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

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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.

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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.

******

 

The Creature in The Cauldron – Chapter 25

The well was not as I thought it would be.  As I slid off the rusted and slimy grating I tumbled and smacked down on a bed of wet moss about seven or eight feet below.  The moss was moist, thick and sponge-like–sodden and very warm, almost hot, but not to the degree of scalding.

I heard Nem hail me from above and shouted back at him.

“Why have you done this to me?!”

He called back, “I have committed you to a course of action, Mr. O’Brian.”Underground Image-02

We were back to that again, I thought in annoyance.  He knows my name.

I responded in mock laughter, my irritation with him wearing no mask in the hollow, resentful chuckle.

“So what do I do now that you’ve trapped me down here?!  And why is this moss bed so hot?!  I thought this was a well?”

“It was a hot springs bath, Mr. O’Brian.  It once was used by the women of the city and had large thick curtains that hung from these surrounding columns for privacy.”

Incredulous, I called back, “You’ve locked me in the drain of a bathtub?!  Why on earth would you do something like this?  What if this hot spring had been filled with scalding water?!  You would have boiled me alive?!”

“The water has long since drained out of it.  Despite what you may think, I was not trying to kill you, Mr. O’Brian.  I’m trying to save Azragoth and our people from the thing that has been following you, stalking you invisibly and is now undermining the foundations of this city.”

I shook my head in amazement, his words registering with a growing uneasiness.

“Do you mean to tell me, you’ve locked me down here with some sort of creature. One that I did not know was following us?”

“Mr. O’Brian, that creature has found its way into the caverns that are buried deep below the foundations of this city.  And that creature has begun to dig through the foundation walls, and will ultimately breach the reservoir of wet filth that is stored in the cavities within the front facing walls.  When that happens, Azragoth will have lost its secret advantage against a full-frontal assault of the Xarmnian armies.  They will soon learn that Azragoth is not a dead and forgotten city as they once thought.  We believe that even now they may already suspect it.  Further, if that creature breeches those filth-filled cavities, it will contaminate and deluge our only other means of escape from the city.  Surely, you do not think that we still use the old roads to go to and from Azragoth?”

No, I did not. Like everyone else I had believed Azragoth had become a ghost town. I had no cause to believe otherwise before we were let into the inner walls. Even then, I had not considered the method in which this secret inner city might reach the outside world without revealing themselves.  Of course, it would have to be by means of some sort of underground tunnel system.  And those of us arriving as unknown strangers into Azragoth would not be entrusted to be shown and led through the secret ways.

Pondering this, I shouted back up to Nem, “What am I supposed to do now?”

“I have returned the honor sword to you.  You must seek the answers to those questions from within yourself.  You have everything you need to face and defeat this creature.  All you lack is the will and the joining of your being into wholeness to experience the quickening once more.  You said it yourself.  You Surface Worlders struggle with dividing the components of your being.  You were given the Breath of Life.  You were designed to be expressed as a whole being and not think of yourself with double-mindedness.  Join your whole being by faith into The Vine and you will experience the quickening again.  You are body, soul and spirit.  These are designed to function together as one.  Let your spirit guide you with knowledge of what is true.  You have been re-awakened for this purpose.  Commit your soul–your mind will and emotions—to being the leader you are called to be.  Engage it with your passions.  Set your heart upon it by faith, in the guidance that comes by the knowledge delivered to you in your spirit.  And finally, join action to these and set your body in motion to perform the tasks you are given.  In this you will find the quickening.  When you are wholly aligned in spirit, mind and body.  When you have done this, you will find the nature of that honor sword you bear to be imbued with a light that will shine in the darkness, and aid you in doing what needs to be done.”

I could feel the hint of something stirring within me as Nem spoke these words of guidance.  A bolstering affirmation, and the rise of memories surfacing from a past I had tried to bury under a layer of loss and grief so long ago.  These admonishments were the key to my surviving the next few hours, and I knew it.  Nem had committed me, whether I wanted to be or not, to facing this unknown, and invisible demon, so that I could not only save myself and my company and the people of the city of Azragoth, but rise to become the warrior I needed to be once more.

I called to Nem, unsure if he was still there or within hearing distance.

“Nem?”

“Yes, Mr. O’Brian.  I am still here.”

“I know I needed this.”

There was silence, but I continued.

“I know you did what you had to do for Azragoth, and for the loyalty you have for its people.”

I paused.

“I know you owe us interloping Surface Worlders nothing, and that we have brought a threat to your city that we–no I–am responsible for.  But a little warning would have been nice.”

A pause ensued and then Nem responded, “I did not have the luxury of brooking a refusal.”

“Both Ezra and I publicly received your commitment to be responsible for your people and anything done that might threaten our city and its secrets.  Take it as you may, but we considered that as much of an advanced warning as we could give to you.  Your followers and our citizens witnessed your response and we are merely holding you to that commitment.  Your former reputation, and eye-witness accounts of past exploits also tell me that you once were equal to this task of ridding us of this hidden creature, so I have every confidence that you can do this for us as well.  It is why we are willing to aid you and your company.  We are serving you by giving your company food, shelter, supplies and training .  Now you are serving us, especially since you brought this threat upon us all.”

“Fair enough,” I assented, “So where am I supposed to find this creature and how will I recognize it?”

“When you find the oneness within your being, the honor sword will guide you to it.  Follow the water tunnels of The Cauldron.  The hot vents will be on your left and the cold streams will be to your right.  These underground streams were once joined to make the scalding water bearable for bathing.  The bearing wall that once dammed up and held the water was broken through.”

“Wait a minute.  What did you call this place?”

“The Cauldron.  It is just a name the founders gave it, when they were laying the foundations of the city and quarrying the rocky cliffside to bear it.  The hot spring was mineral rich but too hot to be anything that could service the water supply to the city, so underground channels were dug to route the cold waters of the Trathorn to blend with this natural stream and form a unique bathing fountain.  They used sluice controls to feed the cold water in and manage the temperature of the pool.  The fountain basin and pavilion were built above it, and the city then had a public bath.  The affluent of the city had access to it, but for a fee, visitors could pay to use it.”

“Surely this is not how you get in and out of the city?”

“Of course not.  This bath was the closest way in to where we think the creature might be now.”

My pulse quickened, realizing that a confrontation with the creature could be imminent.

“What does it look like?”

“None of us have seen it.  It is presently invisible.”

That bit of information did nothing to slow my pulse, but rather raised my suspicious ire.

“Then how do you know there is even anything down here?!”

“We sense it.  And since I am the rebuilding architect of this city, I and my builders have noticed a pattern in the destruction happening below.  Structural cracks are appearing in the inner city wall.  The ground beneath is being undermined.  The weaknesses follow the paths of the tunnel system we have mapped for this city.  Clearly something big is moving through them underneath us.  The damage being down is not due to a natural settling that comes over time.  It happens at irregular intervals and within hours of each other.  These started with the arrival of your company.”

He let me ponder that a moment.

“The creature would not have been able to follow you through the sally-port entrance.  The stairwell is too narrow and the door closed and was locked after the last of your company entered.  This creature would have had to have found another way in.  The inner walls are coated with pitch, so it could not have climbed over the walls without having revealed itself.  Invisible or not, the black substance would reveal its form. Light-benders can be coated and exposed.”

“What causes you to believe this creature is big?”

“Now that IS a foolish question, Mr. O’Brian.  I am surprised at you.”

“I am in an underground pit with an invisible creature about to find and devour me, if I cannot get the quickening back.  Pardon me if I’m not thinking clearly here.”

“Point taken.  The creature would have to be of substantial size, and have powerful arms and claws to be able to dig through as much rock and dirt as would be needed below to impact what is going on with our structures above.  Moving that volume of earth at such a rate could only mean that this thing is of substantial size.”

“But how can you be certain that it is invisible if it has been underground?  When would you have had occasion to see it?  We have only been in Azragoth a few days now.”

“Did you think you were not seen coming in the back way?  Did you think we were so surprised when Maeven announced that not only Begglar and his family had arrived but that a party of Surface Worlders had joined them?”

“The inner bridges that you crossed getting here were damaged by something far heavier than horses passing over them. Your company were being pursued by Xarmnian dogs, trained to track, sniff out, hunt down and kill anyone their masters directed them to.  You surely didn’t think Maeven’s story about the family of skunks would stop such trained killers, did you?  That creature following you has kept them at bay.  The beasts are killers but not stupid.  It may be invisible but it still has a scent those dogs recognize and associate with danger.  That thing may be the only reason you were not overtaken in the backwoods before now.”

“But wouldn’t Maeven have…”

“Maeven is a Surface Worlder.  She is family by adoption but she was not born here with the sense of this land that we know intuitively.  She is immune to some of the things that would fell us, but not to the things coming from her birth world that would naturally deceive your kind.  It seems that we both recognize and get a sense of the otherness that is different from our worlds.  That is why we allow Surface Worlders here.  They can perceive what we cannot, and we perceive what they cannot.  There is no knowing why this should be, but it is.”

I heard him clear his throat.

“Mister O’Brian, it seems to me that you are stalling for time which you do not have.  It is far better that you attend to what you need to and then find this creature before you let it find you.”

“Nem, if I succeed in this, how will I get out of these tunnels?  How will I know how to get back into the city?”

Nem was quiet.  So quiet that for a moment I thought he had already left me.

“You have heard us speak of The Eagle, have you not?”

“I have.  I was told he and others went to the mountains to get a sense of the troop movements of the Xarmnian and Capitalian armies being mobilized because of their Builder Stones.  I was also told that your counsel expects him back any day now.”

“I am now free to tell you that they have returned, but they are being kept outside of the city.”

“Kept out? Why?”

“They are guarding the underground entrance.  Ensuring that the beast below does not escape capture.”

“Can they kill it?”

“This creature is bound to you.  You must expose it, and only then may it be subdued and killed.”

“What about Maeven, and her path forward?”

“Maeven and any others that follow you will not survive if they follow you as you are.  We only have confidence in entrusting her safety within your quest, if we know that you are being led and quickened within.  Every good leader must first become a faithful follower and earn the honor of that position.  But there is no time to discuss this further.  You have what is needed, so I will now take my leave of you, O’Brian.  I wish you all success.  Mark well what I have told you.  Find the wellspring of your spirit, abide in the One, and you will find both resolve and empowerment to do that which must be done.”

And with those words, he left me to prepare myself for what was coming.

The air in the pit around me was hot and humid, smelling of a pungency I could not identify.  Though the warm moss hugged at my form, beckoning me into despairing oblivion, I knew I could give no more place to uncertainty.  I had to choose to fight this beast, to resist it, calling upon the authority of the One who called me to this quest.

I cleared the scabbard of the honor sword and my feet found some degree of shaky footing upon smooth rocks below.  A weak light effused the water well, such that I could just see the broken edges of the retaining wall before me, and beyond a pitch black darkness, that threatened to envelop my every sense of balance and direction should I dare to proceed further.

But like Nem said, I had no choice.

As I’ve stated before, in this land and on this quest you all will see and experience things that may be beyond what you’ve come to experience as naturally occurring in the Surface World.  Sentient and malevolent creatures moving invisibly in the Surface World on a spiritual plane, take on a pernicious physicality here.

An echo may sound similar to the voice of origin, but there are differences in tone and quality as it stretches, reverberates and bounces back to the hearers.  It is the persistent expectation of sameness to the Surface World that will cause some to falter and feel unstable and insecure here.  I know.  I went through it myself many years ago.  That is why I persist in telling all of you that the transcendent Truth that holds all together is the Ancient Text, the Word of the Creator.  That is why I hold so fiercely to it.  Without the study, knowledge, and remembrance of the Ancient Text, there can be no quickening.

The Koine Greek word [ζῳοποιέω], from the language in which the text was written, is pronounced, Zoe-ah-poi-A-O.  The word means to cause something to arouse to life by supernatural power.  Honor swords, unlike standard weaponry, are connected to covenant, and by that connection, it can be imbued with power so long as it serves under that covenant.  The very words of the Ancient Text are living and powerful, because of the Source from which they arose and were brought together.  They revealed the will of the One as they do the purposes of the One.  The Ancient Text, in the Psalmist’s passage states:

“I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me. … I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts. … Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. … I [am] small and despised: [yet] do not I forget thy precepts. … Consider how I love thy precepts: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy lovingkindness. … I have kept thy precepts and thy testimonies: for all my ways [are] before thee. … Let thine hand help me; for I have chosen thy precepts.” [Psalm 119:93, 100, 104, 141, 159, 168, 173 KJV]

In this mid-world, warfare is engaged with both the mind and the body and the spirit unified and battling together.  The human enemies may be fought with mind and body, but the creatures drawn from the netherworld will tear you mentally apart if you are not prepared for them.  The Surface World has a barrier that they cannot cross, and their limits are only within the power of suggestion and to the level in which a human may yield to their influence.

From the beginning of this quest, there has been a voice within me, sounding to my mind as if it was speaking in my own voice.  “Give up”, it tells me.  “You are not worthy to lead.  You are leading others to their death.  You cannot let yourself feel again.  Remember what happened last time.  You are not worthy of the sword you hold, or this place you wish to get to.  You are as much a butcher, as the ones you dare to resist.  The stories you seek to mend will no longer burn for you.  When the hosts bearing the storied flames realize who you are, there will be no forgiveness for the ways in which you abandoned and betrayed them.  There can be no forgiving what you have done.  This quest is hopeless.  Go back to your exile.  Let someone else lead.

Those voices, I knew were spoken by the enemies of my mission and my calling.  If the One who called me to this journey, chose me, then no other choice could have been made.  He chooses wisely.  Who am I to resist Him?  I had allowed those voices to speak to me, and weaken my commitment, and abandon my resolve.  It was not my strength of character that I needed now.  It was His.

“24 Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” [1Th 5:24 NASB]

I had often enough heard and spoken those words and admonished others with them, but I failed to let them gain purchase within me.  As weak and as inadequate as I may be, He did not require my own might.  Only my willingness to choose to do as He asks.  To listen to the Spirit continually speaking to my spirit and allow that communion and fellowship to take place by yielding my doubts, and placing confidence and trust in Him to see this through.

When my decision and release came, I found my hand moving to the hilt of the honor sword that hung by my side.

I gripped its warming handle, and with my other hand found the bloodline and uncoiled it from the cross-guard it had been wound around.  In my past days, I had fought with many swords and weaponry.  I had heard of honor swords, but never had the occasion to bear one, before this quest.

I knew that the honor sword could be roused to life for two reasons.  Some unknown enemy of inhuman origin was drawing near.  And the Word being called to memory, by one connected to a covenant sword would cause that sword to respond in the needed moment for wielding in both visible and invisible conflict.

I gathered the bloodline sash and carefully wound it around my forearm, careful not to constrict the blood flow, but secure enough to not easily lose the weapon as I drew it forth.

For so long, I lived in the Surface World in a sort of sleepwalking state and it took me quite some time before I gained an awareness that roused me into full wakefulness.  Nem was correct, in his assessment of me.  I was like one who had slept for way too long and was only now coming to full wakefulness.  The words of the Ancient Text, came to my mind unbidden, as I unsheathed the blade.

“Besides this, since you know the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is nearly over, and the day is near; so let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” [Romans 13:11-12 CSB]

As I joined these words to my thoughts, the doubts that had so plagued me began to fall away and flee.  I no longer heard them in my mind in the pitch and timber with which I recognized my own voice, but instead spoken in some alien, guttural language, with a spitting hatred that I could feel scorch me even as it fled and dissipated from the truth displacing it.

Another verse presented itself:

“29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” [Mat 11:29-30 NLT]

As I believed in and embraced the words of the truth, and permitted hope to enter, my mind began to clear, and the weight of the responsibility of finding leadership qualities within myself, seem to lift from my shoulders.

Before me, the edges of the broken cistern wall became more distinct to my eyes, as if I had been gradually gifted with some degree of night vision.  In the suffused light from the grated drain gate above me, the blade of the honor sword seemed to gleam more brightly.  Courage stirred within me.  And hope began to flower again in what I had believed to be the blighted soil of my soul.

The time for words were over.  I knew what my spirit was telling me.  I had at last chosen to put my trust in the foreknowledge of the One who called me.  It was now time to commit to wholeness, and put my heart right and my hands to the plow.  He would do through me what I could not.  It was time to no longer view myself as the prey.  It was time to plunge into the darkness ahead of me and become the hunter.

“Lying creature beware!”, I said out loud to the darkness, giving voice to my commitment, as I carefully stepped across the scree and over broken stones entering the tunnels below the city, “I am coming for you.”

The naked blade of the honor sword, became sheathed in a silverish light and I knew—the quickening had returned to me once more.

The Quickening – Chapter 24

“Mister O’Brian, if I might, I would like a word with you.  Are you willing to release your company into the care of Ezra for a few hours for training?”

I yielded and Ezra and his attendants led the others back down to the Warrior’s Court below.

Nem and I watched in silence from the terrace as the group fanned out in the courtyard and Ezra resumed his training lecture on the use, advantages and disadvantages of certain weapons from the training table.

After a moment Nem brought my attention back to the matter at hand for which he had called me aside.

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“Walk with me.  There is something very particular I need to show you.  Something we need your help with and some private issues we need to speak about concerning your leadership.”

We walked together in silence for a bit, moving away from the hearing of the others until we reached a stone stairway that led down into the older remnants of the city.

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“This quest you are on…,” he began, “It will take one of us from here with you into unknown dangers ahead.”

Intuitively, I knew who he was speaking of, but did not interrupt.

He paused, carefully navigating the broken steps downward that had become covered with wet moss, lichen and an ever spreading, ever-growing carpet of vines that seemed to swallow the crumbling steps in a throat of leafy greenery.  He lifted his feet high, indicating that I should do the same, to keep our feet from being caught in the treacherous tangles.  Our footfalls, pressing on the top of the vines, crushing the leaves, and crackling thin branches underneath caused the mat to give off a sickeningly cloying custard-like odor.  A dusting of bile-yellow pollen covered our boots and legs as we carefully scrambled over the tops of the densely woven mat.

Soon, we found a partial clearing of stone again and the semblance of steps resuming downward into a thickly overgrown courtyard enveloped in leafy kudzu and gnarled branches that twisted and descended into and out of the overgrowth, dislodging stones from the walls and the ancient structure buried beneath.  It was almost as if this leafy green surface was some alien ocean in tumult, where the surface of the water had been replaced with foliage and some monstrous Kraken-like creature from the fathomless depths below extended its wooden twisted tentacles through the floating mat, seizing and tugging anything it could wrap its searching, probing and coiling appendages around.  Once standing again on a small flat island of stone, in the midst of this leafy ocean, Nem resumed his address to me.

“While we are on the precipice of war and can hardly spare anyone, we understand the vital role of these quests.  Others and I agree that it is now Maeven’s time to go with you on this one.  We knew this time would eventually come, but it is hard now that this time is upon us.”

Nem paused thoughtfully.  Reflecting on memories of her with a wistful smile.

“She has been adopted into the village of Azragoth.  We are like family to her and she to us, though we know she originally came to us from the Surface World.  She has grown much and learned far more than others of your kind who pass through here.  But she is still part of your world, and her future depends on finding for herself what your quest will offer her.  She is like a daughter to us.  One who has brought much delight to us as she grew up among us, and like doting parents, we struggle to release her into finding her own life for herself.”

We continued forward, again stepping from the stone shore of the green sea, to walk across the crackling and spongy surface of its verdant and tangled waters, making for a break in the wall and another set of vine-covered steps leading upwards and beyond.

“I know why you have come, perhaps better than you do.  I can sense your uneasiness, your self-doubt, and your feelings of inadequacy.  But you should know that what you were called to is very important, and something our erstwhile daughter needs to be able to find the wholeness she has been seeking her entire life.”

I sighed involuntarily before realizing I had done so.  It seemed that he might be making more out of my calling than I was, and embarrassingly, I had the deep down sense that he was correct.

Nem studied me a moment with disturbingly perceptive eyes that seemed to probe and unpack my secrets and my every weakness.

“For anything you set out to do, Mr. O’Brian, you must always…Always,” he emphasized, “Be able to clearly state the purpose for which you undertake the task.  If you are not clear on this point, you doom your enterprise and everyone who may hope to follow you into it.  Since you will take a daughter of this city into your particular undertaking, I cannot allow you to proceed with such uncertainty, so let me restate the purpose of your mission for you, as I perceive it to be.  Afterward, if you see it differently, I need to know it now before we commit her to go with you on this quest.”

I hesitated, but Nem did not, and like a father protecting the daughter he loves from the ill-defined intentions of a prospective suitor, he restated and clarified the essential nature of my purpose for being here, and my having been given the quest in the first place.

“You are here to bring awareness to the daydreamers who have lost who they are.  Those who have become disconnected from their own self-worth and from the memory that their stories are intertwined with our histories.  They have escaped, for lack of a better term, into the dream but have found only the nightmare because they are ungrounded.  Split between who they believe themselves to be and what they at one time wished to be.  Despair has clouded their vision and made them believe that to hope for anything else is a foolish myth.  You too were under that delusion, but I think you are finally waking up to it now.  But you have a difficult task ahead of you.  You are still groggy from the restlessness of being roused to awareness, sorting through the real and the unreal, belief and doubts.  You speak words of the Ancient Text, and swiftly call them forth from your memory in warrior fashion, but you are still disconnected from the reason they come to you, and the power they offer to restore your ability to become more than you are now.  Faith without works is dead, Mr. O’Brian, and you are still shrouded in funeral garments, yet you purport to lead these others who are presently unaware themselves of why they specifically were brought here through the portal between our worlds.  What roles they are yet to play in the discoveries yet to come.  Nell is not the only Seer here, you know.  Azragoth has others within our township who dream as well.  Some of your company are known through those dreams, yet your people are unaware of this.  We have kept our Seers from interacting with your people because they might recognize them and not yet know why they do.  I needed to speak with you first, before allowing those meetings.  To assess what steps have been taken to make your company a unit and a family who could survive the rigors of what is ahead of you when you leave Azragoth and prepare them for the psychological shock of finding out that all of them have been here at least once before, yet have lost their memory of it.  Their stories will come back to them in time.  But you must be prepared for it.  For how it will affect each of them when they do.  But before you can do that you must first contend with who you are and come to terms with it.  Then you must come to know each of them and earn their trust.”

Something within me.  Something integral to my very soul and spirit resonated in affirmation of what Nem was saying, and I could feel the truth of it even as he spoke it forth.

“How do you know such things?  How can you…?”

“Because Mr. O’Brian, or Brian as you are known in the above world,…In this world, I am the particular Seer who has dreams of what your life is in the other world.  I feel I have known of you before you even knew yourself.  Each of us, here in the mid-worlds dreams of an other’s story.  It is part of the inherited connection we have genetically with our ancestors who first came here from there.  I happen to be the one person in this world who sees you and foresaw your coming back here.  It is the only reason you were allowed into the city and into its secret of existence.”

He was silent a moment, allowing me to recover from my shock at this revelation.

He proceeded up the stone steps to the remnants of a stone structure that looked in part like a pavilion or gazebo.

I hesitated and then followed.

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When I had reached the top, I could see that beneath the stone pavilion, there was what looked to be the remains of a fountain basin with a series of recessed and concentric pits gradually descending in depth until the smalled inner basin revealed a grate covered well in its center.  The fountain was dry and no water remained in it, but its floor was strewn with the remains of dead and decaying leaves, grayed and blackened with rot over time.  Though the gazebo/pavilion was raised on a tree-shrouded hillock within the city walls, the air there felt dry and still.  Musty in some way.  As if the stone canopy were the ceiling of a cave smelling of lyme, smoke and fire-scorched earth.  The fecund and sickly-sweet smell of rotting leaves one might expect to smell from the floor of the fountain was instead replaced with the slightly coppery tang of dry dust that had aged well beyond decay until all moisture was leeched out of it.

We stood together at the raised edge of the fountain basin looking down into its waterless cavities, and into the iron-grated dark blackness of the central basin.

“If you can see who I am back in the Surface World, and knew I would one day be coming here, leading an expedition, can you also see what will be ahead of us?”

Nem shook his head.

“It doesn’t work like that.  I could only catch glimpses of what would be up to this moment.  When the time of your journey and our times join into the present, no Seer, no matter how gifted can see beyond it.  We are not soothsayers, Brian, or fortune-tellers who can give you sight of a future in which you are a passive player.  All future steps are accounted according to your choices and actions from this moment forward.  As it is written: The just shall live by faith.  And you are justified and accountable for the choices you make.  Only The Word can say what will be beyond these moments, for only He knows the end from the beginning.  It is folly to seek knowledge of the future in anything other than this.  Neither you nor any other being in all of creation from one end of the heavens to the other can get out of The Word’s permissive will.  Your safest, and most fulfilling course is to seek the path He desires for you, and experience the goodness that will certainly come of it.  If you would rather seek your own will, and your own definition of good, you will find the hard and lonely path of His provisional will.  It is your choice to make.  Either route you take, you will find always that His Will will be done in the end.”

We were silent for a time, each pondering the words spoken and the responsibility they portended.

“What do you think Azragoth represents to the outside world?”

“A memory of a great commercial center.  I am not sure what you are asking.”

“Death, Mr. O’Brian.  It represents loss, death and destruction.  In a way, it is the very thing you need right now because otherwise, you will be an agent of death to these followers you lead.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Every great quest begins with a kind of death.  For one who is called to lead, that death is their own.  Have you ever heard the concept of dying to live?  That one must surrender their desire to master their circumstances, otherwise, they will become mastered by them?”

“The concept is not unfamiliar to me.  I am reminded of the Ancient Text’s words on that.”

“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” [Luke 9:24-25 NLT]

“Ah yes.  To my very point, which is why there is some hope for you.  You do seem to have a sense of what is the right thing to do, even if you are not grasping the way to get there.  But if you do not get there, you will still endanger everyone who follows your lead and tragically so because you knew what you must do, but failed to execute upon it.”

“What do you mean?  How is my leadership endangering them?”

Nem was quiet a moment, letting my question linger between us before finally considering an approach to answering it.

“I am told you bore an honor sword when you arrived through the backwoods.  Why did you surrender it?”

“We were told to surrender our weapons or we would not be let into the city.”

“That is true, but you are evading my question.  Why did you surrender the honor sword?”

“I was promised I would get it back again.”

“Were you?” Nem studied him, “Was getting into Azragoth more important than the lives of the company you lead?”

“I am not following.”

“Nor are you leading, Mr. O’Brian.  You are presently in thrall of an invisible creature and you represent a grave danger to us all.”

“I don’t feel like I’m in the thrall of anything.”

“Yes, you are.  If you weren’t you would never have surrendered your honor sword, nor would you have allowed your people to be led blindly into a city that represents death to the outside world.  A city of plague that even the Xarmnians have feared and let be for a season.  There are some others in this city that also know you from the before times.  The time in which you were something much different than what you are now presenting yourself to be.  Did you think we would not find out, who it was that we allowed into our confidences?”

I sighed involuntarily, feeling exposed for a fraud and a certain embarrassed shame colored my face.  I leaned across the fountain’s edge, my hands clasped together, breathing deeply, carefully thinking through my response.

Nem continued, allowing me the dignity of not being pressed to say something I might regret later.

“You have a reputation that precedes you, even if most have forgotten it because it was so many years ago.  You once were what Maeven as the Storm Hawk has become now.  A legend, a hero, a fierce fighter and crusading leader against both the Xarmnians and the races of Half-men.  She has filled in the gap of what you left.”

“Then I certainly pity her for it,” I said, revealing more bitterness than I intended in my tone, “She does not know what she is in for.”

“What has happened to you to make you so different from the stories?  Were those who remember you from back then deceived?  Are they wrong?”

“As many legends are, they were exaggerated into something I could never live up to.  I felt the weight of them, and I tried very hard not to disappoint people who were inspired by them to hope.  But I failed them, and I failed those I loved in the worst way.  I was eventually captured, tortured and my family taken from me.  I betrayed them and everything I ever stood for to seek relief from the pressure of being more than I could humanly be.  The expectations of people, even well-meaning people, can become a cruel taskmaster, so eventually, I sought seclusion and withdrew into what I thought was a quiet existence.   Until I was found again.  By the very creatures, I unwittingly brought over from the Surface World.  My own personal demons, who bound me and drove me to the brink of utter despair.”

“So here you are again.  Leading a quest with people who do not know you.  For what?  Penance over past failings?”

“I was given a second chance.  And was called out of the past darkness into which I tried to hide myself.  I don’t know why.  I don’t feel up to this, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know of my past.  I cannot live up to it, so these should only know that I am called and am hoping that the equipping and the quickening power comes back to me as it did before with the calling.  I figured enough time had passed in these lands that those I knew would have forgotten me.  These travelers from the Surface World are a mostly strangers to me and Begglar and I have a history not so dissimilar to each other.  We both left the crusadership about the same time and sought a quieter life.  Though Begglar not so much as I.  He derives a certain energy from interaction with others that I have difficulty with.  So he opened a bakery and then an Inn.  Me, I found a small cabin in the mountains near a brook.  Planted a small garden, and lived monk-like as much as I could, occasioning visiting Begglar and then Nell when they married and few times later before they had Dominic.  Begglar was the only one of the old company that I have had any contact with in years.  I had been to Azragoth during trade days, before the attack and plague, and have sometimes wandered the forests and hills, and lake country, avoiding heavily populated towns as much as I could.  Never staying anywhere for very long, to avoid being recognized again.  I’ve put on a few pounds here and there, this slightly greying beard is new.  No one who knew me then would easily recognize me now, …or so I thought.”

“So, how do you envision things will be different this time?  This different identity that you’ve built up around yourself as this meek and bumbling and confused leader serves what purpose, do you think?”

I shrugged, “I don’t really know.  Perhaps it sets the bar of their expectations lower for me.  Perhaps it feels a little liberating to not carry the weight of former victories in a new company of those unaware of them.  To be underestimated.”

“It sounds like a lazy man’s way out.  It will inspire no confidence in those you are leading and will make them afraid to follow you anywhere.”

“Perhaps they should be afraid to.  Some degree of fear is wise and makes them cautious.”

“It will also make them hesitant and unsure.  Those things will get them killed in a conflict.  You want your enemies to underestimate you, not your friends.”

“For me, friendships have become a liability.  I try to maintain a professional distance so that I don’t lose objectivity and play no favorites.  It is hard enough to commit others to take personal risks for the benefit of the group.  It becomes extremely harder to do so if those with whom you risk their lives are personal and intimate friends.  I did that with a dear friend before and it cost them.  After losing that friend, I could not focus for the grief and ended up leading others into danger and near death because I could not recover from the loss to remain clear-headed in battle.  Worry and fear for my friends crippled my leadership.  I bore the responsibility for putting them in harm’s way, and when Caleb died I could not take it any longer.”

“Have you made plain the risks that are involved in this quest to your company?”

“I have…up to a point.”

“What do you mean ‘up to a point’?”

“Somethings are hard to believe coming from a Surface World experience.  I do have to address them from their context.  Some of the dangers here have to be shown and experienced before Surface Worlders will believe them.  We, Surface Worlders generally have a very hard time acknowledging the dual nature of existence.  That we are both physical and spiritual beings with both being real and connected in the same instance.  We separate the possibility of the supernatural from the natural world and insist that the one we are more comfortable with, the physical being, the empirically measurable world, is the one more important when the opposite is true.  The presently reigning god of our Surface World is very astute in his pernicious ability to blind their eyes to that critical truth.  Even the called forth in the Surface World, who allow into their beliefs the truth of the supernatural rarely see it presented in their experience and are often lured back into the dual thinking of a secular and non-secular existence.  We have labels that we put on everything there.  Faith-based, non-faith based.  Religious, non-religious.  Such things were never intended by the One who created all things.  Almost everything they experience here seems both natural and supernatural.  That is an advantage of perspective that this place has over the Surface World.  The effects of the first death are not as advanced here in this younger world with its own time flow.  For all of our advances in the Surface World, we come under greater deceptions and illusions there than those living here in the dream image.  They so fictionalize their faith until it seems ludicrous to rely upon it.  It is our deadly vice and a product of our age.  In their minds this place cannot exist, because they can’t measure it empirically and they must keep their image of a Creator and Purposeful God, for those that claim to believe in Him, small enough to fit into their limited experience and interpretations.”

“You do that.”

“Yes, I know.  But I am aware I am doing it, and struggle with that paradox raging within me.  Being in the world but not of the world is a very hard balance to keep.”

“A balance no one is intended to maintain alone.  Much like this waterless and dry fountain.  You will not find the quickening coming until you acknowledge and seek to clear your connection to the authority behind your calling.  For that to happen you must die to self, and let The Vine cause you to be fruitful once again.  So I ask you once more.  Why did you surrender the honor sword that was bound to you?”

“What would have happened, if I had refused to give up the sword?  My company narrowly escaped a hunting band of the Protectorate.  We came by trails unknown to find a walled city lost in a wood.  A fortification that might provide some temporary place of refuge until we could move on to the next place.  I cannot lead them if I cannot go where they go and face whatever they face.”

“Yet even now, you are separated from them so easily.  Even now you place the care and responsibility and welfare of them into the hands of others.  You are evading leadership because it requires a death to yourself.  The mantle of leadership is a cross you are refusing to carry, to die upon so that others may live.  You underestimate the power and need for friendships among those you lead.  Friends are not so easily separated as strangers are.  Your team needs the cohesion of relationships if they are to stand together and aid in the mission of your quest.”

I considered Nem’s words and the wisdom in them.  My focus had been only on my personal struggle with the responsibility of leadership but I had failed to see how addressing my own shortcomings and uncertainties were clouding my sight to the larger vision of what needed to be done and how to help my team survive it.

“It seems our coming to Azragoth was fortuitous.  I needed to hear this before going further.”

Nem fielded another question.

“Who told you to come to Azragoth?”

“Begglar told me we needed to get there.”

“And Begglar is called to lead this quest, is he?”

“No, but a person who leads cannot follow his own counsel alone.  He must rely on and extend trust to others to provide context and experience to the decisions he makes in leadership.  I was never called to a dictatorship.”

“You are correct; however, you would be wise to remember the consequences that may come of extending trust are to be laid at your feet.  Be careful whom you place your trust in.  Especially if you have not been in contact with them for a while.  A friend of the past could come to meet you on a battlefield as an enemy.  I’ve seen it happen.”

“I trust Begglar.”

“Yes, but do you trust everyone he trusts?  Ultimately, you may need to decide on a course of action even when those you would trust in all other cases are against it.  What will you do then?  Will you defer and hesitate or be quickly decisive?  Maeven has been recommending that Nell and Begglar and Dominic all come to Azragoth, but we were against it for some strategic reasons.  But Maeven only saw the danger and feared for them.  Decisions made on fear alone are often not the best choice.  She’s the reason Begglar and Nell and Dominic were coming here to escape their former life.”

“Your coming was not planned for by the others, but it seems your involvement with a Troll was the catalyst for them leaving the Inn.  Begglar’s position was tenuous, I’ll grant you, but his value as a spy and delaying agent against the Xarmnian’s forward forays for those fleeing and our agents was often times the very difference between life and death.”

“By now the Inn will have been burned so that no potential haven for travelers fleeing from Xarmnian oppression or others from the outside coming through our land exist in the outer reach country.  With no one to run the Inn at Crowe, there will be no need to let it remain.  Xarmnians are hasty and short-sighted but they, like we, benefited from Begglar’s presence so they did not wipe him out before now.  Friend and foe alike have stayed at that Inn.  It was the only neutral ground still remaining.”

He left me to ponder that point, while he reached into his cloak, released some tie-back on his belt and brought out something I recognized…the honor sword taken from me while outside of the city.

“I believe this is yours,” he said, handing it to me, lying across his open palms, its blade sheathed in a scabbard that seemed to belong to it.  I took it from him, feeling its weight only slightly made heavier by the gilded and leather scabbard.  When I had wrapped the belt of the scabbard around my waist, and pulled the belt through the cinch ring, Nem had stepped back from me, and stood closer to one of the pillars of the pavilion, near a rusted wench and chain intertwined with smaller vines that had wrapped the around the column, but had been cut short of interfering with the wench mechanism, so that, for whatever purpose the wench served, it could still be operated according to its function.

I turned to face him, my back to the fountain now.

“You may have noticed that we arrived at the location of this fountain, by means of a path untended, and untraveled.  I brought you here to this place by that route so that our discussion would not be overheard.  What I have told you, I told you in confidence.  And what happens next will also require that we are not seen or overheard by anyone of your company or the general citizens of Azragoth, for they will not understand what must happen next and what has been happening underneath the city since you and your band of travelers arrived.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is time for you, Brian, to remember your past, and to reconnect with those abilities you have neglected while in self-appointed exile.  To be the leader you ought to be, you must die to yourself and your own will and seek the quickening once again.  It is also time that you face and deal with the creature that holds you in thrall.”

Before I knew what was happening, Nem quickly moved forward and shoved me over the edge of the fountain wall and into the ever-deepening basins that sloped down to the central well.  The edges of each concentric step were rounded and sloped so that I slid backward upon a bed of dried, dead leaves slightly jarred by each drop until I found myself sprawled across the moss-laden grating and the blackness of the pit below.  I turned back upward, seeking to understand why Nem had done this, trying to make sense of this seeming betrayal, only to find that the grating was hinged on one end and was being mechanically dislodged from its catch on the opposite end of the hinge works.  The grating canted and then tilted downward, and frantically I grasped the grating bars, only to find them caked in a brown slimy moss that felt like mud between my fingers.  Unable to gain purchase on the grating, I slid down into the darkness below.