Epilogue (Book 1): The Half-Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

And they raised him to believe it as well.

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

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

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

***

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

Epilogue (Book 2): The Fade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then this is the…?”

“The very same.”

The Bloodline – Chapter 70

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

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

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

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

“Uncle!  Why are you here?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do not understand.”

“Show me the sword.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now show me the stone you carry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My name is Brian.  My name means Strong.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were oculus.

*** End of Part 1 ***

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

Author’s Note:

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

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

Commitment is based on our efforts and will.

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

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

Miray’s Memories – Chapter 69

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, doctor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They should have never played with those lifeboats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

My fingers found the hilt of the Honor Sword.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Connection is key.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The runes on the sword flashed and changed once more.

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

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

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

I spoke quietly to Jeremiah who lay to my left.

“Jeremiah?”

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

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

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

“She has an Aspect stone only.”

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then which one does the Torlah creature have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Captain?” I whispered.

There was no response.

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

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

His eyes were open and unblinking.

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

“What is it?” Jeremiah whispered.

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

“He’s dead.”

Another one of my friends was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sight to The Blind – Chapter 68

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You will eat those words, frog-pod!”

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

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

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

Grum-Blud’s darkening eyes shifted towards her.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last, The Pan spoke again.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brought a moment of silence.

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

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

“What did you find?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Not much further now,” he assured us.

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

“They’re through.  They’re coming.”

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

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

But that was not the worst of it.

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

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

But Jeremiah said what I could not.

“Caleb?”

***

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

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

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

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

His armorers had done their job well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have not been seen in weeks.”

“Could The Pan have killed them?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Jeremiah was stricken as well.

“It can’t be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The accusation stung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another gasped from within the canopy enclosure.

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

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

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

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

She bolted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood and Fire – Chapter 67

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dryads.

Eight or nine of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted to see it.

Needed to see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be glad.  I may have nightmares later.”

“Are you scared?”

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

“How do you mean?”

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

“Mister O’Brian?”

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

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

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

***

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

And if not.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Metal clanged against stone and wood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get behind me!” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prologue – The Beachhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Her body had once had a name, and an identity.  She had been called Noadiah, but now that name was lost with the death of the personhood that had quitted the body when it fell into the sea and the great wounded beast plying those waters took her under.  Afterward only the image remained, and the thing that inhabited the form was nothing like the woman who once was lovingly known by that name.

Before coming to the beach, she’d been in a great stone city.  And there she had lived.

In the shadows.  In the alleys.  In the darkness.  Waiting.

Years had passed and each day the old woman’s form became more restrictive.  The demon within her seethed and loathed in the long waiting.  She’d done her part.

Since the coming of the second quest, she had learned what the Surface Worlders were after.  The three gate stones that would unlock the hidden kingdom.  And she had tracked the location of the third and final stone there.  Locked within the treasury of the great stone city of Xarm, named after its founder and first monarch.  Guarded by fools who did not know what they had in their possession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

beach-84531_1280

***

The old woman arrived at last at the beachhead embankment.  She watched the continual march of the waves coming from the distant pumping heart of the ocean, pounding in frothy surf along the seashore, extending far as her old eyes could see.  She thought and raged long and hard about what all had transpired to lead her up to this moment.  She harshly chuckled to herself, realizing that she had at last gotten the upper hand.  That those outworlders would, finally, be prevented from being used as instruments of the Terrible One to bring about the prophesied return of this land’s champion.  If she could not destroy this stone, and she had tried many times along the way, she would do the next best thing.  From an outcropping ridge that extended as a tall peninsula into the ocean, she heaved the stone, a giant, sparkling pearl, outward as hard as her frail form would allow and, breathless, she watched as the stone left her hands, arched and descended towards the swirling frothy waters below, only to see, to her amazement, the pearl seemed to punch into the air and ripple the fabric of the Mid-World’s veneer of reality, the seascape undulating and forming concentric circles in the very air and as it passed through the center of this reality, she saw, what appeared to be the great fanged mouth of a massive creature catch the falling pearl through a swirling tear in the air.  The massive head and jaws clamped down upon the stone, and its eyes shifted and stared at the old woman’s form standing shakily on the cliff before it.

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

***

She waited for many months, occupying the sea cave on the shore below the overhanging cliffs.  At last, the first of the otherworldly traveler came.  She saw the traveler struggling inside what appeared to be the remains of a rowboat, taking on water, being swamped by the surfeiting waves.  She scowled, trying to get a better look through the old eyes.  When she finally saw the terrified occupant of the small craft, she smiled broadly.

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

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***

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

The flash on the far eastern horizon and the faint but distance marks on the edge of the lowering sky confirmed his worst fear.  What was started so long ago, and had to his mind been thwarted, suppressed and seemingly abandoned, was not yet over.  The beings would be back.  The nightmares would become flesh, gristle, and bone, and crawl, swim or fly back into the Mid-World seeking vengeance.

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

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

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

He turned his horse towards the westward rise and the shadow of the mountains beyond it.  He would ride throughout the night and would kill his mount, but pick up another one in the occupied towns along the way.  Seven days ride.  He had to get to the Treasury to be sure.

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