Chapter 27: The Wall
The dark cloud hovering over them was invisible against the night sky. As the first vestiges of gray began to press upon the black, it retreated to the western horizon to spy on them, undetected.
Ava’s eyes fluttered open, fighting the urge to continue sleeping. Turning her head, she caught a glimpse of gold flickering in the eastern sky.
“Boys, look!” she said excitedly, sitting up, pointing. “Nell, wake up! Hurry, everyone, look!”
Startled, everyone sat up and looked in the direction Ava was pointing. It appeared only for a fleeting moment and vanished before they could say a word. Even after it disappeared, they continued to look toward the eastern horizon where they saw the most spectacular color display of gold, purple, orange, and magenta. Glorious colors they had never even seen before and could not have found the words to describe danced brightly in the morning sky until the gloom of gray conquered it once more. But its beauty lingered in their imaginations, rendering them speechless.
Sage smiled at the majesty of Menetoy that seeped across the borders from his home. He never grew tired of witnessing the expressions of those seeing the color burst for the first time; he looked upon these weary Seekers who had risked everything on a gamble. Leaving all that was familiar, they purposed in their hearts to pursue what could only be a dream to them. It demanded and displayed the courage of their convictions. They had been hunted and attacked. Still, their determination did not waver. He admired their spirit. And he was pleased by their response to their first experience with the colors of Menetoy— they were so close!
Quickly, they arose; dividing out a portion of the bread Autarkiea had sent along with them, they mounted with fresh excitement for the day’s ride. The bread tasted flavorless after the experience of seeing those magnificent hues race across the sky. Could anything in Terra Dombren satisfy them after viewing that incredible display? They rode swiftly, longingly, anticipating a return of those colors on the horizon at any moment, literally chasing after them. They hungered for one more fleeting glimpse to carry them through the rest of the day; but all they saw was the same old dreary landscape that eventually siphoned off all joy and expectation. At day’s end, they were once again dejected by the murky shroud still engulfing them in this wretched wilderness.
Tired, disconsolate, they camped that night in sullen silence. They doubted that their eyes had really beheld all the colors of the spectrum swimming in the sky. Hope was fading; silently in their own hearts, they each wondered if this journey would ever end. Were they consigned to wander like nomads, never finding their destination?
Yet once more, as the first vestiges of light began to appear in the east, the luminous display of colors briefly appeared again. This time, Sage awakened them to catch a glimpse of this spectral infusion tracing the horizon. And once again, they found courage to hope.
They now looked forward to the dawn of each day, eager to open their eyes to this daily greeting from somewhere far away, as if Menetoy called to them, beckoning them. With each day’s hard ride, it must be getting closer. Hope grew stronger, despite the barren plain.
One afternoon, after what felt like endless weeks of desolate sameness riding across the austere open, they approached a high hill that seemed to stretch from the beginning of one hemisphere to the end of the other. From a distance, it appeared to be capped with fire. The blaze shrank below the crest of the hill as they drew near. They would have to ascend the mount and cross over to the other side, but the task was far more difficult than expected. The steep hill was covered with a slimy pitch, frequently causing them to slide backward. The slippery slopes were a frustrating obstacle that drew exclamations of exasperation as they toiled through the entire day. They were already weakened by hunger, for the sparse plain had afforded them little success in hunting even for small rodents. At the end of the first day they found themselves at the foot of the hill, exhausted and cross.
“Is there no other way around this?” Stranth demanded of Sage.
“I’m afraid not. We are at the edge of Terra Dombren, which is completely sunk along its entire circumference. We would find this border of slippery slopes at any point of exit.”
“But if you’ve made this trip before, then surely you have some recollection of how it is to be done!” Stranth concluded.
“I have always found it a matter of the will. It must be a united effort on the part of each of you.”
“What are you saying? Is someone not putting forth his full effort?”
“Lingering doubt must be present in the mind or heart of at least one in our party.”
“Impossible!” Stranth insisted.
“Is it?” Sage calmly asked.
None dared answer. All wondered... except the one who doubted.
“It’s been a long day,” Ava finally declared. “We’re obviously not going to be able to make it to the top in the dark. We might as well camp here tonight and begin again in the morning.”
Relieved to postpone further toil until the morrow, they all dismounted and prepared to make camp. Silently, the fire was lit and a meager portion of bread distributed. The weary Seekers hoped for a more productive day after a good night’s sleep, which seemed to escape them all. Each plagued with dreams of falling, they rested their eyes, but not their minds and scarcely more their bodies. It was impossible to dismiss the slippery slopes from their thoughts as they tossed and turned at the maddening foot of the steep hill.
Onar was the first to see the brilliant hues flicker over the edge of the mount. He pondered them in silent musing, curious to know what caused them. But they did not fill him with a sense of peace and wonder as they seemed to do for the others. He did not awaken them to witness the blaze of lights before they vanished. He lay still, watching the sky, musing that if they got any sleep at all, it was doubtless no more restful than his. He had just decided that it would probably be more profitable to let them sleep and energize for the tough slog up the slopes when he heard Sage rousing everyone to the sight.
Again, the gasps of joy and delight! Their faces were mesmerized even after the display slipped from their sight. Onar almost envied the enjoyment his family got while viewing the presentation and wished that it could touch his heart they way it apparently touched theirs. Their faces glowed with awe and wonder, and the presence of the shining light seemed to penetrate them somehow. However, it was nothing more than a curiosity to him. They basked in the myriad of lights as if they were some sort of living entity. An irksome feeling that he was somehow on the outside looking in crept into his soul.
Again, the lights gave them fresh energy for the day. Before mounting their horses, Sage gathered them all in a huddle under his arms. Looking each one in the eye, he admonished them to picture a beautiful tree-lined lane with deep green foliage in lush adornment, gently swaying on a soft breeze with the scent of elpece drifting on the air. The sky above is a gentle blue; the lane winds up the side of a beautiful mountain of white limestone whereon sits a gleaming palace of ivory. This castle is enshrined with these same colors that burst forth at dawn and again at sunset, and in between, it sparkles like a gemstone in the warm light of the sun. This would be their new home. If they would focus their minds on this image as they ascended the hill and let the tranquility of belonging to light, peace, and beauty carry them up the hill, they would find it less toilsome on their second attempt.
This they did, without exception. Each step was placed delicately, slowly, deliberately. There were a few slips and slides, but their gentle ascent was constant progress. The higher they went, the more confident they felt, the more engaged with thoughts of home. At times it felt as if a strong arm were steadying them from above and behind.
The nearer they drew to the peak, the more they began to hear a loud rumble rolling through their midst. It grew louder the higher they climbed. When at last they breached the top, the sight and sound of the majestic curtain spread out across the valley below, The Great Wall of Fire met their eyes and ears, stealing their breath away with awe and wonder. It stretched across the plain as far as the eye could see north and as far as the eye could see south. It rose up endlessly from the ground, exceeding the gray ceiling of gloom that panned out west of the Wall unconsumed. Their hearts were filled at once with gladness and dread.
The refining fire.
“Settle the fear in your hearts,” Sage calmly told them. “All that will be consumed is the portion of yourself that is bent toward darkness. You will emerge on the other side, the perfect form of your true self, ready to appear before the courts of our king, ready to inhabit the blessings of Menetoy.”
Stranth was the first to step forward to descend into the valley making up the last desolate plain before the flames. Ava and Nell eagerly followed. Sage eyed Ava’s younger son, who stood still, gazing at the sight.
“It’s not uncommon to feel fear when you behold the Wall, even for those of us who have passed through the flames more than once.”
Onar looked back at Sage. He was not convinced that fear was the exact emotion he was feeling. It was quite beyond description, a feeling he had never felt before. Without a word, he began his descent. Sage followed.
They rode across the plain slowly with some trepidation. They paused when they began to feel its heat in earnest.
Sage shouted over the ferocious flames, “Follow close behind me in single file. You will feel heat, but you will not burn, neither your horse nor your belongings. Stay in single file, directly behind me.”
“Will it hurt?” Nell asked.
“It will tingle some,” Sage hollered back with a slight grin.
Ava turned to look at her sons. She gave them a slight, nervous smile and a nod. Then she and Anani fell in directly behind Sage. She was followed by Stranth, then Nell, and Onar brought up the rear.
Sage took off at a slow gallop at first, building a steady speed that became a full run as they raced toward the Wall. The thunder of the horses’ hooves was drowned out by the deafening roar of the bellowing fire. Ava looked backed at her sons with both joy and terror. Smiling at them once more, she turned with steely resolve to follow Sage into the flames that engulfed them one after the other.
The Wall itself was only a few dozen strides across. Sage continued to ride away from the Wall until the heat lessened, which it did considerably sooner on the east side of the flames, for a much cooler wind pressed the heat toward the west. Clearing the hot zone, he stopped and turned to watch them all emerge from the fire. First Ava cleared, who, upon reaching Sage, also turned around excitedly and expectantly to watch Stranth, and then Nell appear. They waited, breathlessly, for Onar.
However, just before Onar would breach the flames, he pulled up hard on his reins, causing his horse to rear up high on his back legs. Onar turned him suddenly about and raced back away from the flames. He wasn’t ready to turn loose of the anger seething in his heart. When the heat was bearable, he turned again to face the fire.
On the other side, the others still waited… and waited. All at once, Ava realized what had happened. A loud and guttural, “No!” escaped from her lungs, and she began to violently prod Anani back toward the Wall, but he would not move. Calling out for her son, Ava dismounted and raced back toward the Wall to retrieve him.
“No, she mustn’t,” barked Sage to Stranth over the noise of the flames. “No one can pass back alive without standing first before the king. We must stop her.”
Onar could hear the anguished cries of his mother even over the deafening howl of the flames. His heart broke to cause her such sorrow. But there were more Shadows he felt compelled to explore. Slowly, he turned west with misty eyes, until he could hear his mother’s voice no more. He found that the sound of her voice resonated all the way back to the slopes he must climb again, alone. Her cries reverberated to him from the rising hill, until he trotted above it. He even discerned his brother’s voice amid the crackling roar of the fire. A sad relief it was to hear nothing more than the wind when he finally breached the peak and descended down the slippery slopes once more.
Stranth bolted toward his mother to stop her progress and nearly tackled her to the earth upon reaching her. She tried with all her might to push past and side step him into the flames, all the while crying out for her son. With her life on the line, Stranth had no choice but to wrestle her forcefully to the ground. He had no idea just how strong she truly was, and he was thankful when Sage caught up to help subdue her. Still she fought to break back through the flames to retrieve her son. Repeatedly, they warned her of its danger. Yet, she continued to push toward the flames. Finally, she saw the back of Stranth’s tunic begin to singe as she continued to press against him toward the wall. The danger they spoke of touched her oldest son. Resigned that Stranth and Sage were strong enough to prevent her from lunging back through the fiery wall, she reached her hand toward the flames and called for Onar once more. She could feel her flesh blistering and burning; but she kept hoping her hand would find her younger son reaching out for her.
However, all she felt was scorching heat. When she went limp, Stranth scooped her up in his arms and carried his weeping mother back to Anani. When he attempted to hoist her up to the saddle, she clung to him and wept great heaving swells. He fell to his knees and rocked her gently in his arms, while his own misty eyes searched through blurred gaze the burning wall, as if willing his brother to emerge from the flames. Stranth half-expected Onar to obey his silent command and kept his eyes focused on the wall, waiting.
Yet, Onar did not appear.
From a distance, the sound of trumpets went unnoticed by Ava and her son. Only Sage and Nell witnessed the arrival of a short caravan of gilded wagons and carriages with a welcome contingent bearing refreshments and salve for their wounds. But more important and unexpected was the tender voice and touch that encircled them both with his strong arms, speaking words of comfort.
“Take courage,” Archereus said, wiping away their tears. “His end is not yet written.”
In that moment, in his secure embrace, their astonishment was beyond measure. With a mixture of disbelief and renewed hope, Ava once again gazed into those startling blue eyes, as purposeful and peaceful as ever, as if they had never been dimmed by death. Somehow and quite strangely, they felt glimmers of joy and hope in the midst of their sorrow; they simultaneously began to laugh and cry.