Ascent of the Fallen begins the journey of Lord Fallondon Breck and his company of knights. It’s available at most major retailers:
Lord Fallondon Breck must make a choice: watch his inheritance fall away into ruin, or rejoin the crusade for the Holy Land and win back his former fame and prosperity. However, unseen events and the spiritual forces of darkness are unfolding around him and his band of knights. As demonic foes prepare to unleash their evil designs upon old England, will Fallon have what is takes to come through for his friends, his family, and himself? Will he lean into his faith, of run away from it?
The prequel novella, The Girl & the Golden Mirror is set almost a decade earlier, and is slightly different in the story-telling. While there are spiritual warfare elements, it’s much more focused on how Fallondon deals with challenging situations. Ascent of the Fallen expands on that theme, but includes more explicit behind the scenes looks at the angelic conflict going on around them.
Check out a little preview below, and if you like what you’re reading, head over to your favorite book seller!
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In 1099 A.D., at the close of the First Crusade, Jerusalem was taken by Christian armies. It was the crown jewel of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven. Outremer. The crusader states, established by ambitious men, would rule the Levant for decades.
Jerusalem was lost to these crusaders in September of 1187 A.D. The Kingdom of Heaven began to fall.
Knights and pilgrims from all across Europe returned home to poverty, waste, and corruption. Many returned wounded, some visible, others of the mind and spirit. Inner demons twisted the hearts of men. Only now did they realize everything lost in Outremer. In the midst of such turmoil the spiritual forces of darkness prepare to move.
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“…God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell, and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness, to be kept until the judgment…” 2 Peter 2:4-5
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Two white spots emerged in the deep blackness. A blink revealed them to be luminescent eyes. A second pair bloomed beside the first. As the owners walked into a dim redness, their forms became apparent. It was easy to see how the first pair of eyes betrayed him; his ebony skin blended into the cave’s darkness. Josephial grew weary of waiting in that pitch black. His companion, a sister of their angelic order, was equally restless. It had taken many days of searching and observation to reach this spot, deep in the foundations of Creation and adjacent to the thinning Veil. The milky barrier hung like a tapestry between the spiritual realm of Beriah occupied by Josephial and angels like him, and the firmness and substance that defined the world of men. Created in God’s vision of a whole universe, but of a different substance, the Veil kept men out of the heavenlies. It was a sheer and mercurial division between worlds. No one but its maker knew how to describe its dimensions; words like “thickness” didn’t suit it. Being this close to a fold, they felt the pulsing energy of the barrier. They also felt an inherent holiness of the thing; a rightness that the Veil simply existed. Knowing their target lay around the next bend in the tunnel puzzled the angel.
“Why would the Fallen set up a stronghold so close to the Veil?” Josephial asked. His frustration blossomed in the form of angelic light.
“Watch yourself, friend,” whispered a soft voice beside him.
Josephial knew the light would betray them. He willed his natural brightness to dim. Better concealed, he inched forward into the darkness.
“Call them what they are, Josephial. Demons. They are no longer like us. You know as well as I that our lost kindred are always about some deception,” his companion said. Whysper dimmed her own light in response to Josephial’s actions. Her radiance would overwhelm a mortal. This deep in Beriah it was like a second moon shining in the night. Maintaining this state would require additional concentration from both, making an already hard task much harder.
“I agree, but it feels wrong. Like the sea pulling back before a wave crashes. Fewer and fewer of the Fallen are lurking around where we expect them, and more and more where we do not. And now we find one of our own so far from home.”
“No doubt delayed by his mission of discovery and a prudent attempt at discretion.” Whysper smiled, knowing that discretion wasn’t something Josephial or their missing companion practiced all too often.
“Well, I’ll be happier once we’re out. Although, maybe we’ll find some fun too.” Josephial winked. His hand slid near the sword hanging from his belt. By now their garments were no different than cotton homespun from any crofter’s farm, no longer showing any hint of the glory hidden beneath. His sword, also dimmed, was no different than any mortal soldier’s steel.
Josephial’s smile vanished as red-tinged light filled the darkness. Coming out from the bend, the pair saw their destination ahead. A small circle of light, harsh compared to their own, grew steadily as they approached. As they slowed and crept toward what became an opening to a cavern, their breath fell away. While hard to imagine, there is a place where infinite darkness exists alongside such stunning light that the mind wanders. Deep in places where no living thing has delved for millennia a light bloomed in the darkness.
Far below the lip of the tunnel’s edge was a natural cave. Its size defied belief as hundreds of evil creatures scurried about far below. The red light came from lines of forges, cut into the natural bedrock and fired by a mix of volcanic springs, noxious gases, and wicked thaumaturgy. The sound of ringing hammers filled the air with a disjointed choir of voices. Hundreds of smiths pounded material into various forms. Armor, weapons, and engines of war lay piled everywhere. The collective vibration shook the angels where they lay crouched, looking over the vast works. But worse was the sight of the Fallen themselves.
Angels who had rebelled in the Great War. These were creatures whose lust and pride provided sufficient means to break creation and disfigure themselves. Once they were inherently beautiful. Now they were twisted and broken, powerful in strength and wickedness, full of malice and deceit. Their forms were as changed as their souls. Yet here they were, gathered in numbers formerly unheard of. Preparing for war. Companies of demons stood in ranks, drilling and exercising their tactics and movements. Great beasts filled the cavern ceiling, perched in darkness but wholly present and watching. Like all of creation, this horde of forsaken angels was wonderfully diverse in shape and form, yet now twisted and broken. And enraged. Josephial sensed the activities below were being directed, as if part of some martial plan.
Josephial looked at Whysper with concern. Was this what we’ve been missing? Unspoken words flowed between them. He recognized the need for restraint. Their enemy was close. It wouldn’t take much for the smallest sound to amplify and betray their vantage point. If they fell here, who would bring warning to the faithful above? Shaking his head, he quietly spoke out, “Dear God, whoever gathered them doesn’t mean to control them; he means to unleash them. It’s more than a full cohort down there. I recognize some. But where is Adonael? Why was he delayed?”
A small sigh escaped from Whysper’s mouth. She was looking into a far corner of the cavern, her expression saying everything that Josephial feared.
Across the vast expanse of cavern was a pinnacle of rock, standing proud in the midst of forges and busyness. The stalagmite was hardly recognizable. A flat top had been hacked apart, leaving a stone altar in its center. Stairs spiraled down to the floor below. The unlikely form of Adonael lay bound on the altar.
Josephial would have known his brother in any circumstance. Their bonds were forged before time itself began, two of the first angels crafted from the Creator’s hands. Only human twins would understand the indescribable connection shared between two who came from one. Yet it took seeing him laid across the slab to truly understand the depth of his emotions. Rage erupted from his core, nearly escaping his lips. His quivering form shook the stone around Whysper, lying prone next to him. An observer would have noticed the tiniest grains of sand vibrating around Josephial’s form.
He stuttered while trying to contain his anger, “I…I…he can’t be—”
“Quiet. Now.” Whysper commanded, a hand slipping over his shoulder, prepared to reach his mouth to silence anything further. Her authority struck him from distraction, but he was hardly in control of himself.
Looking over the edge, she couldn’t determine if the buzz of activity was due to their presence. Thus far, there was no indication that their position was compromised. But she worried how long that could last. Her fears were sparked anew once an adolescent voice pierced the din below them.
“My companions. My brothers and sisters in exile. Behold the gateway to our freedom. Behold the threshold of our escape, our satisfaction, and the revenge we so long craved.”
The demons below them began to direct their attention to the altar, toward the sound of the voice. A dark spot clouded the platform, like ink dropped into water, swirling around the air behind the prone angel strapped to the stone slab. It seemed like the blackness existed only to draw the light inside itself, to obliterate light from the world.
In the midst of this blackness the dim, red form of a demon emerged. Tall and thin, the wisp of a figure was wrapped in darkness like a cloak. It strode across the platform while locking eyes with the masses. A tooled sword hung at his side, and his black armor was hardly recognizable from the whorls flowing beside him. The pale face which crowned his body displayed a malice that cut through the air; hatred and evil tainting the air everywhere. Josephial breathed in and caught the lingering scent of hatred.
“Azrael.” Josephial made to stand, and Whysper’s grip almost slipped away. She could hardly contain him. Strength rippled through his body, threatening to escape like a bound spring.
“Please, Josephial, now is neither the time nor place,” she whispered.
The horde below had slowly formed into ranks, and order appeared in the chaos. File upon file of creatures aligned. Small imps, scaly flesh over their child-like forms. Great man-like creatures, their red-hued skin enveloping muscle and strength, towering over their peers. Serpents out of a mortal nightmare, their shimmering scales flashing in the din below, fangs dripping with venom, great wings folded in anticipation. Evil instruments of power clutched in the hands of ephemeral spirits. Gazes full of hatred locked on their commander. A shard of metal appeared in his raised hand.
“Now, behold, the hour of our wicked glory. Slake your hatred on the world of our great enemy and his creation. You know your orders; you have waited millennia for this. Reap the fields and sow them with blood. Find the Map of the Stars; without it, the seals will never be found. We are the chosen among thousands, chosen to lead our great master’s cohorts across the world. Innocence is no more; find the faithful and break them” With his last words, a silver gleam caught on the dagger he held. It swept down upon the prisoner without hesitation or pause.
A piercing cry broke free of Josephial’s form. It was overpowered by the force of the inaudible wave washing over the cavern.
Adonael’s body went limp, and a peel of thunder tore through the air. The whorls of darkness coalesced around a single nexus, a point that threatened to suck in everything. Smoke from the forges, breath from lungs, dust. In an instant, a gate opened. A portal twenty feet tall, wide enough for four horses abreast, was simply… created. Out of nothing, it stood proud atop the platform where the altar once was. No sign any longer of the sacrifice made. Shimmering letters shone out all along the archway of gritty sandstone. The pulsing light indicated their sorceries, their nature powering the gateway. Inside that archway was a whirlpool of darkness, drawing light spinning into its center, a great cataract of energy.
Whysper now understood. Josephial was one of the first of the created, a witness to the origins of man’s universe. His brother’s blood must contain some remnant of that creative force, that power available to their Creator. Now it was used to construct this engine, an engine with a sinister purpose: to deliberately tear the Veil. Whysper couldn’t contrive how the demon had done such a thing. Killing an angel was no easy feat. Even during the war there had been few true losses. What weapons existed to do such things had long since been broken. To kill an angel was to effectively un-create, to cast into nothingness. Oblivion.
Thinking quickly, she cast herself over Josephial, wrapping her hand around his mouth, stifling further sound. She willed her nature to remove them from that place. While small, the crack of light she created was sufficient for them to roll through, her arms binding Josephial tightly. At least the stubble on his face made for a sure grip. She tried not to think over whether their presence was detected or not, and with a crack the portal shut behind her. They would need reinforcements if they were to recover Adonael’s body.
Files of demons began to move in the cavern below. The gateway had opened, and hell entered in.
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The still form of Safyl’s sleeping body lay atop silken sheets, the slightest touch of perspiration on her forehead. A gentle breeze touched the curtains on either side of her bed, stirring the muslin fabric and spreading incense through the room. Her almond skin and doe eyes, now hid in sleep, were poor masks for the treachery that lay in her breast. I whispered a short prayer before clamping a hand over her mouth and slipping the dagger into her heart, a hoarse voice whispering, “Death to traitors.” When my hand withdrew the bloody instrument, her still form rolled over. But her beautiful face, olive skin outlined by smooth black locks of hair, did not return my now whimpering look. Instead a demonic face looked back at me. Features distorted like looking at reflections in shards of glass. A grin spread across her mouth, toothy and wicked, smiling at me in a foretaste of the hell I now knew awaited me…
I shot straight up out of my bed. The nightmare was all too real, and the dagger had all the feel of reality. I reached across my chest, feeling for the wound, but knew it was not there. It was in someone else. In her. Just a dream. No blood. But everything felt so real. Her hair, the touch of her face, the feel of cold steel piercing flesh. A memory as tangible as any I’d had, and one I could recall at will. Why are we cursed with memory? Why can’t we just forget? You can throw away a dirty rag or the morning ablutions.
I rolled over, letting the afternoon sun pour onto my face. The narrow slits in my windows let just enough in to illuminate everything. I warmed up quickly, a testament to the power of our spring sun in Breckshire. The westward facing portal opened onto a courtyard below. I could hear the sounds of drovers, children, dogs, and the usual cacophony of life below. I tried to close my eyes and remember the better parts of my afternoon nap, like the part before a dagger ended up dug in my chest. Not my chest. Hers.
The light of the sun’s last rays warmed my cheeks and caught dust motes in the air. I knew my knights would recoil at the thought of an afternoon woolgathering, but it was hard to even think of stepping away. Then the door shook on its iron hinges, threatening to jump off like a wooden barbarian horde.
“Come in,” I said. I glanced down to check the thin sheet; good, covering everything up. A welcome sight appeared from the doorway.
“Sire, ye asked to be woken before supper, and I figured ye may want to see the sunset. It’s shaping up to be spectacular. Now up with ye lazy man, before I send ye to spin wool with one of the crofters’ fat daughters!” Hart said. He nearly took up the entire portal. Dark blond hair in loose curls hung behind his ears, and the gleam in his blue eyes suggested that the “Sire” he spoke was perfunctory. He smiled down at my bed, grinning with satisfaction at interrupting my leisure.
“I did say that, didn’t I? Well, now for it. It was an awful sleep; may as well try to enjoy something yet today. Off with you, ox, before you see all of me.” I shifted in bed to get my point across. My clothes were lying on a chest across the room, a long embarrassing walk away.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before. I still remember the time we found ye hog-bound in a soaking tub in Nazareth. Brother Paulson had just brought in those young nuns to show them our collection of prayer books, and—”
“I get it. Out. Now.” I felt redness spread across my cheeks.
“Yea, m’lord,” Hart said with a bow, closing the door softly behind him. Through the thick beech wood I’m sure I heard Hart laughing to himself. Stubborn as a mule, and sounding like one too.
A splash of water and some stretching had me up and ready. My clothes felt stiff against sore muscles, the result of a long day in the fields. Maybe a new shirt would be better? Thankfully the pants were in better condition, and the tough leather boots slipped on easily. They felt like long-loved companions. The lord’s quarters in Breckshire were appointed with as much finery as the small kingdom could afford, which wasn’t much. But everything here was sentimental to our family. Two chests held cloths and weapons, handcrafted many years ago for my great-grandfather, the fittings and wood shining from well-loved hands keeping them in good repair over the long years. Two tapestries hung from the outer walls, keeping in heat in the winter and depicting our family’s participation in the conquest of England many decades previously. William of Normandy was a good liege, with Breckshire our reward for service given. For the past year it was my turn to lead our people in the long struggle to scrape a living from this land.
Such was the life of the Norman lord of Breckshire, Fallondon Breck, son of the late Lord Walter Breck.
A small table and chair, topped with the remnants of candles, papers, and other instruments for the administration of the fief, occupied a space opposite the fur-topped bed. While warm in the winter, such coverings did little in the unexpected spring heat. I much preferred the silken sheets scattered about now. A small memory of a time shortly past, of muslin curtains and incense burning in the dry night air, a muezzin’s adhan prayer call echoing through the evening air. Outremer. The Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Holy Land and crusades. Even the smallest memory of that place filled my senses with vibrant colors, diverse scents, and a cacophony of foreign sounds. After a moment’s respite I left and took the stairs to the keep’s roof.
I climbed to the highest point of the keep, a small watch tower capping the modest stone structure. Overlooking our lands, my gaze lingered on the horizon, capturing the slow shift from bright blue to a deepening purple. Other hues, pink and orange, painted a beautiful sight. And in counterpoint, a flash of lightning. A distant storm rolling in behind a perfect evening. Every night spent up here was a delight, a small gift at the end of long and toilsome days.
“Strange to see such weather converging, isn’t it?” said Hart. I caught a flicker of motion before Hart collapsed into a recline next to me. Sure he meant to startle me, which he did quite effectively; I may have jumped a bit. Even expecting him didn’t help with the anxiety from my nightmare earlier.
“You really did scare me that time. Thanks for making sure I wasn’t sitting on the ledge. Maybe next time you can wear bells and make it more obvious?”
“I know ye better than ye think m’lord, although ye doubt that more and more each year. How are you this night?” Though sitting, Hart bowed with a flourish to leave any court jester jealous. Had he been taking lessons from father’s old juggler? They were both Saxons, so maybe a shared bond?
“Fine enough. And you know you needn’t call me or treat me as ‘lord’ when we’re alone. Goodness, even in front of the village there’s no reason. Everyone knows you are practically my brother.”
His bulk didn’t quite out shadow me, but the difference was noticeable. He also wore simple clothes, and boots that showed many leagues beneath them. Hart pulled two apples from a pouch on his belt and threw me one.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll call ye lord till the day we’re parted. And you have a brother. A real brother. And you’re welcome for the apple. M’lord.” Hart gave a small laugh and turned to the south. “Looks like a poor night for being out. Too bad too. Never did like when big summer storms came through; always seemed like bad things came in the wake. And these ones are rolling through in spring. Leastways, that’s what a little kid named Hart used to think when he was chasing rabbits through the hills.”
“I seem to remember a little boy who used to pull the braids of young farm girls and run away. But we’ll be happy for rain. Did you see the fields toward Wolford last week? Dry as parchment. Hardly a spout to be seen, and the apple trees haven’t even pushed their first leaves. Looks like another bare year, and that after two previous. I worry, Hart. It eats at me.” The frustration surely showed on my face. I could feel my hands and chest tense up, the intake of breath quicken. “You’d think we brought back some of the curses we shouted over the Saracens.”
“Ye hold that line of thought and see if I do more than fling blame back on ye for yer foul moods. Nothing to be helped here that we can’t help ourselves. Hands for the earth, as yer father used to say. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the priests pray, or those Templars either.”
I nodded but remained unchanged inside. For months this line of thought and lingering doubts had invaded my mind. It was obvious to me that a curse was within the realm of possibility. Stranger things had happen in Outremer. The band of knights I led could tell stories to make the strongest blanch. For weeks the thought had stirred in my mind, growing like a weed and taking over rational belief. We watched as lightning pummeled the ground far off by Waenrye, the thunder rolling close behind. I remembered stories from our priests of the gods our forefathers in the north prayed to. The tales spoke of a great warrior named Thor, who threw his mighty hammer at enemies. Every stroke smote lightning all around, and his battle cries were heard through the land as thunder. Was this a demonstration of some ancient devil, formed at the forging of the world? A heretical thought, but not the worst I’d had.
Hart pressed, “It’s been what, barely a year since we returned? Garret hardly had a year running things before that with yer father ill. How many times have these lands survived drought, or plague, or blight, or floods, or whatever else the morning delivers us? These people know hardship better than any pikeman or archer from the armies. Bloody bones, I’d suffer that the old farm wives have better recipes for turnip stew than any we know from the field.”
Hart’s words brought a slight smile, but no change to my heart. After a while I struggled to get up, the light having fallen and twilight quickly overtaking our vision. Needles shot through my legs. The aches returned, my limbs crying out with disgust as I got them into action. Hart’s giant form loomed beside me. While substantially larger than me, he was as spry as a willow branch, always quick to rise. Brushing the apple juice from our hands, we turned back towards the trap door.
Hart followed me as we descended the stone steps which ringed the inside of the keep’s tower. While nothing like the great palaces and fortresses of London, Breckshire keep was a formidable structure. Our family had maintained this farming community for several generations, and the keep was a testament to our fine stewardship. Each stone had been cut and hauled from the local hills, our quarries emptied to construct the town and keep. A wooden palisade was under construction, with two walls completed to protect the town from any attack. I remember running across lush, green fields in my youth, vaulting sheep with Hart next to me. The clack of wooden barrel staves echoing through the hills and against the stone walls as two novice knights fought imaginary beasts and villains. Rising three floors, the main hall could shelter most of the surrounding village during the worst weather or attack. The tower rose an additional three floors of height, its crenelated peak visible across most of the plain surrounding us to the hills. The family crest flew from a jack staff; the hound and hind standing in combat with one another over a blue field.
Father had done much to mend the ill feelings between Saxons and Normans in our lands. He and mother built a community. A family.
On the main floor, we passed through the great hall, fire crackling in the hearth in the north wall. In the center of the room, a spit hung over a smaller pit whose coals were burnt out from afternoon cooking. The smell of the evening meal was in the air, pork if I guessed right, and a pile of bread stood on the center table. Despite the tantalizing smells, I walked past everything in a daze, ignorant of those moving in and around us. The entry way suddenly appeared in front of me.
“Fallon, please, stay. It’s dinner, and yer tired. No man should ride the breadth of our orchards and pass up good cooking. Consider it the reward for a hard day’s work.”
“Later Master Hart. Please tell Lady Brenna to call supper at her liking. I’ll be in the chapel.” I’m sure my sister would be happy to hear that. I passed through the door and into the darkness growing around Breckshire.
I knew Hart was tempted to break fast ahead of everyone, but the chiding he’d receive wasn’t worth it. I remember the last time my sister, Lady Brenna, caught Hart eating ahead of everyone, a buttered loaf in his hands; the woman’s words were more deadly that any Muslim arrow or lance. Someday she’d have a husband to level them against, but for now she seemed content to make my friends the target of her ire. Best to wait patiently and walk softly around the she-dragon.
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Once outside I found myself walking towards the keep’s chapel. Funny how the body can go through motions without the mind providing coherent thought. Just like combat, when a man’s training may either serve or fail him. One’s sword and spear move with refined precision, yet the mind wheels at the ten opponents you are not yet engaged with. The mark of a great knight was not how he fought the man before him, but the ones yet to come in the melee. Evidently, my spirit knew where to seek solace.
The passing storm left moisture in the night air, and a hint of the unusual heat we’d been experiencing. Thankfully the chapel provided a cool contrast, its thick stone walls holding back the day’s heat. Candle light cast shadows across aged pews. The wood was burnished to a shine by generations of worshipful hands. My father’s father built this structure before almost any other. He dedicated the best of the Saxon workforce to shaping the wood and stone that would house God’s worshipers. Small glass windows were set in lead frames, their diamond shapes adding reflected light to the warm glow in the space. An altar stood proud at the far end, the elements of our priests upon it. A rough wooden cross and carved effigy of the man Jesus hung from the wall behind. Crimson marks by the hands, feet, and side were the only paint to remain after long years of worship.
I spied Paulson kneeling before the altar. The white robes of his order were spread around him. A hemp cord lay cinched tight across a slim waist. Here in chapel he wore simple slippers. It always struck me as odd, seeing a man who could wear two faces so easily. No one could dispute his prowess in battle, yet here he was transformed into a lamb. A lamb with lion’s teeth.
He turned at my approach, and a smiling face topped his broad shoulders. Several days of bristle added dark color to his cheeks.
“M’lord, I trust this finds you well. How goes it? Hast thou slept better?” Paulson eased himself onto the pew and indicated I should join. Unlike so much around me these days, he smelled distinctly clean. How did he manage that? He closed his leather prayer book as I sat near. I tried to catch which one it was by the lettering, but didn’t get a glance inside. Paulson amazed us all with his skill at languages. Most of us spoke French well enough and no small amount of Arabic. Even a few words of Italian and Latin in a pinch. The fact he could read and write in five was a testament to his determination and discipline.
“I’m fine Brother Paulson. And yourself?”
“I am well, sire. But you now, fine indeed. Hart speaks to me, you know. I hear otherwise.” His smile vanished before my eyes, brotherly concern replacing it.
Fire flared in my face, like the warmth of fine brandy on one’s cheeks. How could I consider them my friends when they spoke such? Anger crept into my voice in reply, “Well met priest. How am I today? No change on that front. Poor. Like ants are crawling up my legs and in my mind. I find it difficult to fall asleep, and when sleep comes, my head spins.”
“Spins how, m’lord? Tell me.” Paulson shifted to face me, a tactic I’d learned long ago meant the hard questions were coming next. I had been a faithful believer since childhood, as tied to the church as any man in this land, but even I knew that every priest was a man first, and had their tricks. Paulson’s was getting men to open up.
“First, can we dispense with the deference? You are my friend Paulson. We’re in God’s house. Surely we can be our true selves here. You know you may call me Fallon.”
I turned my head to catch movement by the rear. Brother Tancred reached down to retrieve a dropped book, nodded our way, and then departed. I hadn’t heard the weasel slip in behind me. Where had he come from? My mind tried, but failed to settle itself.
Paulson also nodded back to his brethren, “Of course we can Fallon. He knows us to the quick, like his own blood. After all, I know you quite well. I seem to remember an intimate moment some years ago, touring some recent arrivals to Outremer, nuns from a convent if memory serves me, you bathing after a tour afield, and walking in on —”
“Thank you, good sir, for that memory.” My face could hardly flush further. You lead men in combat, you provide them a good living, a sense of honor. But the one time you let them catch you…
“You are welcome Fallon. Now, your sleep. Tell me, are you still dreaming?” I heard the question, but my attention was caught by something else. The wooden benches were carved with scenes of apostles and angels. The images wavered in my vision and behind Paulson’s form, framing the man of God before me. Something cold cut into my heart.
My speech was quick, “I sleep like a sick child. Or at least what I remember of being a sick child once. Tossing with night terrors, waking in sweat. No good dreams at least. If it’s not creeping doubt, it’s shame. If not shame, then fear of the future. My eyes close, but it’s as if my life goes on regardless, all of the possibilities for failure laid out before me. The mind wheels on like an engine of dread, churning out despair and heartache. Whilst if I do drift away…”
Paulson shifted in his seat. The crimson Templar cross emblazoned on his chest stood out to me, a stark contrast to the pure white of his robes. Blood. My mind wouldn’t stop making the connection. The night was quickly filling with distractions.
He finally spoke, “You need to stop blaming yourself Fallon. I can’t promise you relief, but we can get our regular practices out of the way. Will you at least attempt that much?”
“It’s always the same Paulson. You know that. I walk around with an actor’s mask across my face, portraying myself as the all-knowing lord of our holdings, yet knowing inside that I’m a fraud.” It never came out quite like that, but there it was. As plain a truth as any.
“Even I can see behind the confident words and decisions; we are all the same Fallon. Although you’d do well to censor your feelings when speaking with Garret. He’s your brother, and a capable man in his own right. You ride him too hard. Like a tired ox, he’ll break eventually. But fear not and keep a penitent heart m’lord. God can work even the most troubled soil. He—”
“God’s bones, priest, I’m damned!” Echoes of my words rang through the small space. Silence eventually fell. How had I lost control so easily? I’ve never had that happen, had I? Not with my friends. Never with family, with Garret or Brenna. Certainly never with Christopher.
Somehow Paulson never got flustered. It was a trait we admired in him. Especially in battle. Just a steady, consistent, neutral expression. Didn’t matter if he was praying, killing, chastising, whatever. Solid like a rock. Except around children. Hmm, hadn’t thought of that before. He calmly replied, “It helps to talk about your emotions Fallon. Even years after the act, no matter what sin you commit, God can still forgive us. Can forgive you. He wants your heart. And your trust too, Fallon, but remember, God only promises forgiveness. Not that He’ll take away the pain. Sometimes He leaves that for us.”
“Paulson, maybe your thick head doesn’t understand, but I’ve failed. I’ve failed at everything I try. The burden of our last year in the east weighs heavy on my mind. Surely you remember the fighting, the bodies. Men we were supposed to hate. I know now that they were probably just like us, farmers waiting to go back to their herds and flocks. And the women. The children. We were butchers. Love thy neighbor? Hard to say our actions were an outpouring of love.
“What do we find upon our release, the long awaited prize for our just obedience to the church? Our lands taken by Saladin, our discharge orders with hardly enough coin to keep a nag alive, let alone our best horses, and a cold wet journey through even more hardship to a broken home. Two years of drought, half the orchard blighted, neighbors nipping at our borders, and nothing to be done about it. Now, why do I still feel awful? Tell me that. Explain how God’s hand was there through any of this?”
“Fallon, you are not the cause of these things. Sometimes God wills that we suffer, to learn to rely on Him more. Sometimes our broken world shows its changed nature. Think of Job. These things happen. The real question is, how will we react when they do? Will we lean in, give our all, and trust Him through the storm? Will we let Him fight the battles we cannot? Do we rely on His promises, or our expectations? Or our pitiful strength?”
I couldn’t help adding in a few more jabs, “Oh wait, that’s right. A dying father, a dead brother, and my betrothed a lying whore of a traitor. Anything else to say?”
“Fallon, you’re being too —”
“Well they don’t just all happen to one man at the same time. How will we go on? There may be one more winter in the store houses, but we can’t get credit from anyone to buy ourselves out of this. Your order’s become tight with their lending. The Jews have left after the church cried out their sins of usury. The lands just aren’t producing, even in Ardglass and Verhaven. God bless him, but neither the baron nor the king will be coming our way with help. More likely the sword. Bloody hell, probably in one of their hands, trying to take back what was given to this family. And given everything that’s befallen us, they’d probably succeed in taking back what has been ours for so long.”
I stood and began to pace. Pacing always seemed to help me. The baluster in the front pew was worn down with age, rubbed shiny by the hands of many penitents. I continued the tradition. Our family had lived in Breckshire for eight generations. We’d grown a small village, given in payment for serving our vassal, into a respectable fief. Breckshire wasn’t much, but we were proud. Farms, herds, hunting, and good orchards. The now blighted orchards were the crown of our economy; apples alone provided a quarter of the revenue for the land’s taxes and import goods. Cattle, goats, geese, and chickens could be found wandering the pastures and homesteads surrounding the creek which ran through the village.
Idyllic, compared to the patch we called home outside Aleppo. Or the camps between Syria, Jerusalem, and Egypt. Outremer was wholly different. How the Jews and Muslims scratched a living in that forsaken land, I’d never understand. Nothing in Breckshire was like that desert surrounding the holy city. No wonder they needed God to deliver manna in the wilderness.
Eight short generations from Lord Breck of Normandy, an import himself, to us. Fifteen years earlier our family had raised enough funds to finish the keep. My father’s first act upon taking control of the fief. Nothing significant, but sufficient to keep an eye on the surrounding land. A hall to entertain friends, rooms for servants and family alike, and an arms room for those times when the old ways became necessary. My memory always painted a rose-glow picture of pastoral country, stout people, strong values, and plenty for everyone’s needs.
I caught my breath before turning back to my friend, “Paulson, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know you mean well, and maybe talking about life really does help. But I feel so hopeless. Deep down, it hurts to think of our future here. Nights spent worrying how we’ll pass from bad to worse. Wondering if it will be the sword, sickness, or starvation that does us in. I suppose my father’s faith in me was in vain, for everything I’ve touched has turned out disastrously.”
“Your father loved you Fallondon. Those who knew him and your family can vouch for that.”
I scowled, “My father had his own troubles, not the least of which was a love of the orchard’s bounty. Distilled. How would he have known a good son? Besides, his heart was always for Jonathan more than I.”
“Your father had his troubles, aye. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t love you, nor that he was blind to the greatness inside you. He loved all of you in his way.”
I didn’t know how to answer that statement.
Paulson stood up and walked to the altar. The carved figure of Jesus stared down at us, the red paint on his hands and side shining in the candle light.
“M’lord, I suggest this. Let’s pray together. These stone walls have heard countless words, so what do we have to lose? I promise you, God is listening to us. He listened to us in the east, outside of Jerusalem. He protected you in every battle we fought. He brought you safely home. And whilst home may have changed, you have grown into a capable man, and that’s a prayer answered too. One I think your father would have been proud of. Please, let us be hopeful in that, in His promise of a full life.”
“Full of pain and regret and loss.” I almost turned to walk away, but Paulson’s hand landed firmly on my shoulder. The grip reminded me of our long friendship, even before he agreed to return home with us. His service as a temple knight continued in our lands.
“Please, Fallon. I’ll even say the words.” He was using the friend voice now, that one without any hint of condescension. The voice that says ‘I’m with you’. The one he knew was hard to resist for long.
“Alright… once more into it.” I smirked and turned back to the altar. With a soft thump two sets of knees landed on a worn and polished wooden beam to hold penitents in their holy communion. Our hands clasped before us, we looked down at the fieldstone floor smoothed with time.
Paulson’s soft voice carried through the empty space, amplified by something reverent in the air, as he began, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++
Josephial lifted the still form in his arms and turned away. The altar was crimson with dried blood. Adonael was emptied of his life. All that remained was this husk.
“I don’t understand. How could all this have happened?” He looked around at the remains of the cavern, now emptied of its host. Little remained but debris and detritus littering the floor.
Whysper kicked a stone off the towering stalagmite to the floor far below. “I don’t know, Josephial. I see no evidence of the gateway. It was here though, sure as anything. I don’t understand where they went?”
“Out of Beriah. I’ve spoken to the Watchers. The Aeon have seen no sign of them. Neither in our lands or anywhere. I don’t know of anywhere out of their sight. That’s troubling in and of itself.”
Whysper inspected the altar once again, peering into the dark whorls which now painted the surface. Josephial winced as he watched her. He knew it was simply investigation, but the substance of it troubled him. It would forever trouble him. His brother lay in his arms.
She tranced patterns on the ground with a gloved finger. “Did you have any word from Adonael before? Any warning?”
Josephial shook his head. “Nay. Although, there was something odd.”
She stopped her work and stood, facing the towering dark-skinned angel. “Tell on.”
“He was charged with many men, but he asked me to deliver a message to one in particular. A knight in England named Fallon. Said it was part of a broader plan, something his choir had been working towards for some time. You know our attention is focused on the East. So many plots and designs moving together. For every victory we have over the Fallen, we lose more and more souls to their deceptions. Men are wild there. It’s like a fever in some of them. On both sides of the mortal conflict. The discredit done in our name is unspeakable. Yet, we’re so busy fighting our own battles it’s hard to do much else. The Fallen Lord Maimon is moving his forces against our choirs. Uriel is bringing the Kodesh against him. Michael is already engaged daily. Saraquel says we may be mobilized next.
“In the midst of all that upheaval, Adonael asks me to tell Fallondon to rejoin the crusade. Says it’s part of his story. That despite any circumstance or hurdle, I must convince him to retake the cross. When I woke in the halls I remembered the task. Easy enough to meet him in dreams. I painted a picture for him to remember, drawing on his deeds of old. Spoke of the crisis brewing there. I probably let slip there is conflict occurring here as well. I think he’ll take up his sword and calling without hesitation. But really, he’s just one among thousands. Tens of thousands. I thought it was one of Adonael’s fancies. He’s always invested himself in his charges.”
Whysper thought on this. “That’s all he told you? Just to seek out one single mortal and charge him with an errand?”
“That’s it. No more than he did every day.” Josephial looked on Adonael’s still face and wept. He didn’t dwell on how much of the message might have gotten skewed in the telling.
“Let’s return. I see nothing here that will help us. At least we can bring his body back. Saraquel will know what to do.”
With that, she drew open the sliver of light to bring them back home. As it closed around their forms, the cavern dimmed back into inky darkness yet again, silent for another millennia.
+++ +++ +++ +++ +++
I returned to my room later. Paulson had kept me in the chapel for over an hour in prayer, including a more intimate time of confession. I hated when he did that. But I felt refreshed after. Yea, I needed such times. While my day to day dealings always felt under scrutiny, the larger failings of our recent past troubled me the most. Leave it to a Templar to pull the strings of a man’s heart, playing him like a puppet.
Brenna found me as I passed through the keep’s side door. Her brown hair was pulled back into a single braid, common for the ladies of Breckshire. The glint from a nearby brazier caught her tan eyes, and reflected back the flames. The hint of anger behind that look was equally afire. She got off the first volley, “I’m confused m’lord. You decide to call dinner then do not show up? Doest thou intend offense, or does it come naturally? What is going through that thick skull of yours, Fallon? I’ve never seen someone so absent minded. Are you trying to embarrass your family, or does that come naturally too?”
I could tell from the sharp inflection she was upset. As if the fire in her eyes meant anything else. “I’m sorry, Brenna. I was with Brother Paulson praying and time slipped away. I hope I did—”
“Hope you didn’t upset me in your absence? What could possibly do that? Maybe you left your manners in Syria as well. You know that father would never leave his friends waiting without sending word. Did you learn nothing from him?” Points to Brenna; her memory was as sharp as her tongue, and she could spar with words better than any learn’d clergy. She was slipping into more common speech at least. Hopefully that was a good sign.
“God’s bones sister, why the sharp tongue?” I jumped a bit when I hit the wall behind me; evidently I’d backed myself into it. Sweat began to trickle down my temples, tickling the soft hairs around my ears. My temper and fear were easily gauged by my cursing. I decided to try a different tactic. “Please, m’lady, I beg forgiveness. I’ve had a lot on my mind and simply forgot. I promise I meant no offense.”
Brenna’s face caught and held a childish pout. Like a child who was told “No” one too many times. I always found that face disturbing on one so beautiful. After a few moments holding my stare, willing me to break first, she finally poked my forehead and spoke, “Well I don’t know why you let things run astray up there. We are all you have left brother, and you’d better come to terms with that. Stop pulling wool and start acting like the lord of this place.”
“I know, Brenna. I know. I didn’t want any of this to happen. I most certainly did not expect to come home to such strife, everything thrown about like chaff in the wind. You didn’t deserve to suffer through what happened. Not losing Jonathan, and father so close behind. And not with one of your kin away.” Just saying Jonathan’s name stung. No one could have asked for a better brother, a model of bravery, humility, and no small sense of humor.
Brenna replied, “Indeed. Well just you remember that.” A finger jabbed my chest, striking the point home. “You’re in this mess with us, and we need you focused to turn things around. There’s probably some bread and broth left in the kitchen, but the meal has been cleared away.” Brenna turned and brushed past my shoulder, knocking me aside. I turned in time to catch the briefest of curtsies and a sharp “I suggest you visit our chapel. Brother Matthew would certainly take your confession, or lend an ear. Or Brother Tancred, perhaps? I enjoy his vespers, and you might too if you attended.”
The thought never once crossed my mind. I’d long since shut out Tancred’s voice. Brother Matthew was thick in the waist from too many helpings of communion bread, but at least he was an honest sort and likable. Something in Brother Tancred made me uneasy. His piercing eyes, and all-too informed questions about our conduct. I knew their role in the community, but never appreciated the intrusiveness some in the church exhibited. That’s why I always went to Paulson.
“I appreciate your concern sister. I promise I do not avoid them out of ill will.” Lie. “I shared confession earlier with Brother Paulson and it helped greatly.” She despised the man, but hopefully she wouldn’t hang on that tonight.
“Well, good tidings brother.” She was already at the end of the hall and turning out of sight.
“Thank you, and good night.” I managed to get something out at least. Hopefully there were no witnesses to our verbal combat. I knew the kitchen staff had observed more than a few of these interchanges. Worse was the growing frequency. I wondered what thorn drove her to such measures.
Probably the talk Garrett and I had started about finding her a suitable husband.
My mood hadn’t changed much by the time I reached my chambers. Sweat clung to my shirt after a brisk climb. Bloody heat, and so early. Hopefully the crops would take well. This weather was practically a head start compared to our typical seasons, but it boded ill thus far. No one had experienced such a warm spring in memory, even the old ones.
Once the door closed, I felt a little more relaxed. I shucked off clothes and prepared for bed, lingering on memories from Syria. Five years earlier, in this very room, I received the blessing of our father, Lord Walter, to depart for the crusades. Bishop Leo, traveling on behalf of the church in Rome, laid the offer in private audience. Father was reluctant, but impressed enough to suggest he could support. After all, eternity and the sanctity of Jerusalem were in the balance, and God’s enemies were at hand. He committed to sending twenty men. I nearly fainted when he hauled my brothers and me into the room; he knew we had been listening outside his door the whole time. I never expected him to say that I would lead them. At least, together with Uncle Amalric. It was my first real duty supporting Breckshire.
My mind returned to my sister. When did Brenna become such a nag? Mother was never like that. My memories were faint after years of separation, but she was always a quiet, haunting beauty to me. What about the other ladies in waiting? I thought about the women of the house. There were the usual compliment of servants and some freemen keeping the place running, cooks and scullery maids and sweeps. Girls I used to ogle over while giving our youngest brother, Christopher, riding lessons by the gardens. Also a handful of the landed families who frequented Breckshire keep, like Sir Baldur and his French wife, Lady Elaine. But none of those had quite the same fire in their voices. How did it all come to this? I laid down with a sigh. The ceiling offered no answers. Sleep finally took me like the proverbial thief in the night, silent and unannounced.
I awoke in a dry field, tan sheaves of wheat waving in a strong afternoon breeze. The smell of mowed grass, salt, cedar trees, and a tinge of smoke filled my nose. My eyes surveyed the landscape, squinting in the wind. The aroma of cedar confirmed my suspicion; a grove lay to my right, drawing up a slow rise from field to forest. To my left, down the slope, was a town. Thick stone walls surrounded the sprawled buildings, markets, and edifices typical of such a place. The brown and gray stones were the type found in local quarries across Outremer. Their mismatched patterns and hues showed the evolution of a growing community. A river wound around the far side, cradling a tall tower in its crook. My nose picked up the other scent, a pungent odor of smoke. The tower was ablaze.
Gaining my bearings, I began to jog toward the town. Something kept tickling my mind, something that questioned the reality of this experience. Something pulled me towards the gates. Familiarity? Danger? The burning in my legs grew, battling my mind for control. Most knights could run into a fray, but few possessed significant stamina when burdened with arms and armor. A stray thought crystallized in my mind: the forest must be avoided at all cost. Something evil lay within. Deadly evil.
It seemed so irrational. We’d been hunting and exploring as a family since I could ride. Why would I be afraid now? Swaying palm and olive trees grew in my vision, contrasting with the cedar, cypress, and fir trees of the forest behind. Irrigation ditches lined the barren fields, an irritating reminder of our own lands’ troubles. I approached the city walls. This could have been any city in Syria or Egypt, the small details jumping out at me from memories. Aleppo, Homs, Antioch, Ascalon, they all ran together in my mind.
Smoke filled the air near the walls. Ash began to fall around me. I choked and my pace slowed. Something new began to draw my attention: screams. Coming from the town walls and piercing my ears. Children’s cries. Women wailing. The noise of calamity falling upon innocent souls.
My gut wrenched inside. These were sounds so many of us knew intimately. Our exploits in Outremer were not all honorable. Most of us had nightmares. We each had some method to cope, to numb the pain. To try and forget the ghosts. But the faces remained. They returned every time I closed my eyes. We may have been God’s hand, but we were bad people. Knights who compromised their vows. It was simply something we each carried.
An icy mental hand slapped my face. That single thought stopped me cold. Staring at the walls, now towering high overhead, I recognized the masonry from Acre. From Tyre. From Jerusalem itself. Memories flooded my mind, assaulting my senses. Voices. Screams. The metallic tinge of blood caught up in my nostrils, flaring with breathe. A reflexive hand grasped for a sword hilt that was somehow not there. I fell to my knees trembling. Danger was before me, yet I had no weapon to defend myself. Nor defend those around me, as if I could defend anyone.
White light appeared at my side, blinding me for a moment. I couldn’t tell how long I’d been kneeling, maybe moments, maybe lifetimes. Trying to stand I felt a hand on my shoulder gently pressing down. Keeping me down. Holding me back. I fought my natural reaction to fight, to engage. Instead, rather irrationally, a growing sense of peace settled in my heart.
“Whither thou goest my child? You recognize this place, don’t you Fallondon Breck?” Full name; must mean business. The voice was musical, like the bells of a cathedral, piercing a cold morning’s air. Crisp, with power. Only in my dreams had I heard such a voice. It was not possible to place whether it was a man’s baritone or female alto; the sound refused to be labeled so simply. My mind recalled a memory of young boys and girls from our family’s chapel, many years ago, singing canticles together. It was like all the voices in the world speaking at once. It was like a lover’s whisper tickling your ear. A gentle wind in the depths of the night.
“Yea, master, I do.”
“Do you sense the pain?”
“Yea. How could I not?”
“Fallondon, do you believe God has forgiven your sins?”
That question cut too deep. I flinched hard under the being’s hand. Unbidden, a sob escaped my lips, something building deep inside. The scene before me was nothing but a repetition of my most painful memories, of innocent people slaughtered for the sake of some false ideal: be they princes, priests, or politics. For five years in the east, I questioned the purpose of everything my knights had accomplished. Each battle we fought yielded greater wealth, greater praise. Always more. While the message, “God wills it,” rang out from towers across old Israel, our hearts hardened. That stone heart now deflected the deep pain these words had provoked. We weren’t pious warriors fighting to defend the true faith. We were little more than mercenaries, fighting for the promise of satisfaction in this life. I pity the man who reaches the same realization.
I responded in my usual way. I retaliated with sharp anger, my words coming forth slowly, “I left Breckshire to receive absolution for my sins, and those of my family. Of course I’ve been forgiven. How could I not be, for all I have accomplished for His kingdom?”
As the words tumbled out, the false ring was plain. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked. Guilt weighed down my heart. The Hammer of Ascalon no longer looked like the grime warrior hero. I absently thought of how disgraceful I must look. Yet somehow I couldn’t dwell on the thought in the being’s presence.
“Fallondon, the world turns at my master’s bidding. He truly does will all things. Even the painful things executed at the hands of His created. His plan is for perfection and reconciliation. You are all part of this. Even your flaws are used by His hand.”
“How can he possibly use…this,” I waved my hand across the span of wall before them, “to accomplish anything?” Master? Who was this creature? My eyes stung as ash mixed with tears.
“The world is changing, ever moving towards its conclusion and glorious remaking. Eden will return to earth, blossom in the desert, and men will enjoy His companionship once again. But before that time, a tribulation must come. Reckoning. Events which will up-heave the established order and render the face of this world unknown.” I sensed a smile on the being’s face, “You know what I speak of?”
“You mean the apocalypse? John’s visions on that island?” What was the name of that place? Stupid mind. Remember. How many times had the chapel priests taught that lesson?
“Yea, the visions of John the Apostle. We visited him in a dream much like this. He was chosen to bear witness to the last great mystery of this world, the redemption of our master’s creation. Everything must end if it’s to be remade anew.”
I was really sweating now. Somehow it wasn’t just words. It was emotion, a sense of something so much greater moving in the background. Like a deep and powerful undercurrent in an otherwise peaceful river. My mind recalled the illuminations in some of our books. The gold flecked halos around angels’ heads. Ocher and azure robes on the anointed holy ones. And dark things, the descriptions seeding the minds of young girls’ nightmares and inspiring misplaced valor and bravado in the boys. Tales of demons and beasts, the world’s seas emptying their dead, pearl-lined streets and braziers of light. Of a deathly army marching across the face of the world. “Why do you visit me? Is this a dream or memory? Please good sir, tell on.”
“It’s a little of both brave one. And you will be part of it.”
Unconsciously I had been trying to turn to see the thing, or things, which spoke to me. Yet I found I could no more twist my head than rise from the ground. I thoughtfully replied, “What do you mean?”
“Simply this. You answered the call to Outremer in search of something. Something you never found. Your time crusading, fighting in His name, was never truly about taking or holding Jerusalem. Do you think He could not take back such a place with a mere thought? The walls of Jericho fell by His command. And His power is greater than that. Worlds were formed by His hand. The very breath of life is in His being. No, Fallondon, your time was spent for better purposes. You needed to grow, to mature. Outremer was an opportunity to learn the truth of who you are and who you are becoming. About answering your deepest questions.”
That last observation hurt. Such a creature must know the things we did. How far we had fallen. I had led charges against deadly enemies, managed a prospering domain, and won great acclaim among my peers. But truly, it was all fleece to cover others’ eyes. I had no idea who I really was. I replied the only way I knew how, “I know exactly who I am, good sir.” Well said.
I sensed some humor in the reply, “Fallondon, you are about to be tested. A great army is coming. A gathering of things that should not be in this world. We do not know what their purpose is, but for millennia they have hated your kind and bear you enmity. You must stand against them. Gather what strength you can. Rally those you can to your standard. Listen to the voice of the prophets, to the signs of old. You must test them as in days past. But once you hear them, do not forget. Never forget. Repeat the things they say, in the eventide and on the morrow. Recall them on the march. Your strength may fail, but His words will not. Beware the fire of heaven, and the token of the grave. Beware all who pledge fealty to the darkness. Many evil tidings will befall, and many more innocent people may die before the world is made new. But He knows each one, and counts them in the palm of His hand. Trust this; He wills all things for good.”
A whisper in the depths of my mind said otherwise. Visions of small children fleeing from fire and sword filled my eyes. How could anyone will this? Absently I uttered, “How can I remember any of that? Token of what? What am I to do?”
“Bear witness now.”
Little else made sense, but my mind remembered a silent roar, unheard thunder clapping in my ears. I could turn, and now saw a glorious one standing at my side. Light filled my vision, and suddenly a path lay before me. The creature’s great white wings, tipped in black like smoke, wrapped around his kneeling form. Now I couldn’t bear the thought of standing, but cast myself prostrate before it. My eyes squeezed shut, but my mind flooded with visions. When I woke, mentally tired but physically refreshed, I knew what I was called to do.