The Faeries – Chapter 53

Grum-blud had tied Will to the Onocentaur called Bunt, while he rode upon the other whose name was Dob.  He had no particular preference or fondness for either, but since Bunt was the whinier of the two, he opted to straddle Dob, to be further away from the latter’s annoying protestations.  Despite their complaints to the contrary, the donkey-half of these two still maintained the trait of their Surface World counterparts of being sure-footed and slow-plodding creatures when moving over rough terrain bearing a burden.  This characteristic of donkeys and mules was desirable in the Surface World for slow excursions involving mountain and canyon travel, which was precisely why these animals were employed to safely convey visitors up and down the narrow trails along the canyon’s edge.

Dob and Bunt were resentful and relatively sullen, as Grum-blud urged them on through the forest trails at a pace they were not accustomed to.  After all, they were part human.  He knew the fire would be coming soon, and if they did not hurry they would be overtaken by it.  They were at least a half day’s journey from the rendezvous point with the agents of The Pan.  He worried what exactly he would say when he met up with them without the Manticores in his company.  He wondered where that fool Shellberd had run off to when he was supposed to stay with the onocentaurs until after the siege.  When Grum-blud had fled the interior walls of Azragoth, he’d barely made the gates of the Barbican before the fiery manticores came plunging through shrouded and lit in a ghostly light.  The oil and tar on their hides burned first before the heat of the flame lit their skin and fur.   He’d climbed up on the gate, was nearly sprung off of it before he’d caught the rope of Mogawr and been pulled free.  The Manticore dragged him as it ran, its hide afire, but its large segmented tail still free of flame, as it bounded through the forest ahead of the others.  Grum-blud had jumped upon his tail, the halter rope held tightly in his fist and his arms hugging tightly to the segmented arch for as long as he could until ultimately, he fell off as the Manticore juked back and forth through the brush and low limbs, heedless of its rider.  Flames licked at Grum-blud as he struggled to stay on as the tail pumped and flexed up and down in the erratic winding run.  When the oil flames reached his arms and ignited his hair he rolled off screaming in agony and anger, cursing the Manticore his bad luck and the pain that curled and burned his arms until he was able to roll and smother the flame.  He’d scrambled away, found the onocentaurs, no sign of Shellberd and they’d taken the road downward away from the growing fire.  Finding Will had been a sudden turn of his horrible luck.  Finding the group of outworlders, and marking them for death, was only a matter of time.

***

Maeven moved into the brush along the side of the road when she saw the grass turned down and pine needles disturbed where someone, most likely Will, had hastily moved off the winding road to lay low behind a stand of trees. The light was poor because of the thick cover of trees and the interlocking branches and canopy of leaves towering a good twenty to twenty-five feet overhead.  A short declivity created a bowl behind the stand, allowing a person ample room to hide effectively either to allude or ambush the travelers moving down the forest road.

The rest of us waited for Maeven, knowing that if we crowded her, we might obscure the tracking signs she was looking for.  We had lit a torch to aid her sight, but she had held us off when she noticed the signs that the roadside brush had been disturbed.  I stood as far as she had given me leave, holding forth the burning torchlight as it flickered in the darkling dappled light.  Once she’d moved behind the roadside tree blind, she’d discovered the pressed brush and felt the moistened group and felt some oily slick substance on the dried leaves.  She came around from behind the stand of trees rubbing her fingers together, with a curious look upon her face, looking closely at them as she came into the brighter light.  Her eyes lifted, and the torchlight flame danced in gleams of twin golden reflections in her eyes.

“Blood,” she whispered, letting the implication hang in the cool stillness of the air.

“What did you find back there?” I asked.

“Looks like Will or someone, was hiding back there.  Looks like they might have had a slight injury, and someone else may have dragged them back from their hiding place for a short distance, but they walked out of here, through the forest.  If this was Will, I do not think he was given much choice in the matter.  If we leave the road, however, the chances are high we’ll get disoriented and perhaps lost since there is no real trail that way.  Whoever has Will, they are avoiding a confrontation with us for now, but they may be following us from some distance.”

“Doesn’t seem like the Protectorate’s way of doing things, does it?”

Maeven shook her head, soberly, “No it doesn’t.”

“Who else might it be?”

“If you are seeking a list of who might be our enemies here, you have a lot to choose from.”

“Yes, but many of them would not hesitate to confront us aggressively, so that narrows the list down a bit.”

“We’re gonna have to be careful and watchful as we go on.  I would like to fan out a little and angle behind, perhaps catch some sign of them running parallel to us, see who they are.”

“It’s too dangerous for us to get separated.”

“That’s true, so you will need to lead the others along the road, keep whoever is watching focused on you all so that I can slip away behind unnoticed and find out who they are and perhaps get to them before they do anything to Will.”

“They won’t do anything to Will,” I responded.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because they took Will because they need leverage to deal with us.  Will is too valuable to them right now.”

“Do you think Will would sell us out?”

I couldn’t answer that question and found myself looking off thoughtfully which provided Maeven with all of the answers she needed.

“Then there isn’t much time.  Take the others onward.  I’ll find out what I can and come back to you.  Follow the road.”

“Do you know the way?”

“I know enough about these woods to get through them.  Storm Hawk, remember?” she grinned.

I smiled and nodded, “Go to it then.  Be safe.  Come back soon.”

***

I returned to our company as they waited while Maeven and I conferred in private.

“Did you find Will?” Miray asked.

“Not yet, my dear, but we’re working on it.”

“So, what’s the plan from here?” Christie asked.

“We’re to proceed down the road as planned.  The forest behind is burning and it won’t be long before the wind shifts and drives it more this way.  The woods eventually yield and thin out.  There is a slough in the woods ahead which might explain what we’ve all been smelling.  We need to stay close and together.  James still has his halberd weapon.  I have the honor sword.  Mason, you still have Maeven’s bow and the quiver of arrows.  Begglar, I assume that staff is for more than just walking.  Christie, be prepared to use that saber and dagger.  Matt, Laura, Tiernan, Dominic and Chris, as Ezra said, there are more weapons available to you than those with a sharpened edge or pointed tip.  Use your eyes and ears to be watchful.  Seeing and identifying the approach, direction and nature of an enemy can be just as important as any parry or strike.  If we have to fight, even though you are unarmed, we need you to be looking in the direction we cannot.  Let us know what you see that we don’t.  Stay in the center, between each of us who have a weapon, but watch beyond us.  Some enemies may even descend from the trees so don’t just look to the left or right of you.  You are our eyes and ears.  Pick a direction each of the five of you.  The four compass points and the trees above should cover it.”

“Where should I look?” Miray asked, not wanting to be left out.

“Why, I thought, since you were already down there, short-stuff, you could keep an eye on the ground ahead of us.  Ezra taught me an important lesson, remember?  Be aware of the ground upon which you stand to fight.  That makes your perspective extremely important.  Don’t let us down, missie.”

Miray giggled, delighted with my answer.

“Does Maeven want her bow back?” Mason asked.

“I expect when she does, she’ll ask for it.  You keep it for now.  I will never forget that eye shot you made with that Moon Sprite.  It strobing away and you put out its lights, just as cleanly as any marksman.  I expect she would be honored to let you bear it a while longer.”

“Where’s Maeven going?” Nell asked.

“Leave that to her,” I answered, “She’s running a brief errand and will join us soon.”

Begglar smiled knowingly but didn’t seem to agree with my assessment that the scent we were encountering was merely the sewage seep of a deep wood slough.  The thick arched eyebrow was one of his tells.  He kept slightly sniffing the air, looking from one direction and then another.  His eyes shone forth under a furrowed brow, lit again with that old rascal fire, that I’d once seen in them.  As a father now, he was mindful of not causing premature alarm with young ones, as he gently stroked Miray’s golden hair, delighted by her youthful exuberance and more than willing to shield her, for however much longer he could from the harsher realities present in this Mid-World.  A wistfulness shone in his eyes as well, stilling his tongue from saying more.  Life handed out brutal acquaintances with the brutality of mankind and the curse of a fallen world at odds with the One, in doses of time.  While time was inexorable and sometimes seemed deliberately slow when our wanting was placed upon the uncertain future.  The pace of time’s march shifted by one’s perspective.  To a child, the lengths of growing up might seem like forever, but to a loving and engaged parent, that time seemed to be sped up and slipping away all too quickly.  Awareness of evil, signified the loss of innocence, much like with the fruit of that accursed tree in the ancient Surface World garden where all mortal life began.

The smell he’d detected was more than just the organic putrefaction of a stagnant slough.  It was that of rotting flesh.  He’d remembered the distinctive smell from his days aboard ship when Xarmnian ships had plied the waters and captured a ship of a friend of his, which he’d later found floating derelict and adrift.  He’d recognized the vessel, and he and his crew had hailed it with no response and no flag signal.  When they come close enough to board her, he saw why there had been no response.  From the mast to the mizzen sail rigging, the boom and cross sails hung with the dangling bodies of the sailor crew.  The smell of that terrible sight stuck forever in his memory.  It had not gotten any better when he and his men climbed the ropes to the topsails and worked their way across the boom, cutting each and every one down, to give them a more dignified burial at sea.

***

The lights of the mysterious creatures moved through the dark forest, illuminating the boles of the trees, flashing this way and that with blinding speed.  Maeven had barely left the company when she witnessed the distance brilliant spectacle of their passing flickering in the distance through the trees.  She moved as quietly and as quickly as she could, knowing that the woodland faeries did not often reveal themselves unless they were on a distinct mission.  And if one was careful enough, and could get close enough, one might have the pleasure of hearing them sing.

The faeries could appear small or large depending on whatever suited them, for size was also not a limitation for them, but an aspect of their physicality that they could change at their whim.  When in motion, however, especially when moving rapidly through such a dense forest, they often appeared small to easily sweep through and around trees without the constraint of a larger mass.  In smaller form, however, their quadrupedal wings appeared to flutter in a circular motion with a distinctive brilliance scintillating on the tips of their wings, moving in such rapidity, as to appear like they moved within a brightly glowing ring of light, folding and enfolding upon itself.

***

Maeven wasn’t the only one to witness the bright shining lights coming rapidly through the back forest.  Grum-blud also saw the flashes behind him and panicked.  He drove his boot into the flank of Dob and grabbed the short hair ridge of the onocentaur’s neck mane.  “Get going, you good-for-nothing, jackass!” he shouted.  Dob, flinched and kicked at Grum-blud’s harsh treatment, but found not hoof contact that satisfied him.  Dob ran into the back of Bunt, almost toppling Will to the ground, had he not been securely tied to the packs the ono also carried.

“Get us outta, here!  The wood is haunted by faeries!”

The light behind then grew in intensity, and arc welder-like streaks whooshed passed and overhead, banking and then curving around and doubling back upon them, buzzing them, close enough to strike their heads.

Grum-blud flinched and ducked under the swoop barely able to stay on Dob, as he bucked and spun in fear of the creatures.

“You got us into this, troll!  Bad luck follows you everywhere!”

Bunt brayed loudly, bouncing off of trees, attempting to run, but finding no good place to get into the trees but by following the barely discernable footpath trail they had been following.

“Curse you, you stupid troll!” Bunt brayed angrily, “May the satyrs eat your eyes out!”

Bunt took off on one direction, abandoning the trail, and Dob took off in another, their fear of the diving and swooping faeries far greater than any abuses to which Grum-blud or The Pan might put to them.

Grum-blud kicked harshly at Dob, but Dob paid him no heed, running faster and faster over the uneven trail, cutting through brush, bouncing off a buried boulder, crushing Grum-blud’s leg and calf between the donkey’s flank and the rock, causing Grum-blud to curse all the more, but lose his grip upon the reigns and roll, tumbling head over heels off Dob’s backside and land face down in the dirt and fallen pine needles of the forest floor.  Dob raced away, kicking his hind legs sporadically, but disappeared into the forest without looking back to see where the others had gone.

The rope holding the packs, and Will to the back of the Ono named Bunt, snagged on a jutting branch and Bunt twisted and jerked, side to side trying to get free.  At last the coarse rope broke and both Will and the weighted pack fell to the forest floor beneath a fern-like plant, as Bunt took off in the opposite direction also disappearing into the darkened woods.

***

Maeven saw her opportunity and she took it.  The faeries had provided a distraction and she’d witnessed the piggish faced troll go down, separated from the other creatures, Onocentaurs, it appeared, and Will, who had been bound and gagged fell as well.  In the melee, and under the flashing lights whizzing to and fro, casting blinding flashes of light through the dark, she could stay low, and get to Will while he lay down under the low forest cover and snatch him away from the Troll.  She had not brought a weapon with her, for she had expected this only to be a scouting mission and not a confrontation.  The Troll would be on her if he spotted her, and she had no way of knowing who else of the enemy was in the area and might soon respond and rally to the commotion.  The faeries continued to dive bomb the Troll so that he dared not get up until they passed.  One touch of the faerie wings of its burnished body and his head would turn into crumbling ash and salt—faerie dust, indeed.

Maeven crouched low, knowing that a touch by the faeries would prove disastrous to her as well, but she did not believe these were haphazard in their persistence to cow the troll and keep him down.  She crawled and ran through the forest brush, weaving around the dense trees, finally arriving at the place where she’d seen Will fall and dove down under the ferns.

Will lay winded, the gagged pulled tightly against his neck, his nostrils flaring to compensate for the breaths he could not take due to the gagging cloth.  Maeven reached down, snagged his arm and dragged him towards her.  Pulling out a short blade from a belt she turned him over, slicing through the rope that bound his hands, then proceeding down to free the one tied to his feet.  She jerked at the knot binding the kerchief like cloth binding his mouth, and when she could not pull it loose she slid the knife between his hair and the cloth, scoring the fabric enough to begin ripping it apart.  Once loose, Will reached up and snatched it away, his breath coming out in an audible wheeze.

“Oh, that stunk!” he gasped, “So glad to get that out of my mouth.  Smelled like that troll wiped his rear with it.”

“Might have,” Maeven hushed him, and Will blanched and looked like he was going to be sick.

“Don’t think about that now.  Hush.  It’s still out there and it has that sword you put between your shoulders.  Bad move, that.  You can never get to it when you need to.  It’ll never clear the scabbard.”

Will winced and groused, “Little late to be telling me now!”

“Stay down under here for a moment.  Let me see if I can spot him.”

Maeven eased up poking her head just above and between the ferns trying to determine if she could see over the top of them without giving their position away.

She saw the faeries swoosh over a spot where she figured the troll was and saw the flash of a blade swipe at the air where the faerie had been.  Two faeries crisscrossed over him and the blade slashed wildly about, trying desperately to hit and ward off the creatures buzzing him.  All at once the silver of the blade did strike and appear to hit one of the diving creatures, and the blade rang with a metallic clang and a shower of sparks erupted as the sound of the Troll exulting bellowed forth from the brush, but it was short-lived.  The blade that had made contact fizzled with further sparks as its tip, heated to white-hot, fell from the top of the blade and dropped onto Grum-blud seeming to scald him from the sounds of his howling, and a string of foul obscenities, that Maeven had never heard before or since in the Surface World or the Mid-World belched out of the angry troll, such that if it were possible, just hearing them would scald a person’s ears anywhere within proximity.  And suddenly, the faeries did something that caused Grum-blud’s cursing to cease and he howled, stopping his ears, and the sound of his running form crashing through the brush and fleeing the area, could just barely be heard behind the most mellifluous and beautiful noises that Maeven had ever heard.  The faeries had begun to sing.

***

We had not gone very far down the old road, before we heard rustling over the tops of our heads.  Laura searched the canopy sensing something was above us, but could not make out what it was, for the treetops swayed and rustled, and gently clacked and popped as branches swayed and collided with the high breeze flowing over the tops of the trees.  But the sounds were more than just that.  Something or somethings were moving through the treetop canopy as if running across the roof of the leafy ceiling.  The others were tempted to look upward, away from their focal directions, but I admonished them not to be distracted.  This was just the sort of scenario that would require eyes all around.  Those in our company with weapons stiffened not knowing exactly where to point their sharpened aim, blade-edge or striking blunt, but I bade them wait for the direction of assault to be identified and approach it with calm and cool, if possible.

More noises were heard skipping from the upper boughs as we proceeded down the road, blades drawn, arrows ready, and turned down the curve of the road.  At last, we saw what had been causing that horrendous odor we had all detected.  A haze of smoke wafted across the roadway, with a phosphorescent glow somewhere behind it, similar to moonlight.  Begglar was the first to speak, but it wasn’t to me.

“Miray, are you watching the ground, lassie?  Please focus on the ground, darlin’.  Keep us safe.”

Begglar did not want her to see what we saw silhouetted in front of the smoky phosphorescence over the road ahead, and I did not want Miray seeing it either.  If we could spare Miray’s innocence for just a few seconds more, they were worth it.  Every moment of innocence is precious.  This forest was haunted indeed.

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The Haunted Forest – Chapter 52

When Mattox had approached the archer on the wall, he never had expected what he saw when the man turned to face him.  Nor had he or anyone in his company expected the man to shoot him.  Four other faces along the southern wall turned and faced Mattox and the company.  Four who all shared the same face.  That of a person they had sent out from Azragoth, before the siege had begun.  The face of one who had openly and publicly accused The Eagle of being a traitor to Azragoth and had raised his sword threatening him before the eyes of the soldiers and citizens who placed implicit trust in The Eagle to lead their warriors and armies against Xarmnian oppression.  A man whom those in his company called Mr. O’Brian.

***

Though the shock of seeing what appeared to be an ally suddenly turn in aggression and fire upon their commander caused the retinue to hesitate for a moment, that moment between shock and response did not last long.  Two of the four other Mr. O’Brian’s shot arrows into their group causing their horses to rear, as other men-at-arms were felled from their mounts under an arrow assault.  The remaining two O’Brians were stretching their bows, making attempts on the remaining company, when the horses veered away from the group, spurred by their Azragothian riders, to stretch out the battle unit and divide the center mass grouping so that the archers would not pick them off easily.  Two men, rode to and across the path, right into the rain of arrows, towards their fallen general, using short buckler shields to fend off the sharp points, from hitting vitals but charging towards Mattox to see if the arrow that had hit him had been as deadly as it appeared.

Mattox had slumped from his saddle, shifted and fallen from it to the cobblestone street, blood stained his emblematic crest, and the piercing arrow had appeared to strike him through the heart.  The soldiers witnessing the shocking turn of events, though they did not wish to believe it, had assumed the worst, but the two trusted bodyguards could not leave their general in such an ignominious position.  They rushed and rallied to his aid, arrows glancing off their bucklers, but whishing through their legs, bouncing and breaking upon the hard cobbled stone street, glancing off their leather brigandine, pinging their rerebrace epaulet plates, yet not halting their determined and single-minded purpose—get to the general.

Mattox blinked and stared up at the smoky sky, the breath knocked out of his lungs when he’d hit the pavements, his chest awash in fire.  The tip of the arrow that had pierced his body has been awash in flame, no doubt dipped in the fiery oil running across the top of the burning wall.  He’d bled from the wound, but the heated tip, prevented more blood loss because it had cauterized the wound created going in.  He blinked hard again, unable to catch enough air to fill his lungs and allow him to move, turn, roll or get to his feet.  He’d been struck hard, point blank, and the shock of seeing O’Brian in the city, upon the wall, when he’d personally escorted him and his company out of it, gave the archer the two seconds needed to get a deadly shot off.  The arrow strike had winded him, the fall compounded that, but the strike, though severe and penetrating, had not pierced his heart at least, though he could not be too sure about his lung.  It had definitely notched and scored a bone and its diamond-shaped point would not be pulled out of him without some further excruciating pain, but he would deal with that at it came.  At the moment, his prone position could not be tolerated.  It would demoralize and discourage his company, and the non-militia citizenry.  Though he’d tried to discourage it, the people saw him as a symbol of hope.  The Eagle, indeed.  When they’d proudly presented him with the emblazoned crest and battle wear, he had wanted to reject it as impractical for what he needed to accomplish, but they’d all celebrated the presentation day, and his men and women fighters needed the encouragement in the face of the odds arrayed against them.  The Eagle crest marked him, made his rank clear, and focused the training soldiers’ attention waiting on his command without first having to identify himself.  It also marked him as a target for the enemies lying in wait to strike him down.

At last, he was able to take in a series of short breaths, as one of his men-at-arms appeared over him.

“General?”

Mattox took in a short breath and used it to speak to his man.

“We’ve got to close the gate to the Keep.”

***

Though the sun shone somewhere overhead, the branches shading the forest road were dense and allowed only muted light to filter down to our path.  The Protectorate soldiers would have to take the wagon through the forest roads, for the footpaths and horse trails were too narrow to accommodate a wooden buckboard.

The Azragothian wagon was newer than Begglar’s wagon we had lost on the highland route, and its wheels were thicker and its seat wider with better springs and an under-seat box for additional storage.  The superior replacement salved Begglar sadness at having to give up the older one with sentimental value, but the loss of this new one, in addition to having their party of travelers kidnapped and taken while trying to save Maeven’s life seemed to add an individual insult to that injury as well.  Begglar, who would have been more fearful of the Xarmnian Protectorate thugs from his years of past experience and abuse from them, was now full on angry and was feeling a degree of courage and hope for a chance at personal vindication in the pursuit of these Xarmnian thugs.  He knew vengeance belonged to the One, but he could not deny his feeling.  He’d allowed these Xarmnians to strip him of the dignity and honor and respect he’d once had when he’d openly fought alongside O’Brian, and been able to hold his own on a battlefield.  Being a bigger man in his day, he’d fought with a cutlass, a war hammer, and half-shield and could stand toe to toe with any man in a sparing ring when they’d trained for resisting the Xarmnian incursions beyond the boundaries of the Lake Country.  As they had plied the waters of Lake Cascale, they had thwarted weapons runs across the waters, and he’d been labeled a pirate back in the day, by the Xarmnians and had had a bounty put on his head.  Back then, he’d been known under a slightly different name, back before fatherhood, back before his son had trouble mimicking his father’s Irish accent, and had only succeeded in calling him by the moniker Begglar, a loose phonetic equivalent to the name under which he had been known and wanted for piracy, treason and high crimes against the self-declared regional governors of Xarmnian occupied territories.  A name that had struck him as both poignant and funny at the same time.  Once a prince and scourge of the high seas now reduced to a Beggar of sorts, cashing in both his fame and his fortune for a much quieter domestic life in the idyllic countryside.  O’Brian knew both names and life iterations equally well.  How the Innkeeper and erstwhile baker had left the dangerous life of being McGregor the Pirate.

The meek, unassuming persona adopted, and the drastic change in both girth and carriage had reduced him over the years to a man whom no one would recognize as his former self, and Begglar had been ashamed of that fact, especially since he had to maintain that demeanor when in the presence of Xarmnian’s oblivious to whom he once was, and the younger impudent set growing up without the knowledge of his infamous exploits against the Xarmnians when they had first tried to claim and occupy the highlands and failed.

Now, feeling more of his ire return, and with no further need to maintain the pretense of being only a displaced and dispossessed Innkeeper and baker, he was beginning to sense the wanderlust of his former days once more.  Of course, when they finally reached Skorlith, O’Brian would need not bargain for more than the ship as he already had, among his travelers and companions, a very capable sea captain to pilot it when the time came.  As Maeven and O’Brian moved furtively ahead scouting for signs of passage along the way, attempting to gain some indication that the others were still alive and captive, Begglar, reflecting back on his glory days, could almost feel the spray of the sea on his beard and face, and almost smell the salty sea.  Almost.  There was a slight pungency in the air that was not only the smell of turning leaves.  A scent he’d become too familiar with over the last few years.   A smell of death.

This uneasiness he felt was made all the more poignant when Miray suddenly asked, “Aren’t we gonna go find Will first?”

***

Wheels within wheels.  Flaring and pulsing flashes of light, streaking through the tall woods, dodging trunks, bursting through bushes with a crackling rustle of leaves, making a pitty-pat, pitty-pat fluttering noise as these zipped, dipped, wove and whooshed through forest, glen and glade, reflecting a golden dance of light quiet upon the wet surface of bubbling brooks that passed under the wood.  The radiance of four small translucent wings made these bright flying creatures appear to be small globes of light, vibrating and oscillating with tireless pulses of energy.  Their small golden faces, like burnished brass awash in warm yellow light, were difficult to discern, for they seemed to vibrate in and out of focus, phasing between sapien, bovine, leonine and aquiline aspects.  There were dozens of these, flashing in and out from between the trees ahead of the crackling and roaring firelight that filled the woodlands with a dense haze of smoke.  One might have thought, only for a brief moment that these points of light were floating embers wafted and twisting and spinning upward upon the heat wind of the raging fires behind, but for no longer, for these moved with their own determination and a speed far greater than that produced by the driving wind.

These were what had begun to be known as Faeries, yet their existence pre-dated any legend existing of them in both the Mid-Worlds and the Surface World.  A human had encountered them once in the Surface World, and once in the Mid-World expanse as well.  Two men whose experiences were separated by around six and a half centuries of Surface World time.  Many had viewed these fantastic beings to be representative or symbolic, but the Ancient Text treatment of them gives them no such illusion.  They are described in detail with the language and frame of reference by both the first-century man and the man encountering them in his six hundredth century context.  This is his account of them:

4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness [was] about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also out of the midst thereof [came] the likeness of four living creatures. And this [was] their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. 6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 7 And their feet [were] straight feet; and the sole of their feet [was] like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. 8 And [they had] the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. 9 Their wings [were] joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 11 Thus [were] their faces: and their wings [were] stretched upward; two [wings] of every one [were] joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. 12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; [and] they turned not when they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance [was] like burning coals of fire, [and] like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. 15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their work [was] like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work [was] as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: [and] they turned not when they went.  [Ezekiel 1:4-17 KJV]

The first-century man, transported into a region described as the third heaven, gives the same physical account of these beings:

5 From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God. 6 In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal. In the center and around the throne were four living beings, each covered with eyes, front and back. 7 The first of these living beings was like a lion; the second was like an ox; the third had a human face; and the fourth was like an eagle in flight. 8 Each of these living beings had six wings, and their wings were covered all over with eyes, inside and out. Day after day and night after night they keep on saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty–the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” 9 Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), [Revelation 4:5-9 NLT]

So, when I am asked the question, Do I believe in faeries?  My qualified response, establishing that what we are talking about as witnessed by these two men is the same, I say, wholeheartedly, yes, I do.  Do I call them faeries?  Not particularly, no.  I’m sure they have another name, that I cannot comprehend or am not even qualified to speak, for the Ancient Text only calls them ‘Living creatures’, in absence of their real names.  What I believe is that they are multi-temporal creatures, which is why they seem to phase and vibrate between some interdimensional existence, hinting to me that they may occupy some aspect of life that is not bound by the limits of space or time.  What I do know is that the effortless motion in which they move or fly about never seems to tire them, and that one may never touch them without the loss of the place in which they made contact physical contact.  The finger, hand or net which tries will disintegrate and fall to dust and ash instantly.  This is one of the many reasons why the satyrs hate and fear the Faeries.  They are not half-men, nor are they any sort of animal, fish or insect, or hybrid creature, but something else entirely.  Something birthed beyond our finite understanding, serving the pre-existent One.  Their descriptions come only by our frame of reference, but do not fully explain what they are with any definitive clarity.  Suffice it to say, they are living mysteries that mortals may never fully understand until we find a greater clarity beyond this life.

The one thing I am sure of, however, is that they are emissaries of goodwill towards those committed to the call of the One.  They only intervene in those instances where they are given leave and direction to do so.  A person does not seek out the Faeries.  If a person is to receive any assistance or intelligent from them, they will seek him or her out because they were sent to them.  And on this one particular day and in this one particular time, they were being sent to find me.

***

‘Where’s Will?’ had become nearly a mantra phrase.  I admit it.  It annoyed me that every time we planned to leave or needed to get somewhere in a hurry, we were first having to go find out where Will had wandered off to.  I was tempted to make him put on a red and white striped long-sleeved shirt and wear thick black circular framed glasses, and a red and white stocking cap so that we could make a game of finding him.  Instead of “Where’s Waldo?” it would be…well, you know.  I knew he was going through some issues, but I couldn’t let him endanger the rest of the company unnecessarily with his stubborn and self-centered agenda.  If he wanted to constantly leave the company, I was of half a mind to let him have his own way, and discover what would happen to one traveling unprotected, unaware and alone in this country might bring him.  Will had become a liability.  And I was irritated enough to let him find out what that would get him.  But like Begglar, I had begun to pick up a scent on the chilled breeze, that disturbed me enough to think Will might already have found out the harsh lesson of going his own way.

Nell had smelled it too.  I saw her eyes wince, nose crinkle and her face grimace.  Death was near.  Its presence was wafting through the woods behind the rumble of the fires to the east of us and Azragoth’s hidden road winding upward into the smoking woods.  Azragoth’s terrible history had left it the legend of being haunted.  But it was not the only haunted place in these lands.  The forests grew thicker ahead of us, the branches of the trees older and gnarled by time and drought and decay.  The waters in the woods grew more still and stagnant as the flow of the stream lingered, trickled and pooled, saturating the ground with moss-laden goop from a slough and quagmire of alkalized run-off.  The mud had grown black with decay, and the residue of the old city wastes and landfill dumping had taken a toll on the environment.  Clouds of midges and flies swarmed the area, and something blending in with the swarms called in the Mid-World by the name hooliches.

“Which way did Will go?” I asked Miray, and she pointed up the winding road in the direction down which we had come from the top of the Trathorn Falls.

Maeven looked past me, and then back towards the direction in which the Protectorate had taken the others.

Miray came over to me and took my hand in her smaller one and looked up at me with sad eyes.

They were leaving the decision to me.

I so wanted to call a vote, but somehow, I felt that would be yet another way I was shifting my responsibility to lead this company, and in my heart, I knew that was wrong.  There was no easy decision to make.  If we went back for Will, the others would get further ahead, and they were already on horseback and more than likely being led to Dornsdale or another one of the Xarmnian occupied towns on the way.  At least I had an idea where we might be able to find the others, but as to Will…I just did not know.  The fires of Azragoth had slowed in their burning through the forest, and if Will had eluded us on the road down, he would not be making much progress that direction, which meant he would have to double-back and turn to follow us, whether he wanted to or not.  We could wait for that to happen or just go up the road a piece and might catch him coming back down toward us.  Irritated as I was by him, I really did not wish him ill.  I was uncertain what to do when I decided to just close my eyes and seek guidance from the One.  The smell of death was growing stronger moment by moment and I did not know exactly from which direction it was coming for it seemed to swirl around us as if pushed by the heat of the fires behind us.  My eyes suddenly popped open as a verse from the Ancient Text came to my mind and startled me with its implications.

“4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” [Luke 15:4 NASB]

My way was clear.  Though it annoyed me in some respects, I knew the right thing to do was to begin by finding Will.

Scorched Ground – Chapter 51

Satyrs are vile nasty creatures.

Do not believe what you may have read in Greek mythology about them.  They are not the little half-goat pipers that have short clipped beards, small knobby horns, an impish grin and a propensity to trot and skip around a campfire prancing about like a little ninny.  There are similar elements of these traits that are true, but the parallel similarities fork drastically on some points.  Satyrs are vicious, conniving little snots that, as a rite of passage, file their teeth to jagged needle points so that they can bite and tear flesh easier, making that “impish grin” all the more creepier.  They are hairy, unwashed and stink as if they have soiled themselves and allowed the result to collect in the shaggy mess all down their backsides.  Their beards are wooly and unkempt, lice-ridden, not at all trimmed and combed.  They are drawn to fire and do frequent campfires, snatching coals and charred branches, with which they mark themselves so that the upper half of their bodies are coated in ash and soot.  They are wild and savage and vulgar creatures, given to debauchery, and fermented drink, if they can steal it.  They are six-fingered thieves, for their hands almost always have that number of digits, unless they have met with misfortune or severe punishment.  And they have a great fondness for dogs.  Not keeping them, or playing with them…Eating them.  They take great sport in killing a dog.

Satyrs, like goats, are both climbers and jumpers, vaulting and scaling great crags, making their habitat in both forests and high mountain caves alike.  They are very fast, and over short distances, may even equal the speed of a horse in full gallop, but they cannot sustain a longer run.  The nails of their hands are grimy and dirty, often unusually long and thick.  They haunt forests, often playing tricks on wayward travelers in particularly dark wooded stretches, marauding and injuring their horses.  As I said, mean little snots.

Like trolls, these are not to be trifled with.  They are not cute forest creatures and are not natural to this or any land.  If you have the opportunity to dispatch one to its eternal consequences, don’t hesitate to do so.  If the opportunities are reversed, these will have no reservations or compunctions to return the favor, unless they are of a mind and mood to torment you first.  They are not the fauns of Narnia.  These are cousins to The Pan.  Not near as big as he, but every bit as vile, though less cloaked in the semblance of ancient intellect.

These are the things you need to know before we encounter satyrs.  I had hoped we would be spared dealing with them until we reached the stone passes, but they have been known to extend their hunting grounds into the forests, especially if they pick up the scents of dogs or any canine species, wolves, coyotes or even foxes.

Oddly enough, these beings do appear in a reference within the Ancient Text, though the word varies from translation to translation.

14 The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there and find for herself a place of rest. [Isaiah 34:14 KJV]

The Hebrew term used in reference to these creatures is śě’îrîm, (שָׂעִיר in Hebrew), often translated as “he-goat”, but sometimes refer to demons in the forms of goats.  The One forbade his people from making sacrificial offerings to them in Leviticus 17:7 and in 2 Chronicles 11:15 there is mention of a special cult established for the śě’îrîm of Jeroboam I.

There is only one natural born enemy here in the Mid-World to the satyrs who have invaded this land.  Some beings that these beast-men cannot abide and fear.  It is one reason why I am further surprised to see these coming this far into the forests.

Maeven rose and looked at me questioningly.  Not because she did not know to what I was referring but wondered if it was time to reveal these other creatures at this time.

Both Begglar and Nell also knew to what beings I had alluded to, in fact, we had seen such from a distance on the edge of the forest before the burnt Manticore crashed through the brush and entered the basin lake below the Trathorn Falls.

The strange lights dancing on the edge of the forest.

[Prior reference inChapter 33: The Manticore and the Moon Sprites”, Word search thesparkles of lightappearing along the edge of the dark wood, near where the Manticore entered the lake.]

***

Grum-blud held the jagged blade roughly under Will’s neck, drawing a slight nicking cut enough to prick Will’s skin and form beads of blood on the blade.

“Make a peep, boy.” he growled taunting him, “Peep, peep!  Oh, please make a peep!”

Will stiffened, closing his eyes, trying desperately not to cry out.  Fear sent ice pumping through his veins, even though the Troll’s foul breath was hot and steamy on his cheek, its crowding stocky body and coarse, muscled hide also exuding body heat and the pungent smell of scorched flesh and burnt hair, and the smell of smelted tar.  This creature, holding him, pinning his arms back with a rough forearm and clenched fist full of his hair, smelled like burning radial tires.

“That your company? Your friends?” the Troll asked.

“No,” Will croaked barely about a whisper.

“What say, boy?!”

“No.  They are not my friends.”

“Not yer friends, ay?” the Troll twisted his hair tighter in his meaty fist, causing Will to gasp in pain.

“Well, them’s the ones that torched my brother, and you’d better hope you’re not in league with them.  But, I’ll give you a chance to prove it to me soon enough.  Someone’s gonna bleed for it.  And I don’t care particularly much if it’s you or one of them.  Perhaps that little girlie there, what do you think about that?  The pretty, pretty’ll squeal like a stuck pig.”

Will stiffened despite the knife.

“Do you have a name, boyo?” Grum-blud said, as he pulled the cold blade back from his neck, releasing his hair, and snaked a scalded, redraw forearm, that had once been covered with thick black hair and some blackish substance, around gripping his wrist, turning it and shoving it back behind Will’s back.  The bloody spritzed blade, now tucked away, the troll man-handled Will, pulling both hands behind him, tying his arms together with some coarse fibered rope, pulled painfully taut.

“Speak up!” the troll barked, jerking Will up shakily to his feet.

“Will,” he whispered.

“Will what?” the troll pressed.

“Just Will,” the boy responded, slightly louder.

“Okay, boyo!” the troll hissed, shoving him forward, “My name’s Grum-blud.  And Grum-blud WILL be the one you will last see before you die if you do not do exactly as Grum-blud says when Grum-blud says to.  Got it?”

He waited for an answer and slapped hard at the boy when it was not forthcoming.

“Got it?!”

“Alright,” Will responded, “I got it.”

“What is this?!” one of the Onocentaurs asked, as Grum-blud emerged from the brush, forcibly shoving the bound young man in front of him as the end of his blade.  “We can’t carry this boy and your packs, troll?!  Are you mad?  It is enough of an indignity that we let you straddle your fat bottom upon our backs.  Why didn’t you just kill this lump and let us return back?”

“Because you don’t show up to The Pan, telling him that all twenty-six of his Manticore sentries are dead and burnt to terns, that your mission to slaughter those remnant rebels in Azragoth failed, even if you are burnt like this, without something to show for it.  Might as well gut yourself with your own blade, rather than suffer what they’ll do to you before you die.  This outworlder is a trophy, a bargaining chip and something that will ensure I’m not given to the satyrs for their sport.”

“Satyrs are just nasty,” the other Onocentaur joined.  “We just carried the packs and transported the troll, Dob” he said to the other, as if Grum-blud were not present, “The Pan’s not gonna hold us responsible for this failure, is he?”

“Of course not,” the Onocentaur named Dob, rejoined, “If this pudge couldn’t get the job done with sixteen Mants, how is that our responsibility?  We did our job, Bunt, even if he failed miserably at his.”

“You really are an Ass!” Grum-blud growled, “Now shut up, you two or you’ll give away our position with all your mouthy whining.  There are a band of outworlders close-by on the road ahead that may come looking for this piece of trash, and no telling what they’ll do to your half-ass carcasses if they catch us.”

“You mean we aren’t taking the road?” the Ono called Bunt whined, “My hooves hurt.  The trails have roots sticking out across them and it is too easy to catch one and stumble.”

“Step over them,” Grum-blud hissed, “Now be quiet!”

“Easy for you to say, two-footer!” Bunt retorted, still not lowering his voice, “What you got in these packs?  Rocks?”

“Mule meat!” Grum-blud cuffed him, “Now shut up!”

“I like the Other troll better,” Bunt groused one last time, but then kept his mouth shut, wincing as once more Grum-blud raised a threatening hand.

***

Shellberd, the other Troll, who had been supposedly minding the onocentaurs in the fore-woods descending down from the hidden city of Azragoth, found himself in a hot mess.  Literally.

He had climbed a tree to get a look at the goings on as Grum-blud has proceeded towards leading the direct assault on the dead city of Azragoth.  He had intended to watch the battle from a safe distance and imagined the shouts that would come as the Manticores vaulted the walls and descended upon the city, bringing the wrath of The Pan down upon them.  That was his plan anyway…before he fell asleep, cradled in the boughs of the tree.  His head had eventually lolled back and he found a crook in the branches where he could get more comfortable while he waited for the show to begin.  Only the wait was a long time in coming, and he and Grum-blud had traveled a lot overland, and then he had been sent alone to ask for help from The Pan.  Grum-blud knew The Pan terrified him.  That he was so scared he’d peed himself the last time they went to have an audience with The Pan.  And he knew that was precisely why Grum-blud had sent him alone.  Grum-blud liked making others suffer.  He did in some ways, but not near to the extent that Grum-blud did.  And in the waiting, he fell asleep.  And he snored.  Loudly.  There was no hiding his position, when his grunts and loud, protracted snorts echoed and buzzed through the treetops.

He awoke suddenly with a start, as sparks of light wafted by him, dancing on a very hot wind.  His startled jerk almost made him fall from the tree, for he had forgotten where he was, and the disorientation confused him.

“Faeries!” he jerked and trembled, mistaking the wafting rain of drifting sparks for something that filled him with far greater dread than he’d ever experienced before The Pan.

His feet dangled, and his chubby butt slipped out of the fork, and frantically he hooked a stubby forearm around a branch to keep from crashing down through the boughs below.  His eyes turned towards the area where the old city lay, and his face winced at the orange flashes and a wall of fire, blackening the skeletal trees, headed his way.  The city of Azragoth was afire.

It looked like Grum-blud’s plan had gone well.  ‘Yay, for him!’ Shellberd thought, as an ember took light and started burning in the dry branches and leaves above him.  He jerked his head upward, eyes widening in the glow of the firelight, now spreading through the treetop.  “Oh, poop!” he groaned, as a flaming branch broke above his head and began to descend downward, towards the very limb he dangled from.

He dropped about five feet down, smacking a lower bough, bouncing and rebounding from it before toppling in a barrel roll down to the next one.  Each impact caused him to grunt and cough as if he barked all the way down in his fall with every strike.

The onocentaurs were nowhere to be found, he noticed as he caught himself, upon a lower branch, wincing from the hard strikes from the plummet.  Grum-blud was gonna be mad, he knew, but the fire rain was coming further and further down the tree, and he had to get ahead of it and away through the forest, if at all possible, or Grum-blud’s ire would have its only vent if Grum-blud ever found his body after the conflagration and kicked repeatedly and frustratedly at his fire-blackened corpse.

“Damn the donkeys, and damn Grum-blud too!” Shellberd hollered, as he crunched downward upon the scorched ground, dancing over the licking flames, hopping in puffs of hot ash, and smoke, as he ran through the forest, as fast as his short stumpy legs, and scalded, groping knuckles could carry him.

***

Azragoth was awash in golden light and rapid activity.  The archers upon the secondary wall gangplank walk scanned the flame scorched horizon, as the fire continued to burn along the leading edge of the inner walls and in the oil troughs along the ramparts.  The tower turrets had been doused and drenched with large barrels of water, and large sacks of sand had been stored within to soak up and smother the oil fires, with the water used to reduce the chances of floating embers burning the dry timber substructures holding the stone works in place.  The heat shimmer and thermal wind made seeing down into the fronting forest difficult but not impossible.  The outer courtyards of the killing fields and the dead zones of the city had burst into flame, peeling back over twenty years of uncheck wild growth in a matter of minutes, leaving the charred bones of the old city bare again with a rage of smoke twisted scrub, smoldering mats of crisping vines disintegrating under the angry curls of flame.  Grey smoke raised a cloudy wall both within and without, roiling over the outer walls, boiling orange and yellow and red in the tops of trees and dropping ash and floating sparks and twisted embers, allowing them to rise upon the downward pushing wind weaving into the woods, igniting the fallen pine needles, bursting pine cones with loud pops, and breaking branches, baring them and coloring them grey and black with the ash and smoke.

Mattox and his horsemen retinue rode within the city walls, receiving feedback and intelligence from the men and women watching down from the walls.  The Manticores had been successfully routed and, considering how thoroughly they had been coated in pitch, they had most likely perished, but they had to be certain.  Reprisals would be swift and violent, and in numbers that would require planning.

His men had counted twenty-six total Manticores during the assault on the walls, and all but one had fled enflamed outside of the curtain wall and into the forest.  One had fallen and been entangled in the mats of vines and had been trapped within the killing field by the fire spreading around it.  Its immolation had been terrible but brief before it succumbed to the smoke and descended into the resulting bonfire.  The others had streaked through the forests, setting the woods on fire in each direction, so that their progress in flight was tracked and marked by trails of fire until they ultimately fell.

Only one had gotten further than the flames of the forest, as it had less of the pitch coating its body.  The watchers could not be sure if that one survived, but if so, it would soon report back to The Pan that whatever designs it had had for the total destruction of Azragoth had failed.  The two trolls were, at present, unaccounted for.  The one Manticore that had not been counted among the confirmed dead had been the one wearing a rope collar, so it was assumed that the Troll responsible for collaring the Manticore, must have attempted to flee upon the Manticore’s back, with the collar used as a makeshift halter.

The two onocentaurs were nowhere to be found either, so they must have fled before the fires reached them.  The woods now smoking with the conflagration were too hot to venture into after the unaccounted.  Live flames still licked and flared from blacked and whitening branches devoid of leaves.  The ground smoked with ash and black soot, red and orange embers dotting the scorched landscape through a haze of dust red and black smoke.  It would perhaps be days or weeks before the area would be safe enough to ride iron-shod horses through them.  The old road might be stripped of enough weathered grasses by the fires to finally reveal the age-old wheel ruts that wound up through the fire path to the broken portcullis gate of the city’s Barbican, but at least for the moment, no one, friend or foe, would be venturing up towards the fiery city.

***

Nem surveyed the city’s defensive response from the upper terraces, sighting Mattox and his core retinue’s progress as they moved from street to street along the inner wall.  As Mattox and his riders came to the southeastern end of the firewall, Nem witnessed The Eagle ride to the archer posted there to receive word about the sector he monitored from his vantage point along the wall.  He saw the archer turn from the Barbican and approach the general, suddenly raise his bow and shoot him in the chest, before the attendant retinue could respond or prevent it.

The Gathering in The Woods – Chapter 50

Find the road.  Find the trail.

These were the two objectives that the young woman, her two unnamed compatriots and Matthew, and Will were turning to pursue when Dominic, Miray, and Mason, halted them.  The three were focused on the canyon rim and the area near the spillway of the falls when they spotted the figures silhouetted on the edge of the cliff, under the strobe flash of the pealing lightning.  They waited for the next flash of light to be certain they weren’t just seeing things, but the time between the rumblings and the light display was lengthening.  The strange storm had pushed back the approach of the dawn, sliding a sheath of high atmospheric clouds over the bright eye of the rising sun, like a grey, swollen eyelid.  But the dawn was peeking through again, revealing the land below once more, shredding and stretching the clouds with its golden rays.  The figures they had seen might be who they hoped they were, but they could also be spies or agents of the Protectorate Overwatch and they were worried.  As O’Brian had admonished them, be wary of strangers.  Everyone is not your friend.  Now that they were unarmed and isolated, that admonishment seemed more pertinent now than ever.

“It’s them,” Miray stated emphatically.

“Don’t be too sure,” Dominic cautioned, but he too felt the rising hope and a deep need for her words to prove true.

Miray started to cup her hands to her mouth and shout to the figures on the cliff, but Mason spoke up quickly, “Wait, Miray!  We have to be sure.”

“It’s them.  I know it is,” she turned, “You’ll see.  We have to get up there.  Tell Mister O’Brian about the others.”

Matthew had come back down toward the shore, and knelt down, facing Miray, whose eyes were beginning to tear up.

“Hold on, princess,” he softly touched her shoulders, “O’Brian would want us to be cautious.  We don’t know who else might be around in these parts.  If we call out to them, others who we don’t want to hear us might get to them before we do.  Much as you and I want it to be them, even if it is, we don’t want to put them in further danger, now do we?”

Miray wiped a tear from her eye, and shook her head ‘No’.

“Let’s be careful and quiet,” he took her hand, as he and Dominic led her up the muddy bank towards the area where they had once parked the wagon.

“If it’s them,” the young woman smiled down at Miray, as they came up to the more level area, “we’ll find them.  Wait and see.”

“Guys, we do need to get back from the lake,” one of the young men said, “If it’s O’Brian and the others, they’ll come back down to us.  They do not know the others have been taken.  We need to get out of sight.”

***

I scanned the horizon, seeing that while one of the sky lines had begun to cloud and dim, many of the others were still very dark and jagged, as if the canopy of the diffuse atmosphere were stretched fabric of a tent that had gashes in it revealing the blackness of space and the endless night beyond.  These were the sky lines, the scars in the sky, that worried me the most.  One, in particular, was not only dark but widening, bleeding the atmosphere out into the void beyond.  To the southern horizon, a series of nine dark marks scored the edge of the cliffs stretching away from us as if chased into shadow by the growing sunlight.  There had always been signs in the heavens here, but the tale they revealed to me while comforting in some respects was disheartening in others.  There was a prophecy written in the stars beyond the day sky, but its message was being lost in time and memory.  If he’d been more aware of the situation and less distracted by his dread of losing Maeven, he might have thought to ask Hanokh again of those mysteries which he’d shared with him so long ago.  The Ancient Hebrew Mazzaroth.

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?  Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?  or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?  Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?  Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?” (Job 38:31-33 KJV)

The shocking parallel of its signs pointing forth to the prophecy of the ages revealed in the One’s coming and mission within the Surface World.  The crux and center-point of all journeys converging into Purpose.

The pulling away of the nine dark bands meant something, and I was determined to find what it portended.

The light from the dawn grew stronger and we were able to see more into the shadow of the basin below.  I scanned the shoreline looking for movement or some sign of our party waiting in the shadow of the shore below.  The edge of the lake looked different than I’d remembered it from before going out in pursuit of the Moon Sprites.  The surface of the lake had returned to its liquid state, as I suspected it would have, with the Pearl now safely tucked away in the pouch on my belt.  I scanned in dread as well, for the evidence of floating bodies, possible of Matthew, Mason and Will and the three others that had come to our aid in saving Maeven.  No sign, but that did not free me to hope yet.

The Trathorn Falls were alive again, roaring down into the lake below, but the face of the cliff seemed to have imploded, more than I remembered as if the force of the water had carved away a large cupola from the rock face.  Water still fell from the precipice about, but it no longer danced down the surface of the canyon face.  A jagged assemblage of broken stone jutted sharply out from the strike point of the water, building further froth into its white crested beard streaming away down the mountainside.

“Begglar, do you still have one of those astrolabe sextant devices, you told me about?”

Begglar turned, unslung his pack from his shoulder, turned the flap and rummaged about in it for a moment before he produced the odd metal object with a sighting glass-lensed loupe in one side and a hinged half-moon shaped gage on the other.  I brought the instrument to my eye and looked through the loupe, scanning the lakeshore and riverbank.  The water had overflowed the banks, and I could see the muddy evidence that it had receded almost as fast as it had risen above its shores.  I found the place where we had left our party but could see no sign of them standing under the tree line.  Where had they gone, I wondered.  Since the water had broken over the shore, my guess was that they had retreated further back under the canopy to avoid being swamped and drawn into the lake.   I watched for a few moments, seeing no movement or visible sign of our party.  Nine sky lines had moved away to the far south.  Eleven of our party had remained on the banks as the rest of us had come out onto the lake.  Eleven minus two left nine.

“We need to get down there,” I said, handing the instrument back to Begglar, “Something’s wrong.”

***

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” the young woman said, “I am leaning more and more to Miray’s position.  They have to be them.  Who else could they be?”

Mason, Matthew and Dominic, along with the other young men, and Will, who had not said a word, since the argument with Matthew, stood upon the covered road, where the wagon ruts had climbed the bank and many more horses, and large animal prints tracked up and down the bank from the lake to the hollows.

Dominic offered, “I hope it tis, more than you all, but there are dangerous men about, and Da and Mum taught me to hold until certainty shines true.”

“What does that even mean, you bog-trotter?!” Will groused.

Dominic stiffened at the slur, his farmer’s hands and fists clenching, as he struggled to bite his tongue.

He’d been told that Surface Worlders could be insensitive, clumsy and rude, and not to mind too much what they said, but this stung and felt deliberate.  He’d never encountered someone so full of nastiness, that he literally begged to get a clout right in the mouth, but there was always a first.

“Stop it!” Miray cried, covering her ears.  “You’re a mean idiot!  People try to be nice to you, but you’re mean to everyone.  Your daddy should have taught you some manners or beat your butt!”

“My daddy is dead,” Will said flatly with an even voice devoid of emotion, “Forgive me if he wasn’t around long enough to teach me much of anything.”

Will stalked away, leaving the others quietly looking from one to the other.

“Well, I am sorry about that for you,” Miray said in a softer voice to Will’s receding back, and Will halted, but didn’t turn.

“Well get used to it, kid.  Life is cruel.  If you want to survive it, you have to quit caring so much.  Sooner you learn that the better.”  And with that he proceeded further down the dark road, leaving them to their decisions.

“Wait,” the young woman spoke up.  Will kept walking as if he hadn’t heard her.

“My name is Lindsey,” she said, moving after him, but Mason put his hand on her arm.

“Let him go, Lindsey,” he said quietly, “He’s not in a place where he cares.”

She turned sad eyes to Mason, then back to Will and then sighed.

“We didn’t…”

“Does it matter?  Bad things and circumstances happen to all of us.  He’s not the only one.  We can let those things make us stronger or make us bitter.  It’s still a choice.  O’Brian said that he suspects Will is still sorting through those choices, but he needs some space to make up his own mind.  Leave him be, for now.  It’s his decision whether he wants to be part of us or not.”

Matthew stepped forward and offer her his hand in friendship, “I’m Matthew.  Nice to finally meet you, Lindsey.”

Mason grinned, “He’s the lady charmer.  You gotta watch this one.”  But before Matthew could say anything, Mason offered his hand to her as well, “Mason’s my name.  Pleasure.”

Lindsey shook both of their hands simultaneously, offering each with a smile.

“My name is Tiernan,” one of the young men came forward.  And the other followed.  “Christopher,” he said, “but call me Chris.  And call me when dinner’s ready, too.”  Mason, chuckled as he shook Chris’s hand, “Nice to meet you, Chris When-Dinners-Ready!”  And they both share a laugh, which the others joined.

Introductions were made all around, and a feeling of togetherness seemed to bond them in the sharing and exchange.

***

The trees covered the rutted road as it coursed through the woods running alongside the sounding distance from the river Trathorn and lakes and streams beyond.  A bluish twilight covered the shadowy road, though the sun had emblazoned the sky with light over the tops of the forest canopy.  Branches twisted and rose to archways like the solemn nave of a gothic cathedral, yet the tangle of the limbs, bathed in ghostly blue light, added a sinister quality to the roadway that descended into the gloom.  As we cautiously wound our way down the forested path, eschewing the trail closer in along the edge of the lake we had previously traversed, it was with some trepidation that we received the noises beyond us.  Laughing.

At one time a joyous sound, and in another context an eerie one, we could not yet determine from which context the sounds should be taken.  The voices were blended, male and female, yet weighted more so on the masculine scale.

For at least one of us, that balance had shifted, and Nell, being the Seer among us, and holding some degree of respect in perception, she gathered her skirts and began to run ahead of us down the roadway, getting far enough ahead that she rounded a bend and was out of sight for a full minute before we caught up to the eclipse in the road.

A cry of nervous delight sounded, as she sighted what must’ve brought on her certainty that the noises heard were to be welcomed rather than feared.

As Begglar, Maeven, Christie, Laura, James and I rounded the bend, we saw Nell running with enraptured delight, laughing to herself as she spotted the figures gathered in the roadway ahead of her.  “Dom!  Dominic, my boy!” she bubbled, relief and joy intermingled with her voice, pirouetting around the delight in her step, her arms spread wide in preparation for an anticipated reuniting embrace.

“Mum!  Da!” came the replied answer back, as I noticed Begglar breaking away from us hurrying to join the reunion.

It was touching and warming in such a way that only the moistening of my eyes could express, to see Nell fall into her son’s arms, and their father join them all in a bear hug around them.  One of those he had been famous for, as a much younger and larger man.

Matthew, Mason and young Miray saw us approaching from the distance behind, and Miray launched forward into a run, the sheer delight of a child accentuating every step as if she skipped along towards us with short leaps, squealing with both affections and giggles that could melt through any toughness we might wish to pretend we had.  The girl bounded up to me, throwing her arms around my leg, hugging me fiercely and disarming me from keeping any sense of professional distance in leadership, as I had once thought was so foolishly necessary.

“I love you, Mister O’Brian,” she said unreservedly, and I melted, leaned down, picked her up into my arms and hugged her back every bit as fiercely as she hugged me.  “I love you, too sweet girl!” I said, finding it impossible not to say those words without tears streaming down my face.

“I knew you weren’t dead.  I just knew you weren’t!” she hugged me without reserve as only a child can, and I squeezed her tight, laughing and spinning her around and around.

“Not yet, my dear.”

Miray twisted back, looking at the others, Mason, Matthew, Dominic, and whom I would come to be introduced to as Lindsey, Tiernan, and Christopher, though I would be told, by Mason, to call him Chris When-Dinners-Ready, whatever that meant.  With her own degree of Miray’s unique impish panache, Miray cast accusatory eyes back at the others, and said, “See!  I told you so!  I know things too, y’know!”

Which brought its own level of laughter equally shared around.

***

I have delayed saying much about Miray, but now I feel the time is right for it.  Miray is something else.  I don’t mean that in a negative way, or in the sense that one other semblance of a little girl appeared to be.  You know who I mean.

What I mean is she is something extra special.

She was the first of everyone joining me on the beachhead, back at the beginning of this quest to give me her name.  She just up and approached me and announced emphatically with her hands on her hips, “I’m Miray.”

I knelt down to her level, extended my hand and said, “Well, hello there my dear Miray.  My name is Brian.”

She shook my hand, one emphatic pump only, smiled crookedly and said, “I am not a deer.”

And I responded, “Well then, are you a rascal?”

She beamed, winked at me and said, “Maybe.”  And then she skipped away back to the group to make other acquaintances.  I do believe Miray is the only one who knows all of the names of the people in our company, sly fox that she is, but I have refrained from exploiting the gathered intelligence of her free-spirited approach because I understood what giving names do here.

Miray did admit to a few things, however, that I have thought about, but was hesitant to think about more.  I am afraid I dismissed what I thought was the playful ramblings of a child, but in hindsight should have given them more weight.

The two men who were killed on the hillside, who had deserted our company.  Miray said they would not tell her their names, so she called them what she got from the exchange.  Mr. Go-Away-Kid, and Mr. Seen-and-Not-Heard.  I doubt the exchange had been pleasant, but Miray was not one to hold grudges, so she jokingly dismissed their rudeness, with branding them according to their given appellations.  But the one man, of the three who had left, who was disarmed enough, and charmed by her to let down his guard, did give her his name, but I asked Miray not to tell it to me, in case there was still hope for him.  The two who were killed died here, and since they had not given her their names, so did their memory of this world, upon reawakening.  But the one unaccounted for, the one man who had turned back to go to the Inn for a drink for the road, before leaving…he was still unaccounted for.  We did not see him brutally killed, but I had assumed he had been.  If not, he was being held a prisoner of the Xarmnians, and that might as well have been a death unto itself.  Depending upon what he had learned or been forced to tell them under torture or duress, I could not be certain that what we faced on the road ahead, might be the very path right into a trap.

***

“Where’s the wagon?” Begglar asked.  “Did ya move it?”

The temporary celebratory atmosphere suddenly took an ominous turn.

Maeven, who had been quiet and subdued, had softened somewhat during the reunion of those who had joined us on the ice, and she had been especially moved and brought to uncharacteristic tears when Miray, unabashedly ran up to her, threw her arms around her and said, “I knew you would be alright.  I prayed for you.”  Maeven too, picked up the little girl, holding her fiercely, burying her face into her hair, silently weeping a mix of gratitude and loss, drawing from a reservoir of unspent tears.  She held Miray for a few minutes before the girl squirmed and moved to be released.  Miray was not one to be held still for very long.  When Miray was down, I saw Maeven stand a little straighter than she had since we’d proceeded down through the forest.  Her eyes seemed more focused again like she was more in this reality than the one from which she’d returned.  She quietly, spoke an odd word, more to herself than to anyone else, which further seemed to bolster her reserves of strength.  “Geese,” she had said simply, without qualification or explanation.  Remember the tale she had told us on the way to Azaragoth, I believed I had an idea of what she meant by it.  Or at least the meaning the word signified for her personally.  I could not be sure, since the forested canopy covered the sky, but I believed there was another darkling sky line beginning to mend and fade.

As grief so often does, it hits us in waves, cycling the emotional pressure of loss into a tide that both crashes in and recedes as we phase through a day or moment coping with the new, unwelcome, tragic reality.  Maeven’s shift from widow and grieving mother to focused and assessing warrior, tracker, and hunter, came at the brief relenting of that tide, as she moved forward, towards where the path down into the side shoal had been where we had left the wagon and the others.  Without a word she knelt down, under the shadowy canopy, studying the wheel tracks, the clusters of footprints, not expunged by the lake water that splashed and washed out the former prints leading down to the lakeshore.  Mud and seagrasses, moss and small fish lay strewn about the shore.  The wave that had carried these inland had struck the ground with a powerful blow, but the evidence was not limited only to within the reach of the water.  She moved forward to the two trees that had stopped and lodged the branch she had insisted that they bring with them onto the frozen lake.  She placed a hand upon its weathered surface, saw the fracture of the wood, where the fork had almost split it in two.

Mason and Matthew came behind her, observing her as she studied the signs of what had happened, before offering their account.

“You saved us, Maeven,” Matthew said, “If you had not insisted that we bring that log, we would have all drown out there.”

“I really need to take swimming lessons,” Mason offered his two bits worth, “Thank you.  Do you have anything else you want me to carry?”

Maeven, turned, gave him a short smile, and then walked past them back up to the road and knelt down, studying the prints once more.

After a moment, she asked, “Have any of you been further down this road, going south?”

Begglar harumphed, “Guys, what happened to the wagon?”

“It was taken by the soldiers!” Miray broke in.  “They took everybody, ‘cept me.  I got away.  They had big, mean dogs.  Scary dogs.  Not like Ms. Benson’s Rottweiler down the street, back home, but much scarier.”

“What’s this?” Nell asked.

“Uh-huh,” Miray nodded emphatically, “There were these big mean men, that took them.  They beat up Cheryl.  Sic’d the dogs on her.  Said that if we didn’t come with them, we would all die here and now.”

I approached Miray and knelt down to her, “How long ago was this?”

She wrinkled her nose and looked to Mason and Matthew for help.

“She came running across the lake when we found her,” Mason said.

“Couldn’t have been more than two hours ago,” Matthew guessed, “I don’t know how long it had been before she saw us gathered at the log.”

I looked up at Begglar, “What do you figure?  Three hours lead?  Four?”

Begglar nodded, “Give or take.”

Lindsey spoke up, “We’ve lost most of our weapons when the Falls collapsed.  They’re at the bottom of the lake.  We had all we could do, just holding on to the log when the water rose and pushed us towards the shore.  We didn’t know if you all had survived.  Look out there.  The face of the falls seemed to have sunken in.  We had planned to try to make it back to Azragoth or hoped to be picked up by one of the Azragothian patrols and brought back.  They took everything.  Our wagon, our supplies, we’ve no weapons and we weren’t sure where we were or where those Protectorate soldiers might be taking them.  We needed help.”

Maeven stood and turned back to us, “You are exactly right.  We all need help.  We need rest, and we need both weapons and supplies and a way to transport them.  Fortunately, there is a place ahead where we can get all of that.  A hidden cache we keep in the Forests of Kilrane.  Kept by someone you know, O’Brian.  You too, Begglar.  Though he may or may not be happy to see you.”

“Seems to be my lot,” I mumbled.

Maeven dusted her hands upon one another, and rose to her full height, “And there is something else you need to know.”

Tiernan spoke up, “What is that?”

“There are other things following that group of soldiers.  Perhaps for different reasons, but still they are ahead of us.”

Chris chimed in, “What things?”

“Those mean dogs, you mentioned, Miray,” Maeven continued, “They are called Cerberi.  These things hunt and eat those dogs.”

“Cerberus was described as a hell hound, some are depicted with three heads” I offered that bit of literary knowledge.

I turned to Maeven, “What eats a devil dog?”

Maeven pointed to a half-twisted print in the dirt, and a series of others that came out of the forest, cutting through the grass with spike tipped points, making a large splayed hoof print with a cleft in the front depression.

“Those aren’t horse-hooves.”

I came closer and peered down, recognizing the characteristic signature print, and my breath left me for a moment.

“Satyrs,” I closed my eyes remembering for a half-second, “We need to hurry.”

***

Will had not gone far before he heard the murmured sounds of low conversation coming down through the blue hollows of the roadway, and the laughter of the “fools” he had left behind him.  Miray was too naïve and simple to understand anything.  He regretted being harsh with the little girl, she didn’t deserve it, but neither had he deserved half of what had been coldly served to him in his life, even when he was her age.  Pay it forward, right?  But he took no satisfaction in that.  It only deepened his secret self-loathing.  One more thing for him to be ashamed of.  Why couldn’t he seem to keep from spewing venom at every opportunity?  The dig he’d made at Dominic: bog-trotter.  Where had that come from?  Dominic was born here.  He’d never been to the fens of Ireland.  Probably didn’t even know what a fen or a bog was.

He had thought to step aside and climb back a little way into the forest by the roadside, and then come up behind the approaching group, just to show them all how foolish they were for letting down their guard.  None of them really appreciated the dangers of this place as he did.  None of them had suffered as much because of those dangers here.  He had crouched low behind some wayside ferns growing along the ditch, and behind a nest of trees block the view of travelers from seeing his hidden position.  So it was with some degree of surprise, consternation and self-recrimination that Will suddenly found himself suffused with a foul odor of something burned to char, the gust of horrendous breath breathing over his shoulder, brutally jutting its rough bristled and sandpapered jaw against his cheek, his hair pulled up and back and a knife’s blade pressed sharply against his throat.

A guttural voice, growled into his ear, “Make even one little peep, Boyo, and I’ll cut you from glim to gullet!”

The Sky Lines – Chapter 49

The light that had shone from above into the darkness, was now accompanied by pealing thunder.  A tympanic thrum and rumble, striating the bruised purple sky with white etchings of silver light, as if the Moon Sprites had been gathered together, had ascended en masse above the roiling clouds and flashed angrily from their prisons beyond.  The dawn had come, but its early light had receded before this darkening bank of storm clouds.  Somewhere, high above the towering thunderhead, the sun’s rays may have warmed and bathed the high ceiling in golden brilliance, but below the darkness prevailed, extending the night.

Mason stood back from the group, watching the dark wall of clouds flash angrily, as Will spat angrily at Matthew, his hostility seeming far too excessive to be warranted.  O’Brian had not coerced anyone to follow him, nor did he designate anyone to follow him out onto the lake when they’d confronted both the Moon Sprites and the Manticore.  That had been Maeven’s doing more so than anyone’s, but even she had not compelled them to follow.  Will had something else in his craw that was bothering him and carried some bitterness towards Mr. O’Brian that was external to anything done so far in the Mid-World.  Mason wondered if something resided inside Will that was not as it should be.  At the mention of Torlah, the Banshee, Mason thought it best to step away from close proximity with Will, in case he proved to actually be another monster in masquerade.  Yet, he had passed Begglar’s test.  According to Mr. O’Brian, neither a monster nor a Xarmnian could achieve such with ease.  Yet the ingratitude in him fueled his anger, augmenting it to the point that he had become insufferable to be around.  It would further be dangerous to turn one’s back on him in a fight.  Facing an external enemy, Mason suspected that he would be the one most apt to come from behind and stab you in the back.

And what the others didn’t know is they had had a visitor, Hanokh.  A man of ancient times with acquired wisdom, a patriarch of the first order, and a keen sense of evaluating the measure of those passing under his scrutiny.  Yet, this wise one did not dispute or disparage O’Brian as a leader but rather affirmed and encouraged him.  Mason did not know why the man’s judgment impressed him as being so insightful, but because that man seemed to vouch for O’Brian, that was good enough for him.  Flawed though O’Brian might be, Hanokh saw something in him, that he trusted, a potential that O’Brian may have doubted in himself, but Hanokh saw past that, as he did in his evaluation of Mason.  There was something emboldening about having Hanokh’s approbation.  A confidence and a surety about him, that Mason gave weight to.  No matter what the others may do, Mason determined in his own mind, that if Mr. O’Brian was still alive, he would help Miray and Dominic find him.  The falls in the distance roared with power, but he had a feeling that somewhere, deep within the caverns underneath such power, O’Brian, Maeven, Christie, James and Dominic’s parents Begglar and Nell still occupied the land of the living.  It did not make sense seeing the collapse of the cliff face, but somethings you just trusted and took by faith.

The two other young men, seemed to waver between the two opinions of whether they should cut their losses, and attempt to return in the direction of Azragoth and hope they were found by the scouts, or seek to approach the rise and climb up to the Trathorn river’s edge and see if there might be another way down into the caves below the falls with the chance that the others had survived.

The young woman spoke up and offered a sort of compromise, seeing that Matthew and Will’s argument might soon come to blows unless it was temporarily mediated.

“Guys, let’s take a breath a minute and look at this thing,” she admonished stepping between them.

“In either case, if returning to Azragoth, or searching for O’Brian and the others, we will have to go back up the trail and to the top of the basin cliffs.  Let us see what is there before we make any hasty decisions.  If there is a way to enter the caves other than below the falls, we might at least explore the possibility that they survived.  If it looks like the caves are completely crushed and there is no possible way in, then we will at least know we tried to find them, and then return to Azragoth and seek help.  We’ve come too far just to write them off.”

“What about the others?” one of the young men asked.

“Do we just leave them to the Xarmnians?”

“No, but we alone certainly cannot go after them without weapons or a guide, or some strategy that will keep us from being taken too.”

They all were quiet for a moment.  She made a lot of sense and it was clear that, at least for the time being, they could all agree to go in the same direction.

Grudgingly, Will pulled back from his offensive posture and shifted his eyes to the young woman.  Rather than give her the acknowledgment of brokering a temporary armistice between himself and Matthew, he stared at her suspiciously for a moment as if searching her eyes and expression to see if her interference might hide some ulterior motive that could be read in them.  Finding none, he merely grunted and stepped back, turning away as if dismissing both her and Matthew.  She looked at Matt for a moment.  His face was flushed, and his neck muscles tensed and reddened by the rise of his blood pressure.  His face was, at first, inscrutable and his eyes showed a cool calmness, though his adrenaline pumped, and his blood rushed to his extremities, readying them for defense or attack.  Whichever one seemed warranted.  Matthew had endured Will’s arrogance, his seeming belligerence towards Mister O’Brian, without regard for how his attitude or challenge affected the morale of the group.  He had heard Will’s snide remarks, muttered and overt, had witnessed his condescension, heard him laugh at others’ misfortunes and he’d just about had enough of it.

Not only was a storm brewing on the brow of the distant cliffside, but one was also brewing within their surviving company.  If the physical altercation between Matt and Will did not come immediately, it would come soon.

A bolt of lightning struck from the overhead dark cloud bank and hit the surface water of the lake with a loud pop and crack.  The water churned and sloshed, spraying a furrow of water into the air as the current zipped along the surface and eventually expended itself.

The bolt had lit up the night sky and the massive column of clouds to the north, but its brilliant flash had revealed something else as well, standing along the edge of the cliff ridge, near the head of The Falls spillway.  Figures, maybe four or five, sky-lined against the purpling night.

***

The tall woods stood rank upon rank at the edge of the slope that ran down to the top spillway at the edge of the falls.  Large boulders, half-buried, turned in a jagged assemblage as they dug in against the slow but continual push of water over the edge of the falls.  When the falls had flash frozen, the slow but inexorable push became a hard shove, as the water solidified into great bony hands, back built against the strength and weight of the river Trathorn’s water flowing down from the Mid-World highlands.  Centuries of gravel and sediment that had accumulated and anchored these great monoliths on the cliff’s edge were displaced and shifted, and the resulting fractures bled into the deep caverns below, like a dentist’s root canal surgery.  The upper bank from the edge of the trees had once sloped in a series of naturally carved steppes, bared to rock, and then accumulated green growth as sufficient sediment accumulated along the spine and ribs of the mountain canyon until it dropped sharply to the water’s edge.  Each steppe had formed when the river’s delta broadened, due to irregular mountain melts and rainy seasons interspersed with periods of drought.  At its broadest point, now at the first steppe down from the feet of the forest, the river Trathorn had been younger and the rains and melt carved away the river’s chin into its broadest grin, as its water peered over and tumbled laughingly into the basin lake below.

I and my immediate companions, Maeven, James, Laura, Nell and Begglar, emerged from the rocky fissure into a shallow, stony tributary that had a small offshoot stream running down a narrow, ragged gulley that had been scalloped out of the forest and had a small wooden clear with deadfalls and broken limbs strewn about.  We stood upon the bank of the tributary, about twenty feet up the bank from the main water chute of the river.  Rain patter hissed down upon us from the dark black and purple brow of the sky, pealing with thunder and flashes of lightning etching and illuminating the lamp globes in the towering thunder-banked clouds.  The fronds and leaves of the brush, ferns, and bushes nodded in time to the drums of the heads, as the sky broke forth in is wailing and weeping lament.  The clouds were so grey and dark that I knew it would be impossible at this point to see the shocking dark blue varicose veining of the Mid-World heavens that I knew would be revealed when daylight prevailed again, and the storm had passed.  The sky lines.  Evidence of muted cracks in the atmosphere, strange and terrible to behold.

As lightning illumined the sky, Laura peered back down into the crevice we had escaped the caverns from and down the junk pile to the old light blue sedan with its trunk still gaping open, wrenched and torqued as it had by necessity been to free her from its hold.

“I so hated that car,” she mumbled within my hearing, and I helped her move away from the place up onto the grassy shelf, where the others stood peering down into the basin, the rippling lake, and the roaring froth caused by the re-awakened falls again hitting the water below.

“Were you familiar with that vehicle below?” I queried.

“Of course, she looked up,” her expression phasing between a grimace and a dismissive smile as she shrugged its effect off, “I was my dad’s car.  The one he took that night from us when he left.”

A sigh escaped her, as she closed her eyes, trying unsuccessfully to distance herself from the Surface World memories.

“It was…,” she wiped a moistening eye, bravely trying to shove a painful memory away.  She breathed deeply and then turn to me, “It doesn’t matter now.”

She seems so small, standing there, shivering slightly in the cloak that we’d wrapped around her, water falling down on us all, yet beading and rolling off of the cloak.

I stepped behind her, untied the rolled hood portion of the cloak and pulled it up over her head, to further help keep the rain off of her.  I squeezed her shoulders slightly and leaned in to her ear, “It does matter.  You are part of our company, now.  We’re not quite there yet, but we’re becoming a fellowship of family.  As much as we can, we stick up for one another and do care.  What harms one of us, harms all of us.”

She patted my hand on her shoulder, gratefully acknowledging the statement, but said, “Then perhaps I should not have come back here.  I have a lot of issues.”

I chuckled, “We all do.  You’ll see.”

Laura sigh and smile wistfully, finding the emotional strength to continue.

“That is not the first time, I’ve been locked in that trunk.”

“But it will be the last,” Christie said, turning to our low conversation, and making sure the cloak properly covered Laura.

Nell and Begglar stood on either side of Maeven, their arms around her, supporting her with comfort against the chill of both the rain and the pain she had expressed.  We had all suffered so many things in our individual lives, yet had remained silent about their, choosing to bear our own burdens in shamed quiet rather than let anyone past our brave fronts.  It is an illusion to think that suffering borne meekly and silently is evidence of courage.  It is not.  Rather it is symptomatic of deep fear and distrust.  In our effort to protect ourselves from shame and vulnerability, we allow our hurts to burrow inside of us and eventually cut us off from the way out of our darkness onto the path of healing.

“My dad did it,” Laura said, offering us a rare and precious view into her vulnerability, “and then later, stupid me, I did it.”

She turned to me, looking up from underneath the hood, her tears mingling with the splattering slant rain that wet her rosy-pink cheeks.

“I won a small teacup pig at a county fair,” she laughed despite herself, “I had never won anything before so I was shocked when my name was called.  Mom had given me five one dollar bills to spend at the fair, rodeo, and carnival.  I gave two dollars on a chance to win the pig and help this kid with leukemia out that went to our local elementary.  I wasn’t thinking about it being a contest or anything.  I just wanted to help the kid.”

“Big mistake,” she lowered her head allowing the water pooling into a fold on the top of her hood to run off onto the ground.  “Dad came to pick me up in the evening, and my friends made me go get the piglet before I left.  I told them they could have it, but they insisted, and I just wanted to make them happy.  I didn’t know what to do with a pig.”

She shrugged, and then looked back up again, “Well, just as I had suspected, when dad pulled up and saw me clutching the wriggling runt, he flipped out.  But my friends were watching from a distance and I could not let them know…”, she sighed again, “Well, it was not their concern.  Not wanting to make a scene, I tucked the oinker into my arms and climbed into the back seat.”

“What do you think you’re doing?!” he says, that slow burn beginning early this evening, without its usual aid of alcohol.

“Please, daddy,” I said, “Please don’t make a scene.  I’ll try to find another home for it, I will.  As soon as I can.”

“That pig is not riding in this car,” he said, glaring ahead his hands tightening on the steering wheel.

“What do I do with it?”

“You should have never taken it in the first place.  Remember Stimpy?” he said.

“Stimpy was a cat we had whose tail had gotten broken when it was run over.  Stimpy died in the street.  I got blamed and cuffed for it.”

“Then my dear, dad, climbed out of the car, pivoted around and opened the back door and said, ‘Give me the pig.’  He kept his voice low and quiet because people were still milling around in the grassy parking lot.  He did care somewhat about perception, but not enough for it to matter when he eventually left us destitute.  I had no idea what he was going to do, but I didn’t dare tell him no.”

“He took the pig from me, opened the trunk of that blue car and tossed it in and closed the lid.”

“The pig went wild, bumping around in the dark back there, screeching and making a terrible noise, that scared me and I started to cry as he climbed back in, slammed the door, turned the ignition and peeled out of the grassy parking lot, cutting divots and a furrow in the grass as he sped away.  He was mad, and I knew I was going to catch it when I got home.  The noises coming from the trunk both humiliated him and enraged him, but he would not let that pig out of there though I cried and begged him too.  The little thing was scared, and I tried to stop my ears from hearing its terrible noises.  He saw some of his co-workers next to their cars as he was leaving and waved to them and they waved back, puzzled at the noises coming from somewhere inside our vehicle.  I had ducked down and was curled up into a ball on the back seat as dad just continued to drive through the lots and across the cattle guard and out onto the county road.  He told me to ‘Shut up’ or he’d put me in the trunk with the pig, and I could only whimper and try to control the sobs.  He didn’t want to drive through downtown with that pig making noises like that, so we went to long way to our house, going outside the city limits and then coming back around from the Interstate.  He drove until the pig quit making noises.  I do not know how long that was because I fell asleep on the back seat, having cried my eyes out, and then just…fell asleep…and forgot…”

I woke up in my bed the next day, and mom got me up for school.  I got dressed, ate some cereal and then hurried to make the bus.  I didn’t remember about the pig until I got to school and saw my friends.  I didn’t know what happened to it.  Dad never said, and I was too afraid to bring up the topic to him.  I just assumed he drove out into the country while I was asleep and just turned it loose out there to fend for itself.  I only found out when…”

She shuddered, “I was a stupid little girl.”

“That night when mom and dad fought, I did not want to be with either one of them.  I just wanted a place where people didn’t hit one another, didn’t scream at one another.  I had to find another place to live.  I had to get away from the town and everyone who knew me.  Start a new life, where no one knew the screwed-up little Laura girl.  Poor Laura.  I..”

“I don’t know what I was thinking when I climbed into the trunk of his car when he was distracted.  I closed it over me, heard the lock mechanism click and then smelled that horrid smell.  My dear daddy had left that poor pig in the trunk for a week and it died in there.  He had thrown the carcass out, but that smell never left.  I think that pig’s death haunted him.  At least, the smelled did.  I didn’t last very long in there.  I could barely breathe that terrible odor and at one point I started screaming.  That memory has been a nightmare I have on occasion.  I haven’t had it in many years, but last night, it came back in vivid detail and I just could not get out of it.  I felt so helpless, and then I remembered you guys.  I could not believe it when you finally opened the trunk and got me out.  I still don’t know how that happened.  Why it happened.  I keep pinching myself, but I am here.  I am really here.”

Begglar and Nell and Maeven, had drifted back over and had heard Laura’s very raw, very vulnerable account of a traumatic memory, and we pressed in around her, as family might, comforting and empathizing with her tale and reassuring her that she was no longer alone, but had people.  At last, what she had so longed for, a place where she belonged, she’d found here with us in the Mid-World.

Standing there, as we were, listening to Laura, we had not noticed that the storm overhead, had begun to die down, and the daylight was at last breaking through the gray, purple of the thinning clouds, casting shadows and errant beams of light, silvering the edges of the clouds that had threatened to extend the dark.

I was just able to see past a thinning cloud to the canopy of fading stars overhead as they paled into dawn.  The sky lines that I had expected were there, but there was one vein in and among them that seemed to be fading and closing up, as if its fissure was in the process of healing.  And I knew why, though I was not at liberty to tell the others just now.

That healing sky line was representative of what was happening to Laura.  She was at last on the path she needed to be on, with a fellowship of friends, who loved her and supported her…were so happy that she had returned.  And at least, with this new development, the sky was in one respect beginning to mend.

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Climbing Into the Light – Chapter 48

A hard, crackling and ripping sound rumbled ominously from the rocky aperture where the glowing beam of light pierced the cave.  The sensory power of the terrible disjointed story left us breathing heavily, almost gasping.  Adrenaline pulsing in our ears.  This story, Laura’s connection to it, and its ominous tones of threat and dehumanization left me sick to my stomach.  Tears welled in my eyes and I could barely hold them back.  I glanced sideways at Nell and saw her pained, stricken look as if she had just been told again of the deaths of her parents.  The raw feeling and burden caused by her Seer’s gift weighed heavily upon her, and I saw her lean against Begglar to mask the weakness she felt from it and to steady the trembling in her body as the experience of the shockwave took its toll on her.

A rotting, black-skinned, swollen carcass, about the size of a small dog, lay tucked into a corner of the trunk, its legs splayed outward, small hooves on the end of each short stumpy leg.  The smell was overpowering, and we covered our noses and mouths, our eyes watered with the pungent assault.  Death’s distortions had made it unrecognizable, at first, but it was clear that the animal was or had once been a small pig.  Begglar reached in and grabbed one of its trotters and jerked the mass out of the trunk and tossed it away, down onto the lower portion of the junk pile where it bounced and exploded with a sickening pop of sulfurous gasses, and then tumbled with a plop down into the bluish green water below, bobbing with an oily film spreading out over the water.  The smelled had lessened considerably, but its presence haunted the interior of the compartment where it had been festering while entombed with Laura.

Laura visibly shivered, gasping as if she had taken her first breath of clean air in some time.  The cataracts that had occluded her eyes and had revealed tiny convex reflections of other places began to darken.  As she drew in deep, heaving breaths of raw air no longer tainted with the scent of death, she exhaled misty shadowy grey plumes of vapor from her mouth and nostrils.  The strange otherworldly gleam reflected in Laura’s eyes had seemed to resolve back into the normal dilation of her pupils, and the grey-blue of her beautifully large irises seemed to focus on us at last.  The wild-eyed terror and panic she’d expressed from within the hollow darkness of the trunk compartment seemed to lessen as she began to affect the possibility that we were really there with her.  With frail fingers, she lifted her trembling hand and pulled strands of her hair aside from her face and field of vision.  Straining hard to see us, her eyes at last growing accustomed to the stray beam of light bathing her in a cool glow from the top of the junk pile and surface overhead.
Recognition dawned upon her, as she looked up at us from face to face.

Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke her name.

“Laura.”

She made a sharp Ahh sound, swallowed hard, and whispered aloud to herself, “I thought it was only a dream.”  Her voice, raw and raspy from the hours of unheard pleas, broke into ragged sobs of relief and hope cast a ray of growing searching light into the shadowy corner of her soul.  “I had to come back.  I had no place else to go.”

As gently as we could, we all leaned in to help Laura crawl out of the trunk.  She was so weak, and her body was frail.  Once so headstrong, independent and healthy, she looked as if she might bruise and break easily.  Christie, laughed through streaming tears of joy, as she steadied Laura to her feet, almost carrying her.  I so wanted to hold Laura and hug her close, assuring her that she was now safe and in the company of those who cared deeply about her, but I did not want to make her any more uncomfortable than she already was, having been found in such an ignominious fashion, barely clothed, malnourished and dehydrated.  None of those things mattered to me, in the slightest, but I saw her look down at herself, cover her bare legs with the tail end of her shirt and blush slightly.  They mattered to her, and that was enough.  What she needed to know is that we cared about her.  That her life mattered and that the words of her father could have no power over her is she would only choose not to believe them.

“I had so hoped, you would come back,” Christie was saying, as she held Laura, cradling her arm around her back.  We placed gentling hands on her shoulder, head, and upper arms, giving Laura the warmth of caring human contact.  I slung my knapsack off my shoulder, rummaged through the open flap, searching and finally found the extra rolled cloak I had buried within.  I pulled it free, allowing its thick woolen fabric to unroll, slinging the shoulder strap back onto my back with my free arm and offered it to Christie to drape over Laura, giving her additional warmth that our hands and hugs alone could not supply.  Laura looked up and smiled gratefully at me, as Christie, Nell and I covered her, and also gave her the dignity she also so desperately needed.

I have so many regrets, but the one that stood out in my mind at this moment was not being able to persuade her to stay with us before she returned to that.  But she was alive and here, and with life, there is always the chance to find a new path and a new way to live in freedom and find triumph.

Maeven too was a miracle.  She too had been given back to us, as Laura had been, and the mysteries of their stories and individual tragedies were deep waters that we would eventually have to bring life to.  And James.  His story puzzled me.  I did not know if he was conscious that the story emanated from him when he’d stepped into the ghost pool because his expression seemed unreadable after it.  Like he was in some way disassociated with it.  I seriously needed to talk to Nell again as soon as possible, but it would have to be at another time.  Right now, we had an unstable hill of junk to climb, and we needed to get out of this cave as soon as possible.  The others would be waiting for our return.  Probably were extremely worried by now since the cave in pushed us further in to these deeper caverns.  I had the Pearl safely tucked away in its map pouch.  Eventually…  The Pearl.  Oh no!  Oh NO!

Maeven had said not to remove the Pearl from the ice.  And I hadn’t.  It had shown up in the caves, had flash frozen the poisoned Ghost Pool, rolled across and landed on the dry cave floor near my feet.  When I had retrieved it, it had not been on the ice.  A technicality, but still consistent with the instructions given me.

The boys had gone to fetch the log, at my bidding, and the three others stood guard outside of the entrance to the caverns beneath the falls.  If the Pearl was off the surface of the lake, as I suspected, the lake water would thaw, even as it had mysteriously flash frozen.  The thoughts of panic and implications of what I’d done, threatened to overwhelm me.  I may have sent all of them to their deaths.  Mason, I knew, didn’t know how to swim, but even if he had, the temperature of the water would be too cold to survive in it more than a few minutes.  The three others, who had trusted me, had joined us out on the frozen lake, two young men, and the young women who had stood by me when the party had considered whether I was fit to lead down at the granary, before the Shibboleth test and the Banshee had been exposed.  Had I put them at risk too?  When the falls came to life, and the ice thawed, would they be crushed by the avalanche as the Trathorn awakened again?  My world was crashing in on me.  But I had to know.  I could not let my fear and terror and this rising dread cripple me again as it had once before so very long ago.  There was a reason why the One called me.  Why He would not let me stay in self-appointed seclusion.  There had to be some purpose for all of this.  Some good that would come of it.  I had no choice but to either choose to yield to fear or trust that something good might come of the choices I had made to follow.  The commitment to take responsibility for my actions and the choices I made in leadership.  I had to remain calm, knowing that the immediate course of action was to ensure that our group here at least made it safely out of these caves.  What tragedies lie ahead, and what came of my decisions would have to be faced with the knowledge of what we encountered when we surfaced again.

Maeven had been found and for all practical purposes had physically recovered from her wound.  Laura had returned to us, though the way in which we’d found her disturbed me, and the implications of her projected story was chilling.  I did not know if the tale was connected to some personal experience or some view of herself, but it would require unpacking as would James’ tale.  Something connected them to these.  A view each had of themselves, expressed by their projected stories.  I was glad to have Laura back, and I could not bear to lose her again to the nightmare she lived in under her Surface World life.  Gathering my composure, I did not wish to throw a damper on the short celebratory feeling we felt in finding both young women again.  But we had to move.  And move very soon.

“We have quite a bit to catch up on,” I said to the group, “but this is not the place to do it.  Let’s get outside if we can.  Follow the light beam overhead.  Be very careful.  Watch your footing.  We don’t know what else is in these caves, but we need to rally back to the group.”

“Did you bring the branch to the falls,” Maeven asked.

“We…,” I turned to Maeven, “the boys went after it, while we entered the caves behind the waterfall.  They were supposed to bring it and we would meet them outside.  When the Pearl showed up, we were carrying you into the central Ghost Pool.”

Maeven took my arm to steady herself, “The Pearl showed up?” she took a deep breath.

“What do you mean the Pearl showed up?”

“It rolled into the cave and sealed off one of the poisoned pools,” Christie offered.

Laura was weak, but puzzled by our conversation, “What is this about?  What Pearl?”

Nell had her arm around her and gently hugged her shoulder, “Bless you, child,” she comforted, “There’s a lot that’s happened since you left us.”

Maeven looked around the cavern walls, and down the precarious perch of junk she had been standing on, “I do not remember this place.  How far away are we from the front of the falls?”

Begglar entered the conversation, “Best forget about that, lass,” he huffed.  “There’ll be no goin’ back that way.”

“Why not?”

Laura’s neck was stiff and painful, but she was trying to follow the conversation, but could not keep up and was having difficulty turning her head much less standing on her feet.

“Because,” James said, “the cavern collapsed.  That way is blocked by tons of stone and dirt and water.  The Trathorn River must have fractured the rock bed at the top of the canyon under the weight of all this ice.  The pressure of the river flowed to the edge but had nowhere to go, but down.  We barely made it further into these caves before being buried alive.  We found a bit of light filtering in down one of the tunnels and found our way here.  This pile of rubbish and cars were in the back of the cave.  We found you both in this old car.”

Maeven’s hands went to her temples, her fingers pressing through her dark bangs pressing as she closed her eyes for a moment trying to find some sense in what she was being told, so find a sequence she was missing, “What do you mean?  Found me?  Wasn’t I with you when you carried me in?”

I gently touched Maeven’s shoulder, trying to comfort her, “We thought we’d lost you.  You were with us, and then you weren’t.”

Maeven’s eyes popped open, a tragic, stricken look came over her, as some terrible realization flooded her mind.  I moved forward, barely in time to catch her as she crumpled nearly collapsing.

A miserable, mournful cry of anguish escaped her lips, as she fell into my arms, and I held her there as she wept into my shoulder, shuttering with such terrible sobs of agony, of spirit and mind and grief.

“He’s dead,” she clenched her teeth, a cough of pain racking her body, threatening to darken over us.  “Nory, my babies.  They’re all dead,” she shuddered, and all I could do is hold her closely and cry with her.

***

Below the junk pile, at the water’s edge, distorted images swirled amid the oily substance spreading outward from the floating, bobbing carcass of the shoat.  It’s glazed yellowed eyes, once bulging with the cranial pressures behind them, had sunken into its elongated skull.  Its porcine flesh had suppurated and split open with the explosion of gasses when it had struck the hard flat and jagged metal surfaces below, and the slick of those draining fluids, now occluded and clouded the bluish water with a smoky haze, birthed colored and moving images, with no clear definition except for smearing smudged edges.  The images, however, were beginning to clarify as they slid away from the oil slick and moved like watery projections across the pool’s rippling surface, swirling around the ghostly light beam that pierced the darkness of the cavern.  Buzzing blackness and amorphous shapes skirted the faded edge of the light beam, occupying the shadows.  These darted here and there between and around and through the coloring images, that were now beginning to take more shape and substance.  Lengthy shaped tubes articulated and formed appendages, moving alongside columnar swatches of color and form and shadow.  These resolved into further form taking definition until they were recognizable forms of people, seen as though they moved behind frosted and scored glass.  Occasionally a bright white point of dancing light danced over the head of these forms, and these illuminated ones seemed to glow with their own inner light source, taking further definition in form ahead of the other beings still swarmed in shadow.  The cave pool’s surface swam with similar images, swirling on odd planes, blending into and ghosting transparently over other images.  Where ever the tableau stretched into the darkness, if the collaged images bore a figure bearing the overhead flame, that area projected a rippling brightness onto the cavern ceiling and walls in twisting rings of light.  A rushing, boiling noise of multitudes speaking, voices blending, conversations cresting creating a din and growing crescendo in the cave, that pulled us away from our shared grief.  Distracting us from it for the moment.

“What is happening?” James asked, moving around the back of the light blue, rusted sedan, straining for a better look, as columns of light cast swirling, lighted projections on to the ceiling of the dark and blue-veined rock.

Nell answered, “The blood.”

Christie and Begglar stiffened and held Laura steady, moving in protectively to prevent yet another danger from threatening her.

I held Maeven close, but a free hand slipped down and found the hilt of the Honor Sword by my side.  Maeven still breathed heavily, unable to turn and see what was happening in the water below and beyond, unable to take in one more thing beyond the intensity of the grief crippling her now.

“Nellus?” Begglar spoke calmly but directly to his wife, beseeching her for further clarity.

“We need to get out of here, quickly,” she said.

She paused looking to each of us in the stunned silence and carefully chose her next words.

“Blood in the water of a Ghost Pool brings things…”

She needed to say no more.  Hard as it was to turn away, we gathered together and carefully began to ascend the junk pile, moving from buried hoods to dryer tops, to twisted cable stacks careful not to get our feet entangled in these nests of coils.  James offered to carry Laura on his back, but she shied away, instead preferring to allow Christie to assist her.  Maeven moved mechanically through the process, numbed by the urgency, almost despondent, but still moving.  Something terrible had reached into this world and shook her to the core.  When we were safely far enough away, I planned to see if she would help me understand what had happened, but now was not the time.

Less than twenty feet ahead of us, the junk pile detritus gave way to slate grey rock and blackened stone, the beam of light above flickering as the sound of thunder accompanied our ascent.

“What is the plan, Mr. O’Brian?” James asked as the light above flickered and pulsed above, coupled with a stream of water splashing downward trickling into the cavern.

“We climb into the light,” I responded, carefully not to lose my footing on those few remaining steps as my hands felt the cold stone, and I reached back, assisting Maeven with an outstretched arm as she stepped across a gap in the junk pile that yawned into a crevice of blackness below.

“Maeven took my offered hand, and I help her swing across the narrow opening, and she looked up, her face brushed with the silver light from above, tears still wet upon her cheeks.  We locked eyes for a moment, and she nodded as something unspoken passed between us.  My words spoken to James must’ve taken a different meaning and shape in Maeven’s hearing, for though she was barely able to the edges of her mouth seemed to smile, and her eyes shown with what seemed like gratitude as she looked up at me and then beyond me.

“Into the light,” I heard her whisper to herself and sigh as she passed by, and then ascend the last few feet of rock through the aperture back out onto the surface.

***

“The banshee was right,” Will muttered aloud where all could hear him.

Eyes turned to him and the woman frowned, “Whatever do you mean?”

“Torlah,” Will said, grimacing at the memory, “the girl who turned out to be a banshee.”

When he had the other’s attention he began in earnest.

“O’Brian’s been leading us right smack into trouble from the very first day.  Torlah said that he was gonna get us all killed, and so far, he almost has.  He’s full of crap.  If he is dead, then good riddance.  If not, then I say we ditch him and tell him he can go straight to…”

Matthew turned on him and shoved his shoulder so that it almost spun him around, “Shut up, you!  You’re not the one who gets to decide for the rest of us.  O’Brian risked his life for us out on that ice.”

Will growled, “If it wasn’t for O’Brian, none of us would’ve been out on the lake, in the first place!  There’d be nothing he’d have to save us from.  Those Sprites would’ve killed the Manticore and Maeven would not have been injured.  I’m telling you, just like Torlah told us.  You follow him, you die.”

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Double Sight – Chapter 47

Christie and James looked down at Maeven, and she looked up at their surprised and relieved faces, looking down on her inverted.  They had heard the noises in the vehicle and had climbed up carefully onto the floating junk pile unsure of what or who they might find.

Begglar, Nell and I were the last to ascend the pile, and the climb over tangled cables, around sharp unstable pieces of rusted metal and battered car parts that could just as easily slice and cut through flesh if we made a misstep in our ascent.

The junk pile was not accessible from where we entered the cavern without attempting a swim through the water, but we were hesitant to do so.  As serene as it might seem, the clear bluish water was too perfect.  This was not a Caribbean isle, with pristine ocean blue waters and white sands, typical of a Sandals Resort commercial, but an underground cave with seepage from a junk pile.  No telling what chemical mix might be within those waters.  What acidic component might cause burning the moment we entered the waters.

James had found a floating piece of an aluminum wing, bumping gently along the shoreline, and with some effort, we were able to draw it towards the rocky shore and utilize it as a makeshift raft.  Its surface was mottled, and patches of paint had flaked off, but we could tell it had once been a dark blue with a large white star on the end of the wing.  It was made of riveted aluminum and floated just as easily as any flat bottom boat would have.  In the construction of such aircraft, the gas tanks were often within the wing of these styled planes, and when we stepped upon it and tested out weight, it buckled slightly and seemed to be hollow, like a pontoon.  The fuselage of the wing was nowhere in sight but could have just as easily been somewhere submerged within the water below.  The wing had torn and had a ragged sharp edge of twisted panels, but enough of the hollow sealed plating kept most of the water out.  Something about the appearance of the wing jogged a memory, but I could not be sure that its shape was more than coincidence.  The wing was not of the modern F-Series fighter jet types, but more in line with the period in which the old cars were in fashion.

A mysterious disappearance.  A lost propeller-driven fighter plane, a squadron that had mysteriously vanished around the time the old cars and other battered appliances were in modern use.  These were navy planes.  TBM Avenger torpedo bombers to be more precise.  If my suspicions were correct this might very well be a wing of one of the missing Flight 19 training squadron that vanished just off the coast of Florida back in 1945.  In an area that had come to be known as the Devil’s Triangle.  A region whose vertices were drawn from islands and major cities Miami; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Bermuda.  An area known also as The Bermuda Triangle.

It made my head spin.  How could this and the other Surface World items have gotten here?  What other mysterious did this Mid-World hold that had a connection to unsolved disappearances?

This had been my speculations, but since I could not corroborate them, I just made a mental note to file the details away and search out what I could not have known from popularized stories later that might have been sensationalized for the public for dramatic effect.  Like any official investigation of suspicious activity, officials often hold back information from the public and press briefings so that they may assess a credible source from a huckster’s tales seeking their fifteen minutes of fame rather than providing useful details that might solve a case.  With the held information, they are able to detect some inconsistencies or credibility in accounts that are phoned-in tips provided to the investigative team.

Since the mysterious disappearances were over seventy years old, more of those held back details may have been released within the literature surrounding the incident.  Every plane has some uniquely identifiable markings so that they can be distinguished in a salvage operation, and each piece will have an issued serial number that could link back to the plane, its line, and its manufacturer and model.  The numbers were like a fingerprint that could be cross-referenced.

Begglar and I used the wing and his staff to pole push the makeshift raft through the water to the base of the debris pile, ferrying our intrepid team from the rocky shore’s edge to the back of the cave.  James and Christie had gone first and were the first to hear the distinctive cries coming from the blue sedan precariously balanced twenty feet up from the water surface.  Sure enough, the blue water had a slight corrosive effect on Begglar’s staff as he plunged it into the topaz deep, pushing the craft from the bank.  We were again right to be suspicious of it.

Begglar, Nell and I were the last ones to come to the edge of the junk metal mound, when we heard James and Christie’s discovery.  Quick as we could, we exited the raft, scrambled up the hill to be a party to their miraculous discovery.  It had been perhaps a half hour or so since Maeven’s disappearance, and to find her translocated in another part of this cave system was mind-blowing and surreal.

Maeven stared, unable to believe her own eyes.  She had tensed, her fingers curled behind her knuckles her breathing coming in rapid panting as she almost flung her fist savagely upward to thwart the plans of her perceived attackers.  Finding instead her friends and companions, she caught herself before doing damage.

“How did you…?  What is this…?  Where is the hospital…?  How did I get here?”

Both James and Christie laughed in delight and relief.

“You’re back.  You’re safe.  Nell says you awakened in the Surface World, but you’re back so soon.”

Maeven put a hand to her chest, “Let me catch my breath.  I think they gave me a sedative.  What I don’t understand is why I am here and what happened outside on the ice.”

Begglar and Nell managed to get up to the car door level and add their smiling faces to the witnesses of this joyful reunion.  “You’ve been in hospital quite some, young lassie,” Begglar volunteered, “The shifts come in the night as we sleep.  O’Brian said it before.  We are occupants of both worlds because we have been called to seek and find in this one.”

A muffled, plaintive plea came from the trunk compartment, interjecting into the surprised conversation.

“Can someone help me?  Anyone out there?”

“Who is in there?” James asked, jerking toward the trunk, holding his halberd at the ready, his head whipping back to look to Maeven.  “That wasn’t you?”

Christie and James had buttressed up against the vehicle a little and now attempted to hold it steady, careful not to stand before the front of the car and risk it falling further.  A back wheel had caught one of the many steel cables and now seemed to have a pretty good hold on its shredded tire and wheel.

“I have no idea who it is,” Maeven responded, now able to sit upright in the seat and edge closer to the open door, “I just woke up here and heard noises from the back.  I tried to get up, but the car slipped further down, and I did not know what to do except lie still and then I heard other voices.”

James moved to the back of the vehicle.  The old car trunk was indeed locked and looked as if it had rusted shut.  It had a corroded turn handle, but no key lock.

“You inside,” James called, “Can you move back to the seat edge away from the bumper end of the trunk?  I am going to try something to get you out, but I don’t want to injure you doing so.”

“I…I don’t know,” the small voice sounded terrified, “I cannot see in here and there is little room.  I don’t know where you are.  I cannot…ugh…”  Movement and straining noises came from within.

A despairing cry issued forth from inside, “I think…I think, there’s something dead in here.  Oh, dear God.”

Heavy, panicked breathing, sounding as if she was hyperventilating, “Get me out…[sobbing noises]…Please get me out of here…[sniff]…whatever you have to do…[shuddering]… Just please…hurry.”

James raised the hammer end of the halberd, holding it carefully but steadily in a two-handed grip, raised it and swung downward, hard and with powerful striking force, hitting the handle lock, bending it in the metal with a [thwack!] then it popped loose.  The metal of the curved trunk denting severely, but now absent its exterior locking post.  The edge of the trunk metal buckled just enough that its edge gaped a little above the truck seal along the back side of the vehicle.

The trunk had indeed formed a rust-seal and red coppery powder dusted James with bits of oxidized brown flakes for his trouble.

Begglar pointed to the raised metal lip that had buckled, “See if you can use that blade tip or spike to prise open the bonnet there, lad.  Jimmie it open, if ye can.”

James did as Begglar had indicated, and eventually, with much wrenching, the old metal groaned, and the trunk lid sprung open.

A girl, or young woman, I should say, lay nestled within, curled into a shivering fetal position.  Her hair was dark, stringy, and matted with sweat, her body abraded and scraped, barely clothed.  She wore a shift-top, like a lacey bed shirt, of the fashion worn, by women of Azragoth for evening attire.  Fairly modest, but of a light cool material, for sleeping but not outerwear.  Her legs were scratched but bare, her small curled fists looked like they had bled and been abraded.  Dried and wet blood stained her fingers and knuckles.  She wore a kind of panty-underwear that did not seem of the modern Surface World but could easily fit in this world.  Her skin was pale, slightly emaciated as if she’d been locked within the trunk for two or three days with no food or water.  She smelled ripe of sweat, urine, feces and was understandably humiliated and embarrassed.  Whomever, or whatever had done this to her, whether in human form or not, was truly a monster.  A spindle wheel well, jutted into the trunk cavity, giving the girl little to no space to move about.  She was as weak and feeble as one might expect someone to be who had been confined into such a small space for any length of time.  Her body shivered as we tried to reach down and comfort her and help her raise up.  Her face was obscured by her hair, and turned downward, as it was obvious that she had difficulty moving her neck.  To get her out of here one of us would have to carry her up the debris hill towards the purplish blue lighted cut above.

When she finally turned her head upward, James, Begglar, Nell and I were visibly stunned.  There was something strange about her eyes.  Reflections within them, glowing over her pupils and irises, showing an illumination and reflection of a place that had no counterpart reflection within the cavern in which we occupied.

The girl was seeing and experiencing and interacting with some other realm while being present with us.  As we looked into her strange eyes, all of us present, for Christie had helped Maeven exit the vehicle, and join our gathering higher up and around the back of the vehicle, felt the dread and terror of the girl’s story begin to emerge.

And as this connection bathed our minds, those of us who had been present at Begglar’s Inn at Crowe, suddenly recognized the young girl for who she had been when she’d been bathed, fed and more modestly dressed, before she’d endured this terrible ordeal.

Laura had come back to us in the Mid-World.

…And Laura had been right.  There was something else rotting and dead in the trunk.

“State of Panek” – January 31, 2011 – Story #8

A man stood in the middle of the dirt road, legs firmly planted, breath steadily chugging smoke into the frosty night air—One fist spastically clenching and unclenching at his side, the bent rod of a tire iron swung loosely in the other.  With the sheen of animal eye-shine beneath thick eyebrows, he scowled at the approaching car as it slowed, headlights revealing him in a sickly yellow glare beneath the twilight gloom and overhanging tree cover.

At about twenty feet away, the car, a black Camero with red racing stripes and garish neon plates, braked to a grinding stop.  The smoky dust train behind it formed a dimming corona as the stirred caliche particles, reflecting moonlight, slowly drifted earthward.  Billows of dust plumed on either side of the car and wafted forward, blanketing the car’s hood and windshield, enveloping the man in the road in pearling fog.

The driver and his female passenger glanced nervously at each other and back ahead, as the man in the road began to stride purposefully toward them.

The girl turned her head slightly, keeping one wary eye on the approaching figure.

“Denny, I don’t like this.”

The driver, Denny Jessup, eyes kept forward, briefly considered revving his engine, throwing the gearshift in reverse and fishtailing backward, but he held his ground.  Not one to back down first, he smirked and readjusted his sweaty grip on the steering wheel and gearshift.

“Just relax, Carly.  Perhaps he’s broke down somewhere.”

“What’s that in his hand?” she asked leaning forward, squinting.

Dappled moonlight glinted off the dull black metal bar in the man’s clenched fist as he approached, steadily closing the distance between them.

Carly, leaned back in her seat, nervously pulling a strand of hair behind her ear, “Denny, there’s something wrong about this guy, let’s go . . . NOW.”

The man, now ten feet away, nodded to the driver, and crossed against the headlights to the passenger-side of the vehicle.

“What’s he doing?!  Denny?!”

The girl reached for the gearshift but Denny caught her hand.

In horror, her eyes met Denny’s and her mouth gaped, shocked.

“Oh, my god! Denny, what are you….!?”

The cold night air swiftly entered the car, as did the fisted, gloved hand of the man through the shattered passenger glass.  With a firm grip on the girl’s ponytail, he yanked her backward, grabbed her flailing arm, and pulled her through the passenger window, safety glass raking her struggling body as she tried to wrench free.  With a loud crack, and a wet burst of blood, the tire iron struck the side of her head and all conscientiousness and fight went out of her.  Her limp body crumpled over the car door and slumped onto the dust of the caliche road.

The feral eyes of the man lifted and peered in at Denny, as he clenched and unclenched his sweaty palms on the steering wheel.  A sheen of sweat silvered his upper lip and his pale face illumined green by the glow of the instruments in the dash.

Fear etched across his face as he trembled at the savagery of what he had just witnessed and been a reluctant party to.  Heart pounding, in short breaths that blossomed in the now cold interior of the car, he shuddered and set his jaw.

“Are we square?” he asked, just above a whisper, eyes not daring to make contact.

“Square,” came the raspy voice of the man at the window, “Thanks for the pig.”

***

She woke to what smelled like the heavy scent of diesel fuel; confined in a five by eight foot cage, reinforced with welded rod iron and pipe.  The side of her head throbbed painfully.  Her vision was blurred.  And her face was swollen, tender and wet with what she could only imagine was blood.  She lay on a thick, coarse blanket and burlap feed sacks, barely dulling the chill she felt in her aching bones.  A low rumbling sound, like animals grunting, buzzed in her head.  She turned on her stomach and smelled the earthy, fecund scent of mud mixed with raw feces and urine.  Beneath the raised aluminum flooring rails, through half-inch-wide gaps she could faintly see a dark, wet gutter of concrete and draining sludge slowly moving towards gray light.  Wincing at the odor of the filth below, she groaned and turned on her back.  A heat lamp glared above the four by four inch mesh roof of her cage, out of reach, barely emitting enough warmth to keep her shivers down.  To her left, something slimy and wet pushed into her arm, and she stiffened.  Eyes clearing, with a shudder, she slowly turned her head . . . and screamed.

Cacophonous, echoes of her throaty terror pierced the night air, reverberating off the aluminum walls of her prison, forcing her to cover her head and ears against the terrible sounds that followed.  Curled into a fetal position, on the filthy blanket, shivering in pain and terror, she wept uncontrollably praying that this was all just a very bad dream.

***

The snarl of trees defied her—reaching with rough jointed arms, grasping with dead leaved fingers, rustling with her every shuddered step in forward flight—the panicked noises of crackling brush sending out the alarm, dark birds above flapping in response, lifting noisily into startled flight.  The rough bark crumbled in her grasp as she sought to steady herself, the hair of their hoary heads, fallen to skirt the sloping floor with mounds of shriveled and decaying scales.  With warding hands, she guarded her face against their wooden claws, scratching and tearing her at defenses as she stumbled ahead.  Fording through nests of brambles, her clothes snagged, and her heart and labored breaths pounded against the once eerie quiet with each frantic footfall.  The man was coming—her hope of slipping away, thwarted by the dense foliage and sloping terrain.  He would find her gone in a matter of moments and would find her quickly, thrashing about as she was.  As she scrabbled up the hill through the leafy detritus, she knew the furrows and wounds of exposed dark earth where her feet had cut the ground, the traitorous broken limbs that had snapped in her desperate fingers and the strands of snagged vines would eventually lead him directly to her.  He would grip her by the hair, brutally backhand her into unconsciousness, and carry her back to her cage in the hog barn.

The beatings would start again, and another pig in a cage next to hers would die.  Such horrible piercing shrieks.  Terror flooded her mind, adrenaline coursed through her muscles as she shuddered at the thoughts of what he would do to her even if she survived.  His version of human was not something she could bring herself to imagine.  He would feel this betrayal, and nothing she could say or do now would satiate his rage.  Two more cages lie next to the one she had escaped from only moments ago.  Two more chances, he had said.  Two more days to become human—to become . . . his.

***

Will had promised him his life for a favor.  A favor.  What was to stop him from demanding another.  Denny’s sister or his girlfriend.  Didn’t matter which.  If he didn’t deliver one, Will would take both.  His life for theirs.  His life…  What kind of life could he have after what he’d done?  This wasn’t life.  Better if he had just said, “No deal” and died there in that tunnel in Afghanistan.  No kind of life was worth living after such a betrayal.  But Will would have had them either way.  He would have left him there to rot, starve and die of thirst.  Denny did not know which would have killed him first, gangrene in his wound, dehydration from blood loss and the sweltering heat, or the gnawing hunger when he finished his last remaining MRE.  Perhaps he would have passed out from the blood loss and just died in his sleep, but who would have warned them, stopped him.  He had to live.  The oath was insane, but so was Will.  Any other guy and Denny would have believed he was just having his chain pulled, but Will…  Will was different.  Will was a real psyche job.  Will should have been put away behind several kinds of closed doors in a little rubber room for the rest of his born days.  The army brass should have done it, but Will was committed, intimidating and Will was dangerous.  Most of all Will enjoyed the killing.  And those things were highly valued and rewarded in a time of war.

***

“I made a deal with the devil.  What do you think about that, preacher?”

“I think you’re a fool.  The Devil makes deals with a stacked deck.  There is no way you win with him.”