“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.
“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.
“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.
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.