The Basin at Trathorn Falls – Chapter 32

Nothing could have prepared us for the spectacle of the fire on the mountain.  Nor could we dismiss the savage and agonized roars from seemingly all sides of the forests and hills, striking terror into our company.  From the open field, we could see tongues of streaking fire, moving out and away from the now illuminated walls of Azragoth, flashing through the slight breaks in the tree cover, igniting some of the dried brush.  Conflagrations erupted with a crackling and popping noise as dried pines caught fire, sounding like the whoosh of a rapidly approaching rain. The ground and brush shook as large animal creatures moved swiftly, scalded by the bath of the liquid oil fire, licking them all over in agonizing blue and orange flame.  They would be upon us within minutes, we realized, so we all rushed to our horses, spinning up and over into the saddles, gripping pommel and reigns tightly, giving our horses their heads.  The animals were wide-eyed and terrified as well, stamping nervously and desperate to be given the slightest nudge to run.  And run they did.  I was worried about our younger travelers, but I need not have been.  They quickly acclimated to the bounce, jolt, and stride of their bolting animals like they were born to it.  Feet firm in the stirrups, legs bent and crouched, their seats slightly lifted over the churning saddle, knees pressed into the polished leather, their hips forming a central spring to absorb each footfall of their racing steeds.  The wagon rattled and bounced over the stonewashed basin, the metal rimmed wheels clacking, spinning and shuddering through alternating silt beds, stone and gravel, and splashing noisily through shallow pools of standing water, water wings lifting in wet disturbed flight.  The wash had evidently been cleaned out of impeding detritus to allow wagons a relatively covered and passable transit along the shallow watercourse.  With any sudden mountain rain, however, the dry riverbeds could be filled at an instant, expunging all evidence of the passage of wheel ruts and shod hoofprints.

Fast as we were able, we could not escape the cacophony of the growing noises behind us.  Whatever was happening to or with our friends in Azragoth, we could no longer think about.  In the immediate, we had to focus on fleeing the aftermath of the destruction if we were to somehow manage to save our own skins.  We had to get further down to the valley.  All eyes in the surrounding villages, though still many miles away, would be turned in our direction, curious and unnerved by what was happening, but also clearly attuned to discovering us fleeing away like bandits from the scene.  The danger to us, and the chance of our being discovered, followed, ambushed or captured by the suspicious onlookers was real.

I rode alongside the wagon, with Begglar and Nell alternately driving the team of horses, holding fast to the side railing of their spring-balanced bench seat and to the tracer reins and straps of the charging team.  Mud and water flew and spotted everything in their wake.  Gravel ground, popped and peppered from the wheels, as the weight of the jostling supplies, threatened to slide out from under their tied and rope-bound canvass sheet and ditch the wild ride of the wagon altogether.  Dominic and Will and another young man I had yet to speak to were doing heroic yeomen’s work, attempting to hold and contain the supplies in the back of the wagon, while not also being ejected from it themselves.

Maeven, Christie and a man who had introduced himself to me as James, led the charge through the riverbed, as it yet wound around another embankment, turning into a further slope downward.  Tall trees flanked us on either side as I heard a shouted message get relayed back to me from many mouths to my ears, just above the uproar.

“We are headed to where this stream joins and feeds into the area just above Trathorn Falls.  The stream bed ends there.  There is a hidden path near The Falls, down to the basin below it, but we will need to stop just short of there, before proceeding.  Be ready to stop soon.  There is something we need to discuss.  Mr. O’Brian, you are wanted at the front.”

No doubt the relayed message had originated from Maeven.

In response, I nudged my mount forward into a steady gallop.  Just enough increase to still allow it to find its footing on the alternating stone, silt and gravel stream bed, but to progress to the head of the line.  When I came within range I matched pace with the lead horses and rode astride Maeven.  She glanced sidelong at me but continued to re-focus her shifting gaze on the path ahead.

“I need to tell you about the Jengu,” she said, just loud enough so I could hear her above the heavy breathing and snapping footfalls of her horse.  Pronounced, /Jenn-Joo/, by her.

“I’ve heard of them.  They are some kind of water sprites if the tales were true.  Tell me what you know.”

“There are a series of enchanted basins below Trathorn Falls.  They are recessed under the cliffside.  Deep pools behind the curtain of The Falls.”

“Okay.”

“No one knows how deep those pools run.  They are like chimney chutes in the granite.  No light at the bottom, though the pools are filled with clear water.”

“What of it?”

“It was said that mystics guarded these sacred pools because they were underwater passageways to another world.”

“Another world?”

“Some say, it is the Surface World.  Our world.”

She let that and its implications sink in for a moment.

“So where do the Jengu come in?”

“From time to time, the surface of these pools act as mirrors into our world.  It is how so many of the people here learned about our world.  The mystical order, a sort of priesthood which lives in proximity to The Falls and studied the pools and chronicled the happenings of what they witnessed within them, were known to interpret the signs within to have meaning for the Mid-Worlders living here.”

“Yes?”

“They used their study of the pools, to their own advantage.  They charged people to be taken back behind the waterfall curtain to witness the strangeness of the images shown in the pools.  And for additional fees, they would interpret the images for the people.  Sort of providing personal fortune-telling services.  There were a few mystics that were sincere about their study of the pools, but then, over time, there were far more charlatans numbered among them, than there were sincere and humble chroniclers.  It was a profitable business bilking people based on their superstitions, and eventually, the protestations of the sincere students were drowned out by the opportunists profiteering from the enchanted pools.  That is until the Jengu came.”

I pondered this a moment.

“The Jengu never leave the water of the pools.  It is rumored that they cannot, but one never knows for sure.”

“Where did they come from?”

“As I said the pools are deeper than anyone knows.  It is believed that these came up from within the pools far, far below.  They are water breathers but have a way of temporarily breathing surface air.  The enchantment of the pools always shows up at sunset and sunrise.  No one is sure why this is, but that is when the other world images can be seen.  The surface of the water glows from below, but not so much as to completely obscure the hazed, rippling view of the surface images.”

“What caused the mystics to stop taking advantage of these pools.”

Here Maeven turned her focus away from the front swale and regarded me calmly and soberly.

“The mystics believed that the pools might imbue them with personal powers, so when the waters began to reveal the images of the other place, they routinely stripped down naked and would dip into the pools and swim across the basins from end to end, over the swirling images, hoping to absorb some of the power from the enchantment causing the images to appear.”

“And did they?”

“Not a whit.  One particular night, in practicing this custom, the acolytes living in the forest camps heard their elders screaming.  Splashes and gurgling cries greeted them as they rushed up the passages to the cut behind the falls.  The pools swam with a cloudy oily substance, that appeared greenish in the ghostly light.  It took some time before the acolytes realized the substance was blood, tinted by the strange luminescence.  Only five of the twenty-four elders lived to tell the tale of that fateful night.  The five who were the most reluctant to profit in the superstitions surrounding the mysterious pools.”

“Owing to the tragedy of that night, the decision was made to wall up the side entrances to the pools in the recess behind The Falls.  Superstitious people from the surrounding communities, found the priest camps cleared out, the bodies and whereabouts of their fortune-telling gurus nowhere to be found.”

“A group of fortune-seeking youths once tried to remove the collapsed walls to the hidden pools but were unable to do so.  Attempts to navigate the lip of The Falls to enter the recess from the front always proved fatal.  The sheer weight and strength of the wall of water falling over the spillway above sluiced away anyone or anything beneath it, down slippery wet-moss to be raked, crushed and mangled in the pounded rocks below.”

“Is there still danger from the Jengu now that the access to the pools is sealed.”

Maeven nodded.

“A few years ago, scores of dead fish began to flow down into the lower streams emerging into the valleys beyond.  The lower Trathorn river tributaries were choked with the bodies of the fish and the forked rivers that were too narrow to allow the floating fish to pass began to stink.”

“Foresters tracked the trail of dead fish upriver to the large basin pool below the main feed of the Trathorn.  They believed that somehow the Jengu had escaped the pools and made it down into the basin and were lurking somewhere deep below the green water.  Many people who relied on the Trathorn as a freshwater source were afraid that the river and all streams below the basin were being poisoned by the Jengu.”

“Few there are who will go near the great basin pool.  Legends have arisen, as they often do until one can no more sort out the facts from the fictions.  There are tales of animals being pulled into the basin when they arrived to drink.  There are stories of spirits gliding across the surface of the water looking out above billowing mists, watching all who cautiously skirt the shore.  It is amazing how even a few fireflies buzzing over and waterbugs skating across that basin can cause a few well-primed and wary travelers to panic.”

“So, did the Azragothians make use of the superstitions, somehow?”

“At first, we did, until we learned that the legends had an element of truth about them.”

That gave me pause.

“There is some kind of very strong and carnivorous water creatures living within the Basin.”

“What evidence do you have of this?”

“Some have claimed to see them, but those were initially dismissed, but others have witnessed and corroborated the presence of muddy prints and great tears of earth and clawed up grasses, as something pulled fairly large animals into the basin from the shore.  The bones of these animals have been recovered and drawn out from the water with grappling hooks, and there are signs of gnawing and slashing on them as the carcasses rotted underneath the shallows of the shores.  Something was pulling them into the water, there could be no doubt about that.”

“Could it be a freshwater crocodile, like in the Surface World?”

“I wish that could be the explanation, but the condition of the recovered bodies does not easily comport with the evidence that would be left from a crocodile attack.”

“How so?”

“Crocodiles and alligators like rotted meat.  In fact, they rely on their meat to tenderize before they can eat it and rip flesh off the bone.  A gator or a dile will launch out of the water, grab a bite hold of an unsuspecting animal and then wrestle it back into the water, thrusting away from the shore into the deeper water where they use that powerful tail to take their victim into a drowning death roll, spinning them over and over until their meal ceases to struggle and finally drowns.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so inconsistent with the marks on the shore you described.”

“You’re right.  It’s not.  It is the fact of where the carcasses were found that is the inconsistent part with a croc attack.”

“In the shallows?”

“Precisely.  It takes time for a body to decompose, but it is quite a bit faster submerged in water.  Crocs and gators will haul their victims to undercuts below a bank or submerge them in a shallow cave so that they can eat them later once the water-logged meat softens.  A croc tears long strips of meat off of the body.  Their upper jaws are fixed so they have to tear and chew in a side to side motion.  That is why gator hunters are able to subdue them with a loop around their upper and lower jaws.  A gators bite is often secured from a lunge to the side.  They strike from beneath and below, like a shark does if they are swimming, but with feet planted it will be a sidewise strike.”

“And the bodies…?”

“Much smaller bites.  Too many to count well enough.  The victims were alive when they occurred and most likely died of blood loss.  The savage attacks started close to shore but the feeding occurred within fifteen to twenty feet of the shoreline until the torn body sank and was abandoned.  Its attacker’s hunger finally slaked and satiated.”

It was a lot to take in.  The detached description of the account came forth in a monotone recounting as if Maeven had completely removed her emotion from the telling.  Somehow this made the description that much more chilling.  But even that did not put ice into my spine as much as what she told me next.

“If I did not know these creatures were water creatures, I would swear that the bites I saw in those carcasses came from a human mouth.”

The pit of my stomach turned, and I felt my gorge rise.  I steadied myself on my horse and leaned forward to keep from swooning at the thought and possibility.  The Jengu, if that is what these creatures in fact were, were far more horrible than I could have imagined them.  A thought crossed my mind that nagged at me, but I mentally struggled to reject each time it surfaced throughout our conversation.  Could these creatures also be part of that cursed brood of half-men?  With the bite and mouth of a human, it was a little too probable for me to be able to dismiss or ignore.  Soon we would be heading into The Pan’s territory, and the odds of us surviving a journey through it was growing ever more out of our favor.

We rode in thoughtful silence for a piece until the stream bed began to shallow and rise up even with the bank and fan out into a delta with more rounded stones and gravel.  A portion of the bank extended upward in a smooth packed-earth grade to join a forest trail above it.

We turned the wagon and team out of the swale and up onto the graded path, and then upward further onto the forest trail road.  The wagon threatened to pivot and tilted off of its wheels momentarily, but the boys were able to keep the weighted load in the back of the buckboard from shifting further and overturning the wagon as the team of horses struggled to pull it back straight again.  More than once the horses’ hooves lost purchase on the dirt grade and threatened to pull the team off balance and backward into the swale, but Begglar and Nell continued to encourage their efforts, and several of us tied draw lines from our mounts to our saddle horns and were able to assist the team and wagon with the load upward.  Once on the forest trail, in no particular hurry, we followed the rutted trail upward until we reached an overlooking ledge and were able to take in the full magnificent view of the power and grandeur of Trathorn Falls.  These were the lower falls, descending down from the high mesa.  Another set of Trathorn Falls was higher up, spilling over the lip of the mesa and high plain, and those were nicknamed the Headwater Falls, even though they were fed by the same major river.  Since the lower falls were much larger, however, these took the principle moniker of the river, because of the greater volume of water that moved down its rock face and into the larger basin below it.

The hissing roar of the Falls grew louder as we approached the overlooking pass that eventually wound down through the trees to the large round basin beneath it.  The wide pool frothed with the churn of water as if a giant, white, out-of-focus, thumb pressed and extended into the center of a large, bright-green disk.  It was a visual pavilion of dancing sparkles.  Rays of the sun pranced across its surface.  The effect was dazzling and awe-inspiring as our company peered down upon the spectacle from our high prospect.

It was hard to imagine that any dangers lurked in that scene of serenity and peace.  The susurrations of the moving water were soothing, almost hypnotic.  The white noise of the falling water lulling and sleep-inducing.

Tall pines lined the sides of the basin and continuing riverbanks in regimental evergreen, silently shepherding the flowing water downward into the lower valley, beneath the trees.  The stone face of the cliffside alternated with white and black banding from the water stains as the volumes of water pouring downward ebbed and flowed through seasonal changes, rain, and snowmelt.  A haze of moisture rose and descended from the wet pounding, blanketing the foliage and rocks and grass with dew causing it to glisten and gleam.

Then I noticed something missing that would have been germane to any similar scene such as this in the Surface World.  Despite all of the resplendent moisture and light dancing upon the rippling pool below and the reflective watery sky mirrored from above, there were no rainbows.  No customary arc of refracted light, spreading the white spectrum apart into its blended components.  The thought struck me as odd at first, but with deeper consideration and an intimate knowledge of the Ancient Text, it made sense.  The Mid-World was not a place of rainbows.  The lights that shone above were not the same lights that occupied the heavenly canopy of our Surface World existence.  The whole of the place was something of an inversion of the Surface World, occupying a dimension similar to, though distant from, our world.  Connected but still distinct, similar yet not exactly a carbon copy of the world we know.  An echo, Nem had said.  Yes.  That explained it in some way yet it created more questions in others.  A world without rainbows.  A world without certainty.  Yet a world still under the curse of mankind’s original stain.  The reason was painfully obvious to me.  Wherever mankind went, the curse followed.

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The Ring of Fire – Chapter 31

We saw the fire….and so did everyone else in the valley below and surrounding villages.

The account I have of it was pieced together and reconstructed here to the best I could gather from eye-witnesses and the principal parties involved.  Mattox had ridden back into the tunnels upon leaving us and was joined by his attendant soldiers that had guarded our flank from a distance as we made our way out of the city.  Four other Azragothians, two from the east and two from just to the west of us, both hidden from our view during our departure, joined them after following us about a league by different hidden paths down the switchback trails until we had reached the dry riverbed.  By Mid-World and Surface World measure, a league was about the distance a healthy person could walk in an hour’s time (approximately 1.4 miles).  They all were mounted on horseback and rode into the tunnels and sealed up the grotto entrance, by pivoting a cleverly balance stone slab and sifting dirt down grooves cut in the top so that its base appeared undisturbed by the movement.  A mere shallow backing to the small cave, rather than the great stone entrance to a series of complex tunnel systems.  They seize the flickering firebrands from sconces in the cavern wall and rode downward, carrying their lights aloft and before them, picking up their pace when the cavern floor began to even out enough for the horses to feel secure in their footing.

Mattox addressed those following and riding astride him, “The others should be clear of the enemy beasts soon if we timed it right.  But we must hurry if we’re to share in a part of this.”  And with those words he rode forth, pushing the cavern’s darkness ahead within the light of his fiery torch.

At no time was Mattox ever really left unattended.  A guard was always present within shouting distance to relay an order to another within earshot so that The Eagle’s commands always had a swift reach to the larger company needed to carry them out.  His attendants had a gift for blending in and making themselves seem part of the background citizenry going about their daily lives.  Where none were expected, these agents of his often resolved into the shadows and recesses, every watchful for their leader’s command or signal, scanning the perimeter for anything that looked out of place or may pose a mortal threat to their general.

A great strategist and good with maps and military terrain advantages, Mattox and his men had studied the environs of the hills and forests surrounding Azragoth.  Much of their time was spent outside of the city rather than within it, though Mattox was always aware of the progress being made by Nem and his craftsmen, and met with him regularly and often when he was not on a military campaign, providing strategic suggestions for the rebuilding effort when needed.  Nem valued the keen understanding of The Eagle and often consulted him when there were plans to be drawn up for the remaining vulnerable sectors of the city.  The point was that Mattox and all of the leadership of Azragoth and its people had been planning for a siege attack for many years, and they stood in readiness.  Mattox did not have to be present, observing and directing from the battlement walls, for the people of Azragoth to know what they were expected to do.  They had drilled in emergency procedures and had discussed scenarios if there were to be a break in the chain of command.  They could regroup and fight on as coordinated units, or fight as independent battle groups, as needed.  Each of the bastion towers housed soldiers on duty, ready to defend the walls from the heights at a moment’s notice.  The black death resided in the wall of the city’s outer curtain and beneath the killing zone short courtyards choked with vines and twenty years of weeds and rot, burned out domiciles and collapsed buildings and broken rubble strewn about from the destruction of those times before.  Charred arrows and half-chewed, mold-blackened children’s toys lay beneath the weeds in the old dead sectors of the city, sinister symbols of its historical tragedy.  Stray herds of goats haunted the breaks and defiled the once hallowed family homes that now moldered with decay and neglect, char and ruin.

Yet some other things moved about under the overgrowth in the dead sectors as well.  The bleating of the goats and the braying of the wild donkeys had not only been signifying their presence but, of late, also signified their distress.  Many of these now lay dead under the canopy, their carcasses torn apart and pulled under the blankets of vines to be further savaged.  Skulls and twisted haunches, and partially gnawed legs, all matted with dried decaying flesh crawling with worms and maggots disintegrated silently under the leafy canopy.  The awful smells blending in with the moss-rot odors of the kudzu and mushrooms growing through the pavements of the dead sectors.

Malevolent eyes of ancient creatures newly arrived in the old town of Azragoth, had watched the comings and goings of the hidden inner city.  They had seen the silhouettes of the people standing on the terraced balconies beyond the blackened wall, looking downward into the places of the old town, unaware that they were being observed from beneath the bushes and vine mats.  They had witnessed how a party of newcomers, a party they held in extremely heated hatred, had been led into the inner city by the secret town’s guards.  They had suspected these were not received with welcome by the hidden citizenry, but there had been no sense of a furtherance of danger.  No punishment for their crime.

One of these angry watchers was a short squatty creature called Grum-Blud…and he carried the evidence with him.  He glared with piggish eyes, as he absent-mindedly gnawed on the ripped haunch of a goat.  Fresh gouts of blood mixed with his own drool, spilled over his lips and matted his grizzled beard as he ate.  His dark, glowering face remembering the sight of the one responsible for the rolled up and tied, fire-blackened remains he had bound to the wild donkey, he had cornered and caught and broken its spirit to suit his transport needs.

The others had arrived at nightfall.  Word had reached The Pan.  And it had sent its agents to remove this incursion upon their lands.  There would not be another, like the one before it.  Surface Worlders must be kept out.  They were not welcome here.

The Xarmnians were being told.  Mowgrai, and Darloc had met with them at the Inn at Crowe.  The fat innkeeper and his wife and boy were nowhere to be found.  Nowhere they could be immediately captured and held to account for the killing of his brother.  But they would soon be rooted out.  No one escaped Xarmnian justice for long.  And with the help of the creatures supplied by The Pan, no one giving these interlopers shelter or aid would either.

Grum-blud dug at his chest, with his free hand, angered by the black stuff that he could not seem to get off of his clothing and the shaggy coarse hair on his forearms and beard.  He was not a particularly clean or fastidious creature, by any stretch of the imagination, but the black sticky stuff annoyed him and pulled at his hair whenever he moved his arms.  He wondered if later he should allow himself to be combed or worse yet, washed by the one who had birthed him.  Naw, he thought.  She kept trying to change him back.  He wanted nothing to do with her again.  She was not happy with the transformations that had given him so much power.  What did she know of this newness?  How could he have ever believed that he once felt compassion for her, pity for her,…love for herBah!  Stupid thoughts!  He grunted to himself.  But his brother, now.  These fools would pay dearly for what had been done to Pagly.  Dearly and painfully!

The Xarmnian Protectorate Guards had lost the party of Surface Worlder’s temporarily.  Fools!  But they soon discovered something else that was pursuing them.  Something large and unseen and dangerous.  A creature from the Between.  Things of the other that did not properly belong to either world.  The being had left a destructive wake.  A damage path, in its pursuit, that the Xarmnians soon picked up on, though cautious enough to follow at a distance, giving it a wide berth.  Their dogs had to be driven after it by force.  Beaten to follow commands.  Trained as they were as young welts, the dogs abandoned their loyalty in abject terror.  Well, Grum-Blud, thought to himself, no matter.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Though he angrily fisted his hands at the thought that that Enemy of his Enemy, might get to them first.

One would think scaling the inner walls of this old town might be easy enough.  And one would be wrong, in thinking so.  The black coating smelled, and resisted all growth of any kind.  No vines protruded from the mortar lines, not even a mushroom cap or blanket of moistened moss could be seen anywhere along its surface.  Kudzu, a most hearty plant, curled away from it and any creeper vines extending to touch it were yellowed and dried and crumbled to powder between the fingers.  Without a ladder to lean against the top of the wall, there would be no way to get over it, except to get enmired in its black coating by attempting to scale it with hammered spikes.  Not an attempt one could hope to achieve with any degree of stealth or secrecy.  Black gaping murder holes lined the top, just two to three feet shy of the top.  No doubt the means by which the thick sticky substance had been poured down to thoroughly coat its outer face.  One might hope to snag the claw end of a rope and grappling hook within these gaps, but it would be quite a trick to do so, and not a feat in which he was confident he could pull off even on the best of days.  A rock mound ramp might be attempted, but not under the watchful eyes of those manning the bastions and battlements.  No, The Pan’s creatures were more adept at this kind of assault.  That is why Shellberd had to be sent off to them.  Shellberd the Dope.  He slept too much!  Had to be motivated continually with a good kicking and a clout every now and then.  It had taken a few days, but Shellberd did come through.  The Half-Men were here now.  They had insisted on eating first, before any fighting, and he had given them their will.  They hunted through the great leafy nets, killing whatever they could catch and corner.  Insatiable for blood, but skilled in tracking and surprise, they were mostly able to catch their prey without causing too much noise.  He had insisted that the city within not be alerted too soon, but they only half-listened.  Not being accustomed to following any orders except those given by The Pan.  The Pan did not share authority unless it served his interests to temporary seem to do so.  Something even the Xarmnians did not know.  Something that would have made the creation of Trolls, like himself pointless in continuing in practice.  There had to be usefulness to everything serving the greater good.  The fact that the Trolls were given recognition by the Half-men was a useful thing in the eyes of the Xarmnian leadership.  And the Trolls relied on being viewed as useful to the Xarmnians and to the Half-Men to preserve their continued existence and to continually grow in numbers through the propagation and administration of the mysterious elixir.

Shellberd had not returned with these Half-Men, and it did not surprise Grum-Blud in the least.  He was annoying and The Pan and his creatures had probably eaten him in celebration of the opportunity to hunt and fight Surface Worlders.  They had a deep-seated hatred for these peoples, that Grum-Blud, was not quite able to understand.  Something about their ancient past.  Something lost to antiquity, buried as it was in their animal brains, and what passed for their collective memory.

Though the kills had been relatively silent, the Half-men creatures were noisy eaters.  They slurped, grunted and snorted while they ate.  A few of them farted.  Not particularly keen on manners himself, but Grum-Blud was irritated by it, and by how much louder it seemed, when he had warned them not to create noise and attract the attention of the guards within.

Grum-Blud had wondered which of the Half-Men creatures The Pan might send and how much Shellberd had relayed to them concerning the walled city and the challenges needed to surmount the inner wall.  Three days it had taken him.  Three days to find The Pan’s Half-Men and another two to get them to return.  It Shellberd hadn’t been eaten, he was no doubt somewhere outside of the city’s old curtain wall, under a shade tree sleeping.  The Ninny!  If Grum-Blud were to catch him, Shellberd might wish he’d been eaten by the Half-Men.  But that was for later.  This was for now.  Anger focused and determined to get over that wall and cut through those people with tooth, claw and blade until they surrendered the traitorous, murdering Surface Worlders.  These would not be shown the mercy of dying so quickly.  These would be given over to The Pan, to devise something horrible that he could watch and savor.  Hear their screams as perhaps they were served piecemeal to The Pan’s subjects.  Perhaps he would eat a few pieces of the one who had led and the one who had killed his brother as well.  He licked his fat bloody lips at the thought.  The blood of the goat refreshed him in some odd way.  Perhaps his tastes were already changing to becoming more aligned with those of the Half-Men, rather than those of the Xarmnian peoples that he had once been.  Perhaps, in time, the Xarmnians themselves might be fair game for tasting and slaughter as well.  Perhaps in this way, they might become useful to the greater good of Trolls too.  The dark-eye mind trick did not seem to work on the peoples of the Mid-World, as it did on Surface Worlders.  Perhaps that too might one day change. One never knows.

Of all of the Half-Men types that The Pan could have sent, these kinds seemed the most suited for scaling walls.  Grum-Blud was amazed at their ferocity, even though he was annoyed by their reckless disregard for keeping and maintaining a low profile.

If Captain Jahazah the Crusher were here, he would be pleased with Grum-Blud.  Once the attack was complete, Grum-Blud’s name would be venerated in Xarmnian legends and songs.  His name would bring terror and give him power among the masses, and might even give him a place of his own at the tables and in the meetings of the High Xarmnian Council.  And one day, he might be asked to lead a company into the mountains and at last rid the Mid-Worlds of their traitorous brothers, the Capitalians, living so smugly on the other side of The Great Wall.  They would tear it down, stone by stone, crushing each piece with hammers until they formed a gravel road between the two lands.  And once it was down they would pillage and plunder their arrogance into cowed and mewling submission.  Begging for little scraps to be left to feed their families.  One day.  One day soon.

If Jahazah failed to acknowledge his contributions or dared in any way to take shared credit for his glory of this raid, perhaps someday, he too might be served in pieces on a plate in the great counsel dining hall, and Grum-Blud would savor that taste of revenge as well.  Jahazah had beaten him with a rod for allowing the escape of the traitor Corimanth, to get out of the city, and it had taken Grum-Blud weeks to no longer feel the sting of the bruises across his back and to ride upon a small horse without help and wincing in pain with every jostling step.  Grum-Blud vowed to himself, that he would never allow himself to be beaten in such a way ever again.  If beating were to be meted out, he would be the one holding the end of the rod, and not the one receiving its blows.  But tonight the taste of blood was already in the air, and he wondered to himself, what an Azragothian might taste like.

Manticores.  The Pan had sent him twenty-six Manticores.  Creatures adept at climbing with thick razor-sharp claws and the body of a leopard or lion, as the old books of legend tell were in the Surface World lands of the ancient Persians.  The mystical seers of that land, it was said, worshipped the Manticores when they saw them in dreams and painted images of them with pigments on the walls of their temples and crafted statuary of them to guard their tombs and the entrances to their great halls.  They often embellished these with other animal traits from their own worlds, occasionally giving them wings or the tails of serpents or scorpions, as suited their fancy.  But the ones occupying the Mid-Worlds only consisted of two joined elements.  Half-man, with the human dominating the upper portions of the creature, and animal, lion, leopard or panther, occupying the lower ends of the creature.  The Manticore’s face was human in part, except for its ability to hyper-extend its lower jaw and unveil a triple row set of jagged teeth.  Manticores were not big on speech and one wondered how they could be made to form their growling low rumbling words around so many teeth.  Their heads were hoary, almost always heavily bearded, as if their facial hair made up for the mane of fur that would have grown had they remained a lion of legend.  Their visage was fierce, their skin dark and reddened like tough leather or blackened with the dried glut of blood from so many kills.  Their eyes clouded and vacillated between human awareness and animal aloofness, subjected only to instinct and primal desires.  Their animal fur varied between the beige-tan of a lion, the black velvet of a panther and the spotted patches of a leopard.  Large ferocious cats.  When these creatures climbed the wall they might as well all have panther fur, because they would be very blackened once they reached the top of the wall.  If they reached it, he knew he should say, though he could not contain his optimism seeing how anxious they were becoming.  They paced beneath the black wall seeking and scanning its surface, looking for a break in the stone that they could not find beneath the thick viscous coating.  They were growing impatient with Grum-Blud’s delay.  There was fresh meat on the other side.  They could smell it.  The kills had only whetted their appetite.  The long run from marked and scented territory of The Pan had been tiring but their energy was returning will their recent meal.  The meat on the other side had very little hair to have to cough up later.  The one called Grawldo, glared at Grum-Blud and growled in annoyance.  It wore a collar around its neck with the loose end of a rope.  Grum-Blud’s way up and over.  The Manticores were big and powerful, muscular and tawny, their claws oversized and thick, extending and retracting from their giant powerful paws.  It was going to be a massacre inside.  Grum-Blud grinned and raised his hand to give the signal.

Meanwhile above, the soldiers of Azragoth had observed the Troll and its newly gathered beasts for some time now.  They had seen the little squat creature crawl over the battered and twisted portcullis gate beneath the Barbican under the silvery moonlight.  They saw the other three Trolls argue and break camp in the early morning hours.  The two who had arrived on onocentaurs, miserable creatures with the body of a small donkey and the top half of a man.  These had been left outside of the city to forage in the surrounding woods, while the trolls scouted the ruined city.  A company of forest soldiers observed two of the Trolls leave on these creatures and return up through the back trails, joining the main road again and proceeding upwards to the high plains from which they had first come, no doubt to join up and report back to the Xarmnian Protectorate Guards still searching the woods for the lost party.  In so doing, they had narrowly avoided the large, invisible creature that had damaged so much of the backtrail bridgeworks before it finally burrowed into the underground tunnels beneath the city.

The onocentaurs, left to the two Trolls remaining, had been tied to the lower trail forests in a copse.  The onocentaurs argued with them very heatedly, and the bemused Azragothian spies almost laughed aloud and gave their hidden location away when the larger Troll in the lead was overheard telling the onocentaurs that “Asses should not be fitted together with a human mouth!”

Eventually, the other Troll had left the lead Troll as well, grumbling unintelligibly, but soon after riding out southward alone, having also received some angry reprimand, coupled with a few kicks from his now blackened counterpart.  The observers correctly surmised that the leader Troll’s initial attempts to get over the inner walls of the city of Azragoth had failed miserably.  It was almost too comical to watch.  That is until the nature of the other beasts were seen a mere five days later as they came into the city the night before and joined the lead Troll, below the walls and leafy canopy.  The situation was no longer comical at all.  It had become extremely dangerous indeed.

When the signal below was given, the Azragothian soldiers stationed with smoldering torch standing just inside the doorways of the bastions along the inner wall, waited in readiness, to do what their commander The Eagle had instructed them to do.  Nem and his craftsmen had rebuilt and redesigned the inner wall in a very unique way, with characteristics unlike any other city wall in all of the towns and citadels within the Mid-Worlds.  The inner wall had a shelf at its top, called a machicolation, with a V-shaped trough running along the top of the stone shelf filled to the brim with a petroleum-like oil.  The lip-edge of the trough was also coated with tar and pitch, spilling over and down the wall where it ran partially into the horizontal gaps of the murder holes about a foot below.  From the inner-shelf of the Inner wall, about waist high from the battlement walkway, was a slanted grooved-trough in each merlon between the crenellation caps of stone, where hot oil, tar, boiling water or stones and arrows and could be poured, dropped or shot down upon anyone attempting to scale the Inner wall.  A wooden bench lined the inner wall rampart, allowing archers to raise themselves between the crenellations and fire down into the killing fields of the narrow outer courtyards upon any enemy who had successfully breached the outer curtain wall.  Bundles and full quivers of arrows lay at the ready in the dry boxes below the benches, which allowed the archers to always have an ample supply of darts ready to come to both hand and bow should they run out of those in their carried and strung quivers during a protracted battle.

The manticores could not be permitted to enter the city.  Between the torch-bearers and the archers of Azragoth, they would see to it that that never happened.  Manticores were irrepressibly vicious and savage.  They would pursue, maul, kill and give no quarter.  No one would be safe from their fury.  If ever there was a beast that could be compared with a berserker of old, the manticores were those creatures.

With flared claws, the Manticores, spaced out all along the city walls leaped almost as one, though slightly staggered, as they saw the movement of the signaled cats commence their attack.  Ferocious roars struck terror in the men atop the wall as the creatures lunged against the blackness, scrabbling to gain purchase in the buried grooves beneath the coating.  Invariably they slipped and became enmired with blackness, their powerful paws caked with tar, their hides gleaming with the thick, black, glutinous ooze.

The torcher bearers in the bastion doorways looked down upon the horrible spectacle and from one to the other, waiting for their own signal to be given.  A lookout sentry, from higher up on the clockwise running stair within the bastion tower, watched and observed as each of the creatures became more and more enmired and coated with the pitch, but each was still making some degree of progress up the Inner Wall.

The Troll ran from creature to creature as fast as its stocky legs would carry it, loping and bounding from its knuckles in the characteristic Troll gait, urging the beasts onward and upward, each time they slid back downward.  Their broad paws, sweeping away more and more of the viscous tar, with every attempted ascent, exposing the stone wall below, and the mortared grooves.  With persistence, these creatures would soon make it over the wall, and then in anger and frustration, these monsters would tear them apart.

Suddenly the word was given.  Nem and Ezra watched as The Eagle and his attendant soldiers burst forth from the gates of The Keep, and rode off of the galley loader on horseback.

“Light them up!” he shouted, racing his horse at full gallop through the streets, the hooves of his mount pounding into the cobblestone streets as he rode forth.

Instantly, from every corner of every bastion tower located along the city’s inner wall, a wall of flames burst forth with a loud whooshing noise.  So intense was the sudden flash of heat that the men watching along the wall dove for cover, backing away from the edge as flames tore across the outer portion of the machicolation rim and fiery oil spilled down the external side of the Inner wall, igniting the blackened pitch, creating various blue flames whooshing over and around the embattled manticores still attempting to ascend it.  Roars of pain and screams of rage formed a cacophonous dark symphony, a deafening crescendo that caused Azragothians to hold their ears in uncertain terror.  Unsure whether the sounds signified their imminent death or a successful rout and repulsion of the enemies from without.

Doused and roiling in engulfed flames the manticores ceased their assault on the fiery Inner wall, their own immolations imminent.  The pitch and oil covering their human and animal bodies licking all over them with painful blue and yellow tongues of fire.  Howling and roaring, they tore through the underbrush, colliding with buried and hidden detritus from times gone by, bouncing painfully off stones half-buried and crumbled from partially collapsed walls.  Blinded with searing hot pain, they raced along the killing fields over and under the vine mats and weaving and bounding in great leaps over obstacles searching for the twisted gate of the Bastion through which they had entered.

The conflagration and the howling and roaring echoed balefully throughout the forests and hills surrounding the cliffside, redounding off the stone peaks, reaching even to the lower valleys and villages beyond.  Truly, the foretold black tongue of the city of Azragoth took a far second place to the city’s angry tongues of fire.

The inevitable effect of this was that for miles and miles around and after twenty years of silence, the city could no longer be quietly hidden among the forests at the foot of the mountain.

From our vantage point in the valley below, we witness those once hidden interior walls suddenly blaze into the night sky and shine through the trees blazing forth in a bright ring of fire.  Flaming balls of fire streaked out from what we assumed could only be the old front gates of the city, and raced in flicker blazes through the smoky forests, setting some of the drier vegetation ablaze as well.  The sight of it was terrible in its fury, the noises of it even worse to behold.

As the evening dusk settled in colored bands upon the distant horizon, Azragoth appeared to have, at long last, awakened from the dead and was stunningly revealed to the surrounding communities below, and to all its friends, and foes alike.

The Imminent Siege of Azragoth – Chapter 30

Taking the Mountain turned out to be more of a challenge than I realized.

It was not so much a literal direction as it was a state of mind.  A commitment to face the obstacles before you and surmount them.  Like Caleb, of old, there were giant Anakim living in the mountains that were given to him as his possession.  He was then an 85 year-old-man, fourscore and five, as he says.  The term “score is equivalent to twenty years.  So, fourscore would be 4 times 20, which would be 80, plus five additional years would bring the total to 85.  Yes, you had to be good at math to speak back then. 😉

Now consider also that while he was the approximate age of some of your grandfathers, he still had it going on.  Caleb had some guns on him.  The strength of a man in his youth.  But more impressive than that was his moxy.  Not mojo, Moxy.  Okay, Spunk, for your younger ones out there.  Caleb had a level of confidence in the promise of His Lord, that made him defiant in the face of threat, determined in the teeth of defeat, and wholly and completely trusting in the value of a promise given, because of the pristine character and goodness of the One who promised it.  The Ancient Text says:

“114 You are my refuge and my shield; your word is my source of hope.” [Psalm 119:114 NLT]

In the Surface World, promises made are too often akin to bounced checks.  They have no backing.  They are used as currency for people to get what they want in the most immediate fashion possible, but tragically the one giving in trust to the promisor can easily lose everything if what is given in trade is purchased with questionable currency that has no backing.  Commerce and fair trade depends upon a mutuality of trust.  Caleb had no doubt of the backing of his promissory note, and he was ready to put his life on the line to cash it in.  An eighty-five-year-old man, dauntless before a mountain of giant half-men.  Not only that, but he took ownership claim, not only to conquer those in the mountain, but to rule it afterward, and populate it with his family and their generations to come.  To take the mountain, he was also putting not only himself on the line, but his family as well.  All his poker chips were on the table, so to speak and he was betting the farm.  He knew he had been dealt the winning hand.  To some, that would seem risky, but he was confident of his backer.  In his mind, it was no gamble to place complete faith and trust in the “promises”, the currency, of his Lord and God.  But that kind of confidence was not just an abandonment to faith.  Caleb was a confident spirited lad when he and Joshua were first sent into the land of giants to spy it out for Moses and the rest of the Hebrews, encamped on the outer desert perimeter of The Promised Land.

They were literally within sight of the land flowing with milk and honey, that God had promised them on their miraculous flight from Egypt, through towering walls of water of the Red Sea, and following a pillar of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.  They were watered by a dry rock, they were fed by manna from heaven, and every promise made to them was being fulfilled before their very eyes.  They fought battles being displaced nomads with the armies of established cities and conquered along the way, but when they go to the edge of the whole purpose for their journey, they hesitated, stopped short of claiming it, and decided not to trust in the One who had called them and delivered them miraculously this far.  Caleb, like his people, had a faith born of firsthand experience.  Yet, some of his fellow kinsmen, having shared in the same experiences, still lived imprisoned by their own fear and distrust.  Though the promised land was before them, and they survived a miraculous journey overshadowed by the power and guidance of the One who promised them good, they distrusted Him because they saw and feared the giants in the land of the promise.  They forgot their history, they abandoned their trust and faith, and instead chose fear, trusting in their own strength without considering the promise of their backing.  This is why John the Revelator reminds us of yet another title of the One.

“11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him [was] called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.” [Revelation 19:11 KJV]

One point that few people acknowledge in that very affirmation statement, is that righteousness does require judgment, but it also requires the might to back it up, and yes even to the point of making war if required.

Isn’t it amazing that the very Prince of Peace must sometimes resort to war to effect righteousness?  I’ll bet that will come as quite a shock to those who advocate for pacifism and appeasement with evil regimes of this world when they piously and sanctimoniously are forced to wrap their head around the fact that Christ Himself counts righteousness as a cause worth fighting for.  But that should not come as a surprise to any soldier, or military personnel, or police officer or judge who witness the human stain of sin and corruption and fight against its surfeiting current every day.  Evil must be resisted for a sane and safe society to flourish.

There is a battle going on for the minds of mankind, and it takes many shapes and forms to distract and confuse them, to cause them to place their hopes and trusts in human panaceas that have no backing.  Histories are forgotten, and in some cases re-written by pernicious minds so deceived by their own faith in modern falsehoods they cannot abide any other perspective that does not join their conclusions.  These are an unteachable people, unwitting acolytes of an ancient and invisible enemy that seeks their enslavement and ultimate destruction.  That enemy’s agents have been at work since the beginning of time in all of the created worlds seeking to unmake all that the Master has made but unable to touch the eternal.  Save for one thing.  He must cause mankind to forget who they were created to be, to forget the historical record of their miraculous deliverance through time and how they were spared destruction by the One.  For he knows that if a generation can be made to forget their past, then they will have no hope for their future and no will to resist his ultimate rule.  They will be snuffed out, like a candle in the wind.  Already, they were smoldering embers, with a faint white-gray ribbon of smoke unraveling into the sky, signifying their dying surrender.  A white flag harbinger of retreat.  The essential point of my calling and my mission was to cause these few that I led into the Mid-World to come back to themselves and remember.  To see again that promises made by the One are promises kept.  That every launched ship of dreams that carry their hopes into the storms of life on the high seas, always have a safe and protected home harbor to return to.  There are no sea-faring men, no matter how full of bravado and wanderlust they may claim to be, that do not find comfort in the memory of their home port when maelstroms threaten to swamp their vessel and swallow them into the cold, dark depths of the beckoning, and unforgiving sea.

It was with these thoughts in mind that we gathered together around the supplies wagon, and climbed up on our geared travelling mounts, and followed Maeven as she led us onward through the winding forested trails down the slopes and away from the hidden city of Azragoth, where we knew we had friends and allies who might possibly be in danger due to the approach of the Protectorate squads still hunting and pursuing us.

What we did not know at the time, was that the real threat to Azragoth was presently from an entirely different enemy than that posed by the Xarmnians.  This enemy had a particular grudge to settle with the denizens of the resurrected city of Azragoth and it had formed a tenuous and temporary truce with the Xarmnians brokered by the unreliable creatures with whom they both shared some commonality.  This enemy had lain in wait for more than twenty years, pondering the right time to strike and overrun the secret remnant within the city with one final sweeping attack to snuff out the remaining ember of hope that it represented to the oppressed peoples of the Mid-World.  The Xarmnian high counsel knew that something remained in the lost city of Azragoth, but they had no definitive proof of it, until now.  This surprising secret was delivered to them through their dealings with a former enemy that they had only recently normalized relations with.  The brokerage of the truce was handled by the Xarmnian Trolls.  Being part human, part something else, gave them an advantage in dealing with the Xarmnian’s former foes who contended with them for ultimate rulership over all of the Mid-World lands and people.  These enemies were the ancient races of Half-Men.  Creatures that had an amalgam of human and animal and plant origins stemming from their ancient paganism and ritualistic transit through the now closed former portals of the Surface World to the Mid-World lands.  These were the embodiment of the ancient legends of the Surface World.  The source of those legends, though the Surface Worlders’ added much to make up the mythological canon.  These creatures were observed through dreams and odd reflections in pools of water or in mystic glasses until the strength of the connections between the Surface World and the Mid-Worlds weakened to the point that observers only saw these beings in blurry flickers out of the corner of their eyes.  In the Surface World, these unfortunate cursed beings were venerated and proclaimed to be gods worthy of worship and appeasement.  Distractions from the belief in the One true Creator God.  Priests and priestesses saw the veneration of these gods to be a means of control and power, and a way to enrich themselves through the awe and dread of these creatures whom they claimed to represent as their personal oracles between the divine and the common.  Great temples were built to honor these cursed and trapped creatures of the Pantheon.  When the cursed creatures in the Mid-World learned of this they were at first stunned and then saw it as an opportunity to also revenge themselves against the One who had caused them to be cursed and trapped in the Mid-World.  With no subjects but themselves, they waited for thousands of years before mankind finally re-entered their world.  When these human sojourners began to occupy the land they presented themselves to their descendants as being the gods they were believed to be in the Surface World and demanded worship.  They were at first resisted, but over time, the humans began to pay them homage.  The Half-men, it was said and later revealed to be of a certain truth, that these beings were denied the liberation of a natural death.  They could be killed, but only through violence done to them.  They aged, and their bodies suffered the rages of passing time, but with no natural release.  Their animal minds continually warred against their human minds.  They could not contain their passions, so they indulged them but found no relief in them and only temporary satiation.  They blamed humans, the favored ones of the Creator.  These who reminded them of what they once were and had irrevocably left to become something else.  They could not abide the sight of humans without waking their violent passions fed by their animal desires.  No relations could be had between these Half-men and the humans of the Mid-World until the emergence of the creatures known as Trolls.  Something about them pleased the Half-Men and tamed their wildness when dealing with them as emissaries of the Xarmnian humans.  That brokered relationship has brought the truce.  The Half-Men saw a sinister kinship between the Xarmnians and themselves that they could, at last, identify with.  The Trolls represented the Xarmnian effort to become more like the Half-Men.  With each one, either voluntarily or by compulsion surrendering part of their humanity to be enjoined with the bestial, was a form of emulation and worship that they found pleasing and appealing.  The elixir was a masterful stroke, as far as the Half-men were concerned, and the Xarmnians who came up with changing some of their children to become more amenable to the Half-men was seen as a brilliant compromise that had provided a peaceful solution and resolution to a centuries-old conflict.  Xarmians were now free to pass through Half-men territories unmolested, and certain secrets were shared between these two groups that proved mutually beneficial to both groups.

Having had some limited experience with Trolls, as they were only newly becoming a people, I did not realize that there was an underlying reason for the Xarmnian alchemists creating such ugly and unstable beings with their transformative elixirs.  Having that knowledge now sickens me to even think about it, though it is reticent of something happening in my own world which also distresses me more than I can elaborate on just now.

We rode further downward on a switchback trail cut and camouflaged beneath the lower forested canopy.  I watched as Maeven rode up to the end of a trailway, pushed against certain branches on the trees there and areas once hedged about by bushes swung inward revealing a continuation of the trail not previously seen in the shaded light.  Time and time again, certain trailheads that seemed to terminate were uncloaked by this method of hidden cantilevers and pivoting shrubs, and I wondered at how Maeven was able to remember them all.

Above and behind us, at some degree of distance, we begin to hear furtive movements in the brush.  Rustling noises that were caused by unknown creatures moving with some degree of speed through the forest underbrush.  Grunts and guttural growls were interspersed within these noises, and we were gripped with a fear that the Xarmnian dogs were once again on the scent of our trail with the Protectorate Guards close behind.

Maeven and I both paused to listen, attempting to quiet the others growing more noticeable uncertain and afraid.  A few circled their horses as if wanting to flee back to the safety of the caves beneath Azragoth, but I bid them hold their peace and keep still.

“They’re coming.  They’re going to find us and kill us.  We should have never left Azragoth.”

Maeven interjected, “Be still.  Let us hear for a moment.”

After a moment I turned to Maeven, “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?”

“Yep.  They’re moving away from us.  Not toward us.”

I turned to the two riders whose actions showed that they were wanting to go back.

“If you ride back that way, number one, you’ll never find the hidden route we took to get down here, so you’re sure to get lost.  And number two, you will be riding right into the ones making those noises above us.”

I cleared my throat and eyed them each for a moment, letting the implications of my two-point arguments sink in before I put the question to them.

“So, what’s it going to be?”

They each took hold of their reins and turn their horses back into the line, not saying a word, yet not having to.  Their actions spoke for them.

Maeven looked at them and then at me.  I saw the conflict in her eyes, and I knew what she was thinking.  She wanted to turn back, but for very different reasons.

I gave her a half-smile, nodding and acknowledging her struggle.

“They’ll be alright.  Whatever is coming against them should be perhaps pitied, if I know Mattox, as well as my memory serves.”

She gave me a grateful smile, but I could still see that worry lingered within her.  She turned and pressed on, leading us further downward until we crossed a shallow creek bed, and turned to follow its winding course towards the lower plains and the lake country.  It would be a fair ride yet, and we were making rather slow progress since we were not free to travel upon the open roads and more direct route.  Whatever threatening forces were rushing upward toward the old city of Azragoth had a nasty surprise awaiting them.  The black tongue of the city was waiting to spring forth and deluge those threats with rotting disease and death.  Considering that we were still on a slope below the city, though several thousands of feet away, such horrible filth would run beyond the ranks of the enemies, and pour through the forests and dry streams below.  If we were caught in its path, Azragoth’s destructive defenses would deal out death to us as well.  That is why we had to make haste to get off of this mountain as soon as safety might permit us too.  Any further delay would cause the Azragothians delays in being able to use their city’s secret weapon, and those delays could risk their lives as well.  They would wait for us to reach the plain and send up a signal fire so that they would know we were in the clear.  Having known Nem and Ezra and Corimanth but a little time while sheltering in their city, I was fully confident that they were honorable men who sincerely wished us no harm.  They had entrusted Maeven to my charge.  Corimanth sincerely loved his sister, nephew, and brother-in-law, so I feared no threat from him as well.  And, even though there had been some tension and bad blood between Mattox and me, I had no doubt that he had become a changed man, and I could not believe that he would willingly send us to our death.  He most certainly would have before, but not now.  The difference in him was profound enough to cause one to wonder at the transformative power of the One who had called us here.  But time was precious and we did not have much of it left.

I spurred my mount forward until I was alongside Maeven.

“We need to get out of here soon and light the signal fire.”

“I know,” she looked straightforward, not turning to me, “It is not that far now.  I wish we didn’t have to take the riverbed, but the supply wagon couldn’t have been brought down any other way.”

“If we have to, we may need to abandon it and find some other way to forage for what we need along the way.”

“Mr. O’Brian, I know these parts, and I know what we are going into.  Remember, that my last years here were spent in marauding raids, and supply runs for the resistance.  I am not the same little wilting flower of a girl you remember when you and Begglar first knew me.  I’ve seen the gathering of the armies, and the Xarmnian reach even in these rural lands far from its capitol.  People are frightened, harassed, slaughter or even worse.”

“Worse?”

“Forced to witness atrocities, degrading mockery, and the abuse of their innocents.  The human heart, for all of the bestial wildness that The Pan and his Half-men creatures are reported to be, is far darker, and wilder still.  With the Half-men, it is mere animal violence, but with the Xarmnians it is an evil expression that goes beyond savagery.  We will not be at liberty to range far enough into the wilds for a hunting or foraging party to be of much use.  We will need to stay together, knowing the whereabouts of each other at all times, if we are to survive.  We will need to be ready for surprise attacks at a moment’s notice, and coordinate our fighting styles and patterns so that we serve a common objective to route the enemy and not let them divide us, even if some of us fall or succumb to their tactics.  We will need these supplies to convince others to barter wish us, even if they are reluctant too.  We will have to rely on the foodstuffs to get us through lean times when game is scarce and the wild growing edible vegetation is spartan or out of season.  Right now, what this wagon carries is crucial to our survival as well.  I only wish the rainy season might have made this riverbed softer with more silt than rock.”

“Your points are well made, Maeven,” I paused and then added, “Storm Hawk.”

I dipped my head in deference to her reputational title, and I saw the edges of a smile play about her lips.  Gratitude for my show of respect for her valued input slightly moistening her eyes, in that unguarded moment.  I knew this was hard for her.  And I knew what courage she was demonstrating to be willing to leave her surrogate family in Azragoth on the cusp of an imminent attack to follow and help me lead our company into an uncertain future.

It took us another roughly 45 minutes to an hour to finally emerge from the river bed and to reach the edge of a clearing below the foothills of Azragoth.  Once there, we quickly used flint to tinder a firebrand made from a sheaf of straw and soot polished wood, that kept it from quickly burning down the shaft.  Maeven spurred her steed, brandishing the torch held high above and behind her so that the ash and loosening pieces of straw would not fall and ignite in her hair as she rode back and forth across the green field.

From the angle of the lower field, we would not be able to see the walls of Azragoth, covered as it was by the forests, but we should see an acknowledgment firelight, gleaming through the forest canopy.

Unbeknownst to us, the siege of Azaragoth had already commenced long before we emerged from the forests below it, and shortly after Mattox had left us to return back into the caverns below the city.  And the counterforce, the Azragothians had to employ to repel the threat had nothing to do with what was stored within the other walls of the city, but what had been coursing through a V-shaped groove cut along the top of the inner walls separating the old dead city from its living and still-strongly-beating defiant heart.

Take the Mountain – Chapter 29

Mattox and I walked side by side once all of our traveling party were down into the tunnel and our supplies were loaded onto a wagon that had been stationed under the loading shaft beneath the foundation of The Keep.  He directed us through each passage and juncture as we made our way towards the ground opening hidden within the mountainside forests surrounding Azragoth above.  Since the mountainside sloped getting to the cave opening did not require climbing back up or finding a steadily rising grade towards the surface as would have been necessary if the caverns were beneath a plain or level ground.  In the course of underground travel, in a seemingly awkward fashion, I finally broached the subject that had held my burning curiosity since discovering that the Eagle was a former nemesis.

Underground Image-09

“How…I mean, what…changed you?”

Mattox kept walking and directing us ahead but eventually responded to my question.

“It wasn’t just one thing, but there was a catalyst event that finally broke me down.”

I waited, allowing him to pay out the mystery in installments.

“What they did to The Marker, their disgusting obsession with it, making a mockery of it, forcing abeyances and slaughtering before it, finally made it so that I could stomach the hatred no more.”

Of all the things he could have told me, this was the one thing I never had expected to hear.

“The Xarmnians, of which I am ashamed to say, I once was, are power mad.  They are obsessed with dominating everyone and everything because their own collective philosophy demands suppression of a natural human need that they do not realize is innate.”

“A need for significance, individuality, and a chance to succeed beyond the level of their peers without feeling guilty for that desire or obligated by it to everyone who does not put forth the same sweat equity and discipline.  Suppress those needs long enough and they turn inward into rage and frustration.  These lead either to despair, conformity, and defeat, or to blood-lust, aggression, and violence.  It’s the difference between subjects and soldiers for the Xarmnians.  The governors know this, and they fuel these fires to white-hot intensity.  They take those who choose brutality for their armies, and the rest they dominate and keep in a fearful servility.  We were trained to do this, as military leaders.  Schooled in it from an early age.  Yet I remember from an early age, a time when it wasn’t so.  A time when the Capitalians were our brothers and sisters, and we once made a pilgrimage to The Marker that first inspired us to settle here in these lands and gave us a hope that we could build something better and have a place of our own.  The Builder Stones were a gift of The Marker.  We owe the founding of our cities to the use of them, and the mysterious Marker Stone from which they came.  Though we were never allowed to speak of it, I still keep that memory and lived in a secret shame of my kinsmen and their behavior regarding it.  Burying it under massacred thousands who believed in its promises was the last straw, the last indignity that I could bear.  So I broke faith with them in my heart and was left to seek Hope in some other path besides Xarmnian philosophies.  I needed something more to give me purpose and bring meaning back.”

“I did many horrible things under the old rule.  Things that weighed down and haunted me with every step.  I needed what these Azragothians had found in the aftermath of their tragedy.  I needed a way to cleanse and find hope and forgiveness.  These remarkable people offered me that.  Me, a Xarmnian.  One of the military leaders that arguably led to the tragedy of what happened to them.  They showed me a path to the One and a way to be reconciled through Him to hope, despite everything I have done.  I have gained an appreciation for the Living Words of the Ancient Text and am finding wisdom through them that I never knew was essential to my becoming.”

“When the Xarmnian army showed up to take Azragoth, I was already within the city.  I brought Maeven there to live, but I had also come to the surrounding area to find someone else.  I am not sure, but I believe that person is also within your company, but he need not know that I am aware of him.  He was a little boy when I found him.  Rescued him in the woods.  He may not even remember me.  It is perhaps for the best that he doesn’t.  I have not seen him since he was a child.  Before he ran away and disappeared.”

“There are many things that I am ashamed of, that I did in the service of Xarmni.  One particular thing I witnessed, with that one, I could not let stand.  His father was a Surface Worlder.  The boy is too.  It does not often happen that Surface Worlders come here with families, but sometimes it happens on rare occasions.”

“From what I could gather, the boy’s father was in the military in the Surface World.  He was a long way from home, involved in a war.  They discovered the Mid-World by accident, on opposite sides of the Surface World.  The boy’s father was changed by the war, a different man, but a better man somehow.  He had become a Cleric.  The boy was struggling with that.  He knew his dad from before he went off to war.  A tough guy.  A hard man.  Someone whom the boy idolized and wanted to be like…like the man he was.  But he was uncertain about the man his dad had become.  When he witnessed his dad’s death in this world, he blamed the death on the man’s change.  Resented it.  When I dropped him off with a family in the highlands, he saw my leaving as a betrayal as well.  But I couldn’t deal with a child and do what I had to as a Xarmnian officer.  I had no choice.  Sentiment was frowned upon and viewed as weakness, so I kept that secret to myself.  From the others.  When I found Maeven and the others within Azragoth, I saw in Maeven a need and a chance to make up for what I couldn’t do with the boy as a soldier.  Maeven was my second chance to do something good for someone.  So I trained her in military survival, fighting techniques, and help here build a confidence in herself that she didn’t have before.  I have taught her much, but she excels beyond what I taught her, and by the same token I have learned much from her, in ways that are a side of warfare I did not know of for all of my combat training.  With the boy and his father…  Well, I saw what happened to the man, and why the other Xarmnian commander did not pursue them when they managed to escape into the woods.  He knew there were creatures within that would make quick work of them both.  Especially since the man was injured and leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  As soon as I could get away without being noticed or missed I went after them, but was too late to help the man.  The boy was in the tree above, barely alive, starving, nearly frostbitten and in a shock that made him barely responsive when I took him down and carried him away.”

“The boy’s father had carried an honor sword that had been taken from him when he and his son were captured.  I believe it is to be the same one you are carrying.  I took it, from the Xarmnians holding him captive.  It was I who took it out to the copse grove near Crowe and drove it into the exposed roots of the tree there, as is the custom when the mission of an honor sword is complete.”

“I assume you are familiar with the nature of honor swords.”

“To some degree.”

“Then you understand that not just anyone can release an Honor Sword once it has been driven into the roots of a dogwood tree.  It is bonded to the wood.  Others have tried to take it out before and failed.  Only the one who is meant to take up the mission of its previous bearer will be able to draw it forth.  This mission you are called to is a continuance of the boy’s father’s mission.  It is where Maeven also must join in the quest, for she is part of it.  My compassion and sense of duty to her is because of my prior experiences and softening with helping the boy.  I do not know what role she will play in it, but I and the leaders in Azragoth feel that her place is with your company on this quest.”

I was amazed at Mattox’s matter-of-fact demeanor and his openness and candor with me, so unlike what I had experience of the man in his before life.  I had wondered at his seeming devotion to the Azragothians, but it was all now beginning to fall into place.  His service to them as General and protector was so different from how he had served under the Xarmnian edge of the sword.  He loved them.  His service and duty arose out of a gratitude and a kinship with them, and out of a joined fellowship in service to the ideals carved in The Blood Stone, aka The Marker.

A thought occurred to me at that moment so I ask him, “Tell me how was it that the other Xarmnian’s were able to wrest the Honor Sword from the boy’s father?”

“There are two ways.  If the Bloodline is not wrapped to the bearer’s arm, the bearer may become separated from it.  The sword wields no power of its own except through connection through the Bloodline and its bearer.  The sword and the bearer are mere branches of a tree, but the Bloodline represents its root joining the two into the power of The One.”

“And the other way?”

“The bearer has to underestimate the Honor Sword.  He has to voluntarily surrender it due to his own beliefs in the necessity of surrendering it.”

“And why did the man surrender it?”

“He didn’t.  He had no sense of the danger he was in when he and his son were seized.  His sword was not bound to him by the Bloodline, so we took the opportunity to take it from him unaware.”

“He was pickpocketed?!”

“What?”

“Sorry.  A Surface World concept meaning a light-fingered thief lifted the object from his person or the pocket in which valuables were kept.”

“Then yes, as you say, he was…pickpocketed.”

A glanced down at the storied Honor Sword in its scabbard on my hip with a new appreciation for it, now that I understood something of its history.  I wondered if I should, in precaution, wrap the Bloodline to my arm while we traveled so that I might not meet with the same separation as had the boy’s father when he bore it so long ago.  Mattox saw my looking at it and was able to discern my thinking.

“It is fine for now, but do not go into a populated area or town ahead without the Bloodline sash attached to your bearing arm.  In the open, you need freedom of movement and cannot bear the battle sword with every task and with every company you keep.  There is an Ancient Text verse that speaks of those who appreciate the words of the sword and those to whom its words cause only offense because they have no receptivity to it.  Bring it to your aid, but sometimes the ground upon which you cast these seeds, you need to be aware, is as hard as stone.”

“The boy?”

“Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Time will tell you what kind of soil he has become with maturity.  If he is sincerely seeking answers then there is hope for him too as there was for me.  Even a stone may have a fissure into which a seed may fall and sprout.  If the sprout becomes a tree, it will further break up the rock as the roots swell with maturity.  There is always a hope, no matter how bleak and remote you might believe it to be.”

I pondered his wise words for some time before speaking again.

“Mattox.”

“Yes?”

“The villages you took over for Xarmni.”

He sighed, not sure where my questioning was headed.

“Did the Xarmnian government authorize and teach you how to cause them to submit to rule?”

“No,” he said and seemed to be pondering painful memories that weighted and knit his brow.

“Xarmnian conquest was to be brutal.  To strike hard and fast and successive and break the people down through might, but this was short-sighted and undermined what they were trying to accomplish.”

“How so?”

“Xarmni needed the people, though they would never acknowledge or admit it.  Brute force can only accomplish so much, but it is a tenuous hold of power, at best.”

I waited, curious to hear his explanation.

“The towns we claimed under my watch, had very little loss of life.  We needed their young men for our armies.  We needed the laborers of the village to continue to produce and plant and harvest crops and raise animals for our collective food stores being depleted by the number of people drawing from them to survive.  To ride in and kill as many people as we could until the town surrendered, was just stupid and short-sighted, though praised and encouraged by the leadership and others.  As I told you, our military is comprised of violent men full of pent-up aggression seeking an outlet.  Decisions made with that level of anger, I learned from my own experience, where almost always the worst decisions made in retrospect and ran counter to what we were trying to accomplish.  Rage is myopic.  Foolish and it has killed far more of our men than I care to think about.  When I took a town, most people yielded without a fight.  Plant a seed and a threat of violence in them, and you often never have to act upon it, if that seed grows into a sense of dread.  Over time, the Xarmnian leadership came to understand why it was that the towns I took for them, were done without losing so many of our soldiers and the infrastructure of the towns did not have to cost Xarmnia so much in revenue to rebuild what the berserker army methods would have destroyed in its capture and conquest.  Fear alone can be motivation enough to break a man’s spirit so that he can be ruled by another.  Despair over his inability to get beyond that fear would make him servile until his needs could only be met by us, and he would never remember the fact that he had once lived independently from us.”

I took in a breath of amazement.  Mattox, The Eagle, truly did have a far-reaching vision and an understanding of human nature, that I had not understood until now.  His moniker was apt and appropriate.  It made him a deadly adversary and now transformed by the One, a very shrewd and valuable leader with the advantage of an insider’s knowledge of Xarmnian war tactics.  The people of Azragoth, and the secret Resistance fighters throughout Xarmnian occupied territories would be well-served under this transformed and renewed General and brilliant strategist.  I was so glad that he was now an ally.

I looked down and again noticed the pouch containing the rounded weighted object affixed to my belt.

“This thing you’ve given me.  What is it?”

“Not here.”

“What?”

“I need to be certain that we are not overheard.  There are at least two in your company who are not Surface Worlders that cannot hear what I need to tell you.  Once clear of the tunnels just ahead, we will need to speak in private, before I return back to the city.  Keep your circle of trust tight and exclusive.  There are somethings you alone must keep to yourself.  Yours is a very dangerous mission, O’Brian.  Be mindful that careless lips could be its undoing before it has even begun.”

Underground Image-08

At last, we arrived at a cave opening to the outside forest.  Filtered light streamed in from two large openings where the tunnel looked out through the forest.  Mattox directed Maeven to take the others down the path and guide the wagon of supplies onto the canopied and hidden road, while we spoke privately.

As we moved down the pathway, out from the other’s hearing Mattox said, “There is a hunger deep within everyone’s soul.  It is what should drive you.  The Ancient Text says:

26 A worker’s appetite works for him, For his hunger urges him on. [Proverbs 16:26 NASB]

We are both much older than we once were when first we met, but don’t let that be an excuse for you.  Be a Caleb.  Take your mountain.”

“6 Then the children of Judah came unto Joshua in Gilgal: and Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenezite said unto him, Thou knowest the thing that the LORD said unto Moses the man of God concerning me and thee in Kadeshbarnea. 7 Forty years old [was] I when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadeshbarnea to espy out the land; and I brought him word again as [it was] in mine heart. 8 Nevertheless my brethren that went up with me made the heart of the people melt: but I wholly followed the LORD my God. 9 And Moses sware on that day, saying, Surely the land whereon thy feet have trodden shall be thine inheritance, and thy children’s for ever, because thou hast wholly followed the LORD my God. 10 And now, behold, the LORD hath kept me alive, as he said, these forty and five years, even since the LORD spake this word unto Moses, while [the children of] Israel wandered in the wilderness: and now, lo, I [am] this day fourscore and five years old. 11 As yet I [am as] strong this day as [I was] in the day that Moses sent me: as my strength [was] then, even so [is] my strength now, for war, both to go out, and to come in. 12 Now therefore give me this mountain, whereof the LORD spake in that day; for thou heardest in that day how the Anakims [were] there, and [that] the cities [were] great [and] fenced: if so be the LORD [will be] with me, then I shall be able to drive them out, as the LORD said.”  [Joshua 14:6-12 KJV]

“Don’t worry about all that is ahead of you,” he told me as we walked away, “Just be present in the moments given and take each step wisely.”

Mattox’s words reminded me of the poignant words of a Surface World poet I once heard, which I will share with you here and now.

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted

John Ashbery – “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975)

“Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter’s deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn’t know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon. Today enough of a cover burnishes
To keep the supposition of promises together
In one piece of surface, letting one ramble
Back home from them so that these
Even stronger possibilities can remain
Whole without being tested.”

Source Link: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/

There were plans to be made for what lies ahead of us, but the only action one can really take in preparation was in the here and now, and Mattox was about to reveal to me the significance of what required such secrecy from the others.

Once far enough away from the others, Mattox again turned to me.

“There are actually two things I have given you with that parcel you bear.  Inside is a valuable thing you will need to use to barter with when you reach Skorlith for passage across Lake Cascale to the cities and lands beyond.  But strange as this may seem, the bag in which it is kept is more valuable than what is contained therein.”

“The bag?” I asked.

“Yes.  I will get to the bag.  Be patient.  Inside the bag is a giant pearl, extremely rare and highly valued enough to purchase several seafaring vessels.  But you need only one.”

“Where did this pearl come from?” I asked, “Shouldn’t this be left in Azragoth?  To help finance the resistance?”

“As I told you, this is the spoils of your fight with the Dust Dragon.  These kinds of pearls are not of this world.  That is why they are so rare.  They could only come from a Surface Worlder.  If we tried to use it, it would signify to the buyer that we are in league with Surface Worlders.  The buyer will desire it and be willing to pay handsomely for it.  But if it comes from a Mid-Worlder, that Mid-Worlder will run the risk being followed…straight back to us.”

“But if I offer it…?  Will they know I am a Surface Worlder?”

“Every Mid-Worlder can tell you and the majority of your party are Surface Worlders.  There is no hiding it from us.  Didn’t you know?”

“I…how?”

“We see each of you, with a slight darkling shadow around you.  Apparently only Mid-Worlders can see that difference.  Whomever you deal with in this world, they will always know you don’t belong to it, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless you are somehow one of the Half-Men creatures.  But with them there is an obvious animal difference.  They have the same darkling edges.  But be that as it may…the Pearl.”

“Yes, the pearl.”

“It came from within the tongue of the Dust Dragon.  They are creatures of the between, but in this world, they are a blending of physical and supernatural characteristics.  They pearl is the only thing about them that has any redemptive worth.  As creatures of Deception are wont to do, the Pearl is the part of them that is true, the remains of the good they once were created to be by the One.  Creatures of that sort always blend a half-truth with every lie used to deceive their victims.  The pearl of their tongue forms the unflinching truth, but it is curled in their vile mouths with a lie.  This pearl came from the Dragon you slew.  We carved it out of the tongue you had severed from the beast’s mouth.  As I said this is the spoils of your kill.  It is yours to barter with.  But you need to be judicious in how you spend it.  Mid-Worlders, and Xarmnians especially will kill you and your company to possess it.  But they will think twice in doing so when they see you also are bearing an Honor Sword.  I want you to keep it secret, because of the risk it poses to you and your company, if any of the people you meet in your journey catch a glimpse of it.  Its value, however, will come in handy when and if you reach Skorlith.”

“So, what do you suggest I barter for with it?”

“With the pearl, you will need to purchase 3 things together.  A savvy sea captain’s hire, his silent discretion as to the reasons for your company’s crossing, and the seaworthy and armored vessel itself.”

“Armored?”

“Haven’t you heard the tales and legends about the Great Lake?”

“Only rumors,” I replied.

“Many of them are, but some of them are not.  There is a very ancient sea beast that swims beneath those waters.  It is called the Cetus.  It is hated by the fishermen of the seaports because it disrupts the fishing cycles.  Fishermen have come to blame their bad luck on it, though sometimes the fault is their own ignorance or poor skills.  Sometimes the Cetus can have a positive effect, causing the schools of fish to have a run that drives them shoreward.  If one knows what he is doing, a fisherman can land a great many fish during a run, provided he knows when to come back to shore.  But linger too long, and the Cetus may attack the boat.  This is why you need an armored vessel that has a strong structure and heavy defenses.  Cetus is enough of a problem, but there is known piracy plying across those waters as well.  As I said the way ahead of you has many dangers.”

“So how is the bag more valuable than the contents?”

“Ah yes.  The bag,” Mattox cleared his throat, “Hold it up, will you?”

I untied the gather string from my waist belt and handed the parcel back to him.

“The giant pearl, though valuable as I’ve said, is actually a clever distraction from the hidden value of the leather purse holding it.  See this seam here?” he indicated a joined-edge laced with a sinew and gut thread.

“The interior of the bag contains intelligence, a map of all of these lands and the Xarmnian and Capitalian territories as well as those lands which still remain outside of their reach.  There are very few of these maps in all of the Mid-World, and these were compiled over many years’ time, often at personal risk, and smuggled behind enemy territories with great pains, artifice, misdirection and sleight of hand.  Thousands would be sent to their deaths if this every fell into the hands of the Xarmnians and the secret uprising would be devastated if not crushed.  On the outside, it appears to be fool scraps of material, serving a simple purpose.  Anyone who does not know to look, will become so distracted by the contents of the bag, so they may toss it away without a moment’s thought, thinking they have with the pearl the greater treasure.  If you are every in a situation where you are waylaid for valuables, surrender the pearl, but be willing to fight to your death to keep this bag in your possession.  Let no one know of its existence, save only those in whom you have absolute faith and trust.  They too must be willing to fight to the death to keep that bag.  Once you have dispensed with the pearl, tuck the map away.  You will not need it until you get beyond the far shoreline of Lake Cascale.  After that, only unfold it in private and remove the seam.  You will need to warm the leather to reveal what has been written upon it.  Not only does it show the boundaries of the old world, before the Xarmnians and Capitalians settled here, it also shows the modern territories and their current names.  It shows troop strongholds, hidden and in the open.  It shows areas where we have our resistance fighters in place, and a single code name where, if used and within the hearing of our fighters, your traveling party will be made welcome and you will be received as an ally with those of us remaining in Azragoth.  On our recent trip into the interior and climb up to the zenith of Mount Zefat, I added my own contribution to this map and the one we retain for safe-keeping.”

“And what was that?”

“The current progress and positioning of the troops of the Xarmnian held territories and those others of their clan being led by the clandestine night movements of each of their Builder Stones.  I have indicated three possible convergent points where their movements indicate those individual clans might meet upon potential fields of battle.  If at all possible, in your quest, avoid these places as much as you can, unless you are absolutely certain that The Voice of the One is guiding you there.”

“How should we get around these places?”

“As I told you before.  Be like Caleb.  Take to the Mountains.”

“But we were warned that there are Half-men there, violent rock trolls, and followers of The Pan.”

“That is correct.  But you will need to put that Honor Sword to use.  The Pan’s kingdom is concentrated in the forests below the mountains.  The mountains themselves are the outliers of the Pan’s domain.  You may meet with resistance there, probably likely, but not in such concentrations.  But even so, if you are being led by The One, even if the mountains contained an army of giants, you would be the most protected following His direction.  Have the belief and confidence of Caleb, as he did in the days of old in the legends of The Surface World.  Nothing would stop that old man from claiming what was promised to him.  You need that kind of resolve and determination, O’Brian.  Let that flame be kindled in you and it will inspire those you lead.”

He held out his hand to me and I took it, each grasping the forearm of one another in a mutual trust.  How odd I thought, this calling and this journey of faith with its perils and triumphs and its renewal and resurrections.  Here we stood together.  Two men, who were once sworn enemies, now joined together in a mutual bond of trust.

There was nothing more to be said, and we parted ways, me heading down to join my company as we pressed forward into unknown dangers ahead, Mattox returning back to the caverns we had journeyed through to this point.  I saw him step behind a stand of trees and disappear for a moment, and then emerge from it again now mounted on horseback.  A fine gray dappled stallion standing 16 hands high at the shoulder.  A powerfully muscled animal, equipped for carrying battle armor, and a man of commanding stature.  Mattox turned the horse and waved to me once more, before disappearing into the caverns once again.

“Take your mountain,” he had told me, and I set my resolve and determined that was just exactly what I would do.

The Keep – Chapter 28

“Mattox!” I yelled, and reached for my honor sword, bearing it out with a metallic ring.

The sword did not ignite as it had before, but I took no notice of this as I swung the blade upward in a defense position, a precursory move easily shifted into an assault posture.

“This man is a traitor!  I do not know what he has told you to bewitch you all, but he is a liar and an agent of the Xarmnian Protectorate!  He is quite possibly the very reason you find them very near the back way.”

Swords and various other bladed weapons were drawn in response to my unsheathed blade, but they did not move to attack the man I accused, but rather their bearers stood together with their blades pointed at me in order to defend him.

The man who I had identified as Mattox held up his hand to still them and walked toward me amid a forest of blades, suddenly turned upward at rest position.

“That dubious honor is more likely yours and yours alone, Brian,” he spoke my name calmly as if doing so might placate me, and make my accusation seem to be a result of a mind that still had not recovered from the ordeal I had been through.

“These already know how completely I have severed all ties with Xarmnia and broken fellowship with my kinsmen.  But, there is no time for this now,” he said under his breath, low enough for only me to hear without acknowledging my charge of prior personal experience to the larger crowd gathered around us in response to the warning of Xarmnians approaching the city from the secret back trails.  He cast an accusing glance at Maeven and Christie, “They should have allowed me to see you sooner!”  Then turned his steely-eyed, focus back to me.  “All is not what it once was.  Nor what it might seem to be.  You have been away a long time.  I am much surprised to see you as well.  I thought you were dead.”

He handed me a weighted bag, with something round, slightly heavy and completely wrapped in cloth so that it could not be seen as he offered it to me.

“This belongs to you, as the spoils of your kill.  You will need it when you eventually reach the Lake Country.  Don’t reveal it to anyone and do not unwrap it except in private or with those in whom you have absolute trust.”

Anger flared and flashed in me, “Why should I take anything from your hand?!  Keep it.  I want nothing from you!”

“All the same, this is yours. Fairly won.  It is essential if you hope to cross the great Lake of Cascale to reach the Woodlands beyond and then cross the plains before the Xarmnians field their armies.  Even now that may already be too late, but it is your call to make.”

I lowered my sword, sheathed it and grudgingly took the wrapped parcel and thought to toss it away, but he grabbed my arm with a fisted gauntlet preventing me from doing so.  Our eyes locked in a tension of wills.

“You do not wish to do that.  This is highly valuable.  Do not throw it away until you have learned what it is.  Now, if you’ll excuse me there are preparations to be made before the Xarmnian Protectorate arrives and time is of the essence.”

Nem and Ezra approached us and could tell our meeting was tense and strained.

“Is there a problem here?”

Mattox released my arm, and I stepped back away from him, never taking my eyes off of him, lest he move for his own blade.

“Brian, or Mister O’Brian as I hear he is called now, and I have a history from before I came to Azragoth.  A history from my former life as a Xarmnian general.  We met, then, as enemies.  Apparently, those memories are still very fresh in O’Brian’s mind and, given their violence, I am very doubtful that he is willing to accept the possibility that a man such as I was, could ever fully be changed and remade to be anything else.”

Changed.  Remade.

The claims made by those words could not easily gloss over the raw and painful memories and suffering that I endured under the orders, thugs and yes, under the steel of this man.  The man I knew had a cruelness unlike any other I had ever known.  It was hard to see him in any other and my mind balked and revolted at the thought.  How could I extend forgiveness to such a man?  Much less how could I ever join forces with such as he?

He was known to make terrifyingly visual statements to those he captured.  To mess with their minds before throwing them in dungeons and oubliette cages, positioned within the sewer run-offs ditches beneath the cobblestone streets of Xarmnian cities.  He also did this where his troops were quartered during their conquest marches, subduing and pursuing the resistance, conquering and pillaging town after town until they succumbed and paid tribute and swore fealty to the Xarmnian Overwatch.

They drove people out of their homes, took over their lands, burned their crops, slaughtered their animals, stole whatever valuables and family heirlooms these people had, and cast them out of the cities.  Leaving them to starve and survive harsh winters, wet and rainy seasons, and dry, hot summers.  These men under Mattox’s command waited for the worst possible weather, to carry-out their forcible eviction notices with no warning or inkling of who would be their next target.  There were no appeals.  If the Xarmnians were in town, they in effect were the law.  No courts, no juries, just a forced sentencing before the Xarmnian in local command.  The Xarmnian central governing structure had grown so powerful that no one individual could stand under its ire.  There was no concept of individual rights.  Everyone under Xarmnian rule served the collective because everyone was made to depend upon it to survive.  This, in their minds, was the greater good.  Whatever township or village dared to resist the Xarmnian collective, or dared to harbor a resistor without reporting them, lived on counted and borrowed time.  And the Xarmnians would collect it back in due course, with terrible interest.

Mattox’s trademark demonstration was to enter a town in full battle armor, with a retinue of Xarmnian soldiers, and parade through the street, daring anyone to challenge or impede them.  They would ride into the most heavily populated centers of the town or village and form a ring of soldiers around the perimeter of the crowd, blocking every street or alleyway, forcing the people to press into the center of the site for their “town’s demonstration”.  Soldiers in armor would select, separate and stand behind children, their cruel hands resting on their shoulders, a vise-like grip, signifying a threat, daring the child to attempt to struggle and wrench free, forcing both parents and children alike to watch the demonstration.

Mattox was known to carry two tied baskets, which he removed from his warhorse and would set down in the middle of the circle for all of the captive audience to witness.  A macabre theater in the round.  From one basket he, with a metal sleeved gauntlet, would unfasten its catch and reach in and pull out a long, black, writhing venomous viper and cast it upon the ground.  The crowd closest to the snake may try to move back away from it but would find that the press of the crowd behind would not allow them to do so.  The leader or mayor of the town would be called forth, and if no one volunteered to identify themselves, someone at random would be selected.  A burlap sack was then thrown to the ground and the man or woman was then told to pick it up.  From the second basket, Mattox would reach in and draw out one of many mice.  The interior of the basket was sheathed in a wire mesh so that these mice could not escape their basket enclosure.  Mattox would then drop one or two mice into the burlap bag held by the leader of the town, and tell him to coax the snake into the bag he held so that the townsfolk would not be bitten.  The serpent, he said had a regular diet of live mice and would sense them.  Invariably the terrified bag holder would ask what if the snake attacked him or her.  To which, Mattox consistently replied, “Then you had better hope it prefers the mice.”

The person would then be forced to try to collect the serpent and coax it into the porous bag, whimpering and repulsed, but carefully watched by the townsfolk as to whether their leader valued their lives, the lives of their children, or his own.  In the course of the demonstration, Mattox would tell the terrified bag holder that if he allowed one or more mice to escape the bag he held, they had an even bigger bag that would hold one of the town’s children, for each mouse freed.  The burlap bag would not contain the mice for very long, so the bag holder had to be quick about it.

For those town leaders that successfully captured and lured the venomous snake into the bag, Mattox would stride forth and take the bag from its erstwhile bearer, and hold it up for all to see.  The bag would writhe and twist and jerk, as the terrified spectators looked on, tearfully imagining the fear of the trapped mice to be akin to their own.

“Let this be an example to you all,” Mattox would shout, “Xarmni is the serpent.  Those who resist us are the mice.  You are the witnesses to our power and what we can do.  Pray that you never become the mice.”  And with that he would throw the bag and its prey and predator conflict back into the serpent’s basket, to allow the snake to finish its meal in private.  The soldiers would then hold the town leader and bind them in chains, and march them through the streets as an example that the leadership of the village had been overthrown.  Then the leader would be forced to surrender his house and servants to Mattox and his men at arms, and the leader along with the leader’s spouse and children would be made to serve them as household domestic servants.  As long as the leader and his family remained servile, they would be spared their lives.  If they refused or resisted, they would be publicly hung from the city gates, their bodies left to dangle and rot over the heads of everyone coming into or going out of the town.

This was the kind of monster I was supposed to believe had a change of heart.  A man who invented ways and means of cruelty.  A favorite son of the High Court of Xarmni and their revered champion of Xarmnian might and conquest.  I could not imagine such a change in such a man.  It strained credulity to such a limit that I refused to turn my back on him for the slightest second.  How could anyone forgive such as this?  How could one forget his crimes?

Then as swift as a lightning bolt out of thin air comes a missive from the storehouse of memory into my mind.  An invisible arrow from my Surface World study of the Ancient Text.  Invisible to others here because it was not directed toward a physical and supernatural enemy from the Surface World, but directed towards my own heart.  And not launched and ready for an assault mission, but for the purposes of helping me see something I was missing in the heat of my deeply held outrage and anger.

“9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” [1 Corinthians 6:9-11 RSV]

Another verse, swiftly came alongside it, like a tugboat directing a larger ship into a narrow harbor sloop and dock.

“16 All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” [2 Timothy 3:16 KJV]

There was no doubt in my mind, that I was being reproved.  Particular phrases stood out to me from these verses and resonated a message in my quickened spirit that I, in my wrath, was attempting to deny was possible for such a hated adversary.

“And such WERE some of you.”  Though delivered to me in the quiet, still, small voice in my inner being, the implication to my mind was thunderous and almost deafening.  The “WERE” being in the past tense, was a pivotal word.  A hinge point turning the seeming finality of the first part of the verse on its head and extending hope into the deepest darkness of condemnation and despair.  A revolutionary light that pierces through all inevitability and ransomed condemned souls from their death row dungeons as they despondently counted out what remained of their days towards a very just execution.  Incomprehensible mercy, extended from a Holy and Righteous Judge, who suffered the most from their offenses and yet had astounding measures of compassion.  I realized what was being expected of me, though in my inner man I struggled mightily against it.

How was I supposed to forget all the wrong done and the evil treatment I and my friends, my brothers, and sisters in arms, had received from the hands of this hated Xarmnian?  How could I possibly forgive and extend the Grace I, myself, had been given?  Would doing so be a betrayal of their sufferings?  What sort of task must I put this man through to finally believe such a transformation was even possible?

It would take more than I could muster in myself.  I had to allow the quickening to take over once more.  To surrender my will to it, if such powerful evidences of Faith, Grace, Mercy, and Forgiveness were to be able to make me more, in the moment, than my weakened humanity could ever allow me to be.  Strangely, this test was a harder challenge to me than all of my struggles and battle below with the brutal Dust Dragon.  The vile and sinister creature undermining the city, threatening my friends, my fellow traveling companions, and our mission.

“The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.”” Exodus 14:14 NLT

Odd, how the nature of the Ancient Text shifted and directed itself to my specific situation as it came into my mind.  Like it was conversant with my predicament and conversational in a way that was uncanny and sentient.  A voice ready to speak to me, teach me, defend me, guide me and encourage me, unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  Clearly, time spent in that Ancient Text was profitable to me, because these inspired words took on life and a persona that could not be explained away.   They delivered wisdom into my soul and spirit, beckoned my body to action, and aligned me with the wisdom of The Voice of The Ancient of Days in such a personal and intimate way.  Somehow knowing me in a way I did not even know myself.  Another immutable truth, seemingly running counter-intuitive to human understanding, was that the path to victory over any enemy human or creature, any circumstance and any difficult path ahead of us, whether here in the Mid-World or in the Surface World above, lay through complete surrender to its instruction.

“12 For the word of God [is] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things [are] naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” [Hebrews 4:12-13 KJV]

As an affirmation of my thoughts, these words unfailingly came to me guiding me to understand the nature of the living word.  And too, came the following verse, affirming its authority over all realms and kingdoms to dispense with as the One saw fit to do so.  Using us as His instruments, for better or for worse, according to the degree in which we yielded to the Voice.

“17 This announcement is by the decree of the sentinels; this decision is by the pronouncement of the holy ones, so that those who are alive may understand that the Most High has authority over human kingdoms, and he bestows them on whomever he wishes. He establishes over them even the lowliest of human beings.'” [Daniel 4:17 NET]

Despite how dire the situation might seem, the One assured me that He had dominion over what would follow in the days to come, even under the threat of impending conflict between the warring nations here, the Xarmnian Protectorate now hard upon our trail and approaching the city they would soon find blocking their path and pursuit of us onward.  Though evil may rage and seem to rule and threaten us for a day or many days, there would eventually come a reckoning and a sealed and terrible judgment for them.  Those counted among them would be racing unaware to their utter doom.  Who was I to deny the possibility of redemption to one of those among them who chose, even at the last and penultimate moment to turn away from such a fate, and seek forgiveness?

It was time for me to choose.  The Xarmnians would soon reach the massive city wall standing at the edge of the forest.  Their dogs would smell the path our horses were led to around to the postern gate.  They would puzzle over the gathering of our human scents in the place that we dismounted, and they may bark furiously at the small iron door of the sally port where we entered the city of Azragoth.

They would not be certain by the behavior of the dogs whether we had entered the city or merely remounted our horses and road onward along the narrow path under the shadows of the great wall and the forest canopy to find the alternate entrance.  If the dogs found that the scents led them up to a closed postern gate, would they seek to nosily, batter it down and gain entrance…thereby, alerting us to their presence?  Or may they assume that someone inside remained and granted us entrance into the ill-famed haunted city of death and disease?  Would these, perhaps younger, Xarmnians even know and recognize the back of the city into which we had come?

There was not time enough to discuss these possibilities, for we did not know how long it had taken the messenger to receive the alert and arrive to share the news of their coming.  I would have to rely on the judgment, knowledge and tactical skill of those standing in the courtyard before me.  I would have to extend my trust to them to utilize their knowledge of the city, and their sense of anticipating the potential moves of the enemy, to bring about our next course of action.

How many trained soldiers could we call to our aid?  Did the Xarmnian’s have any idea how many strong we were?

I need not have worried.  For I soon learned that every adult in the city of Azragoth carried a weapon and was well-trained in how to use them.  Part of the reason for that was that there were traitors among the surrounding villages that did not want to see Azragoth rebuilt ever again.  These traitors had for some time sent marauding thugs into the forests to undermine the secret rebuilding efforts.  They had toppled and raided the wagons bearing building materials into the city via the old roads.  They had burned and destroyed usable woodlands, needed for timber.  They had attacked stone smiths attempting to quarry, shape and transport stones for the rebuilding until the workers who would attempt to retrieve the materials found the journey too dangerous to attempt without employing a significant amount of armed guards to do so.  Guards who were badly needed as workers to continue the secret repairs to the city.

It was only then that the pathways through the caverns beneath the city were discovered.  For all practical purposes, the attempt to repair and restore the city of Azragoth had seemed to cease.  The marauding bands, finding no further activity in the quarries soon lost interest in defending the pathways leading there.  The leaders of the thwarting effort, fearing reprisal from the Xarmnian’s for the impudence of Ezra and Nem’s restoration campaign, thought all efforts had been abandoned, so they felt no need in alerting the Xarmnians for they believed they had effectively quelled the uprising.

Little did they know that the building efforts had progressed much more aggressively since the Azragothians found ways to mine stone beneath the city without weakening its structure.  And the cavern floors and paths were graded smooth to allow wagons and carts to travel and deliver badly needed supplies into the hidden city.

Having maintained their secrecy for so long, and even with a former Xarmnian general in their midst, I had to trust them that they knew better how to handle this business.

Discernment is learning to see and perceive beyond the moment in which you stand.  To get the sense of a larger and more vast perception of reality that cannot be explained without acknowledgment of the supernatural characteristics of the life in which we live.  At last, I felt I could finally understand something of which Nell tried to tell me about her gift.  When I finally realized completeness and felt the quickening come back, I realized that I too was learning to see.

All of these thoughts seem long in the telling, but they came to me swifter than I could relate.

I nodded assent to Nem and Ezra, signifying that I would do anything they needed me to do, but they turned and sought counsel from The Eagle, General Mattox in these matters, so I was compelled to follow suit.  Grace bigger than I allowed me to release the past, at that moment, and a feeling of liberation flooded my spirit, as chains I had placed upon my soul through long-held bitterness fell away.

Mattox looked at me and I looked up and back at him and our eyes met for a moment, with some knowledge exchange that went unspoken but caused him to dip his head in understanding and look at me through different eyes, that seemed less fierce than I had imagined them before.

The wrapped parcel sack he had given me, I affixed to my belt, as an unspoken indication that I had resolved to trust according to the inner promptings of my spirit.  Mattox seemed satisfied by the gesture and then turned to all of us.

“It is not the time for revealing the secret of Azragoth to the Xarmnian guards.  They will hear from us soon enough, so it is best that Mr. O’Brian and the others of his company be taken out of the city by the secret ways through The Keep.  As Ezra has said, we should do as we have done before.  Wait and watch.  Bear arms and watch over these if they attempt to enter the city through the old ruins.  Only if it is absolutely necessary, do we engage them.  Let them look around.  Find nothing there.  Come to the realization of where they are and flee the city if they are intelligent enough to do so.  Otherwise, if forced to engage them, leave no survivors.  Kill their beasts as well.  Do we have an agreement?”

All nodded assent and signified with a fist raised to shoulder height.

“Thrax will hold the gate and station archers to the south and east watchtowers.  Let no one walk upright across the battlements.  Remain unseen.  Have the young children brought indoors into the homes furthest from the walls of the inner city.  Allow the youths old enough to bear and carry swords to stand as pages to the soldiers manning the heights.  Have them carry extra quivers to feed arrows to the archers if need be.  Draw up the tree nets from the old courtyards, and set them as covers on the stone walls in the old courts.  They will look to be mere overgrowth to an old city surrendering to the wild, but spikes within will sweep them to their deaths if the need arises.”

The soldier/messenger who had delivered the news, asked, “What of Lorgray’s company in the backwoods?”

“Lorgray and I have spoken of this possible scenario before.  He knows what to do.  They will ensure there are no stragglers left to report what may transpire.  If any Xarmnian posts are left behind, they will deal with them.  If any reinforcements follow this company, they have orders to destroy the bridges and secret way left still intact after the passage of the light-bending dragon creature.”

I weighed in, “How can we help?”

Ezra addressed my question, “Leave Azragoth to us.  It is our city and we know best how to defend it and keep its secret.  We’ve been doing it for many seasons now.  There is some great potential among your company to gain the needed skills quickly, but they still do not know our city like we do.  There will be other fights for your team to be ready for ahead of you.  I’ve given them a start, but they must acquire the additional skill in travel.  City fighting is much different than the warrior skills needed to survive the wilds of the open road.”

Maeven spoke up, “What can the Lehi and I do?”

The Eagle, Mattox, remained silent, but Nem turned to her and spoke for both of them.

“It has been decided that the time has come for you to follow Mr. O’Brian in this quest with the other Surface Worlders.”

Maeven stared at Nem and then at Mattox in shock.  She turned to Ezra, “Did you know about this?!”

Ezra reached out to take her hand and said, “Maeven” but she pulled it back, feeling betrayed by her adopted family.

Mattox, who had trained Maeven in the ways and skills of warfare, and had helped her to build up her confidence and overcome her once shy demeanor, spoke quietly to her, with a gentleness that I had a hard time imagining could have come from him.

“We spoke of this before, Maeven.  You knew this day would one day come, and you know why it is particularly important for you.  You will always carry us wherever you go, but it is vital that you learn how to return before it is too late to do so.”

Maeven breathed, inhaling deeply and exhaling as if trying to find a way to stay calm.  And something else was in her expression that I had not expected with all of the bravado that she had demonstrated before as leader of the Lehi.

Fear.

**********

We were gathered together as a company, my fellow travelers and I, joined by Maeven, Begglar, Nell and Dominic, as they had considered Nem’s and the people of Azragoth’s invitation to stay in the city, but chose to decline it, in favor of life on the open road with us.  Corimanth, elected to remain, as he had seen his share of adventure and bore the scars and wounds to show for it.  The Lehi, the specially trained elite horsemen and women, whom Maeven had led for a season, were joined back into the regiments of The Eagle, as he would have need of them in the coming days.  A detachment of The Eagle’s regiment would be left to buttress the defenses of the city’s inner walls and guard the cavern entrances below the city to ensure no further unwelcomed man nor beast would discover and enter by the secret ways.  Both Nem and Ezra had pressing duties that required them to take their leave and say their goodbyes to us and wish us well on our continuing journey into the interior of the Mid-World lands.  They said if they did not see me again in this life, they were certain to meet me again in the next one.  They spoke to each one of us individually, and to my shame seemed already to know the names of my company whom I had yet to receive.  Each was given a choice weapon from the weapons array in their armory, and Ezra seem to know instinctively which one was suited to each person’s skill potential, carriage, and bearing.  How long had they trained with Ezra while Nem and I had had our discussion and I had been rudely shown the underside of the city of Azragoth, I wondered?  Ezra had lived through many seasons as he was an aged man, but his insight and keen eye was as sharp as it ever had been.  He saw potential in people, and that made him naturally endearing, and imbued them with a confidence that they could be what he told them was possible for them.  Nem’s mind for planning and organization, was shown as he seemed to orchestrate the quick preparations for our journey onward, dispatching Azragothian citizenry to bring traveling garments and packs suited to each person to distribute gear according to each’s ability to carry it while walking.  A plan had already be set in place ahead of us, where we would rendezvous with cached supplies, be provided with horses for the plains, stable and transition from horses to wagons to bear a shipment of supplies into one of the villages in the lake district to support the resistance, and seek passage across the lake to the Xarmnian country and the forests and mountain range beyond them where the Capitalian cities resided beyond the pass and the great wall separating the two warring kingdoms.  But first we must get through the stone mountains, on the other side of the valley, before making the plains.  That trip would be dangerous, as the rocks and ledges were unstable and wild and ancient creatures lived within.  The Half-Men.  Even the Xarmnians feared and avoided the Half-Men creatures, if they possibly could.  These were the only inhabitants of the Mid-Worlds whom they did not try to conquer, or demand tribute or homage from and they did everything they could not to provoke them.  But the time for speaking of these has not yet come.  We will get to these others in due course.

When we had said our last goodbyes and thanked the Azragothians for their hospitality and for taking us into their homes and their confidences, it was The Eagle who waited, to chaperone us out of the city by the secret way.

Armed, packed, geared and loaded, we rallied to the end of the courtyard, and Mattox addressed me, as the others waved goodbye to Nem, Ezra, Corimanth and Morgrath, the captain of the city Sentries departing from the opposite end.

“We must go to The Keep.  It is the only entrance into the caves, aside from the one you and your dragon created outside the pub.”

Still feeling leery and a bit strange about the turn of events and my new commitment to extend Grace to this man, I hesitated to respond.  My suspicious mind told me that this man could still be leading us to our deaths below the city or directly into the hands of the Xarmnian Protectorate troops that had pursued us this far, but my spirit tempered these thoughts and beckoned me to remember the transformative power of the One whom I claimed had called me to this mission.  Hard as it might be, I was being led to trust him, as these Azragothians had with their secrets and their very lives.

“Is there a problem we should be aware of?”

“Your company has no idea what is ahead of them.  The Pan has savaged the woodlands cities, and you will be in grave danger going through the great stone mountains for there are many rock Trolls living there, and creatures you will have to see to believe they could ever exist.  The Half-Men have suffered bad seasons lately and they are growing more wilder than they have ever been before as their blood thirst increases.  They have even taken to eating their own kind, but would be delighted to change their current fare if they discover your company passing through their lands.  Be careful.  These are not the same creatures you and I fought in days past.  They are not so dull-witted or easily fooled.  Their animal nature still is at war with their ancient flesh of man.  And there is a sort of brimming madness about them, that has finally allowed them to subvert their bestial nature to serve the primary interests of their tormented and cursed half-human minds.  Such that, now they demonstrate a cunning deceptiveness they once did not have.  There is something else, some otherness, within them that seems to have come from the Surface World of your time.  If you have the unfortunate experience to encounter one of them, do not think you can treat them as simple-minded as we once did.  You will regret it as they close in to eat you and your company alive.”

I nodded, having had only past experience with The Half-Men creatures, and did not know they had become more trouble of late as they were always a sort of clannish reclusive bunch that shied away from heavily populated areas.

Rarely seen back then.  I knew now more than ever that Nem had done me a great service by forcing me to deal with my pursuer and thereby find the strength through the quickening once more.

“There also is another thing I may need to mention to you before we enter The Keep just ahead.”

I looked up at his suggestion and saw a great stone building reaching several stories upward, spanning several meters across, with a rampart crowning it above, and a joined tower jutting from its side ahead of us. Its base stood upon the edge of the city wall, and below in the wilder courtyard, it was festooned with purple flowers, white iron weeds, and green bushes around the sloping road and a widely paved stair.

A rook tower blocked part of my view, but Mattox saw me gape in amazement at the sheer size of the edifice and city’s stronghold.

“What is it you should tell me?” I asked after a bit.

“That you and I and all who follow us here will have to first go up to the top there before we can go down into the caves below.  It is the first test of how well your company may endure the climb in the mountains beyond.  There are stairs in the adjoining tower there that lead upward.  But the one and only descending stair that leads down into the caverns below begins at the top of the turret battlement.  There is a winch and pulley system that allows heavier gear to be lowered below, but it is not intended for people.  There are granary chutes where grains gathered below are poured into the cavities of one of the hollow towers within, but it is filled with grain such that the inner stairway only goes down to the level of the grain stored within.  All lower levels are filled with the tonnage of grain, allowing us to survive and make bread enough for a city under siege and walled secretly within.  The Keep serves as our main storehouse and is our way into and out of the city, save by the old unused paths through the outer gates.”

It took us over an hour’s long journey to make the ascent and finally descend into the caverns below the city.  By the time we reached the cavern floor, we were exhausted from such a climb.  If climbing and descending the stairs of a tower was this tiring to us, I could scarcely imagine what a climb through the mountains ahead of us might be like.

As we filed through the corridors and tunnels, where I had once tracked and fought the dust dragon, I had the uneasy feeling that something was still left unsettled.  We passed a partially collapsed tunnel that I felt somehow drawn to.  It may have been this place where I first encounter the Dust Dragon, but I could not be sure.  I raised my torch and saw a little of the interior beyond which looked to be filled with stalagmite columns, so I dismissed it as being nothing more than that.  Much to my regret, I would later learn differently.  That I should have followed that urging in my inner spirit to take the time to investigate.  But, I did what most of us have done many times when we feel a particular prompting.  I dismissed it, and rationalized it away.  There was some connection between that interior and the dust dragon, I could sense that strongly.  But, Mattox and Nem both had assured me that the creature was dead, that by cutting out its tongue I had ensured that it would never rise to hunt us again.  It had died, not from the fall that broke its back, but from the poison it had ingested flowing from its own tongue.  This was after all, a spawn representative of Deception.  A kind of beast roaming the outer ring between our Surface World and this one.  As Surface Worlders pass through the portal, they invariably permit one or more of these supernatural set of creatures to follow them into this one, because of the blood curse that is upon all mankind.  That, Mattox said it the reason why Mid-Worlders are reluctant to welcome a Surface Worlder visit.  The baggage they bring with them is more often than not something sinister and supernatural.  That is why very, very few portals were permitted to remain after the Earth’s great flood.  Why the surface of the Earth was reshaped by the megatons of water bursting from both the firmament below and the sky above.  The Great Sculptor was taking the clay and reshaping it using both physical and Living Waters.  The path of light and its connection with gravity, no longer gave entrance easy entrance into the mid-world lands through the places among the stars.  The physical path to the Holy Mountain was forever closed to all mortals.  The One Way, chosen by mankind was through the paths of pain, suffering and death until all corruption falls away and only the eternal part of man remains.  The Doorway to the Holy Mountain, and to the Throne of the Creator remains open only through One Way, and One Man who paid a terrible price for that entryway to remain open to all mortals of Earth.  A joining into the Vine and a fellowship of Spirit made knew.  Man must be reborn to see hope, and must be cleansed of all mortal and soulish corruption to survive a face to face meeting with his Maker.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t for the purposes of the story, reveal what was in the corridor that I did not investigate.  But this far in, I feel like I should.  What I had believed to be stalagmites, were rank upon ranks of standing pillars.  Each standing pillar was composed of a curing mud and clay mixture, each of varying height, and girth.  If the light had found its way into the chamber, the rows and rows of pillars would look vaguely familiar.  Each stood in regimental attention, with roughly human features, akin to the terracotta statues of warriors standing in rank in ancient burial tombs, waiting to serve, in a future afterlife, the eternal spirit of the warlord or king whose human remains had been entombed there, upon his day of resurrection.  The arms, legs, and torso of each figure were compressed as if the body form was bound in a sort of clay cocoon.  The faces of each of these statues lacked definition as if these were metamorphosing into individuals which awaited something further to happen.  Some catalyst to complete their final transformation.  Four of these statues had progressed from their transitional state into a more advanced stage of definition.  The clay and dust, flakes and silently drifted to the floor.  These were identical in height and form, arms and legs, chest and shoulders defined with uncanny and eerie detail.  Like the other hundred or so forms beyond them, only their faces lacked definition, but that was beginning to change as well.  In time, these would be able to stand across from me on any field and within any room, and I might only mistake them for a moment as being a mere reflection of me in a mirror.

The Dust Dragon has evidently been beneath the city of Azragoth before, and this legion of transforming statuary had been the product of its consuming the rock and earthen foundations of the city above it.  The formations had passed through its mouth and been through the mixer of its unique salivary wash, formulating a clay-like substance called Marl that could then be reshaped into a hollow, bloodless husk that approximated human form.  The word for such malleable clay-like form was a golem.  The golems formed and expelled through the creatures molding gills, awaited only one more component to give them the semblance of life, so that they could pass for and walk among humans.  A breath.  A spirit and some form of intellect, which would infuse them, and interact with others in such a subtle way that those they walked alongside might never know their sinister secret and difference.  These were why the Dust Dragons and the wind spirits, we came to call Banshees, had such a unique and symbiotic relationship.  The wind spirits needed bodies, the Dust Dragons could formulate them at a cost.  The Banshee who takes and inhabits a body formed by a Dust Dragon, must serve at the bidding of the Dust Dragon as its agent and slave.  But most often, the creature’s interests were one and the same.  Deceive and torment the citizens of the Mid-World, and particularly target any visitor to these lands coming from the Surface World.  These especially must never, ever discover who they really are or what they are meant to become, nor meddle too much in the affairs of the peoples of these lands.

The regimental lines of faceless golems awaited within the dark stillness of the caverns.  Without the Dust Dragon to mentally summon the Banshees, the wind spirits rarely if ever blew through the cavernous underground to be able to reach these golems.  But as we proceed along, under the city towards the secret way through the surrounding forest, I distinctly remember feeling an oddly chilling breeze at my back.  Had I but investigated the rooms, and seen the figures standing there, awaiting faces, I would have been able to displace them all into dust with a mere touch of the honor sword.  As it was, however, and in my ignorance, I took the only known honor sword in the area (for many of them had been lost, destroyed or repurposed to serve some more obsequious purpose), and bore it with me on a quest into the interior, and considering what was ahead of us and behind us, perhaps never to return to Azragoth again.

 

 

 

The Return of The Eagle – Chapter 27

The supernatural arrows flashed as they sped through the air, hissing with a kinetic energy that blazed through the visible and invisible spectrum of all light.  With razor precision, they found their marks even as the beast twisted away from the threat they posed.  One buried itself in the corner of its jaw, piercing its scaled lip, and lodging in its blackened gums.  The other glanced off its hard beak-like proboscis, and entered the flared slit of a nostril, causing it to ululate with an ear-splitting shriek and roll violently, thrashing and whipping its bladed tail, scattering rocks and debris as it raged.  For a fraction of a second, hunting for an opening I found the moment I had been waiting for.  The dust dragon’s serpentine tongue unfolded from the cleft in its open maw, seeking to dislodge the arrow that had pinned its lip to its gum, it vile sulfurous breath whistling like a gale past the arrow lodged in its nostril.  The creature rolled on its back over the crumbling mound of rock, twisting and shrieking like a dog with back fleas, its large talons raking the air and walls like the harvesting blade of a grim reaper.

I mounted the hill again, seeking a way through the slashing claws, trying my best to avoid the obsidian eye that was soon to find me and focus this terrible rage on my person.  Its jaw was agape, unable to break the shaft of the arrow of truth that prevented it champing and gnashing its dangerous, rock-cutting teeth.  I held the honor sword in my right hand, slashing my way towards its twisting head, avoiding the jutting spikes that could skewer me in an instant.  My attacking sweeps failing to connect and break through its scaled skin and tough hide, making my approach much more difficult.

The beast’s body slammed against the stones, sending jagged fragments spinning and rocketing into the air as its crushing weight broke the larger stones apart.  A sharp fragment of flint caught me in the torso, cutting through my tunic, abrading my ribs and cutting a shallow gash into my side.  I felt the wet heat of my blood flow down my side, the abrasions burning as if I had been stung by an angry swarm of hornets.  The dragon tried to snap at my arm, as I hammered the honor sword into its beaded fleshy gill, trying to get closer to its mouth and cleave its dervish tongue.

A powerful claw dug deeply into the ground next to me, its talons grasping and burrowing into the sand.  Its body contorted like a cat’s and righted itself, the other foot and claws slamming down on the opposite side of its body and its tail gathered in double-arcs below.  The force of the forelegs hitting the rocks shook the mound upon which we fought and I stumbled, grazing the side of my head as I fell, knocking the wind from my lungs.  I lay gasping, knowing that at any second the creature could take my life.  My pulse pounded like a kettle drum in my ears, my muscles, starved for oxygen, made it hard to make my limbs move enough to scramble to safety.  The end would be swift, I hoped.  Otherwise, I would slowly bleed out, with parts of my body crushed, should the creature thrash about once more.

But that was not what it had in mind.  Its intent was far worse.

The coiling tail flexed, its forearms crouched gathering power and positioning the weight of the monster for a mighty lunge upward.

“no, no, no, No, NO, NO!” I heard my own voice gaining in volume as oxygen returned to my lungs.

With the strength that remained, I twisted and pulled my knees under me, my free hand pulling my body up on the boulder that I had clipped on my way down, fingers sliding in a slickness where my head had struck.  I could not let this monster get into the city above.

Abandoning all caution or thought of self-preservation, I gained my feet, setting my bruised and bloody side afire in pain.  Adrenaline pumped into my arms and legs, like a fuel injection system, and my battered form raced forward in spite of the pain and I leapt onto the fringed neck of the creature, striking its hard-plated flesh with my sword, pummeling it with my free fist trying everything I could to keep it from what it was about to do.

My left fist was raw and bloodied, because the hide of the beast was like that of a coarse grit sandpaper, and had no feel of muscle or soft tissue below it.  I grasped at anything I could, flailing with the honor sword, but gaining control again and beating upon the beast with the flat of the blade since the edge and point could find no soft entry.  In an instant, my fingers closed around the bristling shaft of the arrow that had materialized out of the words of truth that I had brought to mind.  As my grip closed, I felt the ground beneath me suddenly fall away, and my arm was very nearly pulled

From its shoulder socket.  Two verses, quick as thought, raced through my mind as the pain of the pull nearly cause me to lose consciousness.

“4 (For the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)” [2 Corinthians 10:4 KJV]

“11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” [Isaiah 55:11 NIV]

Such pain as I had never felt before, burned due to the torque and twisting of my arm and from the pull of my body weight downward.  My feet dangled as the ground fell away, and my sword arm flailed, yet, my unyielding left fist clung unrelentingly to the shaft of the arrow in its cheek. Pain threatened to cloud my mind with dark oblivion, as I was wrenched back and forth, as the beast caught itself on the edges of the cavity created by the collapsed ceiling and with powerful arms and claws dug upward into the narrowing shaft above.

The light streaming in from the hole around the buried outside wall and the cellar room interior, now darkened with the door closed, was still above us about forty feet in distance.  A considerable amount of rock and earth had fallen from the cavity crater which had formed the mound of rock and debris piled on the tunnel floor below us, yet the cavity narrowed the closer it came to the surface.  At some point soon, the monster would have to dig the rest of the way through to get into the city, and as the walls of the chute rapidly narrow around us, I knew I would be crushed against the walls as soon as the dust dragon drove its head into the tightening space and had to eat away the earth to move ahead.  With an arrow bristling from its nostril, I wondered if the beast would be able to clamp its nose shut against the dust that would inevitably clog its airways, and with the arrow lodged in its jaw, I wondered how well it could eat through the earth and expel it out of its gills, if the creature had difficulty closing its mouth.  Did this beast even feel pain?  Of course, it did.  That is why the raging and writhing occurred when those arrows struck, but I wondered about the true nature of that pain.  Was it physical alone, or some other part of its being feeling these piercings in a way I could not easily imagine.

I swung my honor sword upward, grateful for the binding of the bloodline to my wrist and forearm.  Without this binding, I knew I surely would have dropped this weapon long before now.  I needed to wedge the sword into the hinge of the beast’s jaw to relieve the weight of my entire body hanging from my left arm alone.

The creature’s powerful arms and claws pushed and dug into the ceiling chute walls, creating a lunging upward and downward motion, tossing my body upward with momentum fighting the pull of gravity.  The temporary weightlessness allowed me to slash the sword sideways, over the beast’s auguring teeth and into the corner of the creature’s gaping mouth.  The slinging motion propelled my body over the arc of the sword, aided by an upward thrust forearm, giving me a temporary foothold, and I was able to swing my body into the creature’s gaping mouth, barely avoiding its jagged teeth.

As I may have stated before, the creature’s head was about the size of a serial killer’s panel van, and its mouth was nearly the size of its cargo area.  So there I crouched, in what felt like this killer’s bloody abattoir, rocking from side to side, as its enraged driver rocketed through the ever-narrowing tunnel like a madman.  I freed my honor sword from it clamped jaw, just as I heard a sickening wet noise in the roof of the creature’s mouth directly overhead.  Its slimy black tongue was being freed from the flapped cavity and with it, the back of the creature’s throat, previously clamped shut, was opening up like a dank, vile smelling, dark chasm.  Evidently, its gullet and digestive track were not involved in its consumption and expulsion of dirt and rock, for the channels routing to the creature’s acidic salivary wash and crushing gill slits were being diverted in favor of a pathway through its razor-lined gullet directly into the pit of its vile, stomach.

The tongue of the beast felt horrid, and there was something round and hard buried within its oily, mucous covered black flesh.  The creature used its tongue for more than just detecting scents.  The embedded stone was used as a wrecking ball to smash and pulverize whatever unfortunate victim found itself way into its mouth.  The first pass of the tongue rapidly acquainted me with these features as it whipped around and struck me with an incredible force that cracked one of my ribs with an audible snap.  I gasped and fell to my knees, the sharp pain blinding me for an awful dark fraction of a second, that felt like all time and existence had stopped.

My honor sword blazed anew and I felt the overwhelming power of the quickening surge within me, sending fiery pulses into my aching muscles such that I was numbed to the former pain.  The quickened energy crackled along the blade, igniting the runes and tracery with white fire, and my right arm was in motion before I was even aware of it.  My blade struck the dragon’s tongue arresting its movement, the edge of the blade searing and cleaving through the thickly muscled meat and colliding with the stone-like sphere inside it.

Black, oily blood gushed forth from the cut, a deluge of foul-smelling liquid heat, engorged the creature’s mouth, streaming down into the back of its open throat, soaking me in stinking sewage.  I felt the creature tremble and wretch, and its body convulsed as its gaping jaws, at last closed over me, shutting out all light, enveloping me in smothering and seemingly final darkness.  In a shuddering, fleshy cocoon that I believed to be my coffin, I felt the monster’s forward momentum slip.  My body became weightless for an instant, and then we both began to fall backward, me trapped within the tumbling beast as it rebounded off of the tunnel walls, into the abyssal depths below.

*************

Underground Image-05

*************

I do not know how long it was before I was found.  The last I remembered was the fall, and sickening feeling of being pulled backward by gravity into the abyss.  Whether it was the abyss within the creature’s stomach sluiced along by the stream of black blood jetting out of its tongue, or the abyssal pits in the tunnel network beneath the city of Azragoth, with my body still trapped within the creature’s closed mouth, I could not tell.  I did not remember the actual impact as we hit the floor of the caverns, because the smell of the gorged death coming from the creature’s belly overwhelmed me and I lost consciousness.

When I regained awareness, I was being turned over and wiped down, the vile black blood cleared from my face, hair, and beard.

“Where am I,” I croaked.

“Lie still, Mr. O’Brian,” a woman’s voice spoke, “You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

Disoriented, I tried to sit up but felt a severe flash of white-hot pain take my breath away.

“I said, lie still!” she scolded, “Do that again and I’ll have them tie you down.  You’ve got some bruised ribs if they are not broken.  You’re lucky they didn’t pierce a lung.  You’ve got multiple abrasions and contusions, a shallow gash down your left side and you’ve lost quite a bit of blood.  I’m not sure what this crap is all over you, but I’ll bet it does no good for your open wounds.  Your left arm had been pulled out of the socket, but I had the guys help me get it popped back into place while you were still unconscious.  You can thank me later.  Now do what I say and keep your butt in bed for a few days, until we can get you thoroughly cleaned up and bandaged.”

I started to say something but she shut me up.

“Argue with me, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.  I’m a She-Bear, remember?”

Christie, my mind formed the name, and I realized, that somehow, I had been found and carried out of the underground and back up into the city.  I was in a room I did not recognize, and a steady cooling breeze blew in from an open window.  I could see that the honor sword lay on a table not far from me, its scabbard cleared of all cavern dust, its metal cap, hilt or cross-guard and surfaces cleaned and buffed to a restored polish.  No trace of the gore remaining on the scabbard, hilt or bloodline sash, now wound back neatly around the cross-guard posts.  The very sight and knowledge that it was within reach comforted me and set my mind at ease.

“How did you find me?”

“Find you?” Christie laughed, “You and that dragon scared the living you know what out of the townsfolk.  It wasn’t that hard to find you.”

I learned from Christie that the conflict below had drawn a crowd, as soon as the story of a certain pub owner and his wife came running in a panic into the Warrior’s Court, crying about a monster in their cellar who ate a gaping hole in the floor.  No one could make sense of what they were saying, with the husband and wife talking over one another, the man in befuddled shock and the woman crying and shouting for someone to help them save their food stores.  It took some doing, but Ezra and his attendants finally got them calmed down enough until they began to make more rational sense.

The husband had been sent by his wife down into their food cellars to bring up a bottle of wine and some cured pork for some of their guests.  When the man returned empty-handed and white as a sheet, his wife had a fit, called him a catalog of names, and attempted to go down herself, but her husband was adamant that she didn’t, insisting there was something down there she did not want to encounter.  Unable to stop her, however, she marched down to the basement and threw open the door.  The people up in the restaurant above and the people two streets over said they could hear the scream.

Townsfolk came to their aid, but not before the man and his wife had rocketed out of the lower stairwell and rounded the corner of their pub, almost falling into the sinkhole crater that gaped along the side of their building.

A terrible noise arising from the hole suddenly suggested to other townsfolk that the pub owners had the right idea.  Some fled the area with them, while others gaped and gawked trying to figure out what was going on below.

The hysteria of the couple might have been dismissed, had it not been for the other townsfolk who arrived shortly thereafter to corroborate their story.  At least to the point in which there was definitely something going on beneath the city of Azragoth and there was a gaping hole next to the wall of the couple’s Alehouse, and just as probably there was a portion of that same gaping hole that extended under their lower cellar rooms.

The warriors were quickly assembled, and my company fell in along the quick procession to the alehouse and pub belonging to the couple.  What they witnessed from above was the noises of a protracted battle, as the creature below writhed and wretched, and stumbled about in a blind stupor, after having crashed back down to the floor of the tunnel, and then further through that floor to a further cavern below it.  The force of its final crash had broken the creature’s backbone, and it had expelled what was evidently my battered body upon the embankment of a deep, cave pool of boiling hot water.  The pub owner, one Jalnus Freeweather, had insisted that he had seen a man down there with the creature, but his wife, Dabney said that he was prone to seeing things once he’d had a pint or three.  Nem was told of what transpired, and, to Christie’s mind, seemed not to shocked by it, and conceded that a party should be sent down to find the man that Jalnus had spoken of.  In fact, he said that one was already within the caves and should find out soon enough.  And that, of course, is how I was found and recovered and brought back up into the city.  And, by the way, did I know that the Eagle had landed?

I blinked.

“What?”

Christie laughed, “C’mon, you know. The Eagle has landed.”

When my face also clouded with befuddlement, she sighed and clarified, “One small step for man…?  The Apollo program.”

“Oh, I get it.  In the uh…” I gestured upward.

“Back in the Surface World, yeah.  But not exactly.  The moon landing.  Don’t you know your own history?”

“Of course, but I’ve kind of had the history of this place in the forefronts of my mind lately.  Especially since a part of it almost ate me.”

She laughed, “Well at least it seems your sense of humor is returning.  That’s a good sign.”

“Christie, how do you…I mean…how am I…?”

She was always quick on the uptake, I remembered, and able to complete my thought, even though I had difficulty formulating it.

“How do I know about your condition and how to treat you?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Because, back in the Surface World, I am a registered nurse and I am good at it.  Besides having two exceptional children who had their share of scrapes cuts and bruises growing up, and two very big brothers who I took care of as their big sister, I have been around enough broken bones, barbed wire cuts, pocket knife injuries, and a few kicks by the horses to have seen my fair share of nursing before I even got into the profession.  Years of field work had already prepared me for this.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“There’s quite a bit you don’t know about us, Mr. O’Brian.  Maybe you should just ask.  Get to know all of us a little before we go off on this quest.”

I smiled.  “You do get right to the point, don’t you.”

She smiled back.  “I’ve always been sort of a get to the point, no nonsense, girl, Mr. O’Brian.  It’s called being a straight shooter, where I come from.”

“And once again, you couldn’t be more right.  It is time I got to know all of you a little better.”

She stood up and tossed the wet and blackened cloth, she had been cleaning me up with into a pail in the corner of the room.

“First things, first, Mr. O’Brian.  Let’s have another look at that wound on your side, then you’ll need to get some rest.  The one they call the Eagle has been eager for you to awake, but I have kept him out for now.”

“Why does he want to speak with me?”

“He says, you’ve met before.  But under very different circumstances.  He doesn’t want to alarm you if you see him first, so he has asked that I tell him the moment you wake up and have him summoned here, at once, before you get out of bed.”

My hand slipped under the coverlet of the bed I was lying on, as she pulled the sheet down from my torso, and examined my bloodied gash, wetting another linen cloth with a bottle of spirits, intending to wash out the wound further.

My hand surreptitiously felt down under the sheet confirming what I suspected, while she was preoccupied with cleaning the gash.

“Christie?”

“What is it?” she asked, mopping dried blood away, and tossing yet another filthy cloth into the waste pail, and then wetting another fresh cloth with the spirits.

“What have you done with my pants?”

As if in answer, she pressed the spirited cloth into the encrusted wound, causing me to gasp.

“Trust me, Mister O’Brian.  They were burned along with everything else you were wearing.  You will never want to be wearing those again.  Now shut up and lie still.  She-Bear.  Remember?”

**************

I was only able to rest for a few days more before the word reached the man called the Eagle that I was up and convalescing.  On the day, I was to receive him, my wounds had begun to heal, and I had been treated with poultices, and herbs, and various and sundry medicines procured from the local apothecary and from field herbs that both Maeven and Christie brought in for my own good.  I was given a new shirt, and had pants tailored for me, and was given a sort of jacket with buckles to continue the healing progress of my broken ribs.  According to Christie and Maeven, two of the most well-meaning but bossiest nurses when both of them were together that I had ever been under the charge of, I was not permitted to travel for at least another three weeks and not so much as look at a saddled horse for another four.

But that was not meant to be.  When I was finally temporarily discharged from their infirmary, based upon my own recognizance and the oath of good behavior, I was led and helped into the town courtyard for a meeting with the Eagle.

But no sooner had I arrived for the meeting when there arose a shout with news we had feared hearing.

“There is movement in the backwoods!”

A messenger from one of the outer wall posts came running across the courtyard with news that sent chills through all of us.  “They are a half league’s distance, following the trail of our guests.  The scouts heard their dogs in the woods.  It is the Protectorate.”

“What will we do?”

“We shall do as we have done before,” Ezra answered, “Wait and watch.  Arm and hold our position.”

“The dogs will either lead them to the sally-port or the postern gate.  Both are watched from cover and heavily fortified,” Nem added.

“How many strong?”

“About twelve all told—four on horseback and eight afoot.”

“Who have we got manning the gate?”

“Captain Thrax and company.  Lorgray’s men are stationed near the outpost at Trathorn falls and stand ready to close up the rear flank at your word.”

Maeven stepped forward, “The Lehi and I stand at your service.  Tell us what needs to be done.”

And beyond them, a man I had long thought was dead, stepped forward, bearing a breastplate insignia emblazoned with an Eagle, talons forward in attack flight.

A man I knew to be a brutal Xarmnian warrior.

The Dragon in the Darkness – Chapter 26

I heard the sounds of running water as it sang in whispers and trilled over stones on either side of me.  I could feel the steam off of the water in calcifying and bubbling pools to my left and a warbling chill from a shallow brook to my right.  The blade of the honor sword glimmered from a circulating light emanating and throbbing from within, igniting the fiery runes engraved and etched into its shaft, making them seem to move up and down the blade like the burn of a crackling fuse.  The honor sword, to the eyes of an ancient man, would appear to be a blade on fire.  Yet the power did not come from the blade itself, but through it, and through me.  I could even feel the pulsing of it coming through the bloodline tether bound to my arm, as if it had transformed into a conduit network of throbbing veins and arteries supplying blood and oxygen to my extremities and the blade itself, readying them both for battle.

My senses seemed sharper, as I cautiously moved over broken stone, proceeding deeper into the tunnels.  What once was opaque darkness that hungrily devoured all light filtering in from the land above, now seemed to be bathed in a grayish half-light that allowed me to make out a washed-out pathway across the tunnel floor.  A great deal of water had once passed through this area, and its unleashed weight cut uneven fissures through the dirt and rock.  Each step I made was calculated, careful and quiet, so as not to arouse the suspicion of the quarry I sought.

There was a presence.  An otherness that I could feel was somewhere ahead, but I could not get a specific fix on exactly where.  It seemed to shift its locale in a sort of undulating fashion.  Its movements felt fluid, yet in some ways furtive, as if constantly testing its surroundings for a bearing.

I could not explain it, but whatever it was, the creature ahead seemed to smell me, yet in some diffuse fashion as if it was confused by the scents it was picking up.  It wasn’t long after this, that I finally heard its movements up ahead and to the left of me.  Perhaps one hundred feet or more judging by the sound alone.

Clink, clink, snap.  A popping noise, as if rocks were being dislodged as something large wove in and out around the pillared mound stones, crushing and pulling loose gravel with it.  Sounds of rocks falling upon other rocks struck with a tumbling series high and brittle notes like the sound an old bamboo wind chime might make, swaying from a tree branch on a blustery Fall day.

Though I could not see the creature clearly, I was given the sense that it was of some length, perhaps somewhere between twenty to thirty-five feet, with a series of bony spines and thick scales running along its body.  My mind wanted to think of dragons of mythical lore, but that did not feel entirely right.  There was a suggestion of a burrowing reptilian about it, but more along the lines of a serpent than that of any known lizard variety.

Try as I might, I still could not see it ahead.  It was almost as if it was camouflaging itself, biding its time to strike out at me from the shadows.  I imagined the flare of the circulating light from my sword would expose me as soon as I stepped out to confront it, so I kept the blade blocked behind my body as I crouched and crept forward.  The thing had moved under the daylight in invisibility.  Nem had called its invisibility something, that I struggled to remember because it was so briefly mentioned.  Ah, yes.  He’d called it a Light-bender, when he’d spoken of Azragoth’s inner walls being covered in pitch.  It had not been so much that the creature was transparent in some magical way but merely had the ability to bend light around it somehow, to give off that kind of illusion.  To do something like that, the creature’s surface skin had to have some sort of polish about it, a sort of mirror-like plating, that confused the eyes of those witnessing its approach.

In the darkness, there was no available ambient light to bend, save in what was emanating from the honor sword I kept outstretched and hidden behind me.  At most, I would be a backlit silhouette moving toward it, if perchance it had spotted me, but somehow, I didn’t feel like it had yet.  It would know me, and I intuitively knew I would recognize it, though I had never witnessed anything like it before.

Glancing slightly downward, carefully placing my feet as I moved stealthily forward, I noticed the sheen of an oily, mucus-like substance, winding and arcing about over the rocky cavern floor.  I crouched down to touch some of the viscous substance and could feel a tingling and burning sensation in my fingertips.  Whatever this creature might be, it was leaving a sort of wet trail as it went, perhaps excreting this substance to allow its large body to glide across the tunnel floors without attracting too much noise as it hunted and probed the darkness.

I realized that if I could catch the wet glistening of it from the patterns it subscribed over the floor, I might be able to track it from behind.  Provided it did not double-back on me.

That thought gave me pause, and for a moment, it felt like the glow of the honor sword dimmed for just a brief second.  But I pushed the thought aside with the trace memory of a verse from the sustaining words:

4 Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff; they comfort me.  [Psalms 23:4 CSB]

The staff, curved with a hook, keeps the wayward sheep from straying and snatches it away from the path of danger.  The rod, a long cudgel, is used to beat back any enemy that threatens the life of the sheep.  But most of all, the sheep know the kindness and the over-watching nature of their shepherd’s voice which guides them through dark valleys on their way to pastoral green fields and along embankments beside still waters.  The Shepherd could be trusted.

I followed onward, sensing that the creature might be moving away from me, but uncertain whether this was so.  I only had Nem’s speculation as to how long this thing had been down here and did not know if its destructive rampages were caused by disorientation or by some vengeful awareness of the prey it had pursued above.  Nem had said that this creature was linked to me.  If it was, or ever had been, it was so no longer.  It had lost its hold on me, and even though I was closer to it now, at least in my mind, it had yet to find me and it seemed confused by its inability to link to my mind again.  Not just confused.  Angry.  Extremely angry and petulantly throwing an enraged fit.  Lashing out at the foundations of the city above, unable to break through the ceiling of the cavern, or find a way up the walls to burrow through to the homes above.

Suddenly there was a loud staccato sound as if metal tines were raked, scoring and skipping across rough granite, tearing loose gravel and hammering against some barrier, that cracked and filled the air with dust and falling debris.  An ululating, bass rumble came from within the noises of breaking stone, and clouding earth sloughing off of the cavern walls.  The floor seemed to shake with the violence of the impacts, and there was a thudding and swirling of air as something the size of a tree trunk whizzed destructively overhead, slamming into a tunnel wall, collapsing a ceiling and partially burying the striking limb of the beast in tons of rock, gravel, and sand.  The supporting earthen pillar near the fallen shelf of ceiling rock appeared to shrug under the added weight conceded by the fallen support column, but for the present, it valiantly bore the added burden surrendered by the fall of its twin.  The tunnel was not completely buried such that it was impassable, but if the remaining column failed, that passage would immediately collapse.

The creature was, for the moment pinned, on the other side of the tunnel and it would only be a matter of moments before it might struggle free.

If I was to, at last, see and subdue this creature, or hope to kill it, now would be my best opportunity.

I brought the honor sword forward so that it illumined the ground underneath me.  Wet viscous ooze, showed the path that the creature had taken, and the weight of the beast, despite the secretions, still dug a pressure furrow in the dirt that was at least five-foot-wide in girth.  Nem was right.  This creature was very big, and by the cracking of stone over which it had passed, I could tell that it weighed more than I had even suspected.

I scrambled up onto the hills of debris and broken rock that partially blocked the tunnel that had lost part of its ceiling.  The mount upon which I climbed lurched, and I felt the evidence of incredible strength as the buried limb of the beast stirred, flexed and curled, working its way loose of its temporary grave.  Dust and silt clouded the stale air, blanketing the shifting surfaces upon which I had ascended.  A series of small quakes threatened to topple me, and I leaped from stone to shifting stone, avoiding the sucking fissures breaking apart and refilling with dirt and gravel.  The grit and powder stirring in the air, dimmed all visibility, yet the pulsing light from the honor sword seemed to sift the clouds away, allowing me to quickly find my way over the summit of the mound, and ride the sliding stones down its leeward side.  Somehow, I maintained my precarious and teetering balance, as large slabs of shale rocked and spun and jostled into one another, moving from atop the lurching ones to those with less of a spin.  A perimeter of gathering scree rimmed the bottom of the fallen ceiling and as a particularly large semi-flat stone slid downward to the gathering edge, I leapt from it to the sloping tunnel floor the momentum forcing me down into a spring-heeled crouch, my arc lighted blade held before me in guard position.  It was then that I first saw a part of the partially buried creature.

The limb, a long massive column of rock-like plates and spines, tore free of the top of the mount, thrashing and shedding dust and debris as it writhed and twisted with fury.  Rocks seemed to break apart beneath it as it slammed the mound, and gravel spit out like a shrapnel assault.  Its spines appeared to have a metallic luster, the polished sheen reflecting and bouncing the light back from the sword I held forth.  Furious as the creature was, the light from the honor sword seemed to burn it, such that it shrank back and moved away from each scintillation that illuminated its oiled and lustered scales.  With such movements, I moved away for cover, lest it should launch its self from the mound and set another crashing of stones and earthen walls down upon us.

Another thirty feet backwards, into the tunnel, I turned fully, having never looked away from the creature for more than a few seconds as I moved out of immediate striking distance.  It was then that I saw a lone beam of daylight pierce through the fogs of dust, and provide a darkling silhouette of the creature’s head suffused in tanned billows of dust as it rose over the top of the mounds of broken earth.  As the dust began to settle, the creatures horned head shook from side to side, freeing its crown of stones and loosed earth.  Its head bristled with silvered spines, as if it was no mere creature, but an amalgam of both monstrous machine and prehistoric behemoth.  Its maw opened and coughed out a bulldozer scoop of dirt on crushed stones as if it had been chewing its way through the tunnels.  Large gill slits fanned out from behind its massive jaw spraying forth clouds of dirt backwards and away from its hoary head, making the creature seem somehow akin to a large fish of sorts.  Strangely enough, as it cleared its throat of gobs of sands its teeth seemed to torque in their jaw settings, as it clenched and unclenched its massive jaws.  The idea that it chewed its way through the tunnel system, I realized, might be closer to the truth than speculation as I’d thought.  Mesmerized, I gaped and stared at it, for a moment more.  Its head was the size of a van or mini-bus.  Its fringed crown sparkled as if it had some embedded diamond coating, gilding the cutting edges of each twisted spire.  And then I saw its eyes.

They had been closed and shrouded under some nictitating membrane like a shark would have.  They were oblong and bulged outward under a set of spiny scales that formed an epicanthic fold, preventing grit from gathering under its leading corner as it moved underground digging in pursuit of its prey.  I do not know what I expected to see in those eyes.  Perhaps irises flowered with pedals of golden flame.  Blood red pools with the black spiked talon of a pupil.  I don’t know.  But somehow these were worse than my imagination could conjure up.  They were at one moment completely obsidian, and then in a blink appeared human with an icy blue flecked iris that gave one the feeling of frosts chilling the skin.  A bright white sclera, like a cue ball, peeked around the corners of the irises, appearing in each corner below the eyefolds.  Had I just witnessed an illusion or a trick of the dim light?  These were black at first, weren’t they?  Had they changed, somehow?  The creature chuffed making a popping noise, like that of a shotgun going off.  Those flat bladed teeth in its maw twisting with its jaw movement.  A viscous ooze gathered in a drool, wetting its maw and the leathery tongue that descended out of a cleft in the roof of its mouth.  A sound, like that of the popping of a semi-tractor trailer’s airbrakes being down-shifted, erupted from the descending blackness of its throat.  Its eyes blinked black again, and I felt it find me, standing below about and about fifty feet away from its perch above the mound.  The light shaft above it seemed to pierce glass-like through its skin in patches, where the dust had not fully settled and blanketed its form.  The creature’s body suddenly convulsed and its scales separated in some kind of inhalation and exhalation, causing them to weep out an oily substance that cleared the dust from its skin.  It was becoming more and more translucent as if the creature was beginning to vanish before my very eyes.

The creature glared at me, its eyes strangely shifting between blinks from black to the iced blue, with a round widening pupil probing me for some kind of psychic weakness.  I could feel it reaching out, attempting to assault my mind with accusations and condemnation, but the voices were guttural and muted, as if I could only hear them through deep water.  A prurient watery echo, garbled this mental assault and I silently prayed for the assurances of the Spirit to comfort and strengthen me in His keeping.

A mental arrow came into the bow of my mine from the words of the Ancient Text, and set its shaft into the notch of a taut and stretched string:

“1 LORD my God, I seek refuge in you; save me from all my pursuers and rescue me  2 or they will tear me like a lion, ripping me apart with no one to rescue me.  3 LORD my God, if I have done this, if there is injustice on my hands,  4 if I have done harm to one at peace with me or have plundered my adversary without cause,  5 may an enemy pursue and overtake me; may he trample me to the ground and leave my honor in the dust.Selah  6 Rise up, LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my adversaries; awake for me; you have ordained a judgment.  7 Let the assembly of peoples gather around you; take your seat on high over it.  8 The LORD judges the peoples; vindicate me, LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity.  9 Let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous. The one who examines the thoughts and emotions is a righteous God.  10 My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.  11 God is a righteous judge and a God who shows his wrath every day.  12 If anyone does not repent, he will sharpen his sword; he has strung his bow and made it ready.  … 14 See, the wicked one is pregnant with evil, conceives trouble, and gives birth to deceit.  15 He dug a pit and hollowed it out but fell into the hole he had made.  16 His trouble comes back on his own head; his own violence comes down on top of his head.  17 I will thank the LORD for his righteousness; I will sing about the name of the LORD Most High. ” [Psalm 7:1-12, 14-17 CSB]

Four components of warfare readiness clarified in my mind, telling me exactly what to do.

To trust and submit myself under the keeping and protection of the Almighty.  To confess anything that might stand in the way of our fellowship and the summoning of His fierce justice to this righteous cause.  To place my confidence in His ability to champion this righteous cause and to empower me to be used as His instrument to do so.  And lastly, to give credit where it is due for the victory to be about to be won.

I had no illusions.  To eyes unable to see anything beyond the material world, this stand looked foolish.  I may bear the middle name of the young lad who stood defiantly before a giant, unable to stand up under the panoply of battle dress.  But I knew that victory would be claimed over this terrifying beast.  This was foolhardy.  I had nothing to protect my skin from one vicious sweep of its bladed tail.  Nothing to stay the crushing power of its massive twisting jaws from closing over my mangled and bloodied body.  Nothing to keep bits of my flesh and crushed bone from being sifted and sliced and expelled out of its gill slits in a spray of wet gore.  Okay, those thoughts weren’t helping.

No telling how far or how fast the creature could move, but I knew I could neither chase it nor run from it now.  I voiced a silent prayer, and confessed my doubts and failure to act, to the One who had called me to stand for this moment, and I prayed for the known and unknown members of my company in the city above unaware of the conflict here below.  There was no bargaining for my life, or that I may survive this violent encounter, for like any other soldier bracing for the battlefield, I had my orders and I knew what I was being called to do.  To lay down my life for the sake of the others and to seek honor and glory of the One.

My sword flared and blazed anew, and I was suffused in a nimbus of light.  I could sense the mental arrow of truth, command the creature’s attention as it shot forth, shutting down its attempts to take hold of my thoughts.  The invisible and spiritual missive raced through the dank air, burning and cracking with power and before the creature could flinch away, the spiritual arrow pierced its black obsidian eye between blinks and drove its shaft into its cranium.  The creatures nictitating eyelid fluttered over the invisible shaft unable to dislodge it in the physical or the spiritual plane.  Its eye clouded with almost an immediate milky cataract, as if the frost from its changeling eye, finally broke through to freeze the black lake where it supernatural insight swam.

The creature lurched violently, its massive torso coming up and over the mound, tearing and crushing and leveling the top, as it roared in fury.  I launched myself forward, scrambling over the scree, clamoring up the hillside as its summit slide and broke around me.  The light shaft above the creature was brighter than it had been before and I hoped it did not signify that another portion of the city would soon collapse upon us.

I could see even more of the massive creature coiling around the mound, its body had no legs to propel it, but it did have baffles down its upper body, with mirror like plating that seems to swim with an oily light.  The creature could sense that I was near.  It snuffed about trying to get a fix on me, but I had deliberately moved away from its line of sight into its blind side.  But I knew that would not last for long.

Parts of its body were already fading from view, blending in chameleon-like with the colors and textures around it.  I had to find a way to pierce its armor plating and get clear of its slicing spines before they returned the favor.  From what I could still see, the beast was heaving and flexing, gathering its strength and drawing its massive coils slowing up the mound, as if preparing to launch itself up through the ceiling.

The ceiling.  The shaft of light.  Its head was lifted and it was studying the foggy ray that had made its way down into the dark tunnel.  It was looking upward, searching the broken ceiling above.  Preparing to make a break for this way out of the tunnel system, and violently upward, emerging right through the very heart of the hidden city of Azragoth.

Every moment was weighed out in gold—drawn from the account of a very poor man.  And as that impoverished man, what had already been wastefully paid out plunged me into deep debt.  The creature’s belly lifted and its circulating coils pushed its ponderous body higher and higher after its straining pulsing neck.  Up till now I had not seen any appendages from the creature, thinking that is was more serpent-like in some ways, but now I saw, behind the gills, the two massive arms, as big as the boles of a tree, that jutted backward from a shoulder and then forward on powerful forearms terminating in bird-like feet and claws with long black talons.  I had thought to get behind its head and rush in where the gills were, hoping to drive the honor sword in through the back of its neck and up into its head, but I had not known about its folded arms, because the creature alternative between snake-like motions and now that of a lizard missing its rear legs.  This creature was mostly in its element underground, but it hunted on the surface, seeking to capture and seize its prey above and then drag it screaming and fighting to devour it at its leisure in the darkness below.

As I feinted in, looking for my attack approach, the beast caught my attempt and its powerful arms reached for me, its talons almost catching the edge of my cloak.  With the blinding, it had overshot its balance with its angry swipe at me and toppled sidelong across the top of the mound.  Its head curved and it righted itself swiftly, dislodging more large slabs that tumbled down into the scree below.  Its left eye roved back and forth attempting to compensate for the loss of its right one.  Its black tongue peeked in and out from a notch below its upper lip, sampling the airborne scents it identified with me.

At each attempt to gather itself and ascend through the broken ceiling above, I feinted in, trying to keep it preoccupied with its hatred and need to eliminate me as an irritant.  With the arms now revealed and ready to claw and rip me to shreds and with its serpent-like body, I had at last decided to classify this beast as a drake…or a dragon, as our Surface World legends describe them, among those of the Asian and Oriental variety.

No matter what I classified it, I still needed some way to keep this dragon down here and subdue it.  I could not just contain it within the tunnels, for its destructive rampage would continue to destroy the foundations of the city above.  I needed to bind it, maim it, or kill it and I further knew I could not keep holding its attention for much longer.

Then something happened that I had not bargained for.  Something that took away my ability to further distract it from its intention to ascend.

Underground Image-03

Above us, in the aperture shaft that led to the surface, where the stray beam of light descended into this underworld, we could see the suspended edge of an outside wall and the partial interior of a cellar room now missing part of its floor.

A door opened, and a man bearing a torch stopped just short of stepping perilously down into the hole that now occupied the area just beyond the threshold he had intended to enter.  Flagons stored in wall racks, cuts of smoke-cured meat dangling from ceiling hooks hung from floor beams and the tops of barrel casks could be seen in the flickering light of his torch, as could the shocked expression on his rounded and flushed face.

Despite the danger of my own precarious situation, I could not help but commiserate with the poor fellow, standing there stunned, looking through the hole in his floor into a face of nightmarish horrors, and down further into my dirty, upward turned face.  Indecision froze him for only a second before I distinctly heard him say, “I think I shall go back upstairs now.”  And upon those words, he quickly retreated from the doorway and, for good measure, promptly locked the cellar door.  Being somewhat of a corpulent fellow, I heard his heavy footfalls as he swiftly ascended the wooden stairs beyond.  Perhaps he was seeking the solitude of another room in his domicile.  From his parting expression, that room was most likely a privy.

As I said before, the paid-out moments spent in dealing with this dust dragon were precious and I could not afford further distractions.  This momentary one, almost cost me the farm, the surrounding properties and the county in which it resided.

The dragon’s tail lashed out.  Its bony-plated, diamond-powdered, razor-honed edges slicing through the air cutting towards me with dangerous precision.  I had only a fraction of a second, between being impaled upon those deadly stone cutting spines and waving a portion of my lower body a bon voyage as it was flung into the dark tunnels behind me.  The light that encompassed my sword and my body flashed and the flat blade of the honor sword bore the brunt of the impact, sending my body airborne, end over end down the embankment to land hard upon a pile of sand and silt at the edge of the scree ring below.  I was winded, and my ribs felt compressed into my spine, and I gasped for breath, only to find the massive tail sweeping upward again, the bony scythe-plates angled down and falling towards the place in which I had landed.  I rolled away, up onto a jagged stone, which I had just missed in my previous fall, just in time before the tail slammed hard into the sand, stirring the dust clouds once again until there was no visibility or clear air in which to breath.  I used that lack of visibility to my advantage now.  Again, using the honor sword’s supernatural sweep ability to provide me with a way through it, temporarily hidden from the roving single-eyed sight of the creature.  The dust seemed to mask my scent as well, for I could sense the creature’s angry frustration at its inability to see whether its vicious lunge had succeeded or not.

I could imagine its rapidly blinking eye, bizarrely switching from ebony to ivory and blue, hoping for the savage satisfaction of feeling my dying agony, and witnessing the broken ravages of my bludgeoned, crushed and pierced body, pinned and buried beneath the weight of its cleaving tail.  I would give it no such satisfaction.

With the swiftness of thought, another arrow of the living Breath of the Life came into my mind, its jagged and honed tip, readied to be pointed at this gargantuan denizen of death.

“24 … “If anyone wishes to follow Me [as My disciple], he must deny himself [set aside selfish interests], and take up his cross [express a willingness to endure whatever may come] and follow Me [believing in Me, conforming to My example in living and, if need be, suffering or perhaps dying because of faith in Me].” [Matthew 16:24b AMP]

I responded in my spirit to the Voice of the Truth delivered to me.

“Lord, what do you want me to do?  How can I subdue this creature of deception?”

This time a knowing came into my spirit, which summed up what I already knew in my heart.

To paraphrase it, it came down to “Love the One who called you, above everything else, and love those you are called to lead and serve by laying down your life for them if necessary.”

I verbalized my prayerful response, making it more real for me, by conversing out loud with the One speaking into my inner Spirit.

“Lord, if I die here in this battle, how will the others know of the sacrifice I made for them?  Will my life have meant nothing?  Will they think that I abandoned them?”

The response came immediately, and it was essentially in the form of a question that unmasked my cloaked pride.

“Whose glory do you seek, in giving up your life in this secret place?  Your own?  Or Mine?”

It was clear that I sought some degree of shared recognition from the others, and being faced with the truth of that, I became ashamed of it.

“Tell me what to do.  I need no other affirmation, but Yours.”

I had a sense of His pleasure in this, and the quickening glow that infused me and the covenant sword I bore, brightened with an intensity it had not shone before.

A knowing filled my mind that expressed the key to bringing about the demise of this terrible beast, and the way of doing it shocked me and threatened to make me fear again for my own life.

My heart, mind, soul, and body had come to a crossroads in which I, within my own spirit, had to make a commitment to surrender all in what to others would seem to be a terrible choice.

Beside the waiting and invisible arrow I could only picture with spiritual perception, there arose another verse of the Ancient Text, that formed alongside the readied arrow delivered into my spiritual arsenal, this time the verse formed the lead edge of the stretched bow where the end of the shaft and the arrow tip lay.  The arrow guide, in which I was to focus this next assault.

“2 Your tongue devises destruction, Like a sharp razor, O worker of deceit. 3 You love evil more than good, Falsehood more than speaking what is right. Selah. 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; He will snatch you up and tear you away from your tent, And uproot you from the land of the living. Selah.” [Psalms 52:2-5 NASB]

My target and point of assault clarified and stunned me in the same instant revealing to me that this dust dragon was the mid-world embodiment of a creature I had spoken about long before.  An agent beast of Deception.  Of course.  What else would be so intent on devouring foundations and undermining every plan formed by those above.  Deception creatures gained their power through whispering lies and misleading thoughts that distracted those following their covenant calling.  It also now made sense why there would have been a cloaked Banshee embedded in our party.  And why it so hated its exposure.  These Dust Dragons consumed the soil of the land and through their gullet, they transformed the engorged dust mixed with their unique saliva into a malleable clay-like substance that could be used to form a temporary physical body for the Banshee creatures of the wind.  The Banshee we exposed and displaced was a mole, a deceiver, planted and connected to this Dust Dragon.  It fed bits of intelligence back to this Dragon as it pursued and stalked us from a safe distance.  When we routed out and exposed that Banshee from among us, we cut off its ability to sow dissension within our company and reveal our plans back to the enemy.  So, the creature was only left with one alternative.  To subtly link its mind to mine, and take advantage of my self-doubt and feed my uncertainty.  Its supernatural probing sight found an opportunity within my waning confidence.  It had used the fact and worry, that I did not have the assurance that I would be equipped once more by the Spirit’s commission and subsequent Quickening power to do what I had been called to do.  These sudden revelations were like an epiphany, that further opened my perception.  Giving me the clarity to how these Beasts between Worlds had conspired to insinuate themselves into our mission and undermine it at every opportunity.

Another verse, came to me, assuring me again that what I sensed needed to be done was, in fact, the correct path.

“3 Who have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow, 4 To shoot from concealment at the blameless; Suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear. 5 They hold fast to themselves an evil purpose; They talk of laying snares secretly; They say, “Who can see them?” 6 They devise injustices, saying, “We are ready with a well-conceived plot”; For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep. 7 But God will shoot at them with an arrow; Suddenly they will be wounded. 8 So they will make him stumble; Their own tongue is against them; All who see them will shake the head.” [Psalms 64:3-8 NASB]

The key to subduing and killing a dust dragon, lie in piercing or cutting out its terrible tongue.  I had only to trust in and launch these supernatural arrows at this dust dragon and see what would come of it.  Perhaps it would cause this creature to open its mouth once again in angry fury.  To release its vile black tongue from the cleft in its upper jaw, exposing the dark hollow of its throat.  But the arrows alone would only provide me with an opportunity to use the honor sword as I might, with surrender and obedience to the One to do what needed to be done.  I would have to commit everything, spirit, soul, and body to this chance to get close enough to strike a blow to its vile, scent-tasting tongue.  To be able to do that, I would need to be in its terrible rock-crushing mouth, between its twisting and torquing teeth.  I would have to allow the dust dragon to eat me.

******