglar who grinned, but did not look directly at me, so very interested he seemed to be just now in quickly consuming his pottage soup.

“Yes,” I answered, to my persistently “given” name.

“I am told you are leading this party,” Corimanth continued, “Have you not told them why?”

I cleared my throat, and sudden interest in my pottage soup beckoned me to attend to it before it became cold.

“I was building up to it,” I answered evasively.

“Building up to it,” Corimanth seemed to mull that over thoughtfully a moment.

“Well then,” he decided, “I’ll leave that tale to your own sense of timing.  You know your people better than I.  But, they will eventually need to know why we, who live here, have a very natural caution when dealing with your kind.  We’ll leave it at that for now.”

Grateful, I nodded, though the others in our company cast suspicious and impatient glances at me.

Dinner was at last served.  A wooden platter of steaming vegetables was brought in with a whole spit-roasted suckling pig and rolled meat pieces called brawn, which I knew, but decided it best not to tell the others what it consisted of.  Let’s just say, it was better than what was processed, pressed and shaped into the Surface World’s meat called baloney.

For a city in seclusion, the fare served here was far better than I had expected it to be.