The road more traveled, part r.


At the next stop for water, a postal buggy rolled past at a trot, and once out of the woodlot's shade, I began looking ahead closely for one of the mentioned turnoffs. I could feel a pair of such roads but a short distance ahead, and with the passing minutes, I noted more and more the warmth, the humidity, and the aspect of industry. That had increased steadily with our travel south, and the sounds of labor came from every farmstead that we passed.

These latter had their crops 'planted', and while I commonly saw at least one person driving a team ahead of a plow or hitched to a wagon of some kind, I could hear the hissing of saws, the rap of mallets, occasionally the clatter of forging, and often, the sounds of close work involving files and scrapers. More than once I saw the clouds of a charcoal-burner's building, and to the west and south I saw what might have been a hazy plume of smoke.

“Is that the market town?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Gabriel. “I'll point out the turnoff when we come to it.”

“If the kingdom house's turnoff is sooner, though...” I asked.

“They are close enough together to see one from the other,” said Gabriel, “and each juncture has a few buildings.”

“What kind?”

“One is a larger-than-common Public House, if one goes by the fourth kingdom's standards,” said Gabriel, “and another is a postal hostel. I think there's a south-style Mercantile as well.”

The road went into another of the wide woodlots, and here, I saw close-neighbored inlets on each side. Each of these places had its own watering trough, and the number of freighters, tinkers, and drovers at each location was astounding. The central area of three of these places had numbers of staked out black bulls tethered front and rear, and the traffic – cross-road for the most part, but some was moving along the road itself – was enough to make for wondering. I could tell a fair percentage of these 'parked' groups were doing business among themselves, and as for the rest...

“Who are all of these people?” I asked.

“I would guess many of them to be vendors of one stripe or another,” said Gabriel. “That freighter over there has a damaged wagon, and he's most likely getting it repaired.”

“The one missing his rear wheel?” I asked.

“His axle's gone,” said Lukas. “I'd bet he's stuck for a while, as it's missing its sleeve.”

“Hence he needs another, uh, sleeve?” I asked.

“I suspect he needs not merely a pair of new sleeves, but also an entire axle,” said Lukas. “I saw a fair amount of charcoal.”

“Does this place have special importance?” I asked.

“It, and the one like it to the south of the turnoffs,” said Gabriel, “deal with the traffic to and from both kingdom house and that market.”

“As in those turnoffs are at the end of this woodlot?” I asked.

“I'm not certain you'd call it an 'end', said Lukas. “The trees thin out a good deal, but there still are a fair number of trees between 'em.”

Several minutes later, I noted the 'end' of the inlets. Here, there were sizable 'fields' of packed-flat clay and gravel mixed, and their rutted surfaces spoke of much traffic. I was intrigued by these 'parking lots' to such a degree that I was surprised indeed when a 'common-sized' Public House showed.

The place was surrounded by horses, and the noise and smoke coming from it spoke of a very busy facility. I noted the sign coming out of the yard, and goggled my eyes.

“Decent food, fair prices, and that when and as you want it,” said the carved letters of the sign.

“W-what does that mean?” I asked.

“I doubt that place closes,” said Gabriel. “If they do, it would be very late.”

Part-hidden on the south side of this Public House was a long low building with a sign indicating wagons and buggies could be repaired. The sounds of labor within were a marvel, especially as I discerned what might have been primitive power tools in use.

“Now that place has gotten better,” said Lukas. “The last time I was down here, they had no equipment beyond the common.”

“The common?” I asked.

“What such places commonly have,” said Lukas. “That sounds like they have a drilling machine and a lathe in there.”

“Drilling machine?” I asked.

“Aye, just like where you work, at least for what it does,” said Lukas. “I heard talk of a lathe. Now, will this lathe turn metal, or wood?”

“Metal?” I gasped. We were coming up to another building, and I could feel a turnoff in the immediate area. The trees were quite thin now.

“Talk has it you've a small one where you live,” he said. “Wood-lathes are common things in the fourth kingdom.”

“Uh, metal lathes?” I said.

“If it's any size and it does close work, then you'll have a three-x machine,” said Lukas. “Those small ones aren't that rare around here.”

“And larger ones that..?”

“Outside of the Heinrich works, and perhaps...”

We had come to an obvious postal hostel on the right side of the road, and at the south edge of the building, I noted a rough-looking and rutted road nearly forty feet wide that twisted between the thick and tall trunks of a thinned-out forest. The heather was thick, green, moist-looking, and 'inviting', and chiseled out of the trunk of one of the first of the trees were letters spelling out the word 'Market'.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “Now where is the other one?”

“I'd watch close for it,” said Lukas. “It should show any minute, as these two are close together.”

I looked to the left to find another huge 'yard' that bordered on one of the largest buildings I had yet seen on the trip, and as we drew even with its front, I noted the sign. This one read 'General Mercantile', and as we came even with the south edge of the building, I expected to find another road.

It was not there, even if another large and crowded 'parking lot' was.

A short 'row' of shops showed on the right side, then another such row on the left. I continued looking toward the east, and after passing all of the shops, I began wondering as to how I missed the turn-off. I was debating as to whether to turn back and look further when a small and nondescript building showed next to a small yard.

“Is this it?” I thought, as we came even with the building. It was the shop of a 'hair-cutter'.

I slowed, then came to a near stop as we passed the building. There was another road present, with a carved stone monolith standing straight in the midst of the ruts. I thought to look closer at this 'stele', and when I came close enough to read the carvings, I noted their wear and seeming age.

“Th-this is Hebrew,” I spluttered.

“I might have wrongly remembered a great deal about this turnoff,” said Gabriel, “but that is the one part I remember rightly. This is the road to the kingdom house.”

The narrow nature of the road proper was such that it bowed out while passing the 'stele', then contracted to a foot or so wider than most of the 'common' roads in the first kingdom – or about wide enough to pass a buggy going each way presuming common-sized well-trained horses, common-sized buggies, and skilled drivers who were inclined to share the road.

“And a freight wagon would take up most of it,” I thought. “At least there isn't much dust.”

The glossy yellow-brown nature of the road itself made me think of varnish applied carefully, and minutes after leaving the stele behind, I looked up to see we were indeed climbing gently uphill. Some five miles away, I saw a wide and rounded knoll covered with a thick growth of trees.

“What is this stuff?” I asked, as I pointed to the 'varnish'.

“A difficult-to-use road-treatment,” said Gabriel. “It's only used here, as far as I know.”

I was glad for the reduction in dust just the same. The mound that showed to the left and ahead seemed inclined to retain its secrets; it had many of them, and more, was the heart of strangeness for the entire fourth kingdom. I suspected things would rapidly 'get weird' once we arrived there.

The trees kept their distance from the road proper, even though they became impenetrably thick otherwise where there were woodlots. The heather was a deeper shade of green here than it had been previously, and when we passed at a distance what resembled a sizable pond – it had been hidden between two woodlots – I saw a possible source of the darker green.

“Those are, uh, sheep,” I muttered, upon seeing a large flock and two herder's wagons.

“That ain't all they run in these parts,” said Lukas. “I've seen goats, too.”

The woodlots were alive with birds. While most of these birds seemed to be quolls – I could hear them calling almost continuously – there were some birds whose calls I had no previous knowledge of, and I wanted an hour while looking at the bestiary while asking questions of one or more of the local inhabitants.

The intermittent rustling noises that came from each copse and woodlot seemed to emphasize the abiding strangeness of the place, and yet, for some inexplicable reason, I felt safer than anywhere outside of home itself.

“No, in some ways, this place is safer,” I thought. “Home feels safer because of familiar surroundings.”

As we came closer to the mound, the width of the 'lawn' steadily decreased. Unusually large trees made for a road that wove itself around them in the manner of a lethargic snake, and as the trees closed in, small clearings began to show periodically. Most of them showed sizable moss-ridden low stone-walled ponds with reddish-brown pumps next to them, and the fresh varnish of the long pump-handles spoke of regular maintenance.

“That, and people like to set up camp regularly in those places,” I thought.

The mound drew steadily closer. I saw first one side-road, then another. Both the road we were traveling on and those side-roads showed ample signs of traffic, and I listened carefully for its presence. We seemed to be all that the road bore at the present time.

The close-clinging trees hid the actual base of the mound from us until the road turned to the right and began climbing. While the road was still narrow, it began widening out perceptibly within less than a minute. The feel underfoot of the road-surface had changed perceptibly, so much so that as the road began to curve left, I was astonished to see not merely well-laid cobbles, but also small shops roofed with brilliant green book-shaped tiles.

These last were on both sides, with pilings supporting the shops to our right and those shops to our left dug into the side of the hill. Nearly all of the shops had small yards, watering troughs, pumps, and the horses and buggies of 'customers'. I began reading the ancient-looking carved pole-signs as we steadily climbed.

“Is this road the sole means of travel,” I asked myself, “or are there other means?”

While there was no immediate answer, one began to show itself within a few minutes, for between two shops on the left I saw steps carved into the rock of the hillside. A varnished wooden railing ran uphill to their left, while to their right stood a long row of ancient stone pylons supporting tall and rusted iron wheels – and on the ground, looking as if it had fallen from the spindly wheels, lay a wide and flat braided iron cable slowly crumbling into rust.

“That...”

The ruins I had seen previously suddenly became more 'important', for close at hand was evidence of a long-past civilization a good deal more advanced than the current one. Portions of dreams added together with the talk of tapestries suddenly made far more sense.

With our passing of the rusting cable, Gabriel said, “there is no cable currently made in that fashion, as far as I know. While the fifth kingdom does make rope of wire, it is not like that.”

“What is its use?” I asked.

“They dangle it down mineshafts,” said Gabriel, “and it is used for hoisting.” A brief pause, then in a different tone of voice, one with hints of loathing, “it is not very good rope.”

“Why?” I asked. I could think of one obvious reason – poor quality control – but I kept the matter to myself.

“That rope is known for letting down its users,” said Gabriel, “and it is fond of doing so when they can ill afford it.”

“Does it s-snap under load?” I squeaked.

“That is not at all rare,” said Gabriel. “More, it does not tie at all well, it does not splice, and it quickly weakens in use regardless of what is done to preserve it.” A brief pause, then, “it is used because nothing better is available, not because it is thought good, and there are no workable alternatives, which is common with much that is done in the fifth kingdom.”

“And the fourth kingdom...”

“The fifth kingdom commonly supplies raw materials or products to other regions,” said Gabriel. “There, they are refined or reworked, much as you did with that fifth kingdom machinery where you work, and for similar reasons.”

I kept silent, even as Gabriel drank from a mug. He had more to say.

“I suspect it has to do with the fifth kingdom's ways,” he said. “While overt witch-holes are not present, those who live there often act as though they were bones-carrying witches.”

“Aye, and they read those black books more than anything there,” said Lukas.

“There is little else of a book nature in the fifth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “If people read there, they read those books.”

“And here?” I asked.

“Witches don't care much for the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel, “and if they do anything at all, they are most circumspect as to when, what, and where.”

The burning question in my mind was now 'why' that was the case, and I gave voice to it a minute later.

“Witches like things a certain way,” said Lukas, “and this place is strange enough for an old tale. It ain't evil, and it ain't ugly, and it isn't inclined toward either of those things.”

“Uh, ugly?” I asked. “What does that mean?” My question came from my past, and melded with my 'calm-sounding' request was a inner shriek best translated as “they labeled me as being ugly, and therefore hated me all the more.”

“You may look different from the common,” said Gabriel, “but here, that type of difference is far more commonplace compared to anywhere on the continent. That is not ugly, even though witches may speak as though it is.”

With each minute's upward climb, the shops felt progressively stranger, while their numbers made for a cheek-by-jowl existence. Their appearance and feeling – like out of a fairy tale – made for curious expectations, and chief among these thoughts was the ear-piercing sound of a steam-whistle-inflected 'cuckoo' noise, followed by the sight of a head-tall carved wooden bird emerging from a hidden doorway.

That sensation was a primer for what showed to the left, however.

A 'snug-looking' shop showed first a glistening silver-tinted signpost fronting on the road proper, with a near-illegible chain of letters cascading down from its 'head' to its stubby 'tail'. The signpost itself seemed nearly alive with frantic energy, and as I turned to look further, I was astonished to see a sizable round door inletted into a neat masonry wall under a wide sheet-copper-roofed stoop.

The whole reminded me greatly of that conversation I had had with the last jeweler I had seen, and I looked closer at the signpost so as to discern what it said.

As I watched, the frantic energy seemed to boil out of the ancient carved wood, and the scrambling letters formed the word 'Silberschmieden'. This word remained as it was but for a second, however; for as I watched transfixed, the portion 'Silber' changed abruptly to angular letters...

That spelled out the word 'Mithril', while the rest of the letters vanished...

And the age-silvered wood of the signpost changed into soft and gleaming fur. The animal it had become looked at me with bright black eyes after yawning widely, and its lithe shape, sharp teeth, inquisitive paws, and potent odor proclaimed it to be the playful creature of my recollection. The name of the ferret was the same as that of the sign, and the question bloomed like an explosion in my brain.

“Who uses round doors here?” I asked, as I came to myself to see a 'normal-looking' sign again.

“Mostly jewelers,” said Gabriel. “Close-balances are very sensitive to drafts, and that type of door, assuming it is fitted closely, stops them. Why?”

“I s-saw a r-round door,” I said.

“Those are commonly turned on a special species of lathe,” said Gabriel. “The spindle runs vertically...”

“That sounds like a Bullard lathe,” I spat.

“Bulls do not have lard,” said Lukas. “Bulls have tallow.”

“That's what they called those things where I came from,” I said. “The best-known maker is named Bullard, and people call them that even if the lathe is made by Kearney and Trecker.”

“Now how is it you heard of that place?” asked Lukas.

“Place?” I asked.

“Aye, that freighting firm,” said Lukas. “Trekker started it in the fourth kingdom, and he was fond of risking, so when his gambling caught up with him, Kirné had to sow his fields with money.”

“Sow his fields..?

“Debts,” said Gabriel. “Trekker needed a sizable loan to remain in business, and acquired a partner in the process – hence the name Kirné and Trekker.”

The first instance of seeing the tram-line had marked the first half-turn up the incline, and seeing the sign turn into a man-sized silver ferret was not quite a full turn later. We had passed the second instance of the tram-line, and the radius that described our path had shrunk markedly. I could feel a sizable clearing ahead on top of this once-bald knob, and its deceptive size...

“This thing must be two miles across, easy,” I thought.

“No, not quite, even if it feels that large,” said the soft voice. “The mound has steeper sides than you might think.”

The shops on each side of the road began thinning, and their places were taken by trees, until the shops ceased altogether and we were completely hemmed in – until the trees suddenly vanished to each side and we came to a huge grassy field with a huge stone 'building' in its rough center.

I could see a sizable flock of sheep that lay contemplatively in a state of rumination under a trio of tall and shady trees, and I suspected there were more such flocks in the area. The herders seemed absent, for some reason, even as we continued along the road toward the 'building'.

“And I can call it nothing better,” I thought, as I saw the nearest corner of the thing. One didn't see gray stone 'monoliths' every day – at least, I didn't.

Certain outlandish architectural affections graced this thing: each corner of the monstrous 'block' had a tall and twisted stone tower surmounted by a dark metal 'washtub', while the gate was central to the front 'facade'. This last put an 'edge' to the block, such that it faced us with grim foreboding.

The gate proper – it was closed, much as I had suspected – drew nearer. With each further second, I saw more details: the gate's heavy wooden planks covered with pale varnish that gleamed, the glossy black iron straps holding it together for the hinges to act upon, the facade's rows of tall narrow windows covered with pierced black iron shutters, and above them all hidden partly...

“So there are people here,” I thought, as the shadows I saw moved in time to the measured steps of watchers above us. “Those people must be guards of some kind.”

The path heading toward the gate now began sinking down below the surface of the field, and the green 'mounds' I now noticed to each side of the gate seemed intended for concealment. I had a sudden urge to remove my boots, and as I reached for them, Gabriel looked at me.

“What are you..?”

His question went unheeded. I removed first the right, then the left, then the stockings one by one. Both boots and stockings went into the possible bag. The wind, faint as the web of a spider, tickled my feet and toes. I now looked at Gabriel.

His visage now seemed somehow reptilian. How, I had no idea.

A vague and somewhat shadowy voice implored me to show the jewelry. I reached in my shirt, found the rough-textured mass of gold and gems, and brought it out, all the while hoping the issue wasn't one of ceremony.

The thing began gaining weight with stunning speed, and it tarried but for a few seconds at its 'accustomed' weight of forty pounds. It then left that paltry mass behind, and resumed its gaining of weight.

The heft of the thing prevented upright travel, and I slumped over with the huge burden. Somehow, my eyes lit upon the gold and gems, and through gray-teared vision I saw the pendant seem to spin slowly as its jewels and gold acquired an aura of scintillating radiance.

We came slowly to the gate itself, and there, we paused. The jeweled thing now weighed more than I did.

I looked at my feet, for some reason, and recalled what I had done. There was nothing there beyond that with which I had been born. Dimly, I recognized that not merely was this pendant the last of these strange 'things', but within the forbidding walls ahead lay the precise place where it had been seeded with power. I was to go there, and I knew but little else.

A faint green mist seemed to materialize at my side. I looked with burdened and ill face to my right to see someone dressed in bright green clothing – the green of new grass, of emeralds, of something other than envy – with a long recurve bow in one hand and an open hand in the other.

“I was wondering when it would show,” he said, “and you are to go across the way. The door is open, and it is good you are not wearing shoes. Go on in. You have been awaited for a very... Long... Time-time-time...”

The last word seemed to echo endlessly, and as it stretched on and on, I wondered as to why I was hearing the audible distortion. The weight at my neck wasn't taking no for an answer; it would have devoured a strange and short hairy-footed figment of the imagination.

It was doing a fairly good job of devouring me.

I assayed speech from my bent-over posture. Gabriel looked at me, and with ringing words he spoke:

“No, this is worse, and there is no superannuated creature to steal it for you and destroy whatever that thing is. Those things destroy the one who wears them if that person is unworthy.”

The iron-bound gate opened wide with a shuddering 'woody' groan, and we went in. The mass of the pendant gained exponentially. I felt ill – and then strangely worn, alert, and terrified.

The odd jeweled piece hanging from my neck was the socket upon which all of time and space devolved its fulcrum; the jewelry was the lower millstone, and above me lay the upper one. I was between a rock and a hard place to be ground into powder: for as to worthy, that was elsewhere, and I looked up from ages below to see the belly of a Desmond once I fell from Jaak's back with a thud onto the spiky-bladed grass.

It was now my 'choice' to crawl and drag myself toward this shining semi-hidden doorway some millions of miles distant, where that aperture lived apart from knowledge in a starstruck region without hope or cheer.

The grass upon which I crawled had a million hungry mouths lined with spike-like crystalline fangs, while my arms were rapidly vanishing blood-dripping stumps that formed mirror images in the heart of the earth to there accuse me of evil.

I asked that this thing about my neck be taken from me, and each such request doubled the mass and weight of this, the upper millstone. The lower one, I was now crawling upon; and now that surface was a forest of sentient crystal spikes that screamed longingly for blood.

A Desmond the size of a locomotive plowed through the darkening skies above leaving a thick purple contrail in its wake, and grinning skeleton mushroom clouds dotted the landscape from horizon to horizon.

Here there was the horned dragoon, all ten legs of it, and it accused me of being worthless. I did not answer, as all it did was confirm everything I knew regarding myself; I had heard that message so many times it had permeated me, and 'worthless' now defined who and what I was.

Another ten feet crossed over this no-man's-land, and safety was behind me in the grave and in hell.

The long-ravening destination now had flaming letters of neon red-orange written upon it:

This is the end, my only friend, the end, of all that stands, the end...”


“What a time to be seeing that cheering rubbish!” I murmured. “Go bother that witch and let her experience the end!”

The neon letters vanished instantly, the Desmond deflated with a muffled thud, and the horned dragoon – that thing was an evil spirit if ever I saw one – tied itself in a knot and imploded like a ruptured plastic bag.

Now there was but the long and undulating path of exhaustion unto this region of time and space over yonder. What that one jeweler said now was an ample replacement for all of these spectral haunts, as foot by foot I came closer to the mouth of a furnace roaring hungrily with serrated teeth of shaggy steel.

Within thirty feet of that doorway – it glowed with red-orange iridescent flames of a strange and feral nature – the door opened in a eerie fashion. No one was in the place, yet still a hangman's noose descended to block my way. I was closer now, yet closer; and I wondered if that rope made of twisted sand was real. It seemed all too possible.

I did not wonder as to the meaning; it was the whole of life, and ducking it was out of the question. I did not move out of the way, but continued crawling, and I felt the dry cold chill of a snake's scales upon the bare skin of my neck. I was far too weak to forbid it, and in the blink of an eye...

The chill viper's scales turned to wire rope, and the snare went tight.

I was barely able to breath, and beyond the threshold lay a strange and somber place, one where death reigned, and whose walls proclaimed doom to the vanquished. There was no need of Latin to spell out the phrase 'Vae Victis!'

Its very nature did that amply well.

I was too far gone to care. To my left some few feet stood a three-step wooden platform covered in densely woven dark red cloth, and on the uppermost of the three steps lay an ancient text, pages open to the light and air of this world within a world. I moved toward it, for there, the light was brightest in the now-otherwise damning darkness, and as I moved, I slipped and slid.

The floor was awash in blood.

I was coated with blood; soaked with it; blood lay all over, a sea of blood; blood raining down from the ceiling in heavy drops that struck the bloody ocean with a heavy sound, that made by cold iron and hot lead.

The far wall across from the valley of decision showed thirteen furnaces, each with its ever-hungry mouth agape. All of these burning mouths had numbered placards, and they themselves were hungry enough to scream. The chant they screamed in sepulchral tones:


Useless Feeders never Live

Save in the hungry arms of Sieve.”


But Sieve was not the trouble.

Sieve could go rot, whatever it was. What lay upon the 'altar' before me made what this place called Brimstone seem as nothing, and the same for that evil spirit having the name Sieve.

The hangman's noose about my neck trailed from the gallows above my head, and now it was time to mount those steps and drop for the rest of time. The knot was in place, my neck needed breaking, and the trap awaited my falling into the flaming pit of hell.

Yet as I touched the first step, all in the room seemed to diminish save that which lay upon the uppermost step. I came closer to it, pulling myself up by main force, the gone-rotten pieces of meat that were my arms forgotten, the sea of blood and disease I had just crawled through forgotten, and all that remained of that vapor once named life – I was dead, a rotting corpse in the gut of that lizard that thought itself a king in its corrupted delusions – that too was forgotten.

The text ahead was much more important.

I pulled my rotten and loathsome puddle of slime up the second level. I looked, and saw bones, rotting meat, a charnel house that made the worst witch-hole imaginable look to be paradise.

I was rotten, my brain itself rotten; and I did not care. I was dead, and I did not care. The very nature of this place would lay me upon Brimstone's dinner plate a ready-cooked meal, and I did not care.

That which lay over yonder was the entirety of existence – and he too – he did not care.

The tears started, for that was the whole of my life. Did he care? Did he not care? Why was I here, then, this sick putrescent blob of filth that made a Desmond look clean? I knew without a shred of doubt that I made one of those worms appear to be most-desirable, and a true bastion of whatever happened to be the appropriate word – as here, judgment reigned, and I was to be condemned to whatever the judge saw fit. He was everything, and I less than nothing at all, a blot upon his doorstep to be expunged peremptorily as having no business there, here, or anywhere.

I knelt upon the second level, and took this jeweled thing that I had no business wearing and placed it upon the open book. A wind came, a soft and gentle wind, and its presence brought to mind a faint recollection regarding the servants being winds and the messengers flames of fire. The wind fanned the flames, and the burning holocaust swept away all that was evil. Not even the ovens were immune; they perished in the heat.

Before my eyes spread out a tableau, and I forgot the judgment that was to be poured out upon my head. Tears sprang into my eyes upon seeing all that would happen, from the misunderstandings that would be initially prevalent to the reign of night that ushered the whole place into the abyss, there to remain until it was to see the sun again. This land would endure hell, the hell I knew as life: first, the children would be beaten and tormented, then those over them becoming laughing sadistic masters burning their slaves, and finally the whole forged like iron in the pit upon the anvil of the damned.

I sensed a presence nearby, and felt hands around my neck. I wondered if I would first be strangled and then cursed for all of time.

“If you wish, destroy me. I deserve nothing less than the worst there is.”

I was answered with obscure-sounded muttering. Fatigue and fear overrode my desire to see who was speaking – and then, the muttering became much clearer.

“This type of snare is not particularly easy to remove, and needs to be untied,” he said, as if knotted up in concentration. It was not easy to do his work; his voice betrayed his labor.

“Hold still... There,” he said. “Now it is off.”

I felt ashamed, and through my tears I whispered, “how was I to avoid it, then?”

“Look at me, and then tell me.”

I did and nearly screamed. It was him again, only this time... I had no words for him at all.

“That snare is put in the path of every person that comes into this place,” he said gently, “and avoiding it is not possible, save by not coming in here. You came in here on account of how you were made.”

The question unspoken blossomed in my mind. Was I not made wrongly? Everyone where I came from had implied that to be the case, so much so that their speech that described who I was could be translated as 'that thing that should not be'.

“You were made for a purpose, and by intent, and this place was not tainted with your past. The whole of the evil you saw was opposition – and that, too, is put in the path of every person who comes into this place.”

As he spoke this second portion, he slowly faded from my sight, and while I could clearly see a definite outline and smoke-like features, his voice remained unchanged.

“That pendant is a part of you now, and once given, it is your portion forever. Wear it always. It will remind you of who you are, who you work for, what you are doing, and most importantly, why. Now, take up that pendant and look on its back.”

With trembling fingers and terror-stricken mind I picked up the jeweled thing and turned it over. Upon its back were four rows of neatly incised characters that burned like minute arc-welding flames.

“The first three lines are your name, while the fourth is the given name of the pendant itself. Because it is the last, and was to finish all of the tasks, its name is 'Glory'.”

“Th-the names?” I asked.

“Those lines were put there when it was made, it was made ready at its dedication, and now, it is a part of you and will never leave.” A brief pause. “This is a very difficult job, with grave hazard...”

I wondered if that was a pun.

“...and you need and will need a vast amount of assistance. Recall what you were told months ago when you thought yourself to be drowning? About being needed in another time and another world? This is that time and place, you are needed here, and that pendant is but the beginning of that assistance spoken of. There will be a great deal more.” Another brief pause, then, “they who stand outside wonder what has happened to you.”

In complete bewilderment I looked around the small room where I was kneeling on the three-step platform. The ovens, gone. My arms were normal. The room itself was merely small, somewhat dark – a candle-lantern on a wooden stand in one far-off corner was the only light source beyond that of the door itself – and of plain decor. I guessed it to be a chapel of some kind.

I picked up what seemed 'left' of me, then stood. Turning toward the doorway showed normal-looking grass and light. I walked toward that doorway, and went outside.

There was no sound as a stout dark sack came down over my head, and swift yet clumsy hands tied the mouth in place around my neck. I was glad I was not being garroted, for some reason, even though 'surprise' wasn't close to how I felt to be greeted in that fashion. I gasped with shock, then spluttered:

“First, I endure a nightmare worse than anything low blood sugar can offer, then I see someone terrifying to look upon, and now I am bagged. What next, the riding of the horned dragoon?”

“Your face is as you were when you were vaporizing stone,” muttered Gabriel darkly, “and I would not jest of that horned dragoon.”

“Uh, that...”

“It was coming for all of us, and it had ten legs, just like in the tale that speaks of it.”

“What?” I gasped. “That was a spirit.”

“I have yet to see spirits leave tracks,” said Hendrik dryly. “That thing did.” A brief pause, frantic swallowing, then “we have a meeting to see to. It will need to be a short one.”

“Sh-short?” I asked.

“If I did not know better, I would say you were ready to have a fit,” said Hendrik.

Each of my hands received another, and I was led slowly, step-by-step across soft cushion-like grass. Within seconds, I heard someone trip and fall sprawling with an oath and a muffled clattering sound.

“Watch those tracks, Kees,” said Lukas. “I'm glad that thing left when it did.”

“Tracks?” I asked.

“The tracks that creature left are big enough to fit your washtub in them,” said Gabriel, “and they are the depth of my outstretched fingers.”

“And big claws,” muttered Gilbertus.

“I do not recall what that creature was supposed to represent,” said Gabriel, “but I am more than willing to spend time asking questions of those here to find out.”

The rustle of grass underfoot joined with faintly 'scented' air, and I wondered if there was a flower garden nearby. With each faltering step I made, I faintly heard the rumble and roar of thunder. I knew something was coming, even though it was present already in a muted fashion; it was biding its time before it fully manifested. I could feel long and hard steps ahead, and the softly muted click of hobnailed boots upon stone warned me of them.

“The house proper is just ahead,” said Gabriel. “There are a number of steps, then the door itself inside.”

“And more steps inside that place,” I muttered. “What kind, how many, and where?”

“I disrecall,” said Gabriel. “I'm finding my recollection of the fourth kingdom to be surprisingly faulty.”

“Mine isn't,” said Hendrik, as I heard a squeak followed by the swish and soft groan of opening doors. “I'm familiar with this house.”

We went from heat and light into cool dark stone-walled comfort. Here, I heard soft murmured voices, the gliding shuffle of soft shoes, occasional clicks and rattles, and what might have been the drinking of a glass's contents.

I felt as if blind, but was not, even as we turned to the right. Down a hall to my left I heard the heart-rending scream of a woman, followed by a muffled thud and crashing sounds.

“What..?” I said, amid a steady and growing undercurrent of weeping and moaning that came from all points of the compass. “Now what did I do?”

While my voice was heavily laden with embarrassment, Gabriel's voice was oblivious in its surety:

“You did what you were supposed to do, and I suspect who you saw in this place is causing all this to happen.”

“That rope around my neck was awful,” I whispered. “I felt as if s-smothering.”

A short staircase shuffled painfully underfoot, then another long corridor slowly passed. All about, I heard cries, shrieks, screams, and moans, all of them kindling nightmares of the worst kind – almost as if some soulful wretch was moaning about the wondrous life of the Bin.

Hendrik looked at me. How I knew this with eyes hidden behind the bag was a mystery, at least until he spoke.

“That pendant has become part of you, and our cause is helped greatly.”

“Why?” asked Gabriel. Again, he sounded oblivious.

“It is no longer merely our battle,” said Hendrik. “The whole of the planet is bound by what is now happening.”

While I wished to yell, for some reason, I could not, and the most I could say was but a whisper. The words tumbled softly from my mouth.

“It is time.”

A faint rumble overhead segued to thunder, and amid faint drifting motes of sand floating down slow with rasping whispers upon the sack covering my head, I felt sparkling fire. I asked a question.

“What is that overhead?”

“Why, I see clouds of brilliant flame,” said Hendrik. “I want to jump.”

“If you can see it, then it is time for you,” I murmured. “Jump.”

To my right, I felt someone leave the ground as if a missile heading for orbit, while the person on my left gently pulled on my arm. It was obvious to me that I was being pulled out of the 'impact zone', and I went willingly. It seemed a wise precaution.

“He is likely to be some time,” said Gabriel. “Having the likes of him explaining will carry much weight.”

“They will listen to him?” I asked softly, amid faint rumbling noises coming from all points of the compass.

“That also,” said Gabriel. “Those we need not worry ourselves over will not ask such questions of you, as mere evidence supplies ample conviction for those willing to obey.”

“And others?” I asked.

“Those that have an overly high self-opinion, that is anyone's guess,” said Gabriel. “Such people commonly respect position more than truth – especially truth of that kind.”

I was about to reply when I could feel something or someone coming, and I leaped out of the way to the sound of a massively heavy thudding noise. I 'looked around' in fright, for the sound made for thinking the ceiling itself had fallen bodily.

“That place is strange,” murmured Hendrik, “and I saw so much, and so many people, that my head seems to be spinning like a spinner. At least my head is where it belongs now.”

“It is?” I asked, with incredulity mingled with laughter. This last came from a tart rejoinder left unsaid: “if that is the case, then where was it before?”

“Those people up there tend to be silly,” said Hendrik, “and for good reasons, one of which is that those who populate hell and those like them tend toward unwarranted seriousness.”

There were more long well-lit halls and another short flight of stairs before halting in an 'oak-paneled' hall somewhere deep in the 'bowels' of the building. Here, we waited on stools for a short time, until we were ushered into a long and somewhat narrow 'hall' – and then, into what 'felt' like an office.

The aura of this new location was one of ancient age, with the furnishings made of oak. I then saw the 'table'.

“That's...”

The table, as was all else in this room, 'felt' as if made of oak. I listened carefully, and 'heard' the presence of at least five people. I was 'interrupted' in my 'sweep' by first one muffled thud, then another, then several more – and then, I knew that not merely my sensing of the number of people in the room was far off, but also, they were fainting 'in droves'.

“Please, wake up,” I pleaded.

The floor beneath my feet shook as if in the grip of a violent earthquake, while the previously dim room flashed to an electric-arc brilliance amid long and loud rumblings. I felt the shivering stalactite crumble of glass going to powder, then the crushed glass vanished in the grip of a brief gust of violent wind.

“I'm glad I'm wearing this bag,” I thought.

“This was spoken of long ago,” said Hendrik. “The time of retribution is at hand.”

“It is?” I thought. The pronouncement was news to me.

“We three have been touched, and the ancient enemy, both from the north and roundabout, is now roused,” said Hendrik. His voice had more than a touch of raving to my ears. “We must prepare to meet those who seek our lives, and the fate of this planet hangs in the balance. We have seen them massing...”

The last word seemed to hang in the air for a moment of time, even as Hendrik continued speaking. Vaguely I recalled lines I had once heard eons prior.

“And they are coming soon. Will you help?”

“Aye, all of them,” said an elderly voice, one that lilted as if lifted from ancient Ireland. “Not just that witch from the north, but all of them, for all witches support the curse, and are supported by its issuance.” A brief pause, then, “yes, I will help.”

Another brief pause, during which the dropping of a pencil seemed to pound loudly upon my ears and rattlingly echo for an epoch.

“That room is an old chapel, one that has been here since this place was built,” said the old voice, “and through the generations since, kings here have been chosen by what happens to them when they go inside to pray. If they live, they are suitable.”

“And if they don't live..?” I thought. There was no answer.

My thinking did not interrupt the speaker, for he continued unabated:

“That rope that hangs down from the doorway is one of the symbols of retribution...”

“Gack!” I thought. “Blade, rope, and bludgeon!” I wanted to scream.

“Then, within lie the thirteen hungry gorges that billow flames,” said the elderly voice. “Now, questions. That is the last of those pendants, and all who have worn them beforehand have failed, and failed utterly, so that all that was to be done now depends upon the wearer of the last.”

My knees trembled, and I nearly screamed in rank terror, for no spiritual thing I knew of came close to equaling that which he spoke for fear. My mouth then opened without words, and shut itself momentarily with a soft click.

“What showed upon the grounds?” asked the elderly voice. I began to recall all that had happened, and shook soundlessly with terror. Naught of it was due to my recollection.

“Firstly, the grass itself was hungry, for it had many teeth-lined mouths,” said Gabriel, “and then secondly, those teeth went to clear stone like glass, much as witches prefer for the very worst knives. The tapestries say that the black knives are a poor second to those for harvesting the food and drink of witches.” A brief pause, then, “thirdly, a huge Desmond showed in the air, and behind it grew a thick trail of purple smoke.”

Gabriel seemed to make a gulping noise, then caught his breath.

“Fourthly, vast numbers of grinning witch-tables made of clouds showed,” said Gabriel, “and fifthly, the horned dragoon. Finally, the message that defines evil showed, and it said, 'this is the end, my only friend, the end of all that stands, the end'. Those were the five signs and the one message spoken of that will precede the time of retribution.”

“I see,” said the old voice. “What of the horned dragoon itself?”

“It showed itself to be hungry,” said Gabriel, “and it desired us. Its tracks were easily the size of a washtub, and their depth that of a brass-hand.”

A shocked and apoplectic intake of breath, a muttered oath, and then the old voice spluttered, “no, I did not see. Never has that creature shown in physical form before, even if it has been described multiple times. Showing forth physically supplies important confirmation.”

I was about to ask a question when he resumed.

“That last writing has been hidden here for hundreds of years, and it speaks of the time of retribution being ushered in by all five signs showing tangibly. The horned dragoon has shown as a picture upon the wall but three times before.” The old voice paused, then asked, “what happened inside the chapel?”

“That was worse,” murmured Gabriel. I could almost feel rivulets of sweat coming off of his brow. “Firstly, the rope showed. It was initially made of glinting sand, then it turned into a type I have but read of, for it became twisted wire, and it possessed a choker.” A pause, then the sound of a quotation being read: “a snare made of wire rope is the sign of the arch-witch. Should such a rope be cunningly fitted with a choker, it means the witch is one to be reckoned with, for all such ropes are especially cursed and are made with the goal of destruction.”

The pause was longer this time.

“Secondly, the doorway was wreathed in thick fiery red flames, and the stench of its burning was the very stench of hell. Beyond and around it, I saw blackness. Thirdly, the inside of the room was covered with blood. No spot lay untouched within the entire realm.”

Again, a pause. There was much to say, and the impression I had was that omission of even a few subtle details ruined the entire pronouncement, much as if it were a dire curse.

“Fourthly, I saw thirteen ovens, all of them labeled, each of them with names, all of them with open mouths that billowed flame. Fifthly, there was a chant, and the ovens spoke it. It was as this...”

Here, Gabriel seemed to wilt, then with an effort to contort his voice, he tried to spit out the words. He wasn't having much luck, even as I heard the words again in clear and brutal tones.

“Useless Feeders shall never live, Save in the hungry arms of Sieve,” said Gabriel. He gulped, drank long from a cup, then coughed. He warranted a pause, for it was a mouthful to say as much.

“Sixthly, the winds came, and finally, the glory of God rested upon the inside. All seven signs written of showed in tangible form.”

“Exactly so,” said the old voice. “That means that this indeed is the time of retribution.” A brief pause, then, “the last person who wore one of those pendants returned alive from the chapel, and he did not wear a veil.”

“This is a veil?” I thought.

“I can see brilliant light coming from that sack's seams,” he said, “and that is spoken of in that document as being a good sign.”

“How so?” asked Hendrik.

“It means it is most probable that all of the work given to the seven pendants shall be accomplished, provided the one with the last pendant does not fail.”

That pronouncement made for a burning question gripping my mind, and I tried to speak normally. All that came out was a whisper, however. “I have had but little chance to study much of the literature you mention, and I do not wish to fail. Tell me, if it is possible, about how failure might happen.”

“Were it possible, I would tell you,” said the old voice, “for no details were given beyond those seen and heard. The records themselves state but little beyond those signs signs showing in tangible form meaning it will indeed be time.”

“Is their meaning known?” asked Hendrik. I could tell he felt like he'd bitten off far more than he was up to gnawing.

“Their precise meanings are much a mystery,” said the old voice. “Some have thought the horned dragoon to represent Brimstone, but since it showed physically, that is likely to be otherwise. As for the other signs, they are spoken of on various tapestries.” Here, he paused, then said, “and in the Grim Collection also.”

Why do I have the impression that man isn't overly enthused about those old tales?” I thought, as I heard swallowing. I did not wonder as to the 'why' of a dry-in-the-mouth sensation.

“Taken as a whole,” he said, “it means there will be great opposition of sundry types from many sources. I would guess that the chief possibility of failure would be by that opposition overcoming you. I hope, for all our sakes, that you have a great deal of help, as the fate of this entire planet depends on you not failing...”

I blacked out upon hearing this pronouncement, and as I lay inert upon the cold stone of the floor, I seemed to hear with ringing overtones from far away the continuing talk of the others.

“That is a very good sign,” said the old voice.

“How?” shrieked Gabriel. He sounded as if beyond hysteria, and into an unknown region. “I have seen him faint before, but how shall he endure such an onslaught being as he is?”

Mingled with this pronouncement, however, I seemed to hear faint upon the wings of recollection a phrase that I had trouble understanding: “he must be... masterful... strong... entirely...”

The old voice had an answer, however, and phrased it as a question: “did he falter going in? That is important.”

“Not in the slightest,” said Hendrik, “though when I saw all of those things, I thought he had escaped from a rest-house.”

“How so?” asked the older voice.

“I know of no one who could cope with their body going rotten as if a witch, then ignoring those flames and all else, but if anyone could, it would be him.” A brief pause, then, “anyone who did some of those things isn't likely to be deterred much by what I saw.”

“That gives great hope, then,” said the older voice. I could tell Gabriel did not believe him in the slightest. “He isn't likely to fail that way.” A brief pause, then, “what of those around him, then? If they are weak, then they worry me, as they could easily become deadly snares.”

“There are several,” said Gabriel, “some of whom are especially trustworthy...”

“Who?” I thought. I could not think of anyone that fit that description, myself included.

“And of those people, one is a woman who greatly desires his hand. She is very strange, however.”

“In what way?” asked the old voice. I could hear a trace of reproach in his voice, and the cause wasn't merely the vague language Gabriel had used.

“She has stood up to swine,” said Gabriel, “and burned a number of them. Few indeed have come close to her that way. Then, she has more witches after her than any three preachers, and finally, she is short, thin, and dark-haired.”

I was not prepared for the reaction of the older voice: its owner gasped, coughed, then squeaked, “did this woman you speak of go to the west school?”

“She did, and for the entire time,” said Hendrik.

Muttering overwhelmed the older voice for what seemed an entire minute, then, “if this is who I am thinking of, I have seen her many times, and there are records in the Annals of the west school regarding what she did.”

“Records?” I thought. “Annals?”

“She was underestimated due to her short stature,” said the older voice, “but the lecturers soon learned of her capacity. Those people, myself included, still wonder who exactly she was.”

“Why is that?” asked Gabriel. He seemed to have become even more oblivious, for some reason.

“Why, she dealt with everything well there, even the rats,” said the older voice. “It is not commonly known, but the west school baits the animals and insects so as to test the mettle of those that go there. I can speak from experience as both a student and a lecturer...”

Here, the voice paused. I heard swallowing.

“The vermin are troublesome,” he said. “What is but little known is while the lecturers commonly endure the vermin passably, that cannot be said for the rats. Those frighten everyone.”

Another brief pause, then, “everyone except her, that is. She put powder and lead into them, as well as arsenic and arrows, and did so to such a degree that only recently have the rats become common again.”

My senses abruptly returned to me, and I put my hands out to touch smooth stone. I then came to a kneeling position, then stood. The air seemed faintly fragrant with roses.

“I-is she named Sarah?” I asked.

The abrupt change in demeanor across the table was astonishing, and the reply more so.

“I am nearly certain she is,” said the older voice, “and if she is inclined, no one save an over-fool would deny her, assuming this is the same woman. She tends to have unusually short hair, her hands are unusually skilled, and...” He paused briefly. “As long as there is no need for cooking or cleaning, she is a marvel.”

“I was told she was like that,” I said, “and she wanted to tickle me.”

“That must be her,” he said, “as she was known for being especially playful.” A brief pause, then, “there are many stories of her dealings with vermin – lighting spiders on fire, putting a pickled one on a plate in the main refectory, scattering them with chemicals – and then, her shooting!”

“Shooting?” I asked.

“With her, it did not matter as to what she used,” said the old voice. “I have yet to see anyone more capable with weapons.”

I could feel someone about to comment about 'weapons', but I could also feel – and hear – more screaming and moaning. The floor began to shake, at first gently, then with greater fierceness, and from all about, a sudden thundering roar shook both building and occupants. Dust sifted down upon my head, and the floor became uncommonly lively under my feet.

“Look up, and tell me what is on the ceiling,” I asked.

From the corners of the room, I heard first one person yell, then another, then a waterfall of shouting, all of it implying the ceiling was now ablaze with bluish-white fire.

“It is the fire of cleansing,” yelled someone from my left.

“Figures,” I thought. “The place has turned into a Bin. I hope no one suffers too much.”

I could feel 'launching' beginning to happen everywhere around me, and I hoped fervently Gilbertus and Lukas were so 'inclined'. But feet away, I felt and heard a muffled thud, then another, even as the rumbling roars of 'arrival' continued to spread. I then looked and 'saw' someone faintly limned with a bluish glowing sitting but a few feet away, and while he still had some distinct elderly aspects, it was obvious he had been gone through much as Rachel had been.

“He looks perhaps middle aged, if that,” I thought. “Before, he could have passed for Father Time.”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “He wasn't quite that old.”

“No, I wasn't,” he said. “This place may look to be idyllic, but it is fully as embattled as anywhere on the continent, and it makes for gray hair and sleepless nights. No matter. I know who just spoke, and I know who you saw in that chapel, which makes for a good deal less worry on my part. I know all will be fulfilled, even as it is written.”

“I was told I would receive much help,” I said.

“That job is of such magnitude that 'much help' and 'enough help' are two very different matters,” he said. “I now know you will receive enough help to do that job.” He paused, then said, “until this evening.”

The last, I suspected, was a bidding goodbye, at least temporarily, and while the three of us retraced our clumsy-seeming steps, I noticed that I was able to discern where I was going to a modest degree. I still wanted someone holding my hand, however, and I found the sack over my head annoying beyond the bounds of language. Hendrik interrupted my thinking within seconds after we came outside.

“What are these strange colors I am seeing?” he asked. “I am seeing this strange reddish color on those things that are unusually warm, and on a few other things, I am seeing this stranger-yet purplish glow.”

“The first is infrared,” I said, “and the other portion is ultraviolet.” I paused, then said, “I would not be surprised if your night-vision is markedly improved.”

“What of your face?” asked Gabriel. “It is sufficient to induce blindness.”

“And start fires,” said Hendrik. “My sleeve nearly caught fire while I was helping put that bag over your head.” A brief pause, then, “we'll need to remain here until your face looks more or less normal, and perhaps a day or two longer so as to secure needed supplies.”

“Supplies?” I asked.

“Not merely for home,” said Hendrik. “We will want some for the fifth kingdom, also.”

“Th-that place?” I asked.

“I have a strong and unpleasant feeling about that house,” muttered Hendrik, “and I am glad it is the last of them.”

“The worst for last?” I asked. We had gone perhaps a hundred yards on the grass, and my 'search' spoke of our 'room' being ahead and to the right some further distance.

“Unfortunately, that is the case,” he said. “You will really need to watch yourself there, especially for pfuddaarn. Then, after that mess is dealt with, the Abbey will need to be cleared, and then a trip across the sea.”

“Arrangements?” I asked.

“That will take some time,” said Hendrik, “as will getting ready for clearing the Abbey. I would study the Grim Collection as much as I could between now and that time.”

“Do those tales speak of 'spooks'?” I asked. The term 'Geesten' wasn't the most pleasant thing to hear, even if my mouth spoke it – especially as here, that word had a substantial added meaning compared to where I came from.

“Would those be ghosts?” asked Hendrik.

“There were hoards of them in the cellar,” spluttered Gabriel. “They hate being made fun of.”

“Then those tales speak of them,” said Hendrik. “I would concentrate my efforts in the book, however.”

“As in its information is more dependable?” I asked.

“I am not certain if those old tales are that unreliable,” said Hendrik, “even if I am certain the book has more information.”

“That part I know something of,” I said, “and I have dealt with them some.” I paused, then tried to find appropriate words – and for the first time, I found nothing.

“What?” I thought. “There is no word that equates to 'exorcist' in this language?” I then knew I had to work around the language's lack in this area.

“Are there people who 'toss' spirits?” I asked.

“No,” said Hendrik. “The west school might have a very few people who know about such practices to a small degree.”

“As in?” I asked.

“They know the book speaks of the practice,” said Hendrik. “Beyond that, I am truly unsure.”

“I am certain of one thing,” said Gabriel, as we went from bright sunlight into deep shade. “Had any of those lecturers attempted doing so, I suspect they would have been ridden straight to the dinner plate of Brimstone. The cellar...”

“They would have fallen down dead from sheer fright upon looking upon it from the hallway,” said Hendrik. “I suspect Anna has a name for what happens when one's heart abruptly stops.”

“F-food?” I asked.

I could 'feel' Hendrik turning toward me, then scratching his chin.

“Now we need to see about food,” he said.