Those dwelling within give a township its life. For, while a place may evoke many pleasant memories, its true life comes from the value of its people. There is a poem written by a poet from India that reads thus:
Today, I am going to walk past your village,
A place from where I was not able to move away in the past,
Where I always was looking for some excuse to go.
What excuse? The truth is that you were the real reason
Who had made that village a place for pilgrimage?
What a beautiful name it had,
How exciting it was to just listen to its name.
Looking at its trees from a distance would take away all tiredness,
It seemed like their branches were giving me a signal to come close.
Standing under their shadow was heavenly.
Today, I will walk by those trees.
Nothing is pulling me towards them,
Neither do I feel the loving touch of breeze coming from your village
No one is there to meet me with affection
Or waiting for me,
Hiding behind the Kikkar trees, and alone
I am passing by your village
As if it is a graveyard, not a village.
[Translated by S.H.R from original Jagrate]
I imagine this is what travelers in the region, who used to make the journey to Azragoth, must have felt like passing the old quarantine sign on the road that once led up through the forest to the city. Perhaps they stood there lingering at the crossroads, considering the blackened fields that burned for days, trying not to think of the terrible things they might find if they dared to venture across the fields. As summer’s heat and autumn’s turning of the leaves passed, and then gave way to winter’s blankets of snow, I wondered what those people who had lost loved ones in Azragoth, and those merchants who once sojourned and sold their wares there must have thought as the snowy fields melted around the old abandoned road, and gave way to the greening and blooming of the spring season. Year after year the cycle of time and the changing of the season came and went, each year adding new growth that steadily covered over that abandoned road. As winds blew they eventually uprooted the quarantine flag that marked the pathway and lay it aside to fade in memory, lying somewhere along the shoulder of the main road that once passed by the rutted path to Azragoth. I imagined for a moment what Nell and Corimanth must feel being back here in the place that held both the brightest and darkest of memories for them. The places beyond the interior wall where they once saw the sights and sounds of a bustling city, and once guided the carts and horses in from which they sold their home crafted goods and some of the local farm-produce from the town of Surrogate. Begglar had bought the House of Bread Inn at Crowe, several years before meeting and marrying Nell in the village of Surrogate. He often bought wheat and stone-milled flour there from the local farmers. Since Azragoth was surrounded by forests, its crops and farmland were limited only to small gardens kept within the city. As such, the town required trade with the local communities, and as it was once a festive place, the farmers and travelers routinely visited and bought and sold there and joined in the regional celebrations in the city after the grain harvests. Great parties were given, and lantern lights festooned the walls giving the city a feel of gaiety and wonder. Stranger and friend alike were once welcomed in Azragoth, which is why the strict closure of the city now felt so odd to me. But times had changed as did the nature of the people who came from far and wide to visit the once famed city of lights.
Nem had withdrawn from us and had given us leave to look and consider while he finished other matters with his builders. We looked down upon what he had shown us and little by little others left their place at the railing. But I stayed.
As Nem had said, the region between the outer wall and the interior wall was both dead and yet alive with wildness. The absence of people living there made it a graveyard as much as the fact that many had perished there as well. The wild beasts and stray animals moving among the thick grasses gave the place an eerie feel. Their rustling and bleating and occasional growling sporadically heard beneath the leafy canopy of overgrowth. As I watched the movements below for a while before, I noticed Begglar and Nell and Corimanth at the railing beyond me. They stood together in the moonlight, looking down from the terrace into the broken courtyards, where the main market area used to be. Remembering.
I approached Begglar and said, “Do you mind if I speak with Nell privately a moment?”
Both Begglar and Corimanth looked up, looked at one another and nodded.
When they had withdrawn away, I leaned against the railing next to Nell.
“Begglar mentioned that you could teach us to ‘See’. What does that mean exactly?”
Nell wiped a brimming tear from the corner of her eye, returning back from a memory to the present, “I am not sure ‘See’ is the right word, but it serves, I guess.”
“Forgive me for asking this, I do not mean to trivialize your gift, and because I am in ignorance of it, I hope you will forgive this, but what is so important about this way of seeing?”
Nell was quiet a moment before answering, but then finally spoke up, “Mr. O’Brian, what is it that you plan to do here in our world? What is your quest here?”
She had caught me off guard, and I cleared my throat.
“Why is it that you are leading this group of travelers, and why have you involved my husband and our family?”
I was puzzled, “Begglar said the Inn was a bust and that your family was in danger. Don’t you remember the Troll?”
“I do,” she answered, “and why do you think we both weren’t aware of it?”
“What are you saying?”
“Begglar and I have been part of the resistance for years now. We both have known Maeven and her Lehi horsemen. She has been running forays against the Xarmnian guards, and we have on more than one occasion provided them with provisions and a fresh change of horses, while they were being pursued by the Overwatch. Only recently have the Xarmnians sent out The Protectorate Guards for them, because the Overwatch was being lured from the towns, and the people were taking advantage of their absence and distraction to take back from the storehouses so they could survive and fund the resistance effort.”
“So you knew all along that there was a Troll watching you when you were aiding that family?”
“Of course we did! The Xarmnians wanted us to give them a false sense of security and delay them until they could arrive. The Troll was sent to spy on us because the delay tactic we were supposed to employ often did not work and those we helped were able to get away before we could detain them further. The Troll was, in fact, leaving to report that the family had arrived, not that we planned to help them. Did you not see me come to the heart and stoke the fire as if I was oblivious to its presence? Scattered some hot ash and coals on him as he was scrambling for the flue.”
This was all more of a revelation to me.
“I am not fooled by Trolls any more than I am the other creatures your kind has brought here to our world. Oh yes, I am aware that your beasties are here because of you Surface Worlders, as are the Azragothians. It is why your kind are not allowed to intermarry with them. Be that as it may, and I say it without malice, for I love my husband dearly, though he came from your world, your being here is quite disconcerting in a time of gathering war. The half-men are here because of the ancient Surface Worlders that came with the Pan creature long ago. Your modern creatures are here because of you. So again, I say, what is it you are called to do by the One? Why does your calling place the further risk on our family?”
“I was sent to find those lost in this world who have stories of their own making, people who come from the Surface World but have lost their way in this in-between world and have forgotten who they are. I am to help bring them to Excavatia on the other side of the portal. To invite them to a place where their stories can come to life again and remind them of who they were.”
“And that, Mr. O’Brian, is why you need a Seer. It is important to know the connections being made in this Sub-World and the Surface World above. Perception is the word I would use for the gift I’ve been given. Each person you know, by name, is connected in some way with each story. Often times, that story is their past and you are witnessing them as a character in it. We call it mirroring. And mirroring only happens with Surface World people, though each of us has a story to tell. With mirroring, you will see it, like watching a reflection in water. Some stories will have a distance, that causes you not to perceive a connection at first. Mirroring only happens when you are near the Surface World person whose past experience is being projected. In all of your efforts at creating stories, and subsequently abandoning them, you were holding these stories hostage in this world and fragmenting them. Because they are fragmented they have forgotten who they are. The more of your kind who come here, the more your kind bring the beckoning of monsters with them. Those creatures will pursue you through the portals, and wreak havoc here. The more you bring the more the sky becomes fractured and the veil separating our worlds from each other becomes unstable. We cannot stop your kind from coming here. In fact, at one time you all were meant to come through here in the procession, but your World was closed up for a purpose when the Great Flood of Judgement reshaped your world and gave us a respite. But now in the returning your kind has been allowed in once more, and I need to know, that if my family is to be at risk with you, that you are committed to seeing this through.”
“I am. And I need to be clear, what you can see, to help us make that happen. We’ve encounter six stories so far in what you called mirroring and one of them involved animals. Who of us is connected to such tales? You said they would all be Surface Worlders.”
“Yes, I did. My gift allows me to find who it is that is causing the mirroring of story unaware. That is what it means to see. It clarifies especially if they give their name, so it is important, if possible to ask for the names of all of your fellow travelers, save the two I mentioned who are from these lands and disguising themselves as Surface Worlders. We will eventually discern their purpose for infiltrating our company, but let’s leave that aside for now. It is sufficient that they know we are aware of them, which is why I spoke out about it to Nem. The Azragothians have a right to know who enters their city be they friend or foe. These two are less apt to try anything nefarious if they know we suspect them and are waiting for any sign they might give to reveal themselves. They may not know this, but by putting them on their guard I am also saving their lives, at least for now.”
“So I have been given some names in our company so far. Can you tell me which of the six stories belong to whom?”
“I can, but you can easily guess one of them, though he will most likely not be leaving with you to Excavatia. My Begglar is the Shop Keeper and the Collector. His story is a latent memory of his former life in Dublin. It is why he has a sense of the nature of people. We go where he goes. There is much to do here first.”
“That family who told their story. It was clear that they were mirroring, though I do not know how they came to be citizens of Xarmni. That is perhaps a further tale we must find out when we meet them along the way in the seaport of Skorlith. They are supposed to wait for us there for boat passage across the great lake. If our hidden Skorlithian is to reveal himself, I would bet he will do it there. Maeven, you already know to be the subject of The Falcon and Eagle tale. She told it as an animal tale because she is not aware of her being the principle in it herself. She is the Falcon of the story. It is one of the few times that Begglar has made the trip back to the Surface World to find out more about her, though she does not know that. We also found out why she remains here uninterrupted for so long. Begglar told me that her Surface World presence remain in hospital, hooked up to machines that help her to breathe. Begglar calls her perpetual sleeping a coma. A tragedy that is. Her husband and children were both killed in the Surface World, and the accident left her in that condition. She had a waking moment but then was lost in this dream until she found her way here. Poor thing.”
“Does Christie or Laura have a connection yet?”
“None that has been revealed so far. They are very rooted in the Surface World at the moment. Laura was not here long enough to reveal her tale, but I do understand that you spoke with her and found out why she chose to leave us.”
“I did, but her story was a very personal one and I believe she is still in the formulation of it.”
“Christie’s will come in time. She is very intelligent and perceptive, but also a very private person. Give her space to share it when she will. Be patient.”
“Is the story by letter relevant? The one about the brother and sister?”
“I cannot get a fix on that one because it did not come about by mirroring. Something about it resonates though. There is something I am missing there, that seems as if I should know more, but cannot grasp it. I don’t feel it pointing to anyone outside of myself. Perhaps it is linked to the lady you met who sent it to you. It could be that it is someone we will meet along the way.”
“So there are two left. One came to us strongly while we were on the precipice near the Stone Marker.”
“Ah yes, that one I could have told you without the gift. If you had been noticing his reaction to the sound of the Protectorate dogs pursuing us, you would have recognized the connection as well. He was cowering and curled into a fetal position in the wagon. The sounds brought the haunting memories back of the terror we witnessed with him when he unknowingly mirrored his story to all of us.”
“He was the child in the tree?”
“Yes. It is also why he challenges you so hard. He resents you because you remind him of the father he lost. He blames his father for the abandonment. For the calling and mission.”
“What do you mean?”
“The clarity is in the odd title that comes with his mirrored story. The Cleft Cross. What do you think might cause a wooden cross to receive a cleft in it?”
“It would have to be struck by something sharp. An ax blade, perhaps?”
“No. It is what happens when a cleric resists a soldier. The cross he bears received the blow of the striking sword coming down upon it. It receives a cleft that binds the sword into the wood so that it can be wrenched free. Hence the cleft cross is the symbol of a soldier turned into a cleric. Have you not heard the saying that ‘Those who live by the sword will also die by the sword?’ The wisdom is in the exchange made from the soldier to the cleric. The sword of the Lord as opposed to the sword of man. The Ancient Text reads thus:
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” ” [Hebrews 4:12 NASB]
“So that would have to be Will. His father would have had to have been both a soldier and a cleric. That was why he wanted to ask about Surface World weaponry, being brought here. To perhaps avenge something that happened to his father?”
“I will make of you a Seer yet, Mr. O’Brian.”
I happened to look down and noticed words engraved in stone at the base of the balustrade, and I stepped back to read them. They were from the Ancient Text:
“‘The sword is outside and the plague and the famine are within. He who is in the field will die by the sword; famine and the plague will also consume those in the city.” [Ezekiel 7:15 NASB]
“What is this?”
From behind us, a voice answered, as Nell also moved back to read the text.
“It was a prophecy given. A warning that Azragoth leadership should have paid heed to, before the ominous truth of those words came to fruition. I had it engraved here as a reminder to anyone looking down upon Azragoth from this terrace. Like Ezra says, one must pay attention to the ground upon which one chooses to take their stand.”
“But this is amazing. This is exactly what happened to Azragoth.”
“Just as it did for the land of which it was first written.”
Nem stepped forward and joined them at the railing.
“Idolatry. Azragoth had become a town filled with wealth. We had left our beliefs and descended into pantheism. We believed in the nobility and the virtue of animals, and so they became the objects of our worship. We formed an allegiance with the creatures of this world. An ancient race known as the Half-Men. The Greeks and Romans of your world once worshipped these beings, and so we followed in like manner. We were fascinated by the Surface World. The stories of it, the people who came to our lands from it. We learned much and sought to know much more. We believed in the One, that had come to your world and Whose Presence resonated through ours. There is not a corner of eternity not felt by Him. No world or land that can wholly contain Him, for He is Creator of all, and by Him and through Him all exist. The Ancient Text says that in the beginning He created, formed and fashioned the heavens and the earth with spoken word, saying, ‘Let there be.’ And all that was came from that being. That mighty Word extending and piercing through the void transcending time and space to cause life to be. Have you ever had the occasion to raise your voice in the well of a mighty canyon, or stand upon a peak and shout down into a valley? The voice you hear answering back. What do you call it in the Surface World?”
“Yes. This is what those in this world are reluctant to admit. Our world was formed from the echo of your world. That is why there are so many similarities between the two, yet differences as well through the return of the voice from which it originates. There is but One source, but the sounding is as the voices of many waters crashing upon a seashore. We live in the gifted worlds once intended for man’s expansion through the universe. Imagine for a moment what life in the Surface World would have been like if there had been no death. This place is locked away from the physical universe because of the narrowing of mankind’s choice on the origin world. This place was reserved for the Two who have yet to die. It is a place that was once intended to be for perfect man and woman and their myriad descendants to discover and explore once they had experienced all of the wonders of the world in which they were born. A mere stop on the journey to the great and holy mountain where the throne room of the Most High sits in all splendor.”
The travelers began to gather around to hear Nem’s words, stunned by the implications of it.
“Are you saying this place is real? That we are not just dreaming all of this?” one of my skeptics asked.
Ezra joined the gathering coming up from the courtyards below, having heard the words spoken from the balcony above.
“The Ancient Text has a way of reverberating and resonating in the heart and through the experience of all mankind. It is why, ancient as it may be, it lives in parallel with our daily experience and takes on life answers as we live through time. Prophecies given by the One may be spoken for both the moment at present and the moments ahead. The same way words echo back to you and you experience them once, twice or many times. When finality is spoken there will be a cessation, but if not, that word aptly spoken may rebound from life to life. That is the nature of a Divine Text that is not limited by time or distance. It is also why the cautions of the past can still be relevant for the future. Why those truths written in the Surface World are pertinent here in our world.”
“But how are any of these things possible? I do not remember anything like this in my place of worship back home.”
I then spoke up and offered an answer, “Is it possible that the limits we place on God are measured out only by our ability to receive them comfortably in the way we want to perceive the world?”
“What are you even saying?”
“I am merely asking if you are willing to conceive that the vastness of who God is might make you uncomfortable.”
Anger flickered in the questioner’s eyes.
It is hard to serve something more than the God of our understanding, but to only serve that kind of god, is to serve a caricature and trinket god, rather than The Almighty. It is humbling to think that we so often need to downsize the One to fit into the limitation of our routine experience and once we have Him figured out only then we can serve Him, but that is our hubris. An idol that I routinely stumble over while attempting to serve a God vastly bigger and grander than I could ever imagine. My little shrine does nothing more than skin my shins, as I fall prostrate over it each time.
A verse from the Ancient Text arose from my memory and came to me in that moment:
“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For His Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets.” [1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NLT]
Undistracted, I answered opening my palms in appeal, “If we would know a God greater than the limits of our understanding, we must become willing to yield to the fact that if there is a God worthy of service and have something to teach us, then He must by very nature be bigger than our understanding and never fit into the little box we attempt to coax Him into. Imagine you are a father who lovingly dotes over his child, but the child willfully misbehaves. Would it be right for you to reward the misbehavior by giving the child the gift you prepared and intended for them? If not, is it possible that God as the perfect father has so many gifts He would lovingly bestow upon His children, but in His greater love for our well-being, chooses not to reward an unyielding heart that could have accomplished the good? As He is a God of Justice, should He become unjust merely to reward an obstinate people?”
Ezra stepped to the head of the crowd and quoted the following passage from the Ancient Text, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:” [Acts 2:17 KJV]
“Nem and I have spoken many times about why after all these years, that Surface Worlders are showing up in our lands, through their visions and dreams, and why a prophecy seemingly fulfilled might also reverberate in these times, and we have come to only one conclusion. Something of great import is about to happen in the Surface World and in this one, and the time is very near for it to commence. The verse continues thus: “In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants–men and women alike–and they will prophesy. And I will cause wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below–blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and glorious day of the LORD arrives.” [Acts 2:18-20 NLT]
Nem stepped up beside him and joined, “If that forgoing verse were already complete, what event has served witness in the Surface World that could qualify as having both wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below? This is what we mean by echoing. Portions of the prophetic voice clarify to the hearer through the listener’s unfolding experience. Prophecy is not given merely so that we might have the ability to know the future. Prophecy is given so that we might know Who holds the future.”