A short story, adapted from a future work from Apellus.

It was a gloomy day - an average one by most accounts for this time of year. Yet that did not discourage the boy, Jezreel, from marveling at the wonders of the great outdoors. Yet this too was average, as he managed to do so every day. Thin and thick trees alike dripped with morning dew. Underbrush and woodland creatures lay still, each mostly shrouded in fog, invisible from the pathway. In spite of the melancholy environment, this day was especially, particularly stupendous for Jezreel, for it was the first day that he was allowed to attend the city's Agora.

His brothers had long ago, even before the birth of Jezreel, abandoned the family tradition, having been thoroughly convinced of the non-existence or at least non-benevolence of the God that the localmen worshiped in the Agora; but that is a story for another time. This day was indeed special, for Jezreel had grown quite enamored by the God of the localmen, who was the same God of his father. Through his father's writings he had learned bits and pieces of this God, yet had yet to personally encounter the Great Tome that was mentioned often in his father's notes and journals.

Via numerical references in his father's notes, Jezreel understood that the Great Tome was organised, and even felt privileged to have memorized an occasional sporadic verse. Yet for years, he had felt the great looming mystery weigh upon him: What story did the Great Tome tell? There were characters mentioned, but Jezreel knew so little about them, and some bits that he did know made him feel like he was cheating. It seemed unfair for him to have vague information of the birth and death of Isoa, presumably the main character, without knowing much else.

Yet surely today, Jezreel believed, everything would become clear; the story would be illustrated thoroughly. To know what really happened would be a dream come true. With a thrill of excitement, Jezreel shivered at the thought. At least a summary of the Great Tome would be retold, given the several hours that these weekly meetings supposedly took.

"Oh! Hello there!" An archaic voice echoed through the tame woodland. Jezreel paused his leisurely walk, surprised that there was anyone else in the woods at all. Walking briskly, albeit leaning heavily on a stick taller than himself, an old man approached from behind, along the same trail that Jezreel was on.

"Hello!" Jezreel replied. "Who are you, sir, and where do you go?" Jezreel asked the standard road-query, imitating, albeit not nearly as densely, the country accent that the man had.

"Well, if you'd wait just..." Huffing, the man caught up with Jezreel. He had dim eyes, surrounded by an overwhelming face of wisdom. Tattered clothes, yet many of them, adorned the still broad shoulders of the man. "I am Cornelius, the Rabbit Farmer." The old man said, staring unwaveringly at Jezreel. Continuing, before Jezreel had a chance to reply, he said, "And you must be... Yes, you could only be him, I think. Oh, there is the resemblance - yes - You are Jezreel, the final son of Magnus! A wonderful pleasure it is to meet you! Come here my boy!"

Jezreel's heart jumped at being identified, and jumped again as the old man embraced Jezreel without hesitation. A moment passed as Jezreel uncomfortably dealt with the unfamiliar sensation of a hug. Releasing him, the old man grinned widely at Jezreel. "Now, I know we've never met, and this may be a difficult topic, but I was a close friend of your father, and am privileged to have known him."

Jezreel reeled at the overwhelming information. It wasn't uncommon to meet someone who knew Magnus, but to encounter a close friend whom the remaining family hadn't remained familiar with seemed impossible. "Sir, let's walk together and please tell me how you knew my father."

So they went together into town, and the old man told his story. Cornelius explained his life, summarizing himself as a eunuch servant to the king, forced into the life of a hermit, eking out existence by raising rabbits for wool and meat in the outskirts of the woodlands. It was a wholly sad story, told with undue glee and excitement.

"You see, when I fled here, your father was one of the first people I met. I had no notion of being involved with such an honorable, powerful man, but he had other plans. I was completely hopeless at the time, begging in the town and contemplating how I could ever ascend from such a state. He noticed me and took me into the Agora where he fed and clothed me. We talked for a long time that day, even into the night. I'm sure he was in town for some worthy reason, but he deemed my cause more important than his own business. As you may have guessed, he set me up with the land that I now have - bordering a small part of his own."

On and on the old man went, explaining his friendship with Magnus. He explained how generous Magnus had been, yet why he always refused to go to Magnus's house and eat with them. He also said much about Jezreel. "I liken you, Jezreel, to Magnus himself - for in a way, you are the only remaining of his sons who has not been stained by the events which occurred before you were born."

As the fog began to clear, the town came into view, and with it, the top of the Agora. "Ah, there it is! I love seeing the Agora above all else in the town, centered and visible by every localman! I don't suppose you mentioned it yet, but I imagine you're going there now?" The old man asked.

"Yes, I am! Of course, it is for the first time."

"Quite so, for you are finally of age. I am quite glad to see that a remnant of Magnus's great faith has prevailed."

The statement made Jezreel smile, although he couldn't come up with a response.

"Have you been able to study your father's Great Tome?"

"No." Jezreel replied, "My brothers would not allow me to have one."

"Well that is rather unfortunate. Alas! the tragedies of the world have shown the faith of many to be false. Yet even the great tragedy of your father's end pales in comparison to that of Isoa's."

"Will you tell me about him?" Jezreel blurted in reaction to the invocation Isoa's name.

"Who? Your father, or Isoa?"

"Isoa! Although, I would love to hear more about my father as well." Jezreel sheepishly replied, failing to convince anyone that he cared much about anything other than Isoa.

"Well, I'm no teacher - let's leave that to the Gatherers!"

And with that, they entered the courtyard the Agora - it's doming rooftops intermixing with the light of the newsky. The great bronzed doors stood wide open, manned by a collection of localmen. As each was passed, they conveyed various salutations and offered welcoming words. Jezreel, breathlessly wondered at the interior - an opulent mixture of metallurgy, tapestries, carvings, and art of various kinds. Carefully crafted benches filled the otherwise open chamber, each focused on the centerpiece: A pulpit carved from a single tree, somehow four feet in diameter. Words in an ancient language were inscribed on the pulpit in some ambiguous pattern, not one seeming to align with another.

Jezreel followed Cornelius carefully, reverently, silently. They sat in an unremarkable spot, joining dozens of others who were already seated. Several minutes passed in relative silence.

Suddenly, trumpets sounded, and everyone rose to their feet. Plucked strings formed a melody from an amorphous direction. Queued by the song, the localmen unanimously sang out in loud unison, each word marching unto the next.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav'nly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

Jezreel had never heard anything like it. He sweat from sheer awe at the sound. Notwithstanding, he quickly tried to make sense of the words, fitting them into his understanding, yet couldn't make sense of them beyond saying "praise God". The elation faded moments after the final echoes died out.

A localman approached the pulpit. "This must be a Gatherer!" Jezreel thought. The large man stood, and stared out at the congregation of several hundred for a moment before subtly waving his hand in what appeared to be a useless gesture. Yet its purpose was immediately clear, as the congregation sat once more. Jezreel now could see the man clearly, his vision no longer impeded by the bodies of much older men than himself. The Gatherer wore purple clothing, with accents of crimson red throughout. The style was completely foreign to Jezreel. Among other oddities, the clothing accentuated the Gatherer's upper body greatly, giving him the appearance of an unnaturally strong man.

"Thank you all for coming today. I am your Gatherer, and I am glad that you have come. That is an excellent hymn is it not? It is most appropriate to give our praise to the God of blessings - and He will bless us for it! It is essential that everyman participates in these weekly gatherings for their own edification, sanctification, and spiritual well-being. If you know your of your neighbor who is not here today, or does not regularly attend, it is important for both your own and their own sake that you go to them and encourage their continued attendance of the Agora. That is what today's message is about - except that it is on a level of greatness and power that we can not even fathom."

The Gatherer spoke with crisp diction without even a hint of a country accent. His deep voice and evident authority effectively convinced Jezreel that what he was saying was without doubt.

"But first, let's discuss the important events and happenings of our city this week." The Gatherer continued. He spoke in the same, relatively slow cadence with which he began. Several special gatherings were mentioned, meant for segregated groups related to age or vocation. Current city politics were discussed, and many propositions were presented and instructions for voting were provided. Even crop health and weather conditions were foretold by the Gatherer. Jezreel knew this part of the Agora was essential for the city to work since it operated exclusively by everyman's vote. Yet the propositions seemed of little importance, being that most of them only affected small groups of individuals, such that he often couldn't even come up with a reason to vote one way or another.

The meeting went on and on in this way, consuming what felt like well over an hour of time. Jezreel's exuberance was waning by the time the Gatherer concluded the governmental portion of the meeting. Instantly reengaging, Jezreel longed to hear the story of the Great Tome. Instead, trumpets once again sounded, and the sound of plucked strings filled the air once more. Clearly a different song, the tune calmly flowed, rather than the exciting marching from before. Many, but not all from the congregation sang out now.

The lyrics clearly had to do with concepts from the Great Tome, and even the name, Isoa, was said. Some portions were repeated many times, enough for Jezreel's unpracticed voice to attempt emulation. It felt strange to say the name of Isoa aloud - especially without much understanding of who He was. Yet Jezreel simply did as everyman did.

His excitement turned towards an applied effort, racking his brain to make sense of the lyrics of the music. Yet one song after another flew by, and Jezreel felt more and more confounded. Often they sang of love, blessings, and other wonderful things. And as the intensity of the music grew, often the lyrics seemed to be merely syllables, or long words that Jezreel had never heard before. It seemed to go on and on, until Jezreel was sure that at least another hour had passed.

Finally, another man approached the pulpit, his body adorned in the same style as the first Gatherer in spite of appearing significantly younger and thinner.

"Thank you all for coming today. I am your Gatherer, and I am glad that you have come. As previously mentioned, we will be discussing the important topic of gathering lost sheep into the flock. Now, obviously, our very title says just that - that we should gather together, and more specifically, that we should gather each other to ourselves!"

The young man spoke at a much faster tempo, with far more inflection and enthusiasm than the previous Gatherer had. Still, his diction was careful, and his accent was flawlessly neutral. Jezreel noticed that the man held a large book, and once again felt palpable eagerness.

"Our text today is from Ekul 15:1-7, as you recall, we finished chapter 14 last week. Let's humbly read the Word of God! Starting in verse 1:

"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Isoa told them this parable: "Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and looses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, 'Rejoice with me, because I found my sheep that was lost.' I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.

"Wow, what a deep text we have today! Yet Isoa is good to us - for He provides the interpretation of His parable right there, in the last verse. Wonderful, so, let's dive in."

The Gatherer proceeded to work through the text once more, reading slowly and often commenting about some translation difficulty or adding a couple of words of clarification to the text. Soon, he arrived at Isoa's words again.  "See how He relates to the audience here - a simple, but believable story of losing one sheep. Now, I know for some of you, this exact scenario has literally played out!" A few from the congregation laughed at that.

"The situation is so clear that the only right answer is the one that Isoa gives. He lovingly shows the Pharisees exactly what they were having a hard time understanding before. It's not the sheep that are doing fine that need taking care of - but the sheep that have gone astray that desperately need a good shepherd, or should we say, Gatherer, to take care of them. But we aren't really talking about sheep, are we?"

A muttered "No" rumbled forth from everyman.

"No, we're not. We're talking about people, clearly. And this main character, the implied shepherd in the story - who is that?"

"Isoa!" A few individuals responded bravely.

"Of course! That's exceedingly clear. Let's reference some other passages and see where else this sort of situation arises."

Continuing on, the Gatherer turned to and read about half a dozen other passages, each mostly short. Some referenced the "Great Shepherd" while others seemed like the same story told in a slightly different way, and one passage seemed to be from the perspective of a grateful sheep. Jezreel listened as carefully as he could, trying to piece it all together. Was this the story of the Great Tome? Yet he knew that shepherding hadn't been mentioned at all in his father's notes, and the passages that that the Gatherer was stringing together didn't seem to be in any particular chronology, or really, for any particular purpose. Besides that, he hadn't really learned anything about Isoa except that he was a metaphorical shepherd of men.

The Gatherer continued his examination of the original text in the same way that he started. Upon reading the final verse again, he concluded, "Wonderful! So there is great joy in heaven for each of you who are saved by Isoa's blood! Think of that, accepting the free gift of salvation causes joy in heaven! Isn't that amazing?"

Jezreel hoped that the Gatherer would talk more about this "free gift of salvation" since it was the only mention of it that he had heard so far. But instead, the Gatherer continued by talking about a couple of examples from his own life of times when he went to his neighbors and beyond to individuals who were not attending the Agora, and how he convinced them to return.

"By way of application, hear this! If this is what Isoa does for us, should we not do it for each other? Indeed, we are to emulate Him in every way! Therefore, each and every one of you, do your part in gathering the flock, just as we are instructed to from this scripture today."

The Gatherer prayed, asking God that what he said in the sermon would happen, asking for blessings, and thanking God for the Agora and everyone who came today. It was over. Jezreel looked to Cornelius quizzically, and asked, "Is it like this every week?"

"Well, how do you mean?" Cornelius replied, his thick accent in stark contrast to the previous voices.

As they left, Jezreel explained his confusion about the overall story of the Great Tome. "I mean, it's a book isn't it? How did the Gatherers manage to treat those few short verses as if they had a beginning, middle, and end unto themselves? We don't treat any other books like that."

"Well, the Great Tome is rich with meaning, purpose and application in every verse - especially in the Isoa's words. It has wisdom beyond what we can understand. I imagine that the Gatherers know what they're talking about when they make applications from it - they spend every week studying it after all!"

Jezreel felt unsatisfied, many unresolved questions rolling around in his head. He felt the draw for understanding of Isoa call him once more, and decided to ask Cornelius to tell him Isoa's story, from beginning to end.

So they walked and talked until they arrived at the split in the road which led to Magnus's house, where Jezreel left Cornelius, thanking him for sharing his knowledge, and promising to meet him on the road again next week.

Jezreel approached his house, which was more like a mansion, in pensive thought. He watched his feet and considered all the things that had been said that morning. "Perhaps I should be a Gatherer for my brothers somehow. But how could I convince them to come to Agora again? They'll never listen to me..."

"Jezreel, welcome home." A familiar voice said. Jezreel was lost in thought and didn't notice him until he spoke. It was Quintartertius, his brother, and a distinguished scholar at the university. He sat casually on the steps leading to the main entry. "How was the Agora?"

"It was... stimulating, and interesting." Jezreel ventured a careful reply. Even though Quin was among the most peaceful of men by all accounts, he was skilled with words and, in his own words had, "little time for useless speech".

"Perhaps you should tell me about it, for it has been some thirteen years since I was last at Agora. I'm sure it hasn't changed at all, no, that's not why I'm interested. Rather, I'm interested in quashing your interest in the supernatural, just as my own interest has been. Let me reason with you, and we will find that there is only one appropriate outcome. Tell me what your learned."

Jezreel was eager to unpack his mixed thoughts in spite of Quin's purpose. Furthermore, Quin had always been fair and kind to Jezreel, so it only seemed right to explain the Agora in some detail to him.

"Now, let's talk about the structure." Quin began, after Jezreel had completed his retelling. "First, the whole nonsense with this populist government. The Gatherers are the ones who approve the items to be voted on, so they in fact have far, far more power than anyone else. While they cannot completely cover up the various wills of everyman, they can select small wills and twist them into items that are passed into law. While that's not particularly relevant to this discussion, it is something you should know as it speaks to the character of the Gatherers. Perhaps equally wicked, they devise a selection of items to vote on each week that persuades the majority of everyman to attend. Didn't you notice how there was such a wide range of topics in the political discussion?"

"Why do they want people to attend?" Jezreel asked.

"Because those who attend are asked to tithe. You, due to your age, and the very poor people are often passed over in this, but for everyone else, a tithe is personally requested by the Gatherers from every individual in attendance after the gathering. Perhaps that sheds some light for you as to why the so-called application of the message was what it was? I recall when I went, so often the messages were about attendance or giving, whether or not the text had anything to do with it. Now, we could talk about why they want money, but I'll let you fill in the blanks there. Even when the message was about something else, they pulled the application out of thin air merely so that they could give everyman something to do."

"On the topic of the Great Tome, did you notice how little time overall was given to it? The only explanation that I've found to be viable is that they don't actually personally believe that it is what they say it is. That is to say: They are hypocrites through and through. I cannot think of a better, clearer proof to give you as to why you should stay away than that. If they really believed that that book was the 'Word of God' then they would dedicate their lives to it, not a measly few minutes each week, and that done poorly."

"You know, I am a scholar. Let me show you what that passage really means. First, let's start with who the characters are. Any story needs that." Thus Quin continued by citing chapter and verse, one after another from memory, often long passages, to explain the concepts to Jezreel.

"So now, already, from this brief dialogue you have far more understanding than you've ever had before about the story of the Great Tome. You understand sin, the historical context as provided by my summary and detailed in the first part of the Great Tome, the main characters in Isoa's time, the purpose of Isoa Himself, and what has been explained in the book of Ekul up until chapter 15. Now that that's taken care of, we can examine the text once more."

And so they did. Quin showed Jezreel that the intended meaning for this passage was not to instruct everyman to become shepherds of each other, but rather, that it was a rebuke of the pharisees, and an explanation of why Isoa dealt with sinners. "Furthermore, can't you see how the parable technically does not have Isoa in it? The only way to justify that the parable has Isoa as the shepherd is from other, unrelated passages, and perhaps a theologically dense interpretation of the final verse there. In other words, the 'What man among you' in the passage is clearly referring to the pharisees, not Isoa. Now, as for the other references passages..." He then proceeded to show Jezreel how each additionally referenced passage had little to nothing to do with this one, and just how foolish it could be to jump around and make so many fragmentary references.

"So then, with all this in mind, the only possibility is that the Gatherers intentionally deceive everyman into giving them money so that they can maintain their power, and they use the so-called 'Great Tome' in order to convince the people that they have something useful to instruct them in. Yet they have become so greedy, that even their scholarship became sloppy in order to fill their fat bellies."

"They read themselves and everyman into the passage each week, adding applications which are not there either so that everyman is given another task to do, and thereby feels to need to return, or such that the Gatherers are directly benefited. They use the disguise of holiness to promote self-betterment and morality, so that the town is peaceful, so that many return to the Agora and 'faithfully' present their tithe."

As Quin completed his analysis, Jezreel didn't know what to say. Several moments passed in silence.

"While I have carefully taught you how to read and write, how to study and discern, how to reason and debate, I knew that this would be beyond you at this point in your life. In fairness, you know that I have not discussed the Agora until today, so that it would ultimately be you who makes an informed judgment on it. Yet I hope this serves as a lesson for you, that you learn from it how easily deceived you can be by things well-presented. Let me know if you want to talk more."

Then, he left. Jezreel contemplated in solitude. The gloom of the morning returned again for the evening. It was average weather, yet anything but an average day.