The man rushed forward, eyes wildly searching, panting as the soot and ash coated his sweaty face and bear arms, blackening him and his clothes. The heat was oppressive, washing over him in unrelenting waves, staking it’s claim on yet another victim. His filth covered skin felt as if it were about to melt. The fear gripped him. He felt his chest constrict as the panic took over. He couldn’t remember how he had come into this situation… He hadn’t feared the fire before. That slow rolling beast that he felt sure would never get close enough for him to experience had come upon him in an instant, so fast that he hadn’t even had time to consider picking up a coin as he fled. He watched as the trees around him exploded into life, dancing with the heat of the flames that engulfed them. Even as he and his mind ran, he couldn’t help but see in their movement a near-joyous declaration. That somehow, to them, the flames were simply an opportunity given to be born again within the ashes. This thought was soon replaced with a newer, more aggressive panic as his foot caught a small root jutting up from the ground. Stumbling forward, he finally regained his footing just in time to hear a sickening crack overhead. Glancing up, he saw in a brief moment a branch from one of the dancing giants falling towards him. An instant later, the world went black.
He came to, and heard the sound of a familiar voice speaking. The conversation he had apparently reached its climax while he had laid there, unconscious. The voice and its strange familiarity weighed on him. He wondered at it… He also felt in the back of his mind a stabbing fear… He felt that he was in danger, though he couldn’t think of what would make him feel that way. He listened to the familiar voice again. It was clearly passionate about what it was saying. “He lied. He has stolen. He is a murderer! Look at him, frail and sickly! Not worthy. Not worthy! Let me take him. He does not belong to you! Even now, he begs for gratification. To be let loose with his own desires. He despises you! Give him over…” This voice was cut off by another softer, but stern voice that spoke with a certain authority, “Speak no more!” At the sound of this voice, the nagging feeling of fear instantly left him. “I reject these accusations. This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.” At this, his eyes, though they were closed, began to water as a gentle and warm heaviness wrapped his heart. The other familiar, but nasty voice, had not gone silent, but had stopped speaking in a language he could understand. It wasn’t really speaking a language at all, but a series of throaty groans and ugly sounds. Hearing it made his stomach churn. Suddenly, he felt a soft touch on his shoulder, and heard another gentle voice directed to him, “Open your eyes and stand.” He slowly opened his eyes, but what he saw when they opened was enough to make his knees weak and he struggled to stand.

He was in a large bright room with three distinct figures. One was a man, who had apparently been the one who told him to open his eyes and stand. His face was wrinkled and kind looking, and his eyes seemed to gleam with humility and yet, a pride in something far larger than himself. The other two figures, though… They were what made his knees weak. If it hadn’t of been for that kind old man, he would have collapsed again. One figure was hunched over, gargling and grumbling. He was the source of the sickly noises. He had a hatred in his eyes, and a deep incurable sadness in his features. His black eyes were set back far in his head, nearly cave-like. The ragged cloth that covered him was barely worth wearing at all, and his hair and skin were oily and slimy. He was covered in filth and resembled more of a skeletal reptile, than a man. Despite this, its identity was clear. This thing he saw… It was him. At least, it looked exactly like him. It caught his stare, and shifted suddenly, back and forth in what seemed like giddiness, and snarled at the other figures with an evil smile, “Yes, he recognizes… Damned!! Let him die…” He found himself smiling with the reptile-man, and his eyes began to close again. Before they could fully close, however, the stern voice from before boomed out, “TAKE OFF HIS FILTHY CLOTHES!” His eyes snapped open, and he saw the third figure… This one was facing him, advancing towards him. It resembled a man, or men… It was hard to tell which this figure truly was, and he thought that it could easily be both, or anything, or… everything. It was hard to look at directly and seemed to radiate a type of warmth or light, better than anything he had ever experienced. He wanted to weep as he looked at it, both tears of joy, and tears of regret. He wanted nothing more than for the figure to come closer. And it did, or a part of it did. Reaching out, the figure touched his clothes, which he realized with a pang of embarrassment where in horrible condition, and they dissolved. As they did, he saw the reptile version of himself slink away into a darkness, growling and spitting at him as it did. When it finally disappeared with a final hiss, he felt a cleanness and renewal. Glancing down at what he now wore, he wept with joy. He was wearing the most clean, comfortable, and beautifully crafted robe he had ever witnessed. It occurred to him that he hadn’t known until this moment how much he wanted or needed these new clothes, or for the reptile-man to dissapear. During that thought the bright room began to fade away like a mist and the figures with it, though as they faded, they spoke to him again, one last time, with a solemn tone, “Carefully remember… There is now a choice. Make it well. The stick and the branch, be one or fade.” Suddenly, He saw in a brief moment the reptile-man peeking from the shadows, smiling evilly at him, and then it was all gone.

He sat up off the ground and looked around him. He was surrounded by charred landscape, and floating ash, but no fire. He remembered the crack of the branch, and touched his head where it had hit him, wincing. His fear of the fire subsided, but he wondered how he had not been burned alive… It was nighttime, and the stars sparkled above. He glanced up at them, feeling a distant memory tugging at the back of his mind, though he couldn’t exactly remember it… Far off he saw the orange glow of the fire that had passed over him. He shivered a bit, and with a grunt, stood up. Taking a few shaky steps forward, he glanced down at his clothes. “How filthy,” He grumbled to himself. The charred remains of the trees seemed to look down at him with silent eagerness, waiting for him to choose to be reborn from the ashes with them…

Inspired by Zechariah 3