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Twelve, But Not Twelve

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Once, there had been a tunnel diverging in the rock, underneath the stars, the air hard and strong as the desert. There had been a choice. It had started that way, after everything had ended.

Then the roads multiplied, memories came back, and a strong anger was born, and never truly went away.

And then something new started.

*

Walls, roof and ceilings slowly came into view that wasn’t there before.

“What are you doing here?” the condemned man burst out, sitting upright now and looking very alert, compared to a few seconds ago. “You are supposed to be dead!”

“…James?” asked his visitor uncertainly. He looked closer at the other one, then nodded, before taking a new look at his surroundings. “A prison…? Doesn’t look all real, does it…” he added under his breath, as if to himself.

“Don’t tell me they were wrong and you’ve been alive and getting away with it this whole time,” said James tensely.

“I didn’t… I guess I’m a ghost?” the visitor ventured. He glanced at the condemned man. “You look older.”

“…You don’t,” replied James the son of Zebedee, after a few long considering moments, his face growing darker, more troubled.

“How many years has it been?”

“Fifteen. It’s been fifteen years,” said James shortly. “You’re not alive,” he went on. “What are you doing here? Am I dreaming?” He put a hand to his forehead, breathing heavily.

“Probably. I don’t know? I just… I didn’t come here on purpose.”

“Like I’d believe anything you’d say,” said James bitterly, not able to stand it anymore. He got up to his feet, strode over to Judas and punched him to the ground.

“After all this time you come here-- like nothing happened-- like it wasn’t important-- how could someone even do that-- how could you?” he burst out, his voice growing ragged. “You’re worse than Ahitophel! And you were one of us!”

Judas slowly rolled over, sat up, and hugged his knees, trembling. After a few moments, he started to talk, not looking up. “The-- the whole thing was horrible-- not just my crime-- I didn’t -- I wasn’t-” He gasped for breath, then went on in a shriller voice, “-He shouldn’t have told me to do it…”

James felt cold with disbelief and anger. “I can’t believe it,” he spat out. “You’re blaming him? Like you weren’t already about to-!” This time he kicked him. Then he stepped back, supporting himself on the prison wall.

Judas flung his arms up against a new attack that wasn’t coming. “I-- not in so many words--” another gasp-- “I’d mostly just been thinking of running away until then,” he babbled, “to go hide somewhere until it all blew over, not, not handing him over…” He started to sob, shaking violently. “Or maybe not, maybe I don’t remember it well…”

James stared down at him, then turned around. “You’re beyond contempt,” he said coldly. “I can’t see why you’d be the one to turn up now, on my final night…”

“Final?” Judas got out, between the sobs.

“They will have me killed in the morning.”

“…Oh.”

“Perhaps Satan sent you, not to tempt me but to trouble me,” said James thoughtfully, more to himself. “Perhaps the Lord sent you, as a final test and a warning.” In a softer voice, he wondered out loud, “Did I fail my test? We are supposed to forgive everyone…” He sat down heavily on the pile of straw where he had been asleep. Where he probably was still asleep, he guessed now. “I’m not worthy. I’m not strong enough. I was never strong enough.”

After a few silent moments, Judas said, “I thought maybe… I didn’t know they still… I thought maybe you all had it easier now….”

“Why would you think that?” said James sharply, but not looking at him. “It only gets harder and harder. And yet… And yet,” he burst out, lifting his head again, “we keep growing! The more they push us down, the more they make examples of us, the more converts flock to us, followers of the Way, even among the Gentiles…”

“Gentiles, too?”

“Yes!” he snapped. Then, in calmer tone, he went on. “But it will not get any easier, I think. For some time. Until the Kingdom of God. It won’t be long. It can’t. And then our suffering will be over.” A huge weight lifting from him, now, at the end. The terrible fear had receded. He couldn’t sense it at all anymore. He closed his eyes, then said, with true calm, “All right. I’m ready to wake up now.”

*

Time passed, or perhaps didn’t, only seemed to. It was hard to tell.

He found himself inside a house he hadn’t walked to.

“Where…” Judas started to say, then stopped as he saw the figure sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. “Oh. James, it is you,” he stated, unnecessarily. The other James, that was.

“Of course it is me,” mumbled James the son of Alphaeus distantly.

“This doesn’t look like a prison cell,” remarked Judas.

“It’s not. But they will come for me soon.”

“Then shouldn’t you move somewhere else?”

“No,” said James firmly. “It is time to stop hiding. Though it might mean my death.” He focused on the other one, then started.

“You-!” James scrambled to his feet, and the room started to shift, looking starker, older, and colder, with darker shadows in the corners. “What are you doing here, Judas Iscariot?”

Judas backed a few steps. “I-I’m not sure. I don’t know why--”

“You’ve come to augur my death, haven’t you?”

“I-” Judas stopped, and blinked. “…Maybe?”

James looked bitter. “It would be too much to ask for a kinder vision.”

A tense silence followed, then James burst out, “Well? Don’t just stand there! Whatever you’re about to do, do it quickly!”

“Oh, that’s a good one!” exclaimed Judas, upset. “And I don’t know what it is that I’m supposed to do! If anything!”

“Then stop tainting this last night with your cursed features!” shouted James.

Judas frowned, holding his breath and focusing for a few long seconds. Nothing happened.

“…Are you telling me to go away?” he asked. “I think you need to say it more clearly.”

“Why?” snapped James. “You should understand that much.”

“Because I tried to leave on my own just now, but it didn’t work. You’ll have to say it.”

“Fine! Just go, you damn traitor! Leave!” James took an angry step forward, but the next second, Judas had disappeared entirely. James blinked, just standing there for a moment, breathing heavily. Then he returned to the original corner of the room and sat down again, hot and exhausted.

“No,” he muttered to himself. “I’m not hiding.”

*

He was in a kind of courtyard, with high forbidding Roman walls, and he could see prisoners and guards. But it seemed indistinct and fuzzy, apart from the man sitting with his head in his hand and looking out at nothing a few metres away. He had aged less than one would have thought, Judas thought at first, but then realised that in a dream, you can just keep looking younger.

“Bartholomew,” he said out loud. “So it’s you, now.”

The other one started, but said nothing at first. He opened his mouth, watching him closely, then abruptly closed it, before finally saying “You. Now I know I’m dreaming.” His voice sounded hoarse and raw.

“Well… No, not like usual,” said Judas. “You’re asleep but it’s more like a vision than an ordinary dream. I’m really here.”

“How could you really be here?” said Bartholomew, reasonably.

“I mean, I came from Sheol to be here, in your dream.”

“Why?” said Bartholomew, getting up from the ground and dusting off his knees. He seemed fairly composed, more than the two Jameses had been.

“I don’t know,” said Judas. “I didn’t come here of my own accord. You could say I was pulled here, but I don’t know by what. It was the same with the two Jameses.”

Bartholomew said, “Since this is a dream, I can leave that courtyard for a while.” Waving a hand in front of him towards the nearest wall, a path formed from his feet and leading forward and out. He started to walk it.

“The Governor didn’t even bother finding a cell for us, for me and three other friends,” he said, his tone still calm. “They’ll crucify us in the morning.” The courtyard retreated around them, soft night swallowing it up with a suggestion of countryside hills taking its place. The air felt drier and cleaner.

“Ah, it’s like I’m back in Galilee!” exclaimed Bartholomew. Now he was holding a lit torch. “See the line of the mountains against the dawn sky!”

“I see them...”

“You said Sheol,” said Bartholomew, his tone still calm. “And not Gehenna?”

After a moment, Judas replied, “Gehenna is part of it.”

“So is there crying, and gnashing of teeth?”

“Yes, there is,” he admitted. “But that’s not all there is. There are other paths, too; there are – other places.”

“I see.”

“How long has it been?”

“Hm? Oh-- twenty-three years,” said Bartholomew, in an absent-minded tone. Then he went on, “You know, you drag that darkness with you. And the smell of burnt garbage. Look down. Can you see the small pieces of soot you spread on the ground?”

Judas looked down, observing. “…You’ve got a good eye,” he had to acknowledge.

Bartholomew shook his head. “Not so much when I’m awake, not anymore.” He looked over at the mountain range, where the light of the dawn grew stronger. “So you will go on to see the others as they go, then. At least eight more. And maybe Matthias, too? He’s the one we chose to replace you.”

“Maybe.”

He held up his torch towards Judas. “Why are you not only in Gehenna? Why are there those other places, too?”

“That’s… Well…” Judas bit his lip. “It’s hard to explain…”

“Do you not accept your punishment?” asked Bartholomew, his voice still remarkably even and collected.

“I… No, I don’t,” said Judas in a low voice. “Not in whole. No.”

Now Bartholomew gave him a searching look, then dropped his voice and said, simply, “You should. If you could accept it fully, then you might be able to become purified and forgiven. Until then you will keep smelling of darkness and fire wherever you go.” He took a closer step, and might even have given him the briefest of shoulder pats. “Go.”

Judas vanished. Bartholomew closed his eyes, mumbling, “I see the light, shining…”

He could return to the courtyard, now. He was ready. He held his head straight, a touch of triumph over him.

*

“This seems familiar…” remarked Judas, looking around inside another prison cell. “It’s how it was with the first James.”

The man sitting on the floor looked up, squinting in the bad light. “Who’s there?” he asked. “Let me out if you can! I still have so much to do…”

“I can’t, Peter,” said the other one. “I’m inside your dream. This isn’t the real cell.” But he went over to the door anyway, pushing it a little. The door didn’t move. He pulled at it, then pushed once more, harder this time. Now the door swung open.

Simon Peter looked at him carefully, then shook his head. “No… no, this is likely a final temptation.” He looked down on his hands, resting in his lap, then drew a deep breath. “I need to accept what is coming fully,” he stated bleakly. “It’s too late for rescues now.”

“How long has it been?” said Judas after a few long seconds. “Are you much older?”

“It’s been thirty-five years. And this is Rome. The current emperor is very hard on us. He blames us Christians for the great fire that happened here last month.”

Judas blinked at this unfamiliar word. “’Christians’?”

“It’s because Christos is Greek for Messiah,” said Peter. “That’s what we call him now when we talk to Gentiles. Iesos Christos.” After a pause, he remarked, “It’s fitting that you should come to me of all people. I denied him three times out of fear, after all.”

“You’re not the only one. Who I came to, I mean.” Judas gestured at himself, then at their prison surroundings, and at Peter. “This happened with Bartholomew and the Jameses, too. But I don’t know why.”

Peter fell silent for a little while, then said, in a low voice, “I should have talked to you more. Should have seen what could happen.” He kneaded his forehead with his knuckles, looking tired, worn out, responsible. “Or tried to stop him from letting you join, or from taking that position…”

“You did the best you could” said Judas shortly, not looking at him. “There was a prophecy, right? So.”

A jingling sound made Judas turn his head to see a set of keys that now lay in Peter’s hands. Peter touched them carefully, a wondering expression on his tired face. “These keys… they’re supposed to be the keys to heaven, aren’t they?” he remarked, but seemed to be thinking out loud. “I’ve heard people whisper so… but it’s not true, he never gave them to me.”

“They are. Or they will be. If enough people believe it,” said Judas. He added, after some thought, “And I think they will.”

“Hm.”

A long silence followed, not all that tense.

Finally, Peter looked up. “Oh, you’re still here. Why?” he asked frankly, without hostility in his tone.

“I’m not sure. I think maybe I can only go when you ask me to leave? Or when you wake up.”

“It wasn’t you I wanted to see… But still…” He broke up, looking pensive, and curious.

Judas gave him a puzzled look.

“You are paying for what you did,” said Peter slowly. “Aren’t you?” He was looking at the keys in his hand again, turning them over and over.

“Yes,” said Judas simply. “As has been foretold.”

“That makes sense…” mumbled Peter, not looking up. There was another pause.

Judas opened his mouth, very puzzled by now, then said disbelievingly, “Peter, you’re not… you’re not really letting me stay in this dream for my sake?”

“…I don’t know,” said Peter evasively. But after a moment, he muttered, “No lying, now” under his breath, and went on in a firmer voice, “Yes.”

Judas shook his head, stunned for a moment. “…That’s-- that’s really nice of you,” he managed to say after a while. “Um. But I can be in more than one place at a time, now.”

“Oh,” said Peter, eyes widening. “So I’m not helping, then.”

Judas shrugged.

Peter sighed, closing his eyes. “Then, please leave,” he said. “I need to prepare myself and to pray. I need to let the light in.”

 

*

A stone hall lined up with pillars surrounded him all of a sudden, bereft of people. There were windows, placed high; the place gave a serene, majestic feeling.

Since he couldn’t think of any other solution (he had, at this point, yet to be summoned by magic by anyone), he guessed this was another dream by one of the Twelve. But it was strange not to see anyone.

Then a narrow staircase came into view, leading upwards.

“Go up there and see where it leads.”

Judas jumped at the sudden voice talking right by his ears, span around but still couldn’t see anyone.

Swallowing, he scratched his head. “Well, this is different,” he mumbled. He looked at the stone steps, going up through a hole in the ceiling. “Might as well.”

The steps led up to the large roof of the building. He stepped out and walked closer to the edge. The moon was shining, letting him make out a courtyard on the one side, and a city on the other, with high walls in the distance. He found the view vaguely familiar.

He turned his head and was not too surprised to see Andrew standing a few steps away from him, also looking down at the landscape below.

He sighed. “Of course, this is just a dream… It wouldn’t be that easy.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?” said Andrew mildly, not looking back yet.

“What are you doing?” asked Judas, confused.

Andrew turned around and started to walk towards another side of the large roof, with an easy, unhurried gait. “Just looking for a way out. I have so many things still to do…” He waved at the house underneath him: “Though I doubt the rest of the building really looks like this. It’s just in my head. I only know the dungeon.”

“It’s Jerusalem, isn’t it?”

“It is indeed. Peter made it all the way to Rome, but I seem fated to end up not far from where I started.” He stopped, looking out at the courtyard and the dark buildings beyond it. “What are you doing here, Iscariot?”

“If this is your last night alive… I turned up in the others’ dreams, too. The Jameses and Bartholomew and Peter. It wasn’t on purpose, I don’t know why, it just seems to happen.”

“Hm.” Andrew turned and walked along the edge of the roof. Judas stayed where he was but moved in place a little, moving his weight from one foot to the other uncertainly.

“How was that big brother of mine?” asked Andrew.

“He seemed… dutiful, and calm. And oddly kind,” added Judas after a moment.

“That does sound like him.” Andrew’s voice dropped down, losing his light-hearted tone. He stepped closer, now finally looking straight at Judas, his gaze unwavering and serious. “Why did you do it?”

Judas looked away. “…Are you going to punch me, too, like James did?” he muttered.

“If he did it already, then I don’t have to, do I?” After a moment, Andrew went on, “I’d just like to know if it was more fear or greed.” He waited a little, then added again, “Or anger.”

Judas crossed his arms and muttered, “Greed didn’t have much to do with it. It was just the excuse. I, I gave the money back anyway,” he added, voice cracking. Then under his breath, he said in a confused tone, but as if talking to himself, “I think I did that?”

“Too little, too late,” said Andrew, sighing deeply.

“I know,” said Judas shortly.

A pause followed. Andrew again turned his head to look out at the city. Finally, he said, “If this keeps up for you with the dreams, send my regards to everyone you’ll see after me.”

“Your regards?” said Judas, surprised. “Do you want to send a message?”

Andrew shook his head. “No, just that.”

“…I can do that.” A moment, then he added, more warily, “I can try.”

“It seems strange,” said Andrew pensively, “that all the roads will stop tomorrow, for good or bad. Yet I can’t help feeling I still have a long way to go… I am afraid, but mostly, it’s…” A wind rose up, and the shadow of a large bird passed over them. “Still so much work to do.”

He started to fade away, the dream dissolving with him, as he woke up.

*

 

It appeared to Simon that he was standing outside a large gate leading into a building he needed to go through, one where he knew there would be rooms where he could find what he needed, and doors he had to step through. This is the last chance I’ll get, his mind insisted. Right inside the gate, there was darkness. As if slowly coming together from shadows, the contours of a figure shaped before him, turning into a man, first fuzzy and vague but then more solid, his features still hard to make out. Simon frowned in concentration, stepping closer to see better.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

The figure stepped closer, coming into the light from outside. “…Simon? But how…”

Simon opened his mouth, forming a word – a name – soundlessly. No. Not now.

“…Oh. This is inside your dream, isn’t it?” said the other one, as if figuring it all out. He sounded intolerably careless to Simon.

Simon closed his eyes for a moment, clenching his fists in exasperation. “Why am I dreaming of you… I haven’t even done that in a long time.”

“It’s not a regular dream,” Judas Iscariot explained, stepping closer: Simon took a step back. “I’m really here. I mean, all right, not really here, but it’s like a vision… it’s a true dream, see?!” He was waving his hands now in his effort to making Simon understand.

“You…” Staring at him, Simon raised a hand, pointing in the pose he’d take when banishing an evil spirit. He opened his mouth to speak, to drive him away.

The other quickly said, “Andrew--”

Simon froze, lowering his hand slightly. Not saying anything yet.

“--Andrew wanted me to give you his regards,” Iscariot added. The gate opened up and he stepped through it.

Simon kept his distance, giving him a guarded look. “Andrew sent you here, Iscariot?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s-- Nobody sent me, far as I know. Though I didn’t come of my own accord either. This is just something that happens.” He added, quickly, “I don’t know why. But Andrew--”

“Did you meet him on the other side?” said Simon tensely.

“No! I was in his dream like I’m in yours now. He thought he’d be killed in the morning.” Now he was looking away. “All of them did,” he went on in a hoarser voice. “James and James and Bartholomew and Peter and Andrew.”

A pause. Simon noticed vaguely that their surroundings had changed, and they were no longer standing outside, but in a room with stone walls with an oil lamp burning in the corner.

Judas Iscariot cleared his throat. “…And Andrew said I should carry his regards to everyone that’s left.”

“He really said that? Just that?”

Iscariot looked at the floor. “Yes,” he mumbled. “It’s what he said.”

Simon held his head in his hands for several long moments, breathing heavily. Then he waved towards the other, without looking up.

“You. You will stay right here,” he ordered. “I’m going on. I may come back before I wake up. Don’t leave.” He opened the door’s one room and stepped outside, closing the door behind him.

He was, he felt now, in the right place at least, the place where the rooms were parts of his mind. Get things in order, now. Last chance I’ll get. To be able to bear the end with, if not dignity, at least righteousness.

But this would only work if the dream would allow him to be that stable, that organised. Otherwise he might as well wake up.

He opens new doors in the building, steps through new portals, walking up and down, reordering walls, cleaning up, closing down. The disorder vanishes, the unlit corners are cleared away, forgiven; the light is spreading.

He feels ready to go on to the last place he needs to go to.

The door to that first room is opened now and Judas Iscariot is standing in the doorway, blinking in the light, as if on cue. That was handy, Simon supposes grimly. He waved him over and pointed ahead at the other end of the large open space, to a small opening in the wall. “I’ve done what I needed. There’s somewhere else I need to go to prepare myself.”

As they approach the smaller gate, it grows more ornate. Through it, you can see green expanses and olive trees, just like he remembers. But as they came right up to the gate and were able to see more of Gethsemane on the other side, Iscariot froze, rooted to the spot.

“No…” he breathed out, pale and trembling.

Simon truly hadn’t considered this particular part of it, and was annoyed. “What?” he snapped. “Stop that. You’re the one who burst into my dream without asking.” He couldn’t just leave him outside, could he? That would be irresponsible.

“No, no, no!” gasped Iscariot, clearly panicking. “I can’t go in there, I can’t, I can’t…”

“Yes, you can!” said Simon harshly, grabbing his arm and dragging him forward through the opening and a few more metres, but then let go. Iscariot immediately backed up towards the nearest tree, collapsing and not looking up.

“No, no, no…” he was sobbing.

“Be quiet!” said Simon, exasperated. He knelt on the ground, clasping his hands together. “I wasn't there with him here, back then, but if I had been I fear I would have failed like those three, falling asleep and leaving him to the vigil alone. But now I will pray until I wake up.”

He started to pray, and managed for a while, but was finally too bothered by the sobbing. “All right, all right, go away,” he said in an annoyed tone.

It was silent. Simon the Zealot sighed heavily and closed his eyes, still praying.

*

This time there was nothing in-between, no return to any parts of the otherlands, the Sheols, the Gehennas, the mysterious paths between realms… No, this time he went straight from Simon’s dream to another one, set at the top of a mountain. He noticed that the weather was sunny but not terribly hot, that a creek was glittering with water below, and that a lake spread out further away. But for a while he just sat crouched tightly, still sobbing.

Eventually, right as he wiped his face and straightened up some where he was sitting, he heard footsteps from the hillside on the other side, behind him.

He turned his head to see a wanderer wearing a hood. Pushing back the hood halfway, he observed Judas impassively.

“Thaddeus!” Judas burst out.

Judas Thaddeus turned half away and walked past him and down the slope unhurriedly, not saying a word. Judas Iscariot got up on his feet and followed him.

“Andrew said to send you his regards,” he said uncertainly, his voice coming out rather thin.

Judas Thaddeus stopped and turned around. He gave Judas Iscariot another look, now with raised eyebrows, but still said nothing.

“I met him in a dream, like this one… I didn’t ask to go there, or here, it’s just something that seems to happen with all of you…”

“…On our final night?” said Judas Thaddeus, finally replying. His voice was deeper than Judas Iscariot remembered.

“Yes. Apparently. And he wanted me to give his regards to everyone. If this thing keeps happening.” A moment, then he went on, voice faltering, “I guess it will, you’re the seventh…” Silence. “This is so strange…” he mumbled.

“Mm-hm.” Thaddeus fixed him clearly, eyes cold. Another long pause. Judas looked away. “So is there anything else you have to say to me, Judas Iscariot?”

“I don’t know, I…” He fell silent, frowning in thought. Then he suddenly looked up. Yes. He could tell him this. “It matters what other people think of you when you’re dead. The living ones.”

“Oh?” said Thaddeus neutrally.

“It matters in a different way.” By now he had learned this applied to more people than just him, too. “But it doesn’t have to be all that matters.” He felt like adding that you can still hold onto what’s really you, over there. But he stopped himself. Could he truly claim that was what he'd been doing?

“It would be strange if it were,” said Thaddeues simply. He turned around and walked on down the hillside.

Judas hurried up to not fall too far behind. “It might even matter what people think about you in the future.”

“The future?” said Thaddeus, casting a brief look behind him. “In the future the Kingdom of God will come,” he stated with certainty. He had reached the glittering creek now, and walked upriver a few steps to find a good way to cross it without wetting his feet. “Then everyone will be viewed as they should be viewed.”

He found a good line of rocks in the creek to step on and started to cross over. “It is as Paul said,” he continued, “‘now we can only see imperfectly, as through a glass, but then we will see face to face’. We will see clearly the way it all should be seen.”

“Who’s Paul?” said Iscariot, following Thaddeus across the creek.

Thaddeus reached the other side. “After your time. He was the best preacher among us.” He sighed. “But he was killed in Rome last year, anyway, same as Peter.” He straightened up and looked ahead, grasping his wanderer’s staff tightly. Softly, he added, “It really can’t be long now.”

Judas Iscariot stopped on the last rock of the creek, not jumping all the way over. He looked down, and then on the rocks behind him, recalling suddenly what Bartholomew said about soot, the traces he’d left in that dream. But there was none to be seen, here. He felt like he should say something, but he couldn’t think of a single thing that would sound right.

Finally, he managed, “You know, I went straight from Simon’s dream to this one. That’s not how it usually works.”

Judas Thaddeus gave him another brief look. “It’s still the same night. We don’t share the same cell, but we’re held at the same place, in Egypt. And we will go on trial together tomorrow, and likely be executed.”

“…Oh.”

He turned away again, gaze at the distant lake, and the small houses dotted beside it. “If what you were saying is true, about seeing the others on their last nights too, that seals it, doesn’t it?” He exhaled deeply. “‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ Paul had such a way with words…” he said wistfully. Then, soberly, “Well. It is time to wake up now. I will see Simon again.”