Down The Dark Road – Chapter 66

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

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

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

She nodded just behind us, indicating that whatever forms were waiting in the shadowed haze watching the interaction should now come forward.

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

“While I was given your image by my recent Lord, I need your death to retain it.  And I have come here to collect my due.”

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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you lick these rocks?”

“What?  I barely got a taste.”

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

***

The Pan and the satyrs discover the bound satyr on the road and learn of the outworlders in the forest who fled to the Faerie Fade.
They move in and surround the Faerie Fade and threaten the party to surrender or die.  The Pan attempts to convince them that he will give them a sporting chance to run.  Some are almost convinced to try it, but Begglar and Nell and Maeven are adamant that no one step out from under the covering canopy of the Faerie Fade.

The satyrs and dryads attempt to frighten them and make them think the Fade offers them no protection.  Grum-Blud offers to go into the Fade and root them out, but Mason, Maeven and Christie, Dominick and Begglar keep him at bay with their weapons.

Matt and Tiernan want to make a run for it.  Laura is terrified and wants to run too.  Grum-Blud is trying to get her to look at him so he can terrorize her further.

Meanwhile, O’Brian, Captain Logray, and Will are being threatened by Torlah and see that she bears the Cordis Stone, but clearly does not know that she cannot wield it.  Will is angry and wants to rush her.  Jeremiah is calm and knows what she is bating them to do.  They must get past her and get to the Faerie Fade soon, or risk losing their chance to escape the forces unleashed in the forest.

In the shadows, the Xarmnians are awaiting the cue from Torlah to capture these renegade Surface Worlders.  A band of angry harpies awaits Torlah’s banshee shriek to alert them to where the Surface Worlders are.  The Xarmnians are a detachment of the hunting party posted to ambush the others when they move to follow them in pursuit of the captives they took from the river bank.  They hold a captive with them that is a Surface Worlder who originally was taken when he tried to return to the Inn at Crowe and depart.  He has been tortured and beaten and has been forced to reveal the reason why the Surface Worlders are here in the Mid-World.  To find Excavatia and to rescue the lost stories.  Gibberish to him, but something very meaningful and dangerous to Xarmni’s iron fisted rule.
The Xarmnians had heard to stories of a place within the forest guarded by Heavenly creatures.  A portal that if the travelers pass through a shadow will be lifted from their minds and they will begin to see how the stories revealing within the dream world here are connected to who they are in the waking world.

When the men advance on Torlah and bear forth the Honor Sword, she appears to retreat but is luring them into a confrontation with The Pan and his killers.

The Xarmnians close in behind them, cutting off their escape as they advance into the closing trap.  The men begin to run but are pursued and must fight their way through their attackers.  Torlah waits for O’Brian’s death, hungering for it, as her face cycles through both the young girl’s, his, and an old woman’s face.

When they are corralled in leading up the hill to the Faerie Fade, Nell spots the warping face of Torlah and recognizes one of the faces she wears as someone she knew from many years ago.  An old woman who was once her teacher and was a Seer like her.  A woman who had turned traitor and wanted nothing more than to make sure Azragoth never rose up from the ashes again.  The golem was having difficulty maintaining O’Brian’s face.  At last, it rested again as the old woman and Nell almost rushed out from under the canopy to confront her, but Begglar held her back.  Miray recognizes the face of the young girl as well.  “That is Becca!”, she says, “Becca went into the cave on the beach and never came out!”

“You are not Becca!  What happened to Becca?!” she cries as Matthew hold Miray back from angrily confronting Torlah.  Miray’s memories of what happened on the beach when they came out of the surf had returned.   Other’s in the company began to remember things as well.  Things that had been hidden from their minds.  Lost memories that made them question who they were and what was really going on in this shared experience.

Dellitch arrives with her golem prisoner in tow and lands in the area at the crest of the wooded hill.  The golem she released stands to its feet and its face also is having difficulty holding O’Brian’s visage.  Smoke pours out of its eyes and mouth and nostrils and drifts towards The Pan.  The Pan opens his mouth and the smoke transfers from the golem to the Pan’s open throat, swirling and twisting down its gullet like a vortex.  The Pan’s eyes begin to darken from cataract blue to black, as The Pan, at last, can see again.  The shell of the body the golem vacated crumbles into powder and dust.

Seeing what was happening and recognizing the danger from past experiences with the First Quest and the Surface Worlders who came from it, The Pan moves in to stop it from happening.  He knows if these Surface Worlders dare to open the door in the back of Faerie Fade these will become more dangerous to him and harder to stop once they know who they are.

Wind swirled around The Pan as he strode forward, ready to smash the Faerie Fade with the Surface Worlders huddled underneath it.

As the Pan steps forward again and gets closer, golden lights crest the hillside and bathe the hill with white light.  The Pan and all of those present with him are repelled and driven backwards, leaving a path from O’Brian, Jeremiah, Captain Logray and Will directly to the front of the Faerie Fade.

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

From the shimmering lights, a gentle command speaks to the mind of each of the men telling them to run to the covering and do not stop or turn aside.  The bodies of the Half-men creatures are parted and will not impede them.

All of the men run forward except one.  Will.  He takes Logray’s horse and flees in the opposite direction.  When the men realize he is not there, they are already under the canopy.  Whirling dangerous flashes of light glide around the Faerie Fade preventing the Half-Men creatures from passing under the canopy.

Torlah is frozen in place, as a pillar of salt.  Only one other makes it past the swirling lights and huddles within the group’s confusion when the central door is opened.  One by one the group following O’Brian and Jeremiah pass through the mysterious portal and fade from view the moment they step through.  The last of these was a short squatty figure named Grum-Blud.

*** End of Part 1 ***

 

 

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Vessels of Stone and Flesh – Chapter 65

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

Two of these had fallen.

One was taken.

And now, there was only one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“We should speak more of this, but not here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Describe what you think you saw.”

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

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

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

“Did you get a look at their faces?”

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

“Dirt?”

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

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

“Three came up to you?” I asked.

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

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

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

“But what are they?

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why did you leave the quest unfinished?”

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

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

If I allowed the others to follow me in my rage, I would lead them into wrath that would destroy them and we would be of no use in the quest.  Forgiveness was not something, I felt I could reach for at the moment.  That eventually came later.  The One will not abandon us, even if we insist on proceeding into folly.  His is a love given fully, once accepted and persists unwavering without conditions.  He sees our end from our beginning and is not fooled by the low points of our journey, nor surprised by them.  Like the father of the prodigal son, He watches for our return upon the horizon and meets us joyously at a run when we surrender our ways and come back home.”

“Then do we need the stones at all?”

“It is still a gate, my friend.  Any locked gate needs a key and these three stones are the symbolic key.”

“Well then can we use a replica of the Cordis stone, like Caleb and I took?”

“These stones are not manufactured.  No effort of man is sufficient to open the gate.  No, a replica will not do.”

“So what then?  Do we sit around and wait for the Cordis stone to just roll out of a cave and make its way here so you can pick it up and continue the quest?”

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

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

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

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

“Where did you get this?”

“Like you said,” I nodded toward it, “It came after me wrapped in the body of a monster that almost killed me, but for the power of the quickening.”

“How were you able to get it?”

“I was led to sacrifice myself and allow that beast to take me into its jaws.”

“Where exactly was this stone?”

“It was in the tongue of a Dust Dragon.  I was told that this one followed me through the portal.  That it held me in its thrall.  Nem told me I had to confront it because it was destroying the foundations of the city.  Everything they had built was being compromised by its furious digging beneath.”

“The that explains the presence of golems.  Golems do not exist without the aid of a dragon, dust or otherwise.  They are constructs of the creature.  Dragons can form their own armies given enough time.”

I indicated the pearl. “Maeve’s had me release it and allow it to roll down to the water’s edge of the basin lake below the Trathorn Falls. As soon as it touched the water it flash-froze the surface of the lake solid and froze the water pouring over the falls. I was afraid I would lose it into the water but that pearl seemed to operate on its own. It raced across the surface many times and was drawn to every place we fought and cut the creatures trapped in the clutches of the ice. Every time their blood was spilled this pearl raced into the spray and pools and absorbed the liquid.”

Jeremiah considered this a moment. “When you released the pearl, what did you feel?”

“That I was being foolish and giving up something we needed for the road ahead. We were told to buy a ship and hire a captain to get us across the fjord lake Cascale at Skorlith.”

“Then why did you release it?”

“I don’t really know. It felt right, somehow.”

“Perhaps, it was a test to see if you would rely on your reasoning or act in faith to what may not have made sense to you at the time.”

Jeremiah lifted his eyes and looked directly at me, “There is a verse in the Ancient Text that says:

“The stormy wind comes from its chamber, and the driving winds bring the cold. God’s breath sends the ice, freezing wide expanses of water.” [‭‭Job‬ ‭37:9-10‬ ‭NLT]‬

He cleared his throat, “As I said, these stones are mere conduits.  Empty vessels that focus the intentions of The One in such a way that we notice them.  There is no power within them.  To possess them, we must believe that they serve only the Will of the One, and that in Him they have the power to accomplish all that is needed to serve the calling.  If we hold on to them, they cease to have value.  But when we release them, they move in wondrous ways to make our way to serve Him possible.”

Jeremiah’s words resonated true within me, such that I found myself nodding emphatically.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I said, “Yes.  I am the emptied vessel, yet He dwells within me and I within Him.  The authority is given and transmitted in my obedience to the call.”

“And that is why,” Jeremiah said gravely, “Even if you had taken the real stone, it would not have changed the outcome.  Power over darkness comes through the stone.  Not from it.  Mankind cannot stand against the kingdoms of darkness as long as darkness maintains an anchor hold within their souls.  This is why the deceiver had to take on the form of a serpent and get mankind to yield to the root of deception and allow it to be implanted within their hearts so that they and their generations to follow would all bear the root of death and never be able to resist the prince of the power of the air.  This is also why you have to be grafted into the Vine that draws from the innocence and perfection of a life lived perfectly, but taken unjustly.  As a graft takes its power and life from the established and strong vine, so too you and I get our power from being ingrafted into the Forgiveness and the Final Payment made upon our life debt by The One.  No power in heaven and earth, below or above or in all time and space, can resist a vessel filled with the Life breathed by the Breath of The One.  It is by Faith and the grafting alone that you are empowered to do and accomplish miracles in the obedient service to the call of The One.  That purpose will bring you past all of your doubts, raise you above your tragedies and restore unto you all that you may lose in its pursuit.”

***

The canopy roared with raging flame.  The air was acrid and thick, shimmering with heat thermals that distorted the way ahead.  Black billows twisted and punched the air with swirling waves that erupted and split and stripped.

Out of the gnashing teeth of the inferno, Dellitch emerged, like an undulating dark cross, smoke poured off her singed feathers as her wings pumped up and down dragging her remaining captive through the smoke, its form blackened and gray with ash.  Her face was reddened by the heat, her eyes squinted and appeared almost black, streaked with sweat and ash.  She grimaced and scowled with the effort of having flown through a sea of twisting fire.

She could barely speak, struggling enough to breath, sapped her flagging effort to stay aloft and above the reaching tongues of fire.  The exertion was taking a toll.  She flew lower and lower, unable to gain altitude.

As the smoke thinned she entered the area where the slough waters began to pool and widen, with a grey film of ash over the oily skin of the murky water.

The Pan and his retinue, his satyrs and dryads, had moved away from the area where she’d last observed them.  She tried to call out, but her throat was scorched and raw from the fires.

“My Lord Pan!” she hissed, painfully, unable to make out much through watering eyes.

Fire-blackened brambles clawed into and out of the filmy water’s edge as Dellitch released her golem captive and dropped it onto the withered reeds along the soft bog.  She alighted next to its body, exhausted and wheezing.

Smoke stung her eyes.forest-fire-424388_1920

“Lord Pan!” she croaked, blinking and searching for his large form among the sickened swamp trees.

A strange, misshapen lump floated in the filmy water.  She hopped forward for a closer look and realized the form was a floating body, its face bowed and buried in the water, unmoving.  She looked up searching the irregular shoreline, her watering eyes beginning to clear.

No satyrs emerged from the brush, no dryads uncurled and spun back into simian form to threaten and challenge her.

They were all gone.

She heard movement behind her and turned.

The golem had arisen and stood to its feet unsteadily.  It opened its eyes and stared expressionless at her.  It twisted its neck from left to right and gaped rotating its jaw.  For the first time, it spoke to her, its jaw making an odd popping noise.

“Take me to The Pan.  I must speak to my queen.”

***

We moved down the winding road in thoughtful silence.

I considered what Jeremiah had told me, and realized I had gotten so far off in my thinking that I had been missing the bigger picture of what I had been recalled back to the Mid-World to do.  I had to learn to trust The One in all things and not rely on the distractions of gate stones or reasoning out the where and how of this mission.

The giant pearl was a conduit, as I was.  It was, Jeremiah concluded, the very stone I was sent to carry to the gate.  Something within me responded to this.  A part of me that knew that this strange orb I carried was none other than The Fidelis stone.  The Faith stone.  The one stone which was symbolic of actualizing transformative power into circumstance.  The Praesperous stone, the Hope stone gave a promise of a future, just like the portentous dreams of Joseph.  The Cordis stone, the Heart stone, symbolizing the Love of The One, the Creator, revealed the Heart of Him who sacrificed and demonstrated the reason for all Hope.  A Love that was extended to us even though we were not worthy of it, affirming the Good intentions and the plan of The One to redeem the peoples of the Worlds back to fellowship with Him.  And finally the Fidelis stone, the concluding stone which required us to choose belief in both the promise of Hope, the intentions of Love, and the application of those Truths into our own circumstance.  The symbolic concepts of each were powerful and worked together to jointly open the final door to the greater Kingdom promised to us.  It all made sense on many levels.  Together these made Truth accessible.  To fellowship with the Truth of the One, we had to allow that Truth into our lives and live under the revolutionary implications of it.  The key to all of it was Connection.  All things severed from connection to The Source, The One, were in death throes.  Life comes through connection to The One and through direct fellowship with The One.  The Honor Sword exhibits the power of the quickening when it is bound to the arm of the one called to lead, and by their connection to obedience to The One.  The Dust Dragon would not have been defeated without my yielding to The One and so being quickened by Him.  The stones had no power until they were released to serve, rather than possessed and contained.  The people in my company become more than a crowd when I took the time to know them by their names.  Names were connections.  I had told them.  Names given were connection to the quest and the mission.  As long as the others whom I did not know by name, remained nameless to me, it was hard to know and feel commitment to their loss.  It had to be personal for us to feel connection.  This was the whole point of The One’s mission to the Surface World.  He came to know us by experience and calls each of us by name.

What’s in a name?  The answer was as clear to me at that moment as it could ever be: Connection.

I was mulling these thoughts over in my mind when a voice called out to us from the smoky road ahead.  We turned and saw a small figure standing in dappled shadows amid billows of swirling smoke.  The voice sounded female and young but something about it was familiar and disturbing.

As we cautiously approached, the figure became more defined.  Small frame, long wispy straight hair, eyes large and blue beneath a tilted brow, as if she looked out from under something.

Her words were repetitive, in almost a sing-song monotone chant, as if she were talking to the air.  Yet, upon seeing us approach, her voice grew in volume and distinction, accompanied by an odd sort of popping noise.

The haze of smoke made her face still indistinct.

Her mouth parted, and her pink lips paled, as she spoke once more, this time with exaggerated pauses between each word.

“Say…my…name.”

She raised her tilted head and as her hate-filled eyes met mine I immediately recognized her.  Before I even knew what I was doing, her name came to my lips and I did the very thing she was asking of me.

And then the storm broke.

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down – Chapter 64

“Meddling Outworlders!  I am going to tear your eyes out!” Dellitch screamed as she swooped in out of the smoke, claws flared dangerously.

Jeremiah raised a gloved arm and the harpy brutally raked her claws across it almost wrenching him out of the climbing harness.

With the gaffs set in the trunk of the tree, and my body pivoted out in the slip-belt, I reached for the hilt of the honor sword but felt it impeded by the strap and the scabbard, bound by my body weight.  I twisted to my right to unimpede the blade, and a gaff spike pulled loose of the trunk beneath my left foot, causing me to smash my face against the tree.  My cheek and brow were abraded by the rough bark.  My nose sprouted blood as I hooked the trunk with a flailing arm, wheezed in a shaky breath and slammed my dangling foot and the metal barb back into the trunk.  My face throbbed and stung and I knew there would be bruising if we survived this fight.  I took a fast, deep breath and angled towards the tree, catching a small tap branch jutting from the trunk and pulled my weight forward, allowing my crossed arm to tug at the sword hilt again, knowing that I would not get another chance before the harpy returned.

I had the sword half-way out when she swooped back, striking me hard with the bony extrusion that capped her wing’s alula (also known as the bastard wing).  Some of her kind had ground that bone cap into a hook, others to a sharpened spur, but this creature obviously preferred the savage shock of a blunt pummeling force.  Clearly, she was a more seasoned battler, for the hooks and points of her sister-kind did not prove to serve as well as one might assume in an aerial battle.  Hooks and barbs were best suited for ground fighters, and the harpies’ advantage was clearly in flight.  Skewer something with a point, or hook it with a curved spike and it weighted and impeded wing movement.  This one knew that a fast strike made quick assaults leaving them to strike and evade as needed until they beat their quarry senseless and could sink claws into them and rip them apart.  Lacking the sharp beak of a true bird, the old crone could not peck or tear flesh as their avian relations might.  Since humans were not susceptible to their bizarre lactation, like the dryads were, the harpies had no choice but to fight us using flight, strike, and claw.  And these she used again and again.  Hitting us hard, swooping away into the smoke, driving us to brace against the tree, preventing our safe descent.  Wearing us out with each brutal salvo.

The honor sword proved to be more of a hindrance than an asset, for I could not identify from which way she would launch her assault out of the smoke, nor could I get a good chance to bind the bloodline to my wrist and forearm before she came storming back.  Each swing and slash of the blade threatened to throw me off balance again and loosen the cleats holding me up into the harness.  I could not cross and deflect with the blade, because she moved so swiftly, and the blade only parted feathers of her spanned wing, but never fully connected with her body.

Jeremiah attempted to strike her with the weighted bolo weapon, but it sailed off and dropped harmlessly into the smoke, having the slight effect of throwing a glancing rock at her and nothing more.  She cackled at the attempt, and Jeremiah received the brunt of the next pummeling salvo, twisting in his harness below me.  I could not get past Jeremiah while he was below me, and our downward progress was poor, maybe only a few feet, but nothing more significant.

When she broke off again, Jeremiah hissed up at me, “Cut the belts,” he panted, “It’s the only way we’re going to make it down.”

“We’ll break our necks,” I retorted.

“We have no choice.  The hill is sloped and covered with leaves.  The ground is not that hard and we’ve got a far better chance on the ground under the cover of the smoke.”

Our breathing was labored, the smoke stole oxygen from our lungs and desiccated our throats, as we tried to gain just a few more feet down before attempting the fall.

Jeremiah looked up to gauge how much further I was above him when he noticed the leather pouch fastened to my belt.

“What do you have there in that pouch?”

I glanced downward and then felt a sharp thud crack against my skull.  The harpy laughed and swooped by again, her bony alula cap wet with my blood and a snatch of hair.  I was stunned and my whole head throbbed, ears ringing as I swooned from the blow.

My eyes watered, and the tree flashed with ghost negative images, my legs turning to rubber.  I almost dropped the honor sword but was able to cradle the blade as I took in deep breaths, trying to keep my feet from buckling.

I began to sag and then felt someone coming back up behind me, pulling my calves outward, preventing me from folding.

In a moment I felt his shoulders under my knees driving upward.

Faintly I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Getting your feet clear of the tree.  Pull those spikes out.  Sit on my shoulders and let that slip-belt slide down.  I’ll get us out of this tree.”

My feet suddenly pulled loose of the trunk and I fell backward in the slip-belt, having only Jeremiah bearing my weight.

“Put that sword away. You’re gonna need both hands to hold on to that belt. We’re gonna do a skid-fall.”

I slid the honor sword back into its scabbard on my belt while he unfastened the calve belts of his footwear and lashed the loose strap-belts together joining them with a thick brass ring.  Then he pulled his own wide strapped belt loose and strapped it behind the bend in his knees so that the belt pressed against the trunk of the tree between his knees.

“What exactly is a skid-fall?”

Avoiding my question, he glanced at the two bare gaff-spurs curving inward from the bottom of my feet, dangling wickedly close to his ribs and said, “We need to get these off.”

He quickly unbuckled the harnesses from my calves, as we heard first a plaintive voice shout something up to us from below.  The voice shifted in tone and then shouted up again in anger.

“I should have gagged him,” Jeremiah muttered, but said nothing further, continuing to work with his preparations as swiftly as he could.

We could see nothing below.

A dense, frothy river of smoke streamed beneath us, so thick it appeared to be a writhing soft down blanket covering the forest floor.  The fires roared up from the declivity to our left filling the gully that descended down towards the Trathorn river and the stepped descent from Azragoth. Heat washes from the fires were mixing with a cooler prevailing wind that streamed down from the hill leading up to the old city.  The falling breeze ran unobstructed through the now spartan breaks and fire stripped woods catching the rising backend of the fires and twisting in a cloudy thermal battle of their own.

Quietly, I pressed him with the questions again, “Jeremiah, what are you not telling me?  Who do you have down there, and what is a skid-fall?”

“To the first question, I don’t know and to the second…believe me, it is really better if you did not know,” Jeremiah responded, “Now lean back into the slip-belt and don’t let your face hit the tree.”

He entwined his forearms around both my slip-belt and his and pressed his gloved hands against the bole of the tree.  He pressed his knees into the belt straps running against the tree and behind the bend and above his calves, dislodging first one of his tree gaff spikes and then the other.

At it took was one slight jerk of our combined weight downward to break the pivot hold and suddenly, I felt us drop in tandem, and my stomach roll up into my throat.

Gravity seized us with a vengeance.

Jeremiah was right.  It was better that I had no idea what he’d planned to do.

***

The golems skulked through the smoke and smoldering detritus of the fire path.  Something had fallen from the smoky canopy above, landing with a loud crack upon an outcropping of stones and they swiftly moved to investigate.  Sounds of a fight ensued above, but they could not see what was making the noises.  Ahead and lower to the forest floor they heard the groans and struggling noises of what appeared to be a bound figure writhing at the base of a tree.

***

Will had been through so much that he found himself shivering despite the gathering fires in a cold sweat of panic.

“Get me outta here!” he yelled.

“Hey!  You!  Tree man!  Get down here!”

Small fires were growing around him flaring closer and closer, eating up the ground and rapidly closing off the possible routes of escape.

Will rocked from side to side, lying on his belly, his feet tied to his wrists behind him, his face smudged and dirty from the swirling ash and smoke.  Unable to right himself he raged against his bonds as the fires steadily crawled towards his position.

Squinting through the haze, he coughed and choked out a groan as three ash-covered figures approached him cautiously through the smoke.

“Get me outta this, please!” he begged, trying to get a better look at the figures through watering eyes.

Solemnly without a word, the three figures came forward and stood about six feet from him, their gray shrouded bodies appearing like spectral corpses who had recently crawled out of a fire-decimated graveyard.

One of the silent figures had something in its hand and slowly moved forward towards the pleading man, raising it as he approached.  A glint of firelight gleamed upon it for a second and Will realized suddenly that the three figures had not come over to help him at all.

***

We plummeted for what seemed like twenty feet, engulfed and buried within the river of smoke.  The hot air seared us.

With a sudden grinding jolt and a heavy grunt from Jeremiah, we finally slid to a sudden stop buried deep within the cloud.  My spine ached from the impact and I could tell Jeremiah had suffered the worst of the fall.  His gaff-cleats had cut gashes and furrows in the trunk of the tree, and the upper metal staves had hooked upon the belt around his calves and had formed a kind of belted sled, down the trunk of the tree, until the gaff points drove deeper into the tree trunk enough to bring our rapid descent to a grinding halt.  The shock of the fall and stop on Jeremiah’s hips and thighs, may have debilitated him, snapping his thigh bones like mere twigs, and having felt to the pain of my spine jabbed down on Jeremiah’s shoulders, I could hardly imagine what he must have felt.

We hung there like dead men from the climbing straps, like sides of beef drying in a smokehouse, only as painful as it was, we still breathed, and were silent for a while, barely able to believe we had survived.

“That was a horrible idea,” Jeremiah croaked, made breathless with the pain and shock of the impact on his torso, shoulders, spine and legs.

His gauntlet gloves, though thick and padded, were worn smooth and thin from the rough bark, by pressing his hands down the side of the trunk during the fall to keep us from being bashed against it.  The leather was hot from the friction.  And he carefully tugged at the fingers to pull them loose and allow his blistered hands to cool and breathe.

We had no real idea how far down we had fallen, or how far we had yet to go, but what we did know is that in this disorientation and cloak of dense smoke, perhaps, at least the harpy would not be able to easily find us.

That was until we heard the flapping noises above us and her angry and frustrated, screeching.

***

Thwock!

The arrow bolt launched from the line of the crossbow, sailing through the air with a slight hiss, and embedding itself into the ash-gray back of the figure raising the dagger blade over the bound young man at the base of the tree.

If there was one shot that needed to count, perhaps, Captain Logray thought himself that was it.

He shoved the cross-bow back into the sleeve, pulled the securing flap up and mounted his horse.  Preparing to ride up the hill, through the forest to see what kinds of creatures these were to molest and murder a helplessly bound man in cold blood.

***

Dellitch swooped downward through the smoke, barely able to see where her quarry had gone.  They had both been there for a moment and then they had dropped out of sight, into the cloud of smoke below.

They would not evade her so easily, she vowed, as she flared her claws and descended downward into the thick of the smoke after them.  If indeed they had chosen to fall to their deaths, she would at least bring their bodies back as evidence to The Pan that the meddlers were back in the Mid-World, and they were still intent on carrying out the quests that had brought them there.

She knew she somehow recognized at least one of them.  Jeremiah, leader of the failed second quest.

***

Blind as we were, and without strength or the power yet to descend further, we sensed a large shadow pass by us within the smoke, swirling just out of reach, but close enough to know that it was the harpy seeking us to finish us off.

***

Captain Logray was careful to approach the remaining two ash-covered creatures standing over the fallen body of their comrade.  The creature had fallen forward, its knife released from its hand as the crossbow bolt drove deep into its side.  Something strange was happening to its body as it fell across the bound man it had moved in to kill.  Smoky dust leaked from its side, with a hissing noise, tendrils of silver smoke rose from the wound swirling like an inner fire had been released from its body and was draining from the hole created by the arrow-bolt bristling from its back.  Its form began to crumble as if formed of wet molded sand.  A golem, Logray recognized.  Some creature which was an amalgam of wind and malleable clay formed and molded by a Dust Dragon from the netherworld in the between realm brought over unwittingly by Surface Worlders.  A follower and pursuer, given leave to impede the calling of the One, by buffeting those quest-called Surface Worlders with their own fears and doubts.  Azragoth was still in danger as long as the Cordis stone remained within the hidden chamber beneath it.  The General had foreseen such and knew that it was time Jeremiah took back the stone once again.  Perhaps this bound man whom he’d just rescued might provide him with the answers and whereabouts of Jeremiah that he sought.

***

Dark flared claws and a black feathered form swooped out of the lowering smoke cloud above.  A dark nimbus of hair flowed from its head and its black angry eyes raged below furrowed and feathered brow as the flying nightmare slammed into the back of the two standing figures, sunk a talon into the back of one and a grappling toed-claw around the arm of the other and snatched both upward, with great gusty downbeats from her broad wings.

“You will not escape me!” she bellowed and laughed in a high-pitched screech as she lifted both into the air with a pulled retraction of her legs.  The one whose back had been pierced by the sharp talon began to smoke and leak the same substance that drained from its arrow-pierced counterpart, dried powdery substance falling like sand from its form as the harpy and her captured prey disappeared into the smoke cloud above.

***

It had happened so fast, that Captain Logray had not been able to get near the creatures in time before the large flying creature had seized them and carried them off through the smoke.  Perhaps he had been mistaken.  Perhaps the other ash-creatures had not been entirely in league with the one he’d shot, but clearly one of the two was another golem.  So intent on catching her prey, the flying creature, which could only have been a displaced harpy, had not been aware of his presence, nor aware that a young man lay hobbled beneath the disintegrating form of the other golem.  She’d descended out of the thick smoke, so most likely she’d been disoriented and partially blinded by it, but not enough to dissuade her in her vengeful pursuit.  He’d heard her screech in triumph as she’d retaken her prey and carried them off.

The tree trunk above the prone man, stretch up into the dark smoky cloud, as embers within the forest continued to drop from the top of the tree like flecks of golden rain.  Logray dismounted his horse, gathering the reins and led the mare up the hillside toward the base of the tree, carefully avoiding the burning brush around him as he went.  He needed to get the young man safely away from the tree and back onto the cleared road, where there was less chance of the fire cutting off all possibility of escape.  He knelt, grabbing the rope that bound the man’s hands to his feet, and the young man bristled and cried out, “No!”

“Relax, young man.  We need to get you back to the road.  I’ll cut your bonds, but you will need to be straight with me and tell me who did this to you.  Got it?”

He drew forth a dagger from his side and sawed at the rope until it unraveled and snapped.

The man stretched out, sighing from the ache of being trussed up for so long as he was at last able to extend his legs and arms.

“Get me outta these,” he thrust forth his hands, indicating the rope that still bound his hands and ankles together.

“I’ll decide when those come off, young man,” Captain Logray answered in a tone that would brook no further argument.

“For now, I’ll give you your feet,” and he reached and sawed loose the binding that held the man’s ankles together.

Logray stood, leaned down grabbing the man’s forearm and hauled him up to his feet.

“Can you walk?”

The young man felt very weak in his legs but nodded.

“What is your name?”

“The last one to ask me that, tied me up.”

***

We heard the noises of the harpy attacking below.  We heard its boast as it captured something or someone and fly past us once again.  It did not make clear sense to me, but Jeremiah sighed heavily.

“Who was down there?” I asked again, “I really need to know.”

“I found a young man who had been captured by a harpy.  I picked him up on the trail to find you.  But it seems I’ve lost him again.”

“A young man?” I muttered, “What did he look like?”

“Oh, he was a little shorter than you, dark hair, really surly attitude.  Surface Worlder.  Belligerent and ungrateful.  A harpy and a dryad nymph were fighting over him.”

“Will.”

“What?”

“His name is Will.  I sent Maeven looking for him, but you said she returned and took the others to the Faery Fade.”

“Yes, she did.  She must not have found him before the harpy got to him.  Makes sense why there would be no ground tracks to follow, if that thing carried him.  Are you planning to go after him again?”

“I don’t think we can.  If she doesn’t kill him, she’ll bring him to The Pan and he most certainly will.  I have to think of the others now and release his life into the hands of the One.”

“Now you’re finally talking like a leader.  I don’t know about you but I am about sick of being in this tree.  Ready to get back on terra firma.”

“Do you feel up to it?  How are your legs?”

“Don’t ask.  I’m operating on adrenaline only.  They are numb, but I think I can still get us down.”

Jeremiah carefully lifted his left leg out of the cut groove that had arrested their fall.  “Oh, man that hurts,” he moaned as he attempted to massage his thigh to get feeling back into his leg.  He bore his weight on his right leg and swung his left leg lower, gaining about another foot in decent.  The muscles of his right leg and ligaments spasmed and he gritted his teeth and winced with the pain.

“If I ever suggest something like a slip-fall again, just remind me of this,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Another voice spoke quietly below, and Brian and Jeremiah froze.

“What is your name?”

A younger voice answered, “The last one to ask me that, tied me up.”

***

The bewildered beings hung slack as Dellitch the harpy ascended into the roiling cloud bank of smoke.  She had swooped in fast behind them, clasping both figures before they could crouch, run or put up much of a struggle.  They were covered in ash, but so had she been, flying through the smoky ash pursuing them down to the base of the tree.  She had felt her claws satisfactorily sink into the flesh of one, catching him under his scapula and wrapping her upper talons around the top of the man’s shoulder, wounding and immobilizing him with one strike.  The other she had caught behind the arm in a half deflective turn, reacting to the sudden seizure of his partner, but not soon enough to prevent her swift attack.

With a mighty down thrust of her wings, she’d seized and jerked them aloft, dangling by the piercing of her claws, unyielding iron-shod shanks, and the forceful grip of her powerful, grey-skinned knuckles.

She had exulted to herself, enjoying the savagery of her triumph at the moment, savoring their brief writhing under her vise-like grip and the diminishing feel of their following sagging dispair, resigning themselves to their fate.   But, that lasted only for a few moments.  When Dellitch suddenly felt one of her captive’s body begin to crumble and dissolve into dry powder under her claws, she knew something was terribly wrong.

Could it be that these prisoners were not who she thought they were?  She clutched her pierced captive harder but could feel its arm dissolve into grit and grains of dust, sifted through her claw.

Startled and panicked she almost released them to fall to the forest floor.  No.  Surely, they had not had time to get away.  She had only been blinded for a moment, flying through the haze of the smoke, but she’d emerged swiftly, responding to the two upright forms below.  When there was a brief thinning in the swirling smoke, she stole a quick glance down at her remaining captive, its face expressionless, though it looked to be that of the man she had borne up into the tree, there was an uncanny difference about him.  This one lacked something.  And then she realized what she was holding and why the other had literally crumbled and dissolved in her claws.  These were not outworlders at all.  These were from the in-between, ether-natural vagrants—squatters—haunting a mud-cake replica of a man.  Banshees.  Wind spirits.  Howlers.  ‘Damn!’ she cursed.

Nevermind, she vowed.  They would not evade her for long.  She would turn the whole vengeance and violence of the half-men kingdom against them.  Their blood would be offered in appeasements to The Pan for his use the mystic pools.  The two would flee and inevitably lead her to the others that had been sighted in Kilrane.  Rather than being a pariah, she would be praised and heralded before the evening descended on the wood.

***

Captain Logray looked up, hearing an odd ‘Thunk-jingle-Thunk!’ noise, coming down from the tree above them.  He drew out his sword, ready to confront whoever or whatever was making that noise until he saw human legs with foot spikes coming down the side of the tree.  A man of almost equal size sat upon the larger man’s shoulders, working a slip-belt down around the bole of the tree.

When Captain Logray saw who it was, he laughed aloud.

“Well, this is fortunate!” Captain Logray clapped his hands together, “The very man I am sent to find, appears before me, climbing down from the treetops performing a very impressive display of strength.”

“Captain Logray?” Jeremiah answered still slowly working his way down to the ground.

“And who is this you have with you, besides your belligerent prisoner?”

My face was covered in smeared blood from a swollen nose and my brow was abraded by the rough bark.  Given the opportunity, I realized that I would perhaps find it hard to recognize myself in a mirror or pool of water.  Bracing myself against the tree, I pulled a leg over Jeremiah’s arm unbuckled the slip-belt and slid down to the ground.

“They call him Mr. O’Brian,” a familiar voice snarled to my left, “but I’m inclined to call him something else.”

I turned.

“Will.”

“Yeah.  Surprised?” he sneered.

“Relieved,” I answered, “I sent Maeven to find you.”

“Well, you found me.  Where are the others, fearless leader?  Did you lose them too?”

I stared at him a moment and he glared back, daring me to counter his insolence.

I turned to the man Jeremiah had called “Captain”.

“I’m sorry, Captain, is it?” I offered my hand.

“Logray,” he took it in a firm, strong grip, “Captain of the Forest Guard.  We observed you and your company in the backwoods of Azragoth in the company of The Storm Hawk.  You’re pretty bashed up there.  Are you all right?”

“Honored to meet you, Captain.  I’ll be fine, it’s Jeremiah that needs our help.”

“I’ve got it,” Jeremiah growled, sighing to catch his breath, “Only a few feet more.”
His legs were trembling and his body sagged in the climbing harness.

Brooking no argument, Logray and I came up behind Jeremiah and allowed him to rest his weight on our shoulders to loosen the tension on the slip strap fastened to his climbing belt.  Painfully, he tugged at his leg to loosen the gaff spike under his foot and allowed it to dangle.

Taking in another deep breath, Jeremiah unfastened the slip strap and sank to the ground with an involuntary hiss and groan, but we caught him putting our shoulders under his arms to ease him down.

“Jeremiah’s legs are in shock,” I explained, “We fell quite a ways coming down and I am afraid he will have some difficulty walking.  May we trouble you for the use of your horse, Captain?”

“She is at your disposal, my friend.  As is my sword.”

“We need to get back to the road and to a guarded place within the forest.”

“He speaks of the Faerie Fade.  Storm Hawk and the others should be there by now, waiting for us to return,” Jeremiah huffed, barely able to breathe through the pain as he leaned against the base of the tree and tried futilely to undo the climbing harnesses on his feet and around his waist.  I reached down to help him, but he fended me off.

“I’ll be alright.  I just need to catch my breath.”
Logray ignored Jeremiah’s protest and bent down helping him remove the footgear and harnesses.  I took the gear and held it out to Will to carry so Logray and I could assist Jeremiah further.  Will only glared at me, so I just set the gear down, as Captain Logray and I assisted Jeremiah, lifting him on either arm and guiding him towards the horse.

“We must get out of here quickly.  A harpy attacked us above and could come back at any moment.  Are you alone or are there others in your company?”

“I stand alone on this charge.”

I nodded and took out a short knife and moved towards Will.  He drew back from me, evidently thinking I meant to do him harm.

“Give me your hands.”

“What for?!” he hissed, “Why should I follow you any longer?  Look at what it has got me.  Everywhere I turn you bring bad luck on us!”

“Give me your hands,” I spoke quietly and firmly, looking him directly in the eyes.

“I will not hurt you.  I just want to set you free.  You can come with us or go your own way.  I am not compelling you to follow, but there are many things in this wood that will kill you if you choose to leave now.  Come with us and we may get out of this alive.”

Will hesitated but finally thrust his bound wrists out at me.  As I loosed him, I heard Jeremiah speak in low tones to Captain Logray.  “It’s been a long time since we last spoke, Logray.  How did you know where I would be?”

“Friends are never really that far away, Jeremiah.  We have kept an eye on you for some time.  I knew that you would be near the cache supplies when the fires started.  The General knew as well.  He told me that you and he spoke when he was returning from the overlook.  He ordered me to give you some time to work out your thoughts.  We know you’ve been secretly aiding us in the resistance, in your own way.”

“But why come out into the fire?  Why risk it?”

“Because I knew you would risk your life trying to salvage the cached supplies.  You cannot continue to do things alone.  But more to the point it was also because General Mattox has been shot,” Logray announced to our shock and dismay.

“What?!” I turned.

“Two arrows to the chest.  Barely missed his heart.  He’s badly wounded but was under the surgeon’s care when I left.  He is a strong man and a determined fighter.  His personal guard said he was insistent on my bringing you back to Azragoth as soon as possible.”

“But we just left,” I answered.

“Not you.  My General wants Jeremiah.”

“Me?  What for?”

“I think you already know why.  The time has come, my friend.  You cannot run from your calling forever.  You have left something in our keeping that you need to take up again.”

Jeremiah was silent, his expression signifying an internal struggle whose outcome was still uncertain.

“Who shot him?” I asked, wondering who would dare attack Mattox.

“It is not particularly so much of a who, as it is a what.  If I did not know how to recognize a Surface Worlder when I see one, and if I did not clearly see your face is bleeding one might think that you did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We’ve captured and are holding two of them and the guards dispatched one upon the city wall.  But where one of this kind shows up, there are always more in the shadows.  What I find particularly interesting is that these creatures we have clapped in irons all seem to resemble you, Mr. O’Brian.”

He let that stunning bit of information sink in for a moment.

“We have seen their kind many years before.  We call them golems.  And Jeremiah, you were the one who helped us deal with them then.  That is why we need you again.”

I looked up and Jeremiah had turned in the saddle and was staring hard at me.  He seemed highly agitated and distracted.

“This is something new,” Jeremiah said gravely, “Golems do not take the faces of the living.  Or at least I have never heard of it happening before.”

“It is rare indeed, unless…” Logray’s words trailed off as a look passed between Logray and Jeremiah, communicating much between them, but revealing nothing to me.

I looked from Jeremiah to Logray and back to Jeremiah again.

“What do you mean they resemble me?  I’ve never seen a…  What did you call it?”

“A golem.”

“You mean the skinny little creature…”

“No.  The word is much older than its use for the character in Tolkien’s tales,” Jeremiah interrupted me, “It appears in the original written language of the Ancient Text meaning ‘formless body’.  But even in that state, as shaped by The One, it has purpose, meaning, and identity.” [Psalms 139:16]

Logray turned back and fixed me with a hard, scrutinizing look, “Mr. O’Brian were you ever in the presence of a dragon?”

The Cordis Stone – Chapter 63

I slid down and pressed my back against the trunk of the tree.  I could not see the harpy, so I figured to stay as close to the branch and trunk as possible.  If I could strap myself to the trunk so much the better, and then I would have my arms free to draw the honor sword when she came back.  It was becoming harder and harder to breathe.  Smoke burned my eyes.  With the rise and descent of the smoke, the harpy had found a perch somewhere and had broken off her attack.  I was disoriented and confused and not certain that I could get the footwear on without losing my balance.  Her passes had ceased, but I knew she was still out there.  Waiting for me to succumb to the rising smoke and fall.  I had to get my head clear.  To think this one out.  But like the wall of building smoke, all I had coming to mind was this cloud of self-recrimination engulfing me.

And then I remembered the purpose of my calling.  To redeem the stories and connect them to those who owned them.  To lead them forth to the Kingdom Gate of Excavatia.

Some stories have a beginning, middle and resolution.  Some have happy endings.  Some have tragic endings.  And some just break off in the middle and fade.  They have a broken sort of death in a half-life existence.  They are not themselves dead, but trapped in a twilight of monotony, unable to move far away from the moments that arrested their forward progression.  The Mid-World is strewn with the litter of these fading stories.  Some I have contributed to in my life within The Surface World.  Some contributed by others who have eclipsed my experience and have surfaced here in the in-between lands.  It has been my belief that I was sent back here through the collective dream to gather together these remnants who were trapped here.  Help connect them with the individuals within our company who could carry these forward, and in the process redeem my own story and operate from a position of strength to help these find Excavatia, the land in which hopes and dream connect and materialize into experience.

Yet so far every effort I put forward and yielded to, led to tragedy.  Azragoth burns.  Its location and resurrection exposed to the hostiles forces who wanted it never to rise again.  We are driven forward by the fires behind us.  We almost lost Maeven, by confronting a Manticore and almost lost our lives trapped under a collapsing waterfall and cliffside.  Every decision and every lack of decision was leading us closer and closer to death.  My leadership so far was a disaster.  My failure put me in this tree.  My obsession with rectifying the past wrong caused me to leave those I was called to lead and seek out The Pan in some strange hope of retrieving what Caleb and I had given him the opportunity to steal.

The Cordis Stone—The second of three mysterious stones needed to open the gate to Excavatia.  Each stone represented the essential values needed to unlock the pathway to the awakening.  As I’ve said before the Nature of the Mid-World is a place of joining between things incorporeal and corporeal.  Things that exist without bodily form, take on a form when they enter this place.  This is why this land has supernatural monsters here.  But by the same token, some incorporeal concepts also take on a form and solidify into something of precious value in this Mid-World.

The Ancient Text speaks of The Word becoming flesh to dwell among men.  That the fullness of the expression of Love is made corporeal in the expression of Christ.  In another verse, the Ancient Text says:

“13 Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.” [1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT]

These eternal concepts have been showing up in the Mid-World as unusual and particularly precious stones.  We believe that these are the gate stones that will unlock the Kingdom Gate at the other end of the Mid-World beyond the land of Capitalia.  Individuals from each generation were granted entrance into the Mid-World through a shared dream to participate in three quests to open the gate.  The first stone, representing the eternal concept of hope, called the Praesperos stone, has been delivered to the gate in the first quest of my generation.  The stone of the second quest, the Cordis stone, representing Love, also known as the heart stone, was lost, and the second quest failed.

I was once again repeating the failures of the past, dooming this mission and those I was called to lead.  Yet the message I had received offered me another chance.

Caleb and I believed that we could turn The Pan upon himself and force him to confess to his meddling in the affairs of men in the Surface World.  We thought that the Cordis Stone would reveal to all what was hidden within his dark heart.  That that revealed truth would undo him and expose him.  We believe that the stone itself had the power to subdue him, so we took the stone from Jeremiah, went on a foolish mission without seeking counsel and confronted The Pan in his kingdom within the Sarsooth forests where the dryads and harpies originally lived before they moved to the outer rim beyond The Stone Pass.  We were wrong.  Dead wrong.  Caleb lost his life for it.  I barely escaped.

But now I would die here.

The Faeries, the living Fire Lights, had told me to return to my company.  That I would be “drawn forth from the well to be a channel of living water to those given”.  I was told to “return to them” for I would be “made into what is purposed” and that I would find “delight in [my] purpose”.  There was no mention of retrieving the Cordis Stone, the reason for which I had left my company.  My guilt in being partially responsible for its loss, drove me towards the confrontation.  I felt compelled to rectify the past, to somehow retrieve the Cordis stone, and put this mission back on track.  I have never been able to forgive myself for the results of our failed mission.  I believed that my calling by The One to lead this third quest was a second chance to make amends for my part in the failure of the second quest.  But again I was failing.  It might be best if I did just fall from the tree and break my neck, or let this attacking harpy take my life and cease resistance.  I felt despair surround me and threaten to cover me with a cloud of darkness.  I was blind within the rising smoke.  I could barely breathe.  I had climbing gear that was useless without time to strap the pieces on and descend.

And below me, somewhere in the swirling cloud of ash and heat was Jeremiah.  The one man who I owed so much to for the failure of his mission.  The one man who had every right and reason to kill me for what I’d done to him, as a brother-in-arms, who’d been responsible for undermining his leadership with his younger brother.

I owed Jeremiah the truth about the Cordis Stone.  Though his brother had taken it from him, I was every bit responsible for what had happened as a result of Caleb’s theft.

Jeremiah had been understandably grieved and angry.  Because of my part in the betrayal, I led him to believe that the plan had been wholly my idea, rather than cast blame upon the dead.  In truth, Caleb had taken the stone and had awakened me in the night and told me that we two were given a secret mission to take down The Pan.  That he had been sighted in the woods of the mystic pools and was obsessed with watching what was transpiring through them in the Surface World of men.  We had planned to confront him alone within the wood and perhaps push him into one of the portals where he would be ripped in half in transit, back to the Surface World.

The Pan had gone nearly blind from staring into the ethereal light of the mystic ghost pools.  Yet somehow he still saw through them with eyes that were becoming useless in this Mid-World.  His focus on them so obsessed him, that he would be oblivious to our approach.  We had witnessed that it was his custom to refuse attendants when he went into the mystic wood.  That we could be certain that he would be alone, based upon his own command.  It seemed to both of us that it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  That we could rid the Mid-World of The Pan or expose him for the charlatan that he was and in so doing we could bring his influence in the Mid-World down, and force him to confess under the Name of The One.  We believed two things.  That the power of The Name of the One would compel even the darkest creatures to bow its knees and confess to the truth.  We believed that we could use the Name alone to compel The Pan to yield to us and confess to the power that ruled him.  The Ancient Text says in the chronicle of the prophet Isaiah:

“18 For the LORD is God, and he created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos. “I am the LORD,” he says, “and there is no other. 19 I publicly proclaim bold promises. I do not whisper obscurities in some dark corner. I would not have told the people of Israel to seek me if I could not be found. I, the LORD, speak only what is true and declare only what is right. 20 “Gather together and come, you fugitives from surrounding nations. What fools they are who carry around their wooden idols and pray to gods that cannot save! 21 Consult together, argue your case. Get together and decide what to say. Who made these things known so long ago? What idol ever told you they would happen? Was it not I, the LORD? For there is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior. There is none but me. 22 Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. 23 I have sworn by my own name; I have spoken the truth, and I will never go back on my word: Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.”” [Isaiah 45:18-23 NLT]

We knew that it was the image of The Pan of this world that was being used as the image of the devil in our world.  The Surface World.  Ancient world religions and traditions depicted a hybrid king with both human and animal flesh.  Ancient China, Egypt, and Greece were the most prominent, although modern paganism brought the hybrid ram/goat king back into tradition.  The Pan was in some Surface World traditions, both the god of nature and of the universe.  He was higher than Zeus, the famed god of Mount Olympus and heaven, though at some point his worship fell out of tradition.  But still, it lurked in other forms.  The Pan was the Oberon, the forest king of the fairies in medieval tradition, a god of forests and all land surfaces.  This was in contrast to what The One said of Himself–That He alone was Lord and there was no other.

The lie arose from this pernicious creature, whispering it into the minds of mankind.  The Pan brought blood into the mystic pools and opened them up to whisper deceiving words.  By day, the Pan ruled the half-men kingdom of the Mid-World.  By night, he sowed treacherous deceptions into the foolish minds of pagan humans who opened themselves to mysticism in the Surface World.  We thought with both the compulsion of the Name and with the power in the Cordis stone, we could compel The Pan to confess his treachery both through the mystic pools, but also before his own hybrid kingdom who were dwindling in numbers as mankind appeared to encroach more and more into the lands of the Mid-World.

We made the mistake of the seven sons of Sceva.  The Ancient Text records this account:

“11 God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. 12 When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. 13 A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. 15 But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.” [Acts 19:11-16 NLT]

Caleb had hoped to use The Name to command The Pan to yield, and instead treated it much like a word from an incantation.  We falsely assumed that because we were called on the mission, we could not fail.

The first quest had been successful, and the gate stone had been delivered to the doorway to the hidden passage to Excavatia.

We were foolish to believe that because of one prior success that we could not fail in the second one.  We placed our confidence so much in the rightness of the quest, that we failed to walk in the obedience of it.

The Ancient Text says:

“12 There is a way [which seems] right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” [Proverbs 14:12 NASB]

A way that seems right at the time, if acted upon without seeking the will of the One, leads to failure and death as it did for my friend Caleb.  Deception operates in the “seems”, as a wise man once said.

This pattern recurs over and over again throughout human history and leads to horrific consequences.

“15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” [Proverbs 12:15 NASB]

Had I insisted that we turn back and seek counsel from Jeremiah and the others, I was fully convinced that Caleb would still be alive.  Instead, we took our own counsel and I was a fool for doing so.

I pondered all of this, leaning against the tree trunk, struggling to swing the larger slip belt around the trunk and catch it with my dangling foot and draw it up to me, but was so far unsuccessful.

And then something gripped my leg.

***

Smoke rose from the sides of the hard-packed road as the rider, Captain Logray, slowed his horse from a gallop to a trot.  Ash and dust drifted around them, and Logray knew his horse needed a breather.  Its flaring nostrils were coated with gray ash, and Logray was concerned that the horse had breathed in too much of the substance.  He slowed the horse further, easing the mare down to a walk, trying to calm the horse who was skittish and fearful of the smoldering fires around them.  Two other times in the journey down the old road from Azragoth, Logray had slowed his horse and brushed away the ash from its body and face, calming the horse, but the fires had not abated, and the road ahead was strewn with smoldering limbs and fallen trees.

As Logray dismounted, he paused with his foot still in the stirrup, his hand on the pommel of the saddle, his ears hearing the noise of furtive movements behind him and about twenty yards off from the road.  The animals of the forest would have long since fled from the fire, but the noises of runners were something else entirely.  He was being followed.  Pursued.  And he could not risk leading who or whatever was following him to the place where he was going.

***

The four golems ran swiftly through the charred forest.  Flakes of soot and ash coated their bodies with a white crust as they ran, loping like silver furred werewolves under a haze of gray smoke.  Their faux flesh no longer looked like the image of the one from whom they had been molded, for the charred residue of the skin of the dead forest cloaked them into obscurity.

They had avoided the road which the soldier from Azragoth rode, attempting to hang back and follow from a distance.  One of the presences animating the bodies was the ephemeral wind spirit that had once walked among the company of Surface Worlders, posing as one of them, before her facade had been stripped away by the gratitude test and that cursed covenant sword.  Her name was Torlah, and the promise of her revenge on the two that exposed her was within reach.  She tasted its anticipated and violent flavor upon her clay tongue–a gift of the Dust Dragon.

The ether-natural beast from the between whose hook had snared the current Surface World leader called to lead the third quest when he passed through the portal to return to the Mid-World after a lengthy hiatus.  The man had returned to the small hut and hovel where he’d last lived after the failings of the second quest.  A hermitage, with a small garden, a river tributary and a lake within walking distance of the home.  Time had ravaged the place when the man returned to it.  The small two room bungalow had fallen into disrepair.  The garden was choked with wild growth and weeds.  The flagstone path was overgrown.  The shelter was infested with rats and mice and other vermin.  A caked layer of silt covered every surface and the place smelled of mold and mildew and the pungent odors of urine and mouse feces.

He’d fallen asleep in the cottage and his consciousness took him back into the Surface World.  His presence had disappeared, and the shack had been abandoned.  Years later, when he awoke he found that he was in a room filled with decay.  The cottage, his hermitage, was a graveyard shrouded accumulated layers of in burial dust.

***

“Relax!” a voice below hissed.

The hand that grabbed my leg belonged to Jeremiah.

I jerked away and almost fell when he grabbed me.

“What are you doing?!”

“There’s a harpy stalking me.  How did you get up here?!”

“Using a set of the gear I sent up to you, rather than fiddling with it.”

“There wasn’t time.  The harpy that caught me and put me up here, came back before I could get the pieces strapped on.”

“Where is she now?”

I gestured ahead into the rising smoke, “I don’t know.  Somewhere out there.  She broke off the attack when the smoke rose up.  The fire is spreading all over the forest, I’ve got to get back to my friends.  They’ll be trapped soon, if we don’t press onward.”

“They’re safe for now.  Maeven returned and I sent them to The Faerie Fade.”

“There is one here?!”

“Of course there is.  I saw you from below and saw the Faeries come to you.  What did they say?”

“That I should go back to my travelers and would be shone what to do.”

“Why did you leave them in the first place?”

“The Pan is in the forest.  He is just ahead in the area where the old bridge once crossed a forest stream.  We could not go by way of the road without being discovered, so I had my company wait for me behind while I scouted ahead.”

“Why didn’t you sent someone to go scout for you?”

“And risk being spotted by The Pan?  It was too dangerous.”

“So dangerous, you would risk leaving your people leaderless alone and unaware of what to do next?!”

“I told Begglar to watch after them and get them to Sorrow’s Gate, if I did not return soon.  His wife Nell, knows the way because she was raised in this area.  They have contacts with the underground that could help.”

“What is it that you would risk your life and the lives of those of your company to go towards The Pan to find?”

“Because The Pan has the Cordis Stone,” I confessed.  “Caleb and I took it when we went to confront The Pan before.  If The Pan has the Cordis Stone, he will eventually find and kill every story we set out to save.”

I heard Jeremiah mutter something under his breath and then sigh heavily.

“No,” he huffed, “He doesn’t.”

“I saw The Pan take it from Caleb,” I refuted, “He has it and he will blind everyone to their purpose as long as he has it in his possession.  I have to get it back.  I caused your quest to fail.  Every quest is doomed until we get it back.  With The Pan appearing in the forest of Kilrane at this time, I figured that this was the time for me to get it back.  I could not bring the others with me, but since I bore the Honor Sword this time and was called by the One, this had to be the opportunity I was waiting for.”

“You have been deceived, Brian.  The Pan does not have the Cordis Stone.”

“I was there.  I saw him take it.  How can you say that?”

“Because I still have it.”

He let those stunning words linger for a moment while I recovered.

“You have?” I stammered, “How did you get it back from him?”

“He never had it in the first place.  What you and Caleb took was a decoy.  I knew what Caleb was planning.  I knew that he was tempted to take the stone from me, so I had a clever decoy made.  Caleb is perhaps dead, because he took the decoy, believing it had the power to overcome and expose The Pan.”

Those words hit me like a hammer.

“You mean…?”

“Yes!” he growled, “Caleb did something foolish.  He and I argued over it and I forbade him to try it, but the stubborn fool did not listen.  I never thought he would have convinced you to go along with it, but he did.  I know you lied to me, saying it was all your idea, and that hurt and insulted me even worse when I had found out what you both had done.”

“But you never completed the quest…”

“No.  I did not.  I lost heart for it.  I let anger rule me and I walked away from it.  I too was a fool.  I left the Honor Sword on some broken rock ridge in the mountains.  And I walked away from it.  My heart turned to stone.”

“Where is the Cordis Stone now?”

“It is in safekeeping, I hope.”

“What do you mean, you hope?”

“Back there.  I assume since you ride with The Storm Hawk, you already know where.”

I lowered my voice, stunned once again.  “In Azragoth?”

“Not in Azragoth,” Jeremiah said, “Under it.”

Sparks, burning branches and floating embers began to fall all around us as the canopy above began to lower its emblazoned the ceiling of fire.

“We need to get down from this tree,” I said.

And Jeremiah concurred, “I couldn’t agree more.”

It occurred to me that The Dust Dragon that I had encountered in the cave system under Azragoth might not have been digging to destroy the city above after all.  It was quite possible that the creature had been seeking to uncover and steal The Cordis Stone.  To dig the very heart out from under the city and the quests we, both Jeremiah and I had been sent into the Mid-World to lead.

Jeremiah helped me strap the tree gaff harnesses onto my dangling feet, and loop the long wrap belt around the bole of the tree and under the limb upon which I had rested.  With an unsteady pivot outward and his assistance driving one of the gaff points into the trunk.  I flailed wildly, disoriented and blinded by the smoke, fairly certain I would grind my face against the tree as I fell.  I was finally able to get positioned into the climbing harness and slip belt, in such a way that I had counter-balanced my weight against the trunk.

Jeremiah had descended below about eight feet when we both heard a whooshing noise of flapping wings and a horrific shriek.   The harpy had evidently been close-by, waiting for her chance to strike both of us.

***

Captain Logray stood very still, placing a calming hand on his horse’s neck, feeling the felt-like surface of its sweating coat as its powerful muscles trembled and flexed beneath his hand.  He spoke low and calm to the mare who eyed him and fidgeted, wanting to adopt the comfort of the calming hand, but sensing that danger was still near.

Logray stroked the horse’s nose whispering low, “Easy girl.  Settle.  Settle.  Calm girl.”

The horse’s ears twitched, and she rumbled a throaty noise.

Beyond the horse’s neck, Logray watched the ash coated figures move and duck behind the blackened trees, darting in and out of the smoke rising from the crackling trees and scorched ground.

With one hand he had slipped the hand comb out from his saddle roll and stroked the horse’s brow and neck and with another hand he fingered the stock handle of a cross-bow, hanging in a padded sheath sleeve secured with bone loops.  A brace of arrow bolts was mounted below the main spring bow, just clear of the aiming stock.  Carefully, using the horse’s body as cover, he released the bone button hooks, fingered out an arrow bolt and set its nock into the bowstring.  Palming the horse brush, he crossed it and dropped it into the bow sleeve as he eased the weapon out with his other free hand.  The crossbow would be good for just one shot and he needed to be careful to make it count.

The ash-covered creatures still acted as if they were not aware that their quarry had marked them as well.

Whatever these creatures were, Logray was certain, they were up to no good.

 

The Path of Fire – Chapter 62

Flames scoured the land, roared through the treetops and blackened the ground with char and silvered it with settling ash.  From behind the waves of fire, a cloaked and wrapped horseman rode quickly down the break ridge switchback road, his horse’s iron-shod hooves pounding the ash covered roadway.  The rider’s fist tightly gripped the reins of his mount as the beast’s body churned underneath him.  The old road had become overgrown and choked with forest scrub, ferns, and cast leaves, but now it shone like a silver pathway among the blackened poles still standing as the skeletal reminder of a forest gutted by fire.

The man wore a sash about his face, and a pre-moistened gauze, now drying, covered his brow and thick hair.  Both the rider and the horse deftly chose patches of ground where the foliage had burned down and cooled or was laid bare to rock or gravel, alternating between the steamy roadway and the nearby dry river bed where the path followed along its border.  The smoke was being pushed ahead by a slight wind falling down through the breaks beyond the city of Azragoth.  The rider had taken advantage of the shift in the wind and had lit out to follow his general’s command, perhaps earlier than was prudent.

Observing the damage done along the way, the rider pondered what he was seeing.  The flames from the interior walls of Azragoth should not have extended this far into the forest.  He’d received thorough reports of the siege and knew what had transpired afterward.  The flames from the oil and tar wall had burned and set the Manticores afire, and it was understandable that they would flee blindly into the wood, but their passage would not have burned such wide swaths of ground in their frantic flight.

Hours had passed since the attack and the company of Surface Worlders should have already been clear of the forest of Kilrane before the first flame reached the roadway and died out.  Something or someone had accelerated the fire and carried it across the firebreaks.  Something or someone who wanted Azragoth exposed to the outside lands once more.

The rider could hear the sounds of conflict ahead but assumed that the cries were that of the forest animals fleeing before the fire.  Noises to his far left and right sounded like he was being shadowed by other horsemen, but it was too difficult to make out anything through the shifting haze of the smoldering wood and the dying crackle and pop of withering embers.

When he’d arrived from the backwoods and entered the city of Azragoth, the front forest was ablaze and black smoke billowed from the outer walls and flared through the treetops.  The general had been savagely attacked and shot with arrows.  He was understandably anxious to learn of his commanding officer’s condition and rode straight to the surgeon’s house in the low street.  Jesh, Mattox’s taller bodyguard had relayed the General’s command to seek out the elusive forester Jeremiah and bid him come back to Azragoth as soon as possible, but he knew that chance was dwindling.  Jeremiah owed the general at least that.  But with the front passage on fire, no one was coming either into or out of the city by that route.  The Keep had been locked down and was under tight guard, so the underground route was not an option.  For six hours the general had undergone surgery, and there was nothing he could do but wait.  But when the wind shifted, and the billows towering over the front wall began to thin, Captain Lorgray knew the chance to carry out what might be the general’s last order had come.  If the general wanted Jeremiah to return to Azragoth, then he was bound and determined to find the man and compel him to come back with him.

***

Dellitch was angry and terrified.

The audience before The Pan was not turning out at all how she planned.  Their plan to destroy the Dryads once and for all had been found out, her fire-setting sisters caught in the act and then the whole burning of the forest entirely blamed upon them.  The Pan’s rebuke still rang in her head.  She had been in a tree when he raged, and the branches had caught her and kept her from falling, but her bones still vibrated like a tuning fork.

‘Curse that lying Troll!’, she thought.

She doubted if even turning over the Surface Worlder she had captured would make any difference to The Pan now.  But it would distract him, and that distraction was badly needed.  The dryads would have had nothing to do with fire.  They were understandably terrified of it, which was another reason they never directly assaulted the settlements of men.  And why they shied away from taking humans who traveled through the forests by night carrying firelight or refrained from molesting those who dared to camp within the forest sleeping around a campfire.

Much as they might want to, they could never make The Pan believe the dryads had anything to do with the burnt torches affixed to the wings of her sisters.  And if The Pan were to follow that line of questioning further into how exactly those brands were attached, they would have to risk disclosing their own alliance with the Xarmnians.  A weak alliance they had made in case they were ever entirely excommunicated from the Half-Men kingdom and declared ‘kill on sight’ by any of their former allies.  The Half-men where a dwindling race, but the presence of mankind was increasing and would eventually overrun the Mid-World.

The Pan would most certainly make good on his threat.  There were dark, violent things that seemed to do his bidding, and his reach was far and wide.  Her captured prize might placate The Pan enough to where he still saw value in the harpies rather than receiving the full weight of his ire.  She had to collect the Surface Worlder and bring him back to The Pan to have any hope of salvaging a place for her kind.

There wasn’t time to find the other Surface Worlders, but even if there had been, Dellitch reasoned, any remaining would most likely be driven out of the forest by the spreading fires…unless…

A thought arose her in mind from a distant memory, a mere scrap of a conversation she had overheard about certain places in the various woods where Faeries had once been sighted…a place such as Kilrane Forest.

It was time to extract some information from her treetop prize.  She launched from the limb and swooped in and out of the smoky wood, headed swiftly to the place she’d deposited the overworlder.  She would get him to cooperate or dangle his body in flight and let the branches of the wood beat the information out of him.  If that did not work, there was always the path of fire.  Funny how tongues of fire loosened tongues of flesh.

***

When the rider had left the gates of Azragoth, four figures bearing the face of O’Brian followed him, loping after the rider in furtive bursts of speed that the original body bearing their face had no capacity for.

Only the desperate, foolish and the called charged into the path of fire.  And from their perspective, the latter was the most dangerous.

The Azragothian would eventually lead them to the one with whom they shared faces, and then they would kill him and all those who followed him.  They could not touch these persons within the Surface World except by means of deception and through the actions of others still lost in the death of the Fall.  But here in the Mid-World, where the spiritual had form and corporeal substance, violence could be done in this perception realm that could not be done in the land of the original curse.

Surface Worlders were both ignorant and dangerous.  They did not know who they were called to be, but if they were to learn the truth it would be the end of the Dark Reign and the “Stone of the Worlds” would open the portal that would usher in the returning king.  The sleeping bride would awaken–roused to awareness by her beloved’s call.  The lamps in the darkness were being lit even now by the fire of the Divine One.  Violence and destruction and hatred were gaining ground in the Surface World, but it was also driving some into an awareness that there was a dark otherness bringing forth these influences.

The sentries of the Throne, the faeries, were being sent into the Mid-Word to aid those following in the quest.  Their stories would soon be connected and restored to them.  Already, the man had harvested the Fides stone, (also known as the Pax stone), from the body of their master.  Six other stones remained in the Mid-World, three were harvested from the now dead demons who had entered it, two still walked the Mid-World in monstrous forms, and one swam within it.  The first quest to Excavatia had been successful in that the Praesperos stone, (the hope stone), had been delivered to the Kingdom gate and embedded in the key lock.  The second quest had been partially successful but abandoned and the Cordis Stone taken into possession by the Half-Men kingdom.  The man whom they called ‘The Face’ had been in the company of the first quest, had risen in rank during the second quest, and had been partially responsible for its failure in the second, and now he had returned and was in the lead of the third quest.

The third quest must not succeed.  The Dust Dragon had followed ‘The Face’ in his awakening.  Had planted a whispering root of deception in his mind that had been exposed by his Mid-World intercessor and had been broken when he yielded to the Quickening of the One.  The honor sword of covenant had been roused to life, and the quest had begun in the place of death’s defeat: Azragoth, city of plagues.  A fortified city built of quarried stone carried from a hillside below what was now a rotting burial mound, covering the central Rock: The Bloodstone, designated as the most dangerous place of all within the Mid-Worlds.  A town whose foundation was almost as ancient as that of the Surface World from which the human builder came and encamped during that first night after slaying his own brother.  The place was not actually a town to begin with.  It was an altar.  Built with stone and tears.  A place in which the human builder had received a mark of protection, when The One offered him Mercy instead of Justice.

***

Sometimes life might literally hang by a straining thread.

That thought passed through my mind thinking not only of my own predicament but that of the others in my company who had been taken by the Protectorate Guards.  A band of brutes who were cruel as an afterthought, but wicked by intention, savage as any of the Half-men creatures falling under The Pan’s rule.

The Xarmnian military used to be thuggish and slow-witted, oafish and unregimented until Xarmni enlisted the Corsines of the mountains to discipline them.  Initially hired as mercenaries and personal protection, the Corsines were given rank and Xarmnian-citizen standing in exchange for transforming their armies into brutal and efficient battle groups.  The Xarmnian foot soldiers were originally comprised of conscripts and foundlings, orphans and the children of debtors who were taken, educated and made into what they had become.  Few of these ever attained a status of higher rank, and most of the leadership came from among the Corsines in the Stone Pass.

But the Protectorate Guard patrols were mostly comprised of Corsines, their duties reserved for the hunters of the military bands.  Enforcers who were tasked with ensuring that subversives were swiftly put down or rooted out and pursued until they were found and taken back to strongholds for public sentencing before a tribunal court.  Chances were that since our company was Surface Worlders, the military would be interested in finding out what our interests and objectives were before slaughtering them, but I could not put too much weight into those chances.

My present company were in danger as well, the longer I was away, but that could not be helped.  There was a very important reason, I had to get near The Pan that I could not share with anyone.  Begglar and Maeven both would have stopped me if they knew what I had to do, but it could not be helped.  I knew I should have waited for Maeven to catch up, but there wasn’t time.  Begglar, despite what he said, had been a robust fighter in his day.  He’d had a hard life since, but I still suspected there was a considerable amount of fight and leadership qualities left within him.  If pressed I was confident he would arise to meet the need, so it made sense that he remained with the group in my stead.  There was something I had to retrieve that had been stolen so long ago, that I knew was crucial to set things right again.  Something that would take away the advantage of The Pan in hunting us down and thwarting what we were trying to do.  I was taking quite a gamble that the dangerous retinue would remain in his presence.  And that if Maeven were to catch up, the most logical place she could do so would be along the dark forest road.  Travel through the ferns and brush would be furtive and noisy and draw attention and rouse animals.  Though it may not seem so, the cleared road was the place from which my party would be able to see stalking enemies from any approach.  But I could not be gone long, and the harpy capturing me and depositing me in the trees was not something I could have predicted.

That thread holding everything was growing thinner and frayed.

Set that thread afire and, if it holds at all it becomes a fuse.

We needed to catch up to those taken captive quickly if we were to have any chance to rescue them before or after they reached Dornsdale, but I could not get to them if I could not get past this moment and safely out of the tree.

The branches overhead crackled as the drier leaves fed the hungering tongues of fire, but I could not focus on what was happening above me and hope for any success with needed to be done below.  Like that precarious balance between thread and fuse, the hold of the thread could snap if I acted too suddenly and the smoldering length of the shortening fuse pressed the fact that I was running out of time before all my options were lost in the flames.

I leaned down, straining to grasp the cleated straps as they spun and slightly swayed from side to side, the thin thread looking as fine as the filament of a spiderweb.  I rewound the excess thread around the shaft of the arrow and held each drawn length gathered in my sweating palms wrapping it to slide over a finger as I cautiously drew each loop upward and over the arrow again.  I held my breath with each pull, careful not to breathe too deeply as I knew any sudden movement would snap the line and send the harness down to the forest floor and along with it my hopes of safely getting out of the tree.

I lay braced between a slightly angled fork in the branch, my torso pivoted down, my legs and knees locked around the bough.  The arrow point was wedged between another fork and I worked the loops through the fork locked the arrow and then bent to try to reach the swaying strap that was tied to the thread.  My fingers lightly brushed the silver metal ring that joined the straps, but I could not lunge for fear of severing the line.

And then my feet slipped.

I scissored out my legs, trying to expand them far enough to keep from slipping through the forked limb and managed to hook a finger through the metal ring that dangled from the twisting thread.  My breath caught in my throat as the limbs pressed into the muscles of my thighs, but I could not risk much more movement without slipping further down.  Carefully I drew the spiked foot stirrups upward, trying not to lever too much to loosen my pincered hold.  I was able to push a stirrup and spike through the gap in the fork and let it dangle over the branch counter-weighted by the other stirrup.  Slowly, I leaned upward, knowing that I would lose my leg-hold in a few seconds because of the bend and shifting of my weight.  I reached for the bottom of one metal stirrup and my other hand caught the other as thighs ground between the fork and finally slipped out.

I fell half a foot, but stopped short, dangling from the two stirrups like a novice gymnast holding on to the chainrings for dear life while they swayed back and forth over a thirty-five-foot drop.

I told myself not to look down—to focus on getting back up to the limb above—but I could not help but feel gravity pulling my body and my gaze downward.

A screech to my left startled me, almost to lose my sweating grip, as I jerked and twisted toward it.

The harpy was returning—and she was very, very angry.

There was no time to think.  Only to act.

I swung my legs upward, hooked a leg over the bough, pulling the stirrups toward me while avoiding the jagged tree spurs.  Gathering the stirrups together into a fist, I swung an arm over the bough, grapple with the rough bark on the limb and shifted my body upward and over.  The harpy would be upon me within seconds and the further out I was on the limb, the more certain my chances of falling became.  I could see her coming fast, underlit by the fires below, smoke roiling around her wings, her face appearing vampiric and ghastly, wild hair streaming, eyes black and feral with rage.  I scrambled backward from the fork, shuffling towards the trunk of the tree, trying not to lose my balance as I climbed to my feet to be able to move faster.  The honor sword pulsed in its sheath, but there was no time to draw it forth or bring it to bear to fend off the imminent attack.  I gripped the two harnesses in my fist, with the hammered metal shafts and barbs bristling out at angles, realizing that they served as a sort of make-shift weapon as well, though unorthodox.  Like a rooster, if this bird-hag were to come at me claws bared, at least I would have these barbed spurs, called gaffs, to serve as claws of my own.

Taking my eyes off her for a moment, I carefully placed my feet on the top of the rounded limb.  Moving downward, I reached the central trunk feeling her arrival rather than seeing it.

Air whooshed by me as she came for me.  Large black wings pumping gusts of hot air around me, as her claws flared, attempting to rake me off the limb.  In a fall, she might catch me but might skewer me as well with those talons.  A guttural bird-screech came forth from her open mouth as she dove at me, and I shifted the harnessed footwear to both hands.  The bough bobbed as she thrust her claws upon it, and then lifted away, hoping to upset my precarious balance.

Turning my back against the trunk, I knew she would eventually tear me from my perch, so I gathered the belt harness I had flung over my neck shoulders cinched the shorter belt around my waist while the larger belt dangled from one ring on the belt with the other hooked end swinging free.  I needed to get that end around the tree trunk below the limb upon which I was standing, but there was no time.  The harpy had banked and turned back towards me, her wings flapping in large downward drafts, gathering momentum as she rushed again towards me.

I glanced below but saw only a rising wall of smoke building upward.  If Jeremiah was still there, he could not see what was going on above, but then neither could the harpy attacking me.

***

A wall of soot and smoke stretched like spectral arms through the lower parts of the forest, and Jeremiah could no longer see what was happening to O’Brian above.  He’d heard a loud screeching noise moving through the top of the forest.  The fires in the canopy above dropped flaming embers but also created such a haze that O’Brian’s form quickly faded into a misty shape and then paled into a grayish white.  He could fire no arrow accurately, so he tucked his bow over his shoulder and turned to gather the man he had carried closer to the base of the tree to see if he might be able to tell when O’Brian began his descent.  As a precaution, he’d hog-tied the man so that he would stay put while he attended to O’Brian’s situation.  He had committed to bringing O’Brian and nothing more and he did not know the nature or the intentions of the man he’d picked up.  He could prove to be a friend or a foe.  There was no telling with the increasing number of crossovers from the Surface World.  The demons following the traveler out of the otherness did not always manifest in monstrous forms.  Sometimes they took the guise of mankind and wore that image to deceive.  The man’s eyes were now open, and he struggled against his bindings, looking with anger-filled hate and suspicion at Jeremiah for reducing him to such an ignoble state.  An enemy then, Jeremiah decided, but not one he could leave tied to a tree for the fires or the denizens of darkness now occupying these lands to deal with.  The life of a Surface Worlder came with a much bigger cost.

Nothing had fallen, so he knew O’Brian had the climbing gear.  It was a simple enough apparatus, O’Brian should be able to figure it out.

 

The Fire Lights – Chapter 61

Glowing embers swirled through crawling blankets of smoke as the flames of Kilrane crackled and popped and roared with flared bursts as underbrush and dried limbs caught fire.  The ground was a sea of red and yellow flame.  Dark-feathered demons swooped and dove in gliding waves dipping down and then arising like fiery phoenixes, cackling and laughing cruelly as they charmed the fire’s progress onward.  So blind was their hatred and so intent on destruction that they failed to see the high borne witnesses to their savage delight, clinging and climbing above into the canopy.  Dryads, the former and recent occupants of the forest of Kilrane, were aghast and incensed at the destruction, yet fled for their lives, unable to stop the roaring tide below.  The harpies, bearing the firebrands, crisscrossed below them, their frenzied fire dance crawling higher and higher up the trees, so that all the dryads could do was flee as fast as possible towards the edge of the forest, crying, “Treachery!”  Some fell screaming as the fires spreading across the canopy above joined with the fires below, engulfing them in flames causing their branches and limbs to erupt in bright flares, as they tumbled downward disappearing into the smoky and haloed glowing sea.  The shouts and screams in the back forest and the insane laughter of the fiery harpies wove together into a nightmarish symphony of terror that rolled forward in crescendo toward the dead slough where The Pan held court with his savage satyr-courtiers, and the shrieking harpies and the gathering number of displaced and scorched dryads.

Yet amid the terror and smoke one dryad lingered high above the forest roadway waiting for the right moment to present itself—A dryad by the name of Langula.  As the harpies flew in and out of the smoke below, her vine twisted limbs encircled the long strands bearing rotting heads of dead satyrs and unfortunate men and sundry other animals that she and her fellow ‘ladies of the leaves’ had feasted on and collected as ornamental warnings for errant satyrs and men who dared broach their domain.  Quietly and silently she swayed the ends of the grisly ornaments deftly through the rising smoke forming a slight spin to their sway.  Carefully she timed the rotations of the various death vines to move and sway inward and outward in ever increasing circles.  The horrific faces, blackened by rot, twisted by shock and rictus, misshapen mouths hung slack around blood stained teeth, gaped and swallowed smoke as they swayed inward and outward.  A certain degree of fascination and savagery also shone in the golden and green eyes of the porcelain cream face ensconced in a ruffle of leaves as she watched the flame-bearing harpies fly ignorant of her presence above.

A harpy strayed off from the others, laughing and chanting, “Burn!  Burn! Burn!” as she swooped under and over the smoke headed toward the area where the grisly ornaments weaved above.  Four other harpies follow laughing and echoing the chant, their firebrand flickering yet remaining aflame.

Langula saw the back of one rise through the haze, wings extended, as she struck one of the rotting heads.  Another, pivoted and suddenly the vines pulled taught and the branches bearing the anchor points thrashed, as something beneath the smoke became entangled.  Savagely Langula jerked the dangling vine upward, eliciting a “Gawww!” sound as two vines twisted around something that fought below.  Two of the harpies emerged from below, yet a third was unaccounted for and the voice of the first harpy ceased her smoky chanting abruptly, from somewhere ahead.

Vines lifted toward the canopy, and a black feathered body, curled in vines moving like green worms emerged from the smoke, the firebrand’s flames catching fire in the feathers of the entangled harpy, two dark heads pressing their rotted faces into her gawking crone face.

“Caught you, you burning bat-bitch!” Langula hissed, as she drew her hideous trophy upward.

What was not apparent from below was now becoming clear from above.  A sharp pointed spike jutted out from the severed neck of each head whose point lay even alongside the vines that extended upward.  As the vines were rotated or struck, however, the barb jutted outward causing the grisly ornament to become a deadly hook, from which the dryads could catch or ensnare flying quarry interested in feasting on the rotting heads below.  The harpy so trapped was also spitted with the skewered barb, and, struggle though it might, Langula would ensure that this particular feathered-fiend would never fly again.

Using this method, Langula caught four other fire-setting harpies before she was through air fishing, and then set off to deliver the evidence of their arsonous villainy to her chief Madame Briar, who now stood before The Pan.

***

The Pan towered over the groveling Trolls cringing and bowing and his arms flashed out grabbing both Shelberd and Grum-blud by the neck, lifting their dangling, struggling forms aloft.

“It is to you I hold the fault of these deaths.  And this companion of yours, who properly fears me and has ever only cowered in my presence, I will grant a mercy.”

At this, The Pan flung Shelberd down into the filmy water of the slough, from which Grum-blud had crawled.  A large splash of brown and blackish water wet the muddy bank, as The Pan moved quickly forward.  His great hooves stirring clouds of water bugs and gnats as he followed his flung captive into the deepening water.  When Shelberd burst upward from the water, coughing and sputtering he felt the great weight of a suspended hoof slam into his chest, plunging him back under.  Ripples from the water and the floating mat of film, evidenced a struggle underneath, as The Pan cruelly pressed downward.  He dangled Grum-blud over the pool holding him by his short leg, forcing him to watch the demise of his former companion.  Bubbles and a cough of roiling water broke the surface and then ceased.

“The mercy, I grant him,” The Pan rumbled, “is the swiftness of his death.  Yours will not be so swift, human frog.”

And with that, he strode out of the water, towards the onocentaurs, who were even now backing away in terror, towards a sneering group of satyrs laughing wickedly.  The Pan reached out and grabbed the one called Bunt by the torso, as the man-half of creature raised his arms defensively covering his head.  “Do you wish you could fly, little donkey?” The Pan rumbled, his face pulled up in a sinister grin, his cataracted eye’s seeming to gleam with a cold monstrosity.

“P-Please, sire.  We didn’t do anything.  It was the trolls, they…” he begged.

With a mighty twist of his body, The Pan launched the onocentaur into the air, throwing his flailing body hard into the trees, where it sailed and struck branches and smacked hard into a trunk, and then tumbled lifelessly downward.

Several satyrs bounded after the flying body, chanting, “Feed!  Feed!  Make it bleed!” then laughing with delight, champing their sharpened teeth together, as they descended upon it under the cover of the brush.

The other onocentaur, called Dob, turned to flee and was pounced upon by the satyrs blocking his escape.

Shaggy arms and blackened grimy fingernails scratched and pounded his body mercilessly, as he cried, “No!  No!  No!”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” the satyrs mocked him, as they brutally struck him, a few biting his haunches and then slapping the bites, adding insult to injury.

The Pan squatted on his massive shaggy haunches, savaging enjoying the sounds of the pleading onocentaur.

“PAN!” a voice yelled above the cacophony, “Now see the evidence of your fire bugs!”

The Pan sniffed the air smelling the scent of burned flesh and feathers, the harpies perched in the tree tops around the deaden slough shriek in outrage as did the harpies swooping high overhead.

Briar flung the bound bodies of four scorched harpies outward landing in the mud of the bank upon which he stood.  He bent down sniffing the corpses, attempting to listening to the whispered words of his designated courtier, who described the sight before his blinded eyes.

The noises of the beatings of the mobbed onocentaur prevented him hearing his chief satyr’s words, and he roared a rebuke.

“Silence, you savage fools!” he bellowed, “Leave the donkey-man be, for now.”

When the satyrs did not hear him, clearly, he lunged forward and backhanded a few closest to him, his other senses giving him a quasi-sight to do so.  His powerful fist, slammed into the side of a satyr, snapping it spine and flinging its body into the air off to his right, the brutal hand coming back across, clipping another, from the opposite direction, dislocating its shoulder, as it fell to the ground.

That got the satyrs attention and they backed away from the onocentaur’s battered, bloodied and bruised body.  The Pan then turned and moved towards the fallen harpies that he smelled clearly, his hands pawing at their smoldering bodies, feeling the firebrand branches clutched and bound to their winged claws.

“What is this?!” his sight-less eyes turned towards the scents he knew to be the smells of the dryads.

“Your harpies have burned the forest of Kilrane!  The land you claimed and made us tenants of.  Quite possibly they are responsible for the deaths of your Manticores.  Did you authorize this destruction?!” Briar asked.

“No,” he growled, increasing his throaty rumble in intensity, so that the sound of it trembled the leave around him, “Harpy Dellitch!  What do you know of this?!  Who authorized the burning of my forest?!”

At this, he dropped Grum-blud into the mud, and stood up to his full height, his angry face turned to the sky, his teeth clenched, and his eyes narrowed to glaring slits of white-hot fire.

Grum-blud grunted painfully when he struck the ground, but he quickly righted himself, seeing a sudden chance to save his own skin.

“My lord,” he gasped, “That is what I wanted to tell you.  The harpies burned the forest behind us.  We were beset with fire on every side.  Your Manticores were intent on taking Azragoth under your orders and did not escape the fires.  I and the onocentaurs, held back to oversee the destruction.  We climbed trees to witness what we knew you wanted reported only to find the forest lit behind us.  We called to the Manticores, but it was too late to turn them.  It was the harpies that are responsible for the failures you are punishing us for.  So zealous they are in their hatred for the dryads.  They did not keep their destructive zeal in check, even under your orders.  They defied you, seeking to serve their own interests and vengeance.  It is they that deserve your wrath.  Not us!  We are your loyal subjects.  We honor your command.  It is our pleasure to serve your mighty hand.  To deliver wrath to your enemies.  Yet they would see us bleed for their treachery.”

The Pan listened and pondered this, as the harpies shrieked in protest, like birds storming out of the trees under gunfire.

“Lies!  Lies!  Lies!” they shrieked.  “Kilrane was already beset with fires to the north!  The fires arose from the hidden city.  We reported to you of its rebirth.  We saw their walls catch fire!”

“Do you deny, spreading the fire?!” the Pan roared to the bird-women, “If so, why do I feel this firebrand, bound to the wings of these dead?!”

Dellitch flew in from above, “My lord, divine king, god of the lands and forest, the dryads are deceiving you.  They killed our sisters and attached the brands to them.  You are being deceived by these betrayers!  We are not to blame.”

The Pan roared in anger and frustration, his fists clenching and unclenching, his hands grabbing at rooted brush, twisting it and casting it into the air.

“Do not think, foul-bird that because I am blind, I cannot see deception!  Do not mock me!  Do not smile upon my scarred eyes.  I can hear the deception in your voice.  I can smell the feverish sweat of lies bead upon your aged skin!  I can taste beads of milk flowing from your feathered breasts.  You have taken advantage of the limited liberties I gave you with regard to this command!  Never insult me and think just because you can fly that you are ever out of my reach.  You know what other forms of creatures I have under my command.  You know what nightmares I can send against even you, though you may fly to the mountains, you will not escape the bite and claw of those I send after you!  DO NOT MOCK ME!”

The last words caused both the ground to tremble and the swampy trees to sway, and its noise echoed terribly throughout the forests and surrounding canyons.

All of the gathered, pressed their hands to their ears and howled in pain at the sharpness of the power of the voice.  For a brief time, no one could hear, as their ears painfully thrummed and throbbed.  Grum-blud huddled in the mud below, his fat fists pressed hard into his bulbous ears, the ringing in his head unbearable, causing him to gasp in short breaths and mewl in agony, his legs drawn into a fetal curl as he writhed.  The satyrs cowed, in similar agony, grimy hands pressed into the sides of their heads, grunting in pain.  The dryads shrunk down into piles of twisted wood, appearing like dried cypress trees, curled around themselves, no greenery showing.  The harpies, however, suffered the worst of the powerful roar, their wings folded as they plummet from the sky, falling bodies, formerly in flight striking the hard ground, splashing into the murky slough waters, embedding into the mud, caroming off bare branches with a hard wing-shattering crack, their hollow avian bones snapping with the impacts.

***

Jeremiah had at first thought that O’Brian was speaking from the high bough to The Pan, but then realized he wasn’t.

He was carefully ascending the back of a hill in the forest, when a thunderous noise poured over the top of the hill with an audible and physical fist with a power wave, that seemed to shake everything in sight, knocking him flat against the ground with a thud, the limp body of the weakened man on his back slamming down hard upon him.  Everything around him seemed to ring with the tine-struck note of a tuning fork, that echoed and bounced every which way he looked.  The clap of the sound felt like he’d been struck on the sides of his head with a physical slap, and his ears pulsed and throbbed, muting all other sounds of the forest around him.  When he was able to lift his head from the matted leaves, and groggily raise his body upon trembling hands, he glanced upward to see how the powerful sonic boom had affected the one he sought to rescue from the treetops above.  What he saw both shocked and amazed him.  The man was surrounded and protected by circles of glowing light.

***

I had heard of the beings that the Mid-Worlders called faeries, heard how they had been described, by those who had witnessed them from a distance but had never encountered one for myself, until that moment they descended upon me from the treetops.  It was both terrible, frightening and wonderful all at the same time.  They pulsed and throbbed with a power and energy that was beyond imagining and barely contained within this existence or any other for that matter.  Their light shone piercing and sharp yet did not cut through me as I feared it might.  I was dumbstruck before them and felt weak all over.  I trembled and hid my face, shielding my eyes from the brightness of their being.

The branch under me felt like a gossamer thread that could break at any moment, and something about their presence made me weep.  A sound emerged from them, some mystical tonal quality that I cannot describe adequately.  It was beautiful, sad and joyous, tragic and lovely, evoking emotions and feelings in me that I did not know I had.  In a language, my ears did not understand, but somehow my spirit knew instinctively, I felt words of comfort dance softly and fluidly with the sounds of the song in their voice.  What they communicated in a language expressed with a fullness of thought, and to the best of my ability to translate, was “Do not fear.  Feel courage.  Embrace faith.  Believe and trust in the One that has called you.  You are known and loved.  These are the keystones of the Kingdom which you seek.”

Only the final word, that I translated as “loved” seems so far inadequate to describe what they actually said.  The feeling of that word made me weep tears of joy and filled me will a sense of place that had nothing to do with space or time because it was somehow coupled with divine intention.

The air around me became thicker and softer somehow as if it caressed me with a warm breath that stabilized me.  Something external move all around us but peeled away from the presences of these living beings that seemed more alive than any other creature I had ever observed in this world or the Surface World.

“You are purposed for these moments.  You are drawn forth from the well to be living water to those given.  Return to them, for you will be made into what is purposed.  You will find delight in your purpose.”

Their words swam through the air around me, touching me with sweet fragrance, bathing me in golden light.

“Upon your mind and in your memory, you will find the timeless words.  They will meet you in your moments of doubt.  Seek the wise counsel of called friends to confirm and clarify what you are hearing in your spirit.  Learn to see yourself through the eyes of forgiveness.  Surrender the old burdens you carry.  You cannot repay the debt of the burdens you choose to bear.  Empty your holding so that you may receive the greater gifts for your journey and for the benefit of those to which you are called to lead.  Trust in the voice that speaks gently to your spirit.  Choose to obey the direction of the One for only He knows the paths ahead of you.  Mankind’s measure of success is deceptive, for only the One judges outcomes with all ends in sight.  Obedience to the One is life.  Obedience is better than sacrifice.  Do not follow human reasoning which leads you into the darkness, but lead your mind with obedience, hope, and faith in the One who loves you and knows you most and has called you to live out the meaning of your name.  Align your heart and mission to the voice of the Chief Cornerstone and build upon that Truth.  The Truth will set you free to will and do that to which you are called.”

Then a melody from where I did not know rose up around us, flowing through me as if every part of my being were washed with cool water, refreshing my soul and spirit.  I wanted that feeling to last forever, but soon after it left me, and it had no feeling of the passage of time, but felt placed again into a moment that I felt purposed for, though I did not fully understand the why of it.  From down below me, I could finally hear some other voice, calling up to me trying to get my attention.  A voice I was vaguely familiar with, from a distant past.  I looked down below and saw a figure moving cautiously towards the base of the tree where I sat, some form borne upon his back as he moved from shadow to shadow, careful not to attract attention.

“Brian!” he called in a loud whisper, cautiously trying not to create too much noise but needing to gain my focus and attention.

I rubbed my eyes, and then looked down again, his face small because of the distance between us.

“O’Brian, or whatever you are called now!” he called, carefully kneeling to lay the form down upon the ground and gather his bow in his hand, which he hunched over and worked on a few minutes before turning again upward.

“Move back,” he said, raising the bow, the arrow point pointed above towards me.

Realizing what he was about to do I lurched backward as he let fly the arrow from his drawn bow.

Thwap!  The arrow drove deep into the branch upon which I sat, and I noticed a small thread attached to its fletching, fed out by a light spool handing down below.

A memory crawled towards me in realization from a past I thought I had left long ago, as I realized to whom it was I spoke.  Our last encounter had left me battered and bloodied, but I understood the fury and frustration of the man and the grief to which I had brought him.  This was Caleb’s brother, the friend I had lost to The Pan as a result of my error in judgment and failure to humbly seek more than my own counsel.  The man had sworn if he ever saw me again he might kill me.  And I wondered if perhaps he had finally come to do just that.

***

I moved and inched my way toward the arrow that had been shot into the thick meat of the branch.  It was an amazingly precise shot by any measure, and I realized that if Jeremiah had planned to kill me, he could have just as easily done it without announcing himself to me from below.  Especially since The Pan and his creature subjects were in close proximity.  To call up to me was a risk to himself as well as to me, and it did not make sense for him to bring attention our way.  When I was close enough, I reached down and pried the arrow out of the wood being careful not to lose the narrow spool that was two inches down from the end of the arrow point.  The arrow was of more modern design, something fashioned from the ingenuity of the Surface World and not subject to the innovation of the Mid-World.  The thread was fine yet strong, and the shaft tapered such that the razor point could be removed, and the grooved spool slid off the end.  Righting myself, I quickly did so, knowing that the harpy who had deposited me here, could be back at any moment to collect me from the high perch.  From the angry shouts and noises below, I knew that it was highly probable.

One end of the thread had been woven and tied securely to the arrow with just enough slack to allow the spool end to clear the shaft and slide off.  I dropped the spool, allowing it to quickly unravel down towards the waiting arms of the man I suspected was Jeremiah.

He waited quietly marking the falling path of the unraveling spool, deftly catching its end and then affixed something to it and then looked up nodding.  I wondered how such a small string would lift over forty foot of rope, but I soon saw that was not what he had in mind.  What he attached was a cotton woven pole climber’s belt.  If he’d not been intending to kill me himself, he might just accomplish it with this gear.

Having no other option, pulling hand over hand, I quickly hauled the belt up for a better look.  The belt was braided and woven with a thick support strap, and cross-over straps that gathered in the front and allowed the climber to hug the pole with his knees using a slang balance and gather and slip strap to ascend or descend a vertical pole.

I took a deep breath and looked down.  Jeremiah motioned again for me to drop the spool.

I had no idea what else he had to send up, but I was pretty sure it was not anything that would give me more confidence in what I was about to attempt.

When he caught the spool bob again he turned his back and knelt covering what he was doing so I could not see.  When he had finished affixing whatever it was to the end of the thread, he turned again and looked up at me, this time cupping his hands around his mouth, once more risking exposure by calling up to me.

“Slowly,” he rasped making hand motions indicating that I should pull the line, then cupping his hands again said, “Very slowly.  This may break the line.”

That gave me no comfort, but I nodded and slowly began gathering the line in my hands, being very careful not to jerk it, or let my sense of urgency risk me drawing it too fast.  The item was heavier than the other and from what I could tell it appeared to be a set of leather saddle stirrups.  I saw a set of buckles and short cinches, and the stirrup had a heavier metal barb at the bottom, and from this I realized he was sending me the climbing spikes, that would strap to my feet and calves and allow me to descend with the strap, rather than just relying on a fulcrum press.  Seeing these slightly spinning and twisting the stretched thread made me fearful of losing them.  I might have an even chance with these, but I would most certainly fall attempting the descent without them.  The tree bole was too big for me to get my arms around it, which was most likely why the harpy was confident that I would be here when she returned.  I took deep breaths, trying my best not to let the thread torque and weaken, but I could not prevent it from doing so.  Halfway up the metal and stirrups began to twist again, and I stilled my pulling, fighting the urgency and fear that made me desperate to jerk the gear upward.  Patience and deliberate action were not my strong suits, and I closed my eyes, struggling to find calm and peace, knowing that was needed.  I breathed deeply and slowly inch by inch began again.  A wave of heat shimmered my vision, and I felt the forest beyond growing hotter as the fires moved and licked steadily towards us.  Overhead I heard a whooshing noise, signifying that the canopy above me too was catching fire.

The Covering – Chapter 60

Sometimes in leadership, one is called to go forth alone and meet the wolf.  Others witnessing this might not understand what the lead is doing.  They will most certainly question it and ascribe motives for it, and even accuse them of cowardice.  One cannot reveal every private plan because not everything is subject to committee review.  When one is called to a mission, and he hears and seeks guidance from the One who calls him, sometimes that communication is held in the strictest confidence.  The charge I felt, moving down the road with the company of companions who were becoming more of a family to me is the sense that I must seek to follow what even may seem foolish to others if the One bids me to do it.  The Ancient Texts reads:

“11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” [John 10:11-13 NIV]

My actions may appear to even those back on the road like that of the hireling, but it was towards the wolf, The Pan, I was moving to interdict his approach.  To stand and confront him, before he could get to my family.

The Xarmnian wolves had already taken part of my company and separated us.  The Pan, the ancient ruler of the Half-men, would find that his forward progression into the forest of Kilrane would be stopped here and now.  The satyrs would be close to him.  The dryads would not be far, and whatever else passes for his retinue would soon be gathered together in one place to vastly outnumber me if I moved against him.  But the truth is I did not stand alone.  As I moved through the gloom within the hearing of The Pan and his collected audience, I felt the quickening come upon me and flare brightly in my soul and spirit.  This was the right path.  My spirit within me confirmed it.  Foolish though it may seem, I was being led here.  It was time to take back what had been stolen and I might never have such an opportunity to do so again.

The Pan was ancient and dangerous.  His command and kingdom were governed by very valid fears of his might.  His roar rumbled the ground.  And Greek legend of him records that his angry shouts inspired terror, from whence we derive the word Panic.

As I moved through the smoke, my face covered and shielded by my cloak, my eyes stinging and watering as ash particles filled the air, it was with some surprise that I found myself saddened grabbed from behind and lifted aloft into the trees.

Great gray talons, with black hooked daggers, wove around my upper arms clasping me and pulling me towards the leafy sky.  A milky substance dribbled down upon my head and body, and I debated whether I should try to twist free or wait until I at least have the change to reach a limb of some kind to make my effort.  Craning my head to the side, I looked upward and saw the lower chin and bottom feathered breasts of what appeared to be an old woman.

A harpy.  Terrible creatures who carried a degree of angst for all mankind and their semblances.  Harpies were known to carry their victims to great heights and then drop them over rocks below so that they could come back down and more easily tear and chew the soft pieces of flesh that were tenderized by falling upon stone.

If this harpy took me much farther up or beyond the canopy, I was a dead man.

But I soon learned that was not her intention.

When she placed me in the treetops, over forty feet from the forest floor, and then left me there, I knew she had something else in mind.  Some particular form of nastiness she was reserving me for.

***

Jeremiah moved quickly and quietly through the woods along the rutted shoulder of the road.  Smoke poured through the forest undergrowth, being sifting by the trees coating everything with flakes of grey and white ash.  The fires were moving swiftly towards the slough and there were enough dried wood and decaying gasses from the rot to give the fire fuel for a flare-up. Peat moss, a pre-cursor to coal formulation, once ignited, however, might smolder for years.

There was no way to track O’Brian through such conditions.  Visibility was poor and the memories of what had happened between them and what had led to Caleb’s death still plagued his mind, unbidden.

Caleb, he sighed.  The pain of the terrible and pointless way he had died, due to following a plan hatched without the guidance of the One, by O’Brian, the erstwhile Brian David, so many years ago.  His failure to seek guidance had cost Caleb his life.  Forgiving him was a hard thing that had taken him many years to come to terms with.  Especially since “O’Brian” had basically dropped off the face of the map and had not been heard from nor seen in many, many years.

The loss and the pain had been particularly hard since Caleb was his only brother.

O’Brian, then Brian David, had come to him after seeking forgiveness and contrite, but Jeremiah was too grieved to offer him either.  The exchange between them had come to blows.  Upon reflection, however, Jeremiah recalled that Brian had not fought back.  Rather he had received his strikes as a kind of penance.  Bloodied and battered, he’d stood up from the ground, taken one last look at Jeremiah and then walked away, never to show himself again.  Until today.  If Jeremiah could find him in time.  The fool had gone to face The Pan on his own.  A stupid, stupid surrender of tactical maneuvering.  A suicide mission that would only get himself killed and would serve nothing.  But perhaps that is what the man wanted all along.  To die at the hands of the very one who had killed Caleb and then fed his body to Manticores.

***

The harpy, called Dellitch, had been scalded and scarred in the top canopy fight with the dryads, but she was feeling savagely victorious.  Over forty of the dryads had either fallen under wet claws or been consumed by the spreading fires.  Recompense for the sisters she had lost over the years when they were starved out or ostracized by the other races of Half-men creatures.  The dryads had been given this new forest, while the harpies had been left to subsist under the blighted remains of the prior home they’d once shared together.

She’d been only too happy to enlist her sisters in service to The Pan when she learned he had the need to clear a forest of dryads.  What he did not know, however, was the extent to which they would go to clear that wood, or how deeply their collective rage had rooted itself within them over the years.  The dryads had renewal and rebirth, the satyrs had their debaucheries and reveling pleasures, the others had many other things to distract them from the inexorable curse that would one day claim them, but the harpies had only vengeance to cling to.

And Dellitch, knowing she would be returning to face The Pan’s rage once he had discovered what they had done, along the way to her accounting had a fortuitous finding.  A male Surface Worlder, whom she had swooped in from the fog and smoke and had captured and deposited upon a high bough for safekeeping while she announced her fortune to her sisters.  They had flown ahead to proclaim their find to The Pan, just ahead of another flock of sisters who also bore a prize of their own.

It had been too late for Dellitch to call her sisters back and delay the announcement, but these others might mitigate any leniency she had hoped to have from The Pan bearing such a prize, by offering one of their own.

How many other Surface Worlder’s might there be traveling under the smoke and haze of Kilrane?  Having one prize among another of equal value might reduce the appeal, but finding the others and delivering a group of them to The Pan might raise her offering’s value.  Meat for one surely was less impressive than a banquet of meat for all.

***

Maeven gathered and beckoned the company to come together and stand under the strange ceremonial canopy growing beneath the trees.

“This is the Faerie Fade.  We will all be safe under here.  Gather around.”

Begglar grinned and took his wife’s hand, “Remember this place, Nellus?”

Nell smiled and brushed her fingers lightly over the woven vines and ornate carvings and touched the rough and smooth bark of the tree posts that held the living ceiling above them with its large circular carve-out with wooden spokes that radiated outward.

“I do,” she smiled and turned softening, moistened eyes to Maeven, “Begglar and I were married here.  This is the place.  We have been looking for it for many years but could never find it.”

“You were married here?” Dominic asked.

“Aye, son,” Begglar patted his arm, “And your mom was a sight to behold.  I nearly cried like a baby when I saw her coming through the woods there.  A few maids bearing her gown.  Petals of white scattered upon the path up through the woods to this small him.  Our cleric ready and waiting to join us in the covenant.”

“Nearly?  You did,” Nell rejoined, “I never thought I’d see such a big bear of a man cry, but he was blubbering like a fish.”

Begglar chuckled, “Funny how tenderness had a way of touching you like nothing else does.”

“He cried when you were born to, Dom,” Nell grinned, “The old softie.”

“Excuse me guys, but I don’t see how any of this helps us,” Christopher spoke up, “This canopy doesn’t have any walls, except the back one, and that does seem strong enough to withstand a gentle breeze.  What we need is some sort of fortification.  Something that we can lock and bolt down.  Anyone with an ax can take this down in a minute.  Excuse me for saying it, but you are wasting our time having us get here.  I doubt that Jeremiah cares much about the danger we are in or O’Brian or anyone but himself, for that matter.”

Begglar spoke up, “Now hold it just a wee bit, there.  There is protection in a place like this.  Powerful protection.  Look around you, lad.  This place is a place of covenant.  You are standing in a sacred place.  The Pan and all his might and menageries can do nothing to harm us here.  Maeven was right to bring us here.  This is the safest place in the wood.”

Lindsey took it all in fingering the ornately woven latticed bridgework, admiring it earthy construction and the deft folding and weaving of branches making symbolic patterns in the back wall and overhead ceiling of moss, branch and grafted timber growing in and out of the patterns.

“Well I like it here,” she interrupted, “There is something peaceful and sad about it, but it feels lovely.  Such intricate designs.  I see the casements of four windows there in the back.  I can almost imagine colored, stained-glass panes.  Like this is a holy place.”

“It is,” Nell stepped up emphatically, pointing to the four posts holding the outer structure, “Don’t think that protection always comes in the form you expect it to.  This holy place is guarded by forces you cannot imagine.”

Matthew leaned back to Mason, “I don’t see anything.  Do you see anything?”

Tiernan joined in, “You said this place was a covenant place.  Begglar and Nell say they were married here?  What did you mean by that, Maeven?”

Maeven, teared up slightly, “I…,” she swallowed hard, “The places here in this land are unlike anything I’ve been to in my waking life on the Surface.  Right now, back in my waking life, I have lost…”  She covered her mouth with her hand choking back emotion she wasn’t ready to share with the group.

Laura and Christie both came to her side, their comforting arms gathering her in protectively.

Nell turned to the others, “In our world, as I was told once was in your world, marriage is a protective covenant.  Here is has visible power.  The One ordained it as an original ordinance for all humankind.  It is an everlasting symbol of His redemption and relationship with His redeemed.”

“I don’t see how it connects,” Christopher said, “Marriage doesn’t mean much in our world.”

“That is because it has been stripped away from its intention.  It is not treated as a covenant anymore,” James, who had been quiet up to this point, offered.

“Sometimes divorce is a good thing,” Laura muttered.

Nell moved to the front post of the enclosure, “Can I show you something of what it means here?”

[Author’s Note:  Illustrated graphic follows this section, depicting the images and symbolism to help the reader visualize what they are being shown.]

“Yes!” Lindsey spoke up, “Please do.”

“Maeven, are you okay with this?” Nell asked, “What do you say of marriage?  I know you are suffering from the loss of your spouse, but if you had it to do over again, knowing such pain, would you have wanted to make the decision to marry?”

Maeven though tearful-eyed, nodded emphatically, “No.  I cherished every precious moment, good and bad.  Tell them.  They need to hear it.”

Begglar turned to the young men, “Gentlemen, are you okay with hearing what needs to be said?  This place is full of visual symbols that represent concepts that make up the picture of the Holy One’s intention.  In this world, marriage is a position of honor, the basic unit from which society is built and it is sacred.  The Xarmnians view it only as an institution, but unnecessary.  That is why their societal structures fail.  Theirs’ is a kingdom of fear.  The wife is merely a convenience and property.  A servant that may be beaten at their master’s will, but must serve the master’s flesh primarily.  They have no standing other than their utilitarian value.  They are considered less equal than the men.  If any of you view women in such a way, you should know that you have more in common with the brutal dictators that oppress these lands than the One who calls you to this quest.  Do you understand this?”

Nell turned to her husband, “So you remember all this?”

“I do,” Begglar grinned and winked at Nellus, drawing her into his arms and kissed her on the forehead, “And I do.”

“For instance, the two front posts of this canopy: they are pillars supporting a structure.  The front and side walls of this covering are missing because this covenant is meant to be made public so that those outside may witness the miracle of covenant union.  Everything beyond the pillars is full in public view as a testimony of this divine arrangement.  The sides of the structure are also open on both the brides’ side and the groom’s side so that the family and friends of each, standing on either side of the structure may witness the covenant through their relationship with bride or groom.  These are each’s intimate public.  This is why the sides and front remain open.”

Begglar moved to the front tree trunk on the left and then place his hand upon it.  “This pillar represents society.  It can be those of the community in which this couple will live.”

He walked the expanse to the right side and placed his hand upon the other tree trunk post support the awning roof of the enclosure.  “This pillar represents societal laws and the protection of the covenant relationship as an institution valued to remain intact.  These laws protect the mutual rights of the spouse, under the institution, and ascribe certain duties of provision and responsibility within the relationship.  The laws also protect the children that arise as part of that relationship and duties held to the parents.”

From there, Begglar moved to the back wall, which was bordered and supported by four living trees, two serving as interior columns, and two serving as exterior columns supporting both the roof and the back wall.

“These outer columns framing the back wall represent the family structure that the two people are joining into.  You can see that they are joined together by the only shared wall of this structure.  They are bonded together and related.  One post to the left is the column of the family of the bride, the other to the right is the column of the family of the groom.  All four outer posts are rooted in the ground and grow out of it.  Root systems are deep and extend below the visible ground representing traditions that were in place long before the witnesses were ever born or the union proposed.”

Both Christie pointed, “What do…?” and James began, “How about…?” accidentally interrupting one another.

“I’m sorry,” James said, “You first.”

“That’s alright you go ahead.”

“No, please.  I insist.  Ladies first,” James demurred.

“Why does it have to be ladies first?  Go ahead.  Ask your question,” Christie returned.

“And that is how it begins…,” Nell grinned.

Christie whipped her head around, “What?”

“Christie, please ask your question,” Nell smiled broadly.

She glanced at James searching to see if she missed something, and then turned again to Begglar.

“I just wanted to know what these two interior columns represented supporting the inner wall.”

“On the left side of the door in the center, the post represents the bride.  Her person, her experiences, her past and her future.  The part you see visible is only the moment in time that she comes to this moment.  You will notice, that both her roots and her top are beyond view.  Her past is covered by the soil of this carved-out floor.  Her top, her future, extends above the ceiling.  We witnesses of the ceremony held under this covering do not know all that led her to this moment, nor will we know all that will arise from this moment, for we are not given to see everything.  The same is true for the other column, the tree that represents the groom, adding his own support to the back wall within the frame of family.  The bride and groom post share support of the single back wall connected to the outer posts, which represent the extended family.  The joining of heritages and ancestry for forge a new line and branch of the family tree.”

Here Begglar paused and turned to his wife, “My darling, please continue.”

Nell nodded and applauded her husband’s recitation of the history and symbolism, “Very well done, my Dearest Love.”

She approached him, as if she was walking on air, and tiptoed, to which he bowed so she might kiss him lightly on the cheek.  In so doing, she took his face in her hands, gazed into his eyes and said, “Pirate McGregor or Begglar, my Love, there is no escaping it.  You will always be a wanted man,” and with that, she lightly kissed him on the nose, and then seemed to dance away, as if twenty years of hard life had been erased, and she was a young girl again.

“See the back wall?  On either side of the doorway, on both the bride’s side and the groom’s side there are two window casement frames.  See them?” she pointed to each set, like a woman display a showcase of fabulous prizes on a game show.

“These window sets represent the parents of the bride and the groom.  The father casement is on the exterior closest to the public outer courts.  This placement is deliberate because fathers represent the barrier of protection for this family and this covenant union before the outside world.  When a man and women walk side by side, the man is responsible to take the place of protection which means if they are walking along-side a roadway, he stands between the road and the woman to protect her with his body should a horse or wagon run astray and strike her down.  It is his place to take the hit that will spare her life if need be.  He is her human guardian protecting her physically.  He is the one given the potential for greater physical strength of form.  This is his rightful and respectful place within the relationship.”

“But what if the woman is stronger than he is?” Laura asked.

“As I said, it is his place.  Not hers.  The position is not about capacity or ability.  It is about the role that gives him the respect he needs within the relationship.  If the woman takes his role, she also takes his respectful place away.  If she loves him, she won’t do this to him.  He needs her honor, every bit as much as she needs him to love and cherish her.”

“I never thought about it like that,” Laura said seeming to think this over.

“There is a lot, that is not taught anymore in your world, dear.  Don’t fault yourself for not knowing it.”

Christopher spoke up, “I still don’t get how all this symbolism helps us.”

Tiernan had listened to all of this and interjected, “Hush up, dude.  I want to hear this.  If they say this place makes us safe, they know better than we do.  They live here and there are things about this land that we are still learning.”

“But why is this called ‘The Faerie Fade’?” he shrugged, “I don’t understand what the name means any more than how understanding marriage will make us safe.  It sure didn’t help my folks.  They fought all the time.  I was glad when they busted up.  They threw things, and almost set the house on fire when they left the stove on.  My brother and I hid in the attic and they almost didn’t find us in time.”

“Dude, that’s harsh, man,” Mason said, “I’m sorry, Bro.”

“Don’t be.  I was so glad when the court gave me and Benjamin to Granna and Grampa.  My parents were nuts.  It all worked out.  Marriage is misery, man.”

Begglar put a hand on Chris’s shoulder, “And that, lad, is why this is important for you to hear.  Your parents got it wrong.  They did not model marriage the way it was intended.  Don’t judge the ordinance too harshly, without learning its good.  Be glad that your Grands were there to show you love that you needed.  I assume they had some love between them?”

Christopher considered this a moment.  “Yeah, I guess so.  But they were old people.  Young people don’t follow the old ways anymore.”

Begglar laughed in spite of the implication that he too was an “old” person.

“And it is because they do not follow the old way, that they fail in their new ways.  Would you give a mind to that?”

Chris considered and then nodded, “Okay.  So, what does all this on the ceiling represent?”

“Well, now, I am very glad you asked that because these are very important.  See the big circle there in the center, surrounded by four semi-circles or half-circles?”

“Yeah.”

“The groom and the bride stand directly under the biggest circle in the center there, and that is where they say their covenant vows in front of each other.  Not to each other.  This is where the Surface World gets it wrong.  The circle there represents completeness and it represents God Almighty and the witness of Heaven.  This is to Whom the covenant vows are made.  Not to each other.  A covenant made to a fallible human being is doomed to fail and is conditional upon the feelings and attitudes towards each other.  Most Surface World marriages are based upon this which is why they fail.  They set conditions.  There are certain conditions given by Heaven that allows for the dissolution of marriage and those are infidelity, abuse, and harm.  One of the spouses who causes such is breaking faith with the One who oversees all covenants.  By focusing on their resentments towards the other spouse, they justify harm, but they are dishonoring the One who established the covenant protection and will eventually stand before Him and give account for what they did.  God witnesses covenants.  He is present and presides over them in the same way He did of old.  The Ancient Texts says:

“6 Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover–the place of atonement–that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” [Exodus 30:6 NLT]

…The man or woman who uses their body to break faith will stand under the judgment of Heaven, even as this betrothed couple stands under this symbolic circle under this canopy, making their vows.”

“So, if my dad cheated on my mom…”

“Yes, son.  He will account for it.  Remember his duty to physically protect the union from the outside world?  He brings dishonor to his role.  If he raises his fists and dishonors his wife in so doing, he brings violence and dishonor to his role.  The man is more severely judged for this, because to him is given that role of physical protection.”

“What if he doesn’t pay child-support?  What then?”

“Same thing.  Is a child physically harmed if they are not fed and clothed?”

“Yes.  I guess so.”

“Then his physical protection falls short and he is not honoring the role he is called to.  Under marriage, the family is an extension of the bond between the husband and wife.  He must bring honor to his role.”

Tiernan spoke up, “What if his wife cheats on him?  What then?”

Nell spoke up, “The she is subverting his role as physical protector.  If she brings the dishonor to a role that is not her own, she then owns the consequences of violating that role.  Understand?”

Christie joined in, “So is one role more important than the other?”

“No,” Nell answered, “Importance does not play into it.  Both roles are essential.  Both are pivotal.”

“So, what is the woman’s role,” Christie asked, “Have babies, cook, clean and be submissive?”

Begglar sighed, “That is Xarmnian mentality that does not value the individual or lift or cherish the relationship.  No person is merely utilitarian in the relationship.”

Nell came and stood by her husband, “No one likes to be taken for granted or just used.  There is no joy or love in that, dear.  Have you not read the Ancient Text words?”

“4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT]

“This is a covenant of love.  It is protected by it but be sure and understand what love is as defined by the One who oversees its coverage under a covenant vow made to Him.”

“So, when this couple makes their vows, what happens next?” James asked.

Begglar smiled and put his arm around Nell’s waist, “They stand together, while the cleric draws a ring around them in the ground with a cross stick hung on the doorway there.  This is called the ring of the covenant and it is drawn directly below the circle above, but not wider than Heaven’s circle above.  This is done to show that the covenant is sealed under Heaven’s covering.”

“Wow,” Lindsey remarked, “That is a beautiful thought.  So what do the four half-circles represent?”

Begglar spoke up, “They represent the boundaries of our existence.  The two closest to the back wall represent Time and Height.  Time is on the female side, Height is on the male side.  The two semi-circles toward the front of the Faerie Fade ceiling are Length and Breadth or Depth.  Length is longevity, and females, if properly cared for and cherished tend to live longer than males.  Depth is the plumb line of Wisdom and it is given on the male’s side to discern for the safety of his cherished bride.  These are the boundaries but are not the limits of love.  For the Ancient text says:

“38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39 NIV]”

“So what is left?” Matt asked, “The door?  Where does it lead?  I see only a wall but it doesn’t appear to have a room beyond it.  There is just forest back there.”

“We will get to the door in a moment,” Nell said.  “Do you see the benches here?”

Several nodded, but Mason said, “I just figured those were there for when the people get tired of long discussions.”

Both Matt and Christopher laughed, and the others chuckled as did Nell herself.

“That is a good reason,” she acknowledged, “But there is only room enough for two couples.  These are places of honor on earth for two sets of very important witnesses to the union of the betrothed couple.  Unfortunately, these seats cannot always be filled, as in our case.  My parents died in Azragoth before they could witness Begglar and I getting married.  Some couples have absent parents, missing parents or unknown parents.  The point is the intention that the seats are there, whether they get filled or not.  God prepares a banquet, a wedding feast, more than adequate to feed every guest invited to His table, but not everyone invited chooses to come, though ample accommodation is still made had they chosen otherwise.  Blessings await, but few of these are ever experienced if those invited do not decide to come by choice.  These places of honor and witness still remain.  The most tragic loss, however, is of empty seats, where the invited guests to the ceremony refused to come.”

Begglar stood behind Nell placing comforting hands upon her shoulders, knowing it was hard for her speaking of this, and remembering the sadness of seeing empty benches on both sides.

“The half circles in the ceiling above are not only the dimensions of existence but windows from every aspect of it.  Windows so that witnesses from all of heaven and all those who have gone before can view the love covenant of this union.  Nellus’ parents, my parents were present at our ceremony viewing us symbolically through these windows, even if they were not physically present to occupy the honor chairs.”

There was a long pause while they all reflected upon this too frequent reality with a sobering solemnity.

Maeven spoke up, “Tell them about the door.”

“Ah, the door,” Begglar said, “That is where the walking begins, where the covenant moves from promise to action.  There is a symbol here on the door, and the tool used to draw the circle is hung here.  The tool is in the form of a cross.  It is central to the door.  There are two lines on either side of it carved out.  These represent the two separate lifelines of both the bride and the groom.  In the center here, where the cross lines meet are a set of diamond-shaped engravings one within the other.  The diamonds are formed by two triangles joined together at the baseline, set with points facing away top to bottom left to right so that together they form the diamond shape.  Three points have triangles, which represent the triune aspects of a person: body, soul, and spirit.  The husband and the wife, each their own person, yet joined in togetherness along a shared baseline where two aspects of their personhood are in direct fellowship.  Body and soul.  The spirit points away showing a vigilant watch and guard of each other.  There are two of these diamond shapes, one within the other, at the section that the crosses it.  This is the intention of the relationship of oneness.  That they are joined together in harmony, physicality, and soul, each watching out for the other.  And that this union be contained and empowered by an even greater union of joining with the Oneness of God as His Bride through the Power of the Cross.  The ovoid symbol below here represents Fellowship.  It was a symbol of the Early Church.  Called an ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ), it is a fish symbol, representing the call to be fishers of men.  At the close of the covenant ceremony, the couple leaves together through this doorway, as will we.  This is how we will together, once Jeremiah and O’Brian return, will get safely out of Kilrane.”

“So, we go out the backdoor?” Laura asked.

“No, dear,” Nell answered patient and lovingly, “This is the front door.  A very special doorway.  It doesn’t appear like much on the outside.  A simple narrow wooden doorway, one must enter one at a time.  The husband takes his wife by the hand and leads her through it.  This is the time when it is not, as you said James, ‘Ladies first’.  It is the man’s place to lead lovingly and gently.  To face whatever danger exists on the other side first to protect her with his body as a shield.  Like a man-at-arms goes before his queen, he is to lead her to a safe and cherished place.”

“What are these symbols on either side of the doorway?” Lindsey asked, touching their carvings softly.  “They look like a flower in a circle.”

“Ah,” Begglar said, “And at last we come to it.  This is the reason why this place is called The Faerie Fade.”

Maeven, who had been quiet again up to this point, spoke up, “They’re here.  In the forest.  I saw them.  They’ve come back to Kilrane.”

“What have?” Lindsey asked, wrinkling her nose in a puzzled grin, “The flowers?”

Maeven turned towards her, very serious and very quietly said, “Those are not flowers.  What looks like the top and bottom petals of a flower to you, are not fronds or leaves.  They are a body, a humanlike form, with four wings in a circle of light.  The locals call them Faeries here.  But they are very powerful and very, very dangerous.  They are the guardians of this portal.  Anyone who enters it who is not covered under a covenant of faith will not survive it.”

“What do you mean, ‘will not survive it’?” Chris asked.

“Just what she said,” Nell added, “There are those in our traveling companions who were taken prisoner, that would not make it out of Kilrane if the Xarmnians had not already taken them.  They would not survive this portal, because it is a hallowed place that no darkness or darkened soul can enter.  Only covenant provides safe passage through.”

Tiernan cleared his throat, “So, why would the Half-men permit the Xarmnian Protectorate or whoever, to take those through without killing them all?”

Begglar addressed his question, “Because the Xarmnians are in league with the Half-men and have brokered a truce with The Pan to allow them passage through the wilds.  The Pan has given his kinds strict warning that they are not to molest the Xarmnians or meddle in their affairs and The Pan severely enforces his warnings even among his own subjects.”

The group each looked from one to the other, worriedly, taking deep breaths trying to process what was being told to them.

“What does ‘Fade’ mean?” Chris asked, ever the inquisitive one.

Begglar answered, “When we go through the doorway together, you’ll see for yourself.”

Lindsey said, “But how do you know we will all be safe through there?  How do you know?  Do we all have to get married?  Or be married?”

Nell smiled and stroked her face gently, gazing directly into her eyes.  “Because, child,” she reassured her, “I can see that you all shine, and you are all already under a yielded covenant with the One.  Marriage is a mirror of the relationship of faith in the One.  You are a bride under your faith already, even if not a betrothed one here with a spouse.  Remember there are two diamonds on the doorway.  Two forms of covenant that protects.  Ideally, both are within the faith covenant, when spouses vow together.  That is the One’s intention for the greatest good and protection of the sanctity of marriage.  Each is accountable to Him for their treatment of the other.  Each acknowledges their covenant to the One as the primary relationship, and to their spouse as secondary, contained within the primary covenant.  Understand?”

“I think I do,” Lindsey whispered, more to herself than to Nell.

“Can we open the door and sort of check it out first?” Matthew asked.

Begglar stood in front of the door as if by symbolic answer.  “There is no halfway, once the door is opened.  No hesitation on the threshold.  Once this door is opened, there is no turning back.  The called one must lead through it.  That is why it is important to have O’Brian here.  Otherwise, we will become separated and they may not find us, once we’re through.  The portal here is mysterious and unlike any other.  All others who stand under the ceiling will be drawn into it once it is opened, so even the parents and the officiating cleric must step out from under the covering before the groom opens the doorway.  Where it takes those who enter, is determined by the One, but it is always the next step on the journey.  Every choice made apart from the intention of the One leads to personal and collateral pain for others.  This is why it is important to know the intentions of the One.  Why His words revealed in the Ancient text mean so much here.  It reveals the way to the abundance of life and His greatest good for each of you.  It gives meaning to your every breath and your unique design and purpose.  It invests you with the knowledge of your own value to Him.  It tells you why you were born.  And how to ignite the torchlight of your soul.”

“So, marriage is actually a good thing,” Chris said.

“Yes, lad,” Begglar said, “A very good thing, once you understand its intention.  This is why this place means so much to Nell and I.  It reminds us of how good love is.  Just like the Ancient Text reminds us all.”

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“Then why is it that so many people get it wrong and screw up so many lives in the process?” Laura asked thinking of her family.

Begglar said, “There is a verse that speaks to that.  The Ancient Text says:

“14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ.” [2 Corinthians 3:14 NLT]

…The outside world simply cannot understand this kind of covenant.  Only a heart that is opened by the One, has a chance.”

Laura nodded, taking this all in thoughtfully, but then she turned and addressed one of the young men in the group.

“Dominic, are you betrothed to someone?”

The group burst out laughing and Dominic blushed bright red.

***

Syloam marked well where the harpy called Mawgla finally landed with her Will in tow.  And it was with some stealth and skill that she finally made her way down the back of the tree where Will was held at its base.

The harpies Mawgla, Awlen, Grawla and Dawlen huddled together around their captive discussing how best to present their prize when they were suddenly startled to overhear the other harpies flying above announcing to The Pan that they had taken a Surface Worlder prisoner, for they had not yet announced their victim and had been savoring the chance to do so.  They felt upstaged by this announcement and resentful.

“How is it that they get to announce and take credit for our capture, Grawla?!” Awlen asked, indignant.

“Perhaps they saw us coming with him, sister,” Dawlen grumped, her wrinkled face looking even more pinched than it had before.

“I knew Dellitch and her sisters would eventually betray us,” Mawgla growled, “It is a foul day indeed, when we can no longer trust our own kind.”

Grawla fluffed her breast ruffle, drying it of the oil froth that still left a residue or foam on her black and gray feathers.

“Perhaps they have recovered another captive,” she combed the fluff with the hooked claw extending from her wing.

“Then what is to become of ours?  Shall we eat him ourselves?” Mawgla asked.

“I could just tender him up a bit,” Dawlen drooled, licking her pinched lips with a pinkish gray tongue.

“Better partial glory that no glory, I’d say,” Awlen regarded Will with gimlet eyes, “Though a bite or two might not be noticed.”

Grawla regard the young man who now lay exhausted and sore from dangled carry through the forest, his eyes dulled and surrendered to whatever fate might await.  She considered and then turned.

“Better to deliver this scrap meat to The Pan.  But go in and scout the prize these others have brought, if they have any.  Let them be diminished before The Pan when they offer.  If they have claimed our trophy, lets hide him away for ourselves and see how they fare making promises they cannot deliver upon.  Let The Pan change who leads our kind, by eliminating our competition for flock rulership.”

And with that, Mawgla, Awlen, and Dawlen took wing again to watch the spectacle happing ahead with The Pan and his retinue, leaving Grawla to watch after their prisoner.

When they had gone, tiny green tendrils began to creep along the lower ground and up quietly within the leaves of a bush, near where Grawla scraped the ground with her large claws, looking for grubs and other crawling insects along the ground.  The tendrils thickened, and green eyes and a cream colored clear complexion looked upon the unwary harpy with hatred.

It only took a second for Syloam to lunge forward and seize the harpy, her thick vines and branches clutching fiercely to her throat as the harpy lurched from the impact.

“Death for death!” Syloam hissed, through clenched teeth and suddenly felt herself being ripped from the bush and drawn upward.  The harpy, despite the stranglehold, was strong and powerful, and she was flying upward at an incredible speed.

The two bursts through the tree canopy, Syloam twisting and writhing tightening her vines ever stronger around Grawla’s throat.  There had been no time to find an anchor shoot to prevent the harpy from carrying her upward, for she was so intent on killing the harpy.  Higher and higher they flew, pirouetting into the blazing sun, a terrible pain burning upon Syloam’s legs as she realized the harpy was draining milk down upon her dangling legs.

If she was going to die, she resolved, she would not die alone.

From a distance, the aerial struggle between the land and the sky played out in slips and lateral spins and twists, but eventually the harpy stopped climbing, and the trembling vines and branches stopped flailing in the high wind.  And together they fell downward, locked upon each other in a dead grip until they plummeted through the forest and disappeared, never to rise again.

***

Jeremiah heard the shrieks and screeches as the shadowy figures ahead fought and then flew upward.  He saw the prone figure lying at the base of the tree but could not tell if it was the one he’d once known as Brian David or not.  The man looked too young, and he did not recognize him.  But he did mark that this man was a Surface Worlder, in dire need of rescue, so he reached down and grabbed him lifting in a fireman’s carry and proceeded onward, searching where O’Brian might have gone.

He carefully scanned the forest floor, trying to see through the growing smoke, but it was growing thicker by the moment.  He chanced a gaze upward and blinked.  He rubbed his watering eyes with his hand, to be sure, but thought he saw a figure of a man, high up on a tree limb about forty feet off the ground.  The tree bole was too thick for the man to have climbed up himself, and he was puzzled.  A slight corona of light outlined the figure’s body against the dark leaves.  The man’s build was larger than the boy he’d carried.  No one had mentioned this boy to him on the road, so he wondered if O’Brian might have had a better reason to go out into the woods alone.  Perhaps, he’d misjudged him.  Ahead was a murky watered stream that eventually spread out and stilled.  The slough.  The black mud was thick and foul smelling.  Hazes of bugs and flying gnats swarmed the dead pooling slimy water.  Frogs and snakes tried to survive in it and each other.  Boglins were sometimes seen about.  Half-men creatures comprised of both man and frog.  Weird creatures that lived on decay, rodents and various and sundry swamp animals.

He couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man above just might be Brian, or O’Brian as he was called now.  A lot had changed.  When the man in the treetops suddenly spoke loudly to some group gathered in the clearing below, he was certain of who it was.

‘No’, he thought to himself, ‘The man is still foolish and impulsive’.

When he heard the rumbling voice of The Pan respond, Jeremiah shook his head, “Not foolish.  Downright insane.”

***

I had very little hope of making it out of the tree except by a nasty fall.  I had no way to know what I was supposed to do next and was growing desperate and having trouble with doubts and fears that I had misinterpreted the spirits urging to go and confront The Pan.  This was a terrible development putting me in a more desperate situation.

“What am I doing?  Why am I here?  How am I even helping the situation?  Oh, Lord why did You call me to lead?  I am failing at every turn.  Help me find Your Way.”

I heard movement coming from what seemed to be some distance.  Something was coming through the treetops, making a hissing sound that frightened me.  I carefully turned in my seat upon the high perch and saw something flashing in the distance.  My mind leaped to the obvious conclusion.  The fires of Azragoth were blazing towards me.  They had ignited in the dry leaves of the canopy and were rapidly spreading across the treetops, flash burning as they came roaring forward.  I was going to die here.  Roasted alive like a featherless bird in a nest.

Surely this was not the plan of The One, but I could not claim to ever anticipate Him.

A verse rose into my mind as if spoken by a calm, reassuring voice.

“2 Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD rises and appears over you.” [Isaiah 60:2 NLT]

I turned my head upward, careful to balance myself upon a forking limb as I leaned back, and suddenly I saw, above the dappled leaves, what looked like brilliant stars descending towards me with other shining lights waiting above the canopy.