Nem was a man of brawn and strength. Ezra led us up the stair to the terrace overlook where Nem worked with attendants on a large miniature model of the city of Azragoth. Ezra spoke privately to Nem, who cast glances back at us and then finally nodded. Ezra brought Nem forward to meet us as we assembled along the outward balustrade of the terrace.
“O’Brian, I would like to present the governor of this region and the chief restorer of Azragoth. This city stands as a testament to this man’s faithfulness and love for this city and his commitment to carry out the will of the One. He will instruct you in the foundational ways and then bring you to me for the handling of your armaments. He will answer the questions you have been seeking to understand.”
With that, Ezra stepped back and returned to the stairway leading down to the Warrior’s Court and Nem, arms clasped behind him, stepped forward taking in our measure with a keen eye.
“I am told you would know more of the Breathing Sword, but to understand it, you will need to know something of foundations. That is where I come in. For as you may see of our work here,” he said gesturing back to the scale modeled map of the city, “We are the rebuilders of Azragoth.”
“I am also told that you were brought in from the back wall of the city, so you have seen but a little of the work being done here. As part of the cleansing, last evening, you will be somewhat familiar with the streets of the interior by now, but there is something more you must see. We do not often allow visitors to Azragoth, so, as travelers, you should know that you have been given a certain dispensational privilege by the city council. Further, you are Surface Worlders, which is even more irregular. We have Surface Worlders among our citizenry, but they are few in number and not permitted to hold leadership positions here or intermarry with any of our clerics. To live among us, they are required to adopt our ways and customs, even to the point, as necessary of leaving their own. As we are a quarantined people we too are a set apart, people. These are the terms upon which you are permitted to reside within our city and learn of our methods and ways here. As you may have surmised we are a city rebuilding in secret. Every lineage of every citizen is known here. This city is mutually bound to one another and under covenant with each other. Together, in the very heart of the city, we all pledged to this covenant, hand upon shoulder until the human chain reached the inner court with the central leaders placing their hands upon the honor sword of the city. I was born in Azragoth but was taken from my home at an early age, before the plague killed many of our people. I served in another court in Capitalia for many years until I was given leave and provisions to return and rebuild Azragoth. I found it in horrible ruins. Its city walls burned and breached. Rubble filled the streets where I used to play with friends. It was overgrown with thick vines and weeds covering its former glory with a sickly green shroud of death. We were warned in each city of the plains and lake country not to return, that sure death awaited us if we ever found it, but I could not help but find what had become of my former hometown. While staying in one of the towns, I was impressed to leave it under the cover of night without announcing my intentions to press onward. I found it at last under the light of the moon.”
For a moment Nem was quiet, a mourning sadness creeping over his countenance, that made us feel his loss.
“Most of the people I had known were long dead. Killed both by the Xarmnian attacks and the contagion. Wild animals and strays from abandoned herds roamed the broken environs. Donkeys brayed at night, their bleats and trumpeting echoed through the husks of decrepit buildings that partially stood among the blackened char. Beams had collapsed under the raging fires so that no roofs remained in the dwellings that had any weight bearing capacity. Seeing the mournful state, I was given a vision and a dream of what I must do to restore it.”
“I met Ezra on my journey and learned that he too had felt compelled to return to Azragoth and that he was to teach the ways of the sword there, as my mission was to restore its fortifications. The city was to be resurrected from its ashes and reborn, but doing so under the Xarmnian edicts of quarantine would be extremely dangerous and would be seen as an act of insurrection and defiance. We were fearful but had a strong calling and sense that this shared course was ordained by the One Master whom we could never deny. To begin the process, we would have to be on our guard, and each fellow worker must be committed to fighting to see it accomplished. So we joined forces and began our recruitment, seeking out the scattered former residents of Azragoth if there be any left. Azragoth had once been a city of trade and protection for the region, and many born there had expanded into the regions and towns beyond it. Because of the stigma attached to it, many of the Azragothians by birth chose to conceal their heritage among the towns in which they lived. Azragoth was considered a town of death and cursed. Its very name, if spoken, was only done so in a low whisper with ominous tones. It had been the one major city that had defied Xarmni and refused to pay tribute, and its ensuing destruction had served as a warning to all of the other towns. The Xarmnians made sure that was the story and lesson told. But there was another truth, that those who had lived through those times knew. Azragoth had neglected to keep to its founding and had failed to observe its own keep. Relying rather on its prominence in trade and resulting wealth and its reputation as the city on the hill protecting all other lands below. It had become a place complacent in a land of dangers. Its clerics did little to dissuade or warn its citizenry until the great tragedy did the work for them. They declared, Peace where there was no peace. They declared safety, where the seeds of war were already bearing a fiery harvest. They declared festival music to the tempo and backdrop sounds of war drums echoing in the surrounding hills.”
“So we and those who had traveled with us disperse into the surrounding towns to see what we could find and learn if there were any Azragothians left who would join us in the rebuilding effort. We found a remnant, but not where we expected. In what we thought was the dead heart of the city, we found people living in the shadows of the worn buildings. These had witnessed the worst of the destruction of Azragoth but had miraculously survived it. Maeven was one of them, but she was a visitor in Azragoth at the time of the invasion and in the days following the occupation and outbreak. By all accounts, she should be dead. She is an outworlder. She has never left, and so we assume something has happened to her where she comes from in the Surface World. She is perhaps the reason why the council has chosen to allow you Surface Worlders to stay.”
Nell spoke up, just then, “Not all of us are Surface Worlders. There are at least two of the travelers, besides myself and my son, that are from these lands. One is Capitalian, though he will not own up to it. The other is from Skorlith in the Lake Country below, yet I believe he may be sent from someplace, not of his own choosing.” Someone in the back of the crowd flinched at her words, but it was unclear who.
Nem looked to Nell and nodded.
“You are known to me, yet I do not remember from where.”
“We met in Sorrow’s Gate, many years ago when you and your company were traveling through. I served you at the Inn where I worked with my brother Corimanth.”
“Ah, I remember,” said Nem, recognition widening his eyes and forming a smile, “You were the Seer. The one who could sense connections between tales told and the people whose stories were being told. A prophetess among the women. You exposed the lies of Noadia when she tried to deceive us.”
“And for it, you and The Eagle took my brother from me?!”
Nem stood up straighter and took in a deep breath.
“You have not heard of why we intervened on his behalf?”
Nell stepped forward and stood defiantly before Nem.
“My parents died in this place. Corimanth was all I had left. I gave you the truth and you repaid me by enlisting my brother into your scheme and kept me in the darkness, grieving the loss of all I had that I could call my own. What do you mean you intervened?!”
“Your brother and the others with him were soon to be discovered and would have been marked for death by the Overwatch. The Xarmnians did not have a name but they would have soon discovered him because of the people. We were seeking craftsmen and stonemasons, and all who had some connection with Azragoth or desired to see it restored to its former glory when it could have defended and intervened against the Xarmnians. Emissaries had been sent to Capitalia, but by then the wall had made the only path to get there an attempted trek up over the mountains. Few made it through, most were intercepted by Xarmnian patrols. Of the ones who made it, few had knowledge of Azragoth, after the Xarmnian siege. Capitalia is still feared and grudgingly respected by the Xarmnians. An edict born by the kings of Capitalia once commanded respect and caution not to interfere with Capitalian messengers, but the Xarmnians are becoming more emboldened. Your brother recognized that the Xarmnian’s maintained a wary distance from us when they learned we were from Capitalia. When he came to us, he wanted to know why and if we were coming in response to the seemingly long ignored pleas for assistance. He and the others tried to distract us and made a rather clumsy attempt to steal the golden bound scrolls we carried with us. This effort was easily put down, and we could have turned him and the others over to the Xarmnian Overwatch, but we thought to have mercy. Your brother’s anger was one of desperation. He hated the Xarmnians for the death of your parents. He was helpless in dealing with that rage so we offered them a bargain. We enlisted their service and swore them to abide by our code, and we would spare them their lives, and in return, we would solicit aid from the Capitalians with whom we had grown in favor.”
“Then why does my brother wear a binding about his chest? Where did he receive such injuries that he struggles to speak, and why is it that he has not communicated with me in many years?”
Corimanth emerged from the end of the courtyard terrace and walked forward to the gathering.
“I can answer that for you, Nellus.”
All eyes turned toward him.
“I trained here in Azragoth, yet kept some semblance of my weight in check. I assisted with the rebuilding and was given a place here, should my mission succeed and I return from it. My skill with a halberd developed and it became a weapon best suited for my size. I was taught how to control my aggression and channel it for constructive use. The Azragothians reminded me of what honor is and what it means to live with a noble purpose, the same as what father taught us. Once the timber had been brought in from the back forest an opportunity opened for me to blend in with a gathering of young men being conscripted and marched back to Xarmni to serve in their armed court. Swordsmen and spear throwers and archers were the most needed in their marching armies, but for palace guard duty, they wanted stout fighters skilled with halberds to stand watch by their doorways and council halls. My proficiency proved useful to them so I was given a sentry post near the donjon. Within they kept their sacred builder stone. I had seen it through the doorway, a few times before. We were given quarters in the wall units so that we could be close to hand at any alert sounded during the evening watch. I served under a company of men, under the command of Captain Jahazah the Crusher. He was a brutal and bloodthirsty man, known for mangling and crushing people through various means. It was from him I received the wounds that require my binding. I had to fight him the night the Lehi came for my report. Thankfully, they were not far when he confronted me from the shadows, brandishing my own halberd. I was slashed in the ribs before I was able to get it free from him. We grappled and fell down stone steps, but the prideful Captain would not call out for the other guards. He wanted to kill me himself. He broke four of my ribs in a crushing squeeze. I heard them snap and the pain was intense, but I was able to get free by striking him in the throat. The Lehi returned and bear me up and into the darkness. The last site I remember of the Captain, he was on his knees spitting up blood and coughing. We were barely far enough away before he gained his voice enough to alert the other guards to pursue. If it wasn’t for the Lehi, I would have been a dead man. Travel was excruciating, but the Lehi were well-trained in field medicine, and when we were far enough away they dressed my wounds, staunched my blood, set and bound my ribs with this truss and tied me to my mount. I am told I passed out several times during the journey, that I suffered feverish rants, and a sort of delirium until they found some medicinal plants to ease my suffering.”
“So, it was Corimanth who delivered the intelligence of what is happening with the Builder stones,” Begglar remarked.
Maeven stepped forward from the group and joined, “Yes. I did not know he was Nell’s brother though, or I would have told you before.”
Nell shook her head in bewilderment, “Some seer I am. All of this going on under my very nose, and I had no inkling of it.”
Begglar patted her affectionately, “Now don’t be too hard on yourself, Nellie dear.”
Nell carefully embraced her brother, tearful eyed, mindful of his wounding, “You’ve done me proud, Cori. And no one can say less about it. It was a brave thing you’ve done. Foolish but brave, and just as courageous as father hoped you would ever be. ‘Tis a shame they were not here to see it.” More tears poured from her eyes as she held her brother, sniffling into his shoulder. But then she pulled away and lightly cuffed him on the cheek, “But you could have told your sister something, stead of making me think as I was!”
Nem observed the exchange and then spoke to them, “Your brother now lives with honor. He brought the secrets forth from the Xarmnian fortress. He told us of the mysterious movements of the Builder Stones and what may come of it. It is the reason we have sent The Eagle to the summit of Mount Zefat. To study the terrain, see the positioning and progress of the tribes as they are drawn out following their stones and align their paths to see if what we all suspect is happening is true, and to predict the convergent points at which the conflicts may erupt between them. The mountain of Zefat was appropriately named.
Zefat comes from an ancient language and means a place of outlook. The mountain is situated in such a way it becomes a perfect vantage point for the whole region. From its summit, one can see the whole of the plains, peek into the valleys beyond the hills, and see nearly all the Xarmnian towns and the wall separating the lands of Capitalia and the regions beyond. It is by gathering and considering this direct intelligence that The Eagle may plan for the uprising that is to come. Which brings us back to your training.”
“From this terrace, I could see you in the Warrior’s courtyard below. Ezra usually begins his lessons with proper footing and foundation, and an awareness of the ground upon which you will face an assault. The same is true in life as in all things. To begin anything you need to fully understand and rely on where you are positioned. You must have a certainty about it, a confidence before you lift your eyes to build or face your enemy. By the same token, you must also have a sense of where your enemy stands and assess the relative strength or weakness of their positioning. The same is true with buildings and fortifications. And it is true of relationships as well. Even those we think we know can fool us. Rather than listening and perceiving, we run ahead into interactions based on assumptions derived from what we anticipate to be. Take the example of Nell and Corimanth here. If you’ll pardon me for the example, Nell.”
Nell nodded assent and Nem continued.
“I imagine as brother and sister, the two of you grew up knowing each other through many circumstances and at some point began to anticipate the responses and feelings of each other about your shared family life. It was perhaps, I may suggest, that at this point your misunderstandings of each other and perhaps arguments began. The point at which you became so familiar with each other that you ceased to listen and learn what each other was feeling. Perhaps you, Corimanth, thought you knew how Nell might react to your anger over the loss of your parents and your frustrations over the complicity of the locals who yielded in fear to the Xarmnian butchers who brought about the deaths of those you loved. You saw your thefts as a means of resistance, yet exposed the fear you kept hidden by preying on your fellow townsfolk, rather than directly upon the Xarmnians who oppressed you. You held them in contempt for their unwillingness to resist the Xarmnians, yet your actions towards them showed that you held that very same fear that masked your secret shame. You each dealt with your grief over your parents separately. Corimanth with bottled up rage, and perhaps you, Nellus with a driving need to retain goodness in the midst of so much injustice. This is perhaps why you discovered your ability to see, and sought out Noadia, to learn from the prophetess, more about the visions you were having. It is also why when you learned that even your teacher, could be corrupted, you felt compelled to share with us, her deceit. You needed honesty and integrity, and goodness to succeed. It was perhaps, a service to the memory of your parents and the things they taught you before they were taken from you. You as the older child felt the mantle of their legacy upon your shoulders. Corimanth has often spoken of your parents. While you held forth courageously, championing their legacy, he struck out in frustration ashamed of his cowardice to do anything else. He assumed what you might think of him, and I daresay, you may have made assumptions about what he might have thought of you. As you now know, Corimanth not only needed a way to honor your parent’s legacy, he also needed a way to bring honor to you. A sister whom he dearly loved, yet so often disappointed. He sought to protect you by not telling you of his mission, and he needed your misunderstanding as his cover. But when forces are joined and a mission is shared, each of you must depend on one another. You need to come to understand each other, to communicate and function together if you hope to succeed. You need to have a foundation upon which to build. A foundation of faith in each other, and a sense of mutual trust and ongoing communication. If you cease to communicate that leads to you making assumptions to fill in for lack of knowledge and that is a recipe for disaster and will doom your mission at the outset. It is essential then, that before you embark on your quest you must first become a team that communicates well with each other. Many of you are isolated and periphery to your group. Very few of you have given your names, and so you have no identity and no clear function within the team you hope to assemble. If you proceed this way, you are marching straight to your deaths. You will need to share a belief in the goals of your mission. You will need to gain confidence in one another by coming to know who you are and what skills and talents each of you bring to the team. Because of the way we train here in Azragoth, you need to know something of the symbolism of the city and of the symbolism of your mission in this world and beyond it. So please come and join me at the balcony. I have something very important to show you.”
Nem motioned us to follow him and we gathered together at the balcony beyond the scaled city map, a high point of the city almost extending beyond the treetops of the surrounding forests. The panorama was extensive, courtyards, market bazaars, terraces, shops, stables, fountains, gardens and small tree-lined parks formed the heart of the city inside the inner walls, with the arrayed homes facing the interior walls across a peripheral street that encircled the city. Each rise was a bisection of concentric streetways that radiated from the central park down to the bastions built into sections of the interior wall. Beyond the interior wall was a choke point of wildness, where vines and the encroaching forests had over the twenty years following the overthrow of Azragoth, breached the city and made the environs of the outer ring a fading reminder of the extent to which the city once presided on its forested hillock at the base of the plateaued cliffs beyond. Beyond the old and abandoned barbican, still visible from its stone back, yet blanketed in vines and leafy carpets of kudzu, a stand of trees fronted the city, but with the green leafy blankets covering the outer wall, the city could not be seen beyond the line of trees in front of it. An open field, grown wild with tall grasses spread out beyond the front path to the city, with any semblance of a roadway now covered and overgrown with lack of use. The grassland had once been the field from which the Xarmnians had staged their assault. The abandoned siege machines long since burned to ash with the consumption of the field and trenches of bodies of the dead.
Nem came to join me at the wall and spoke quietly to me before stepping back to address the assembly.
“When Ezra began his training in the courtyard below, he called you out as the leader.”
“And when he called you out to stand and be armored for the demonstration, did you notice what was at your feet before he struck your leg and you fell?”
I turned to him unsure of what he was telling me.
“I thought not,” he continued, “Ezra will often give you a clue as to what is about to happen if you are listening closely to what he tells you before it happens. Did he say anything about the ground upon which you were standing?”
I thought back and remembered, “Yes. I believe he said we needed to be aware of the nature of the ground upon which we were standing. And he said the blade is not the only weapon I bear,” I added, remembering the words spoken over me as I lay prostrate in the dirt after he swept my footing out from under me.
“He was correct,” Nem added, “He positioned you among anchor points staked into the ground, which you may not have noticed. Pieces of wood staked into the ground which had you looked down you would have seen. They are used to serve a purpose for foot placement. A warrior stands with the lead foot against one anchor point, and his back foot against the other. Had you positioned your steps accordingly, you would not have so easily fallen. Had you kept a sense of the ground, even if you did not know the purpose of such staked blocks, you may have circled beyond them and retained your footing. Also, as he said, the blade is not your only weapon. Your sense of purpose should also be part of your drive, your cognizance of the nature of the assault and the countenancing of your opposition should also be part of your arsenal. You must know that you must fight with your entire body, and not just your blade, and your mind should be as keen to what is going on as well. As you are the leader of this band, it is critical that you learn the first lessons so that you may lead in them by example. The Xarmnians are flesh and blood the same as you and me, but the monsters here have abilities that you must be aware of and fight with both with your mind and your soul under the empowerment of The Word, the first sword made into flesh that lives and breathes and is breathing still through you. It is you, who are a breathing sword.”
He let that sink in for a moment.
“I am told you are familiar with the Ancient Text, and that you can call it to mind as circumstances present themselves. This is essential when fighting the creatures that stalk our lands. Do not let novices who have no understanding or familiarity with the Ancient Text attempt to fight the monsters of this land, or you will guarantee their defeat. Only the Ancient Text will cause them to succeed, but they must know it enough to handle it against the mind assaults of their adversary. Flesh and blood may be defeated with practiced skill, but the weapons needed to defeat the creatures are not made of metal and steel alone. Their arrows of the mind cannot be turned by armor plating, finely linked chain mail or the parry of a masterfully wielded blade. Do you understand this?”
“Then let’s begin.”
He stepped back from the railing and ascended a side stair to a platform with a stone balustrade.
“As you can see below, Azragoth has the appearance of deadness in its outer ring. It is choked with vines, and unchecked growth of weeds and wild animals roam the crumbling streets and abandoned houses that once extended our city to the outer gates. Anyone entering the breached walls would think this city has no life remaining in it. That Azragoth is, as the legends tell, cursed, abandoned and haunted by the long dead memory of its former splendor. From all appearance, for those entering or stumbling upon our city while wandering the wilderness and forests, that would all appear to be true. But beyond the outer deadness, there is an interior wall, separating the deadness from the life that is within. The exterior side of that inner wall is coated with pitch and black tar. Anyone touching it or attempting to scale that wall will become coated or soiled by it. So too, anyone attempting to enter Azragoth’s interior, without entering a gate with a key will be stained as an imposter and spy, and our guards and citizenry will easily be able to identify them on sight. Like the latent filth we routinely purge from under our city streets, that person will be marked for the death they bring upon themselves by attempting to breach the sanctity of our city. No one comes to the inner gate without a long key. No one puts their hand on the door without getting the dark pitch upon it, forever marking them as an enemy of the city. Had anyone of you bore a black hand, you would have been executed by the doorway guards upon entry. We cannot be too careful. Azragoth is a city that has been reborn upon its ashes and is being renewed from within. Its outer exterior is corruptible, but its interior is being strengthened and built up to endure. The interior wall has been fortified and each family living in the outer courts has been responsible for the interior wall’s repair directly in front of their homes. You might say, they have a very vested interest in making that portion of the wall very strong because it stands between them and the death rings beyond. There is a passage in the Ancient Text that reads as follows:
“”Don’t you understand either?” he asked, “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” ” [Mark 7:18-23 NLT]
“For you see, in the same way, anyone unauthorized who enters will be easily made known and readily dealt with. But the corruption coming from within and flowing outward must be addressed and purged. That is why we cleanse the city and remove from us those things that might cause disease and death on a regular basis so that what is being built on the inside may not defile us. Azragoth represents the body, soul, and spirit of mankind. In a real physical way, we see it as being regenerated from within. Like the body of man, the outward is corruptible and is on a constant journey towards death under the curse of all flesh and blood. The body dies, but the soul and spirit remains and endures to serve an even greater purpose. The filth that drains from our city streets is pushed to the edge of the interior walls and descends below the outer walls into a deep reservoir below the courtyards and streets beneath the dead sectors of the city and they fill the hollows of the outer wall with corruption. The outer wall is full of the waste of the city. It is why the people have withdrawn from it and live beyond the inner wall. The outer wall has been repaired enough so that this filth seeping within does not flow back into the city or the protected interior. Anyone walking in the outer rings is walking mere feet above the buried moat of filth that flows out of the city. Should the city of Azragoth ever faces siege assault again, the attackers will be forced to contend with breaching the outer wall and in so doing will meet their death in such an attempt. In case of a breach, the waste will spill onto the outer field and woods beyond the gates of the city creating a murky slough of disease and plague, killing all who approach it. The black tongue of Azragoth will flow from the breach, licking them up in death as it spreads across the field beneath the grasslands and flows through the stands of trees that line it outer gates. Once outside of the city, if you ever think to return to Azragoth from the south, be warned that you will surely die it you approach it after seeing the black tongue upon the golden fields. Such filth will kill the trees and grass, and all manner of man or beast which go before it. It is only by going through the narrow way that you may ever return to us once that black tongue goes forth.”