The road more traveled, part l.

Bedtime approached quickly once we had finished eating, and while Karl and Sepp went to fetch our laundry, Gabriel led me off toward the bathing area. I wondered briefly as to why I was selected first as we passed back down the dim-lit hallway and then made a right turn about sixty yards from our doorway.

“Is my going first because...”

“You have clean clothing,” said Gabriel. “I don't, and I doubt anyone else does.”

“I thought there was more to it,” I said.

“There is,” said Gabriel, “though any more, I think I might need to bathe sooner rather than later.”

“Itchy?” I asked.

“That and desiring to scratch like a dog,” said Gabriel. “Both of those have become noticeably worse in the last few hours.”

The bathroom – or rather, rooms – was a group of three stalls at the end of a long hallway of uncommonly dimness, with a single larger-than-common stove and bronze pump. The stove, thankfully, was well-supplied with wood, and once I had the stove lit, it was a matter of waiting for the water to boil.

“That one looks to take a while,” said Gabriel. “Each of those buckets is good for a tub by itself.”

“Hence bathing will be quick once the stove heats up,” I said.

“Assuming our clothing is done,” said Gabriel. “I know some of it is, at the least.”

I was able to start my bath about twenty minutes later, and once in the tub, I heard voices speaking of laundry. I recognized one of them as Kees.

“Is it done?” I asked.

“Some,” he said. “It seems about half of the stuff is still in the drying portion, and a few things remain to scrub.”

“Black-cloth?” I asked. “Starch?”

“There was some of that stuff in there,” he said, “and it was hanging on their lines in the rear, as it was in need of mending.”

“Does it need mending much?” I asked.

“It does, though 'much' among those commonly wearing it and 'much' among most others are two very different things.”

“Uh, in what manner?”

“Black-cloth is mostly about appearance,” said Kees, “and between the mindset it demands, its cost, and how others view those wearing it, frequent and substantial repairs are readily accepted.”

“And washing in aquavit?” I asked.

“That is the usual means of cleaning black-cloth,” said Kees. “Conventional washing tends to damage it, which is why mending is performed after washing that way.”

“And then starching the stuff,” I mumbled, as I finished my bath.

I came out minutes later to find the beginnings of a line forming, and I returned to a near-empty room. I had dressed absent-mindedly – I was glad I wasn't wearing this location's equivalent of a suit-and-tie, whatever it actually was – and had sat down with the bestiary. I was quickly leafing through the book, noting odd creatures and their names – tyrant-lizard, m'bogo, and killer-fish being three of them – when I came to the creature described as 'the horned dragoon'.

“My, that thing is awful,” I thought. “It looks like a ten-legged walking fire-starter.”

I read the short paragraph describing the creature, then noted its 'area' as being much of what was now called the second kingdom, and finally, I noticed how readily I was able to read what was present. I began flipping pages again, now thoroughly engrossed in what I was reading – until I startled at the sound of the door's opening. I looked up to see Gabriel and Hendrik.

“Kees is still bathing,” said Hendrik. “I have no idea where he got that special soap, but he has some.”

“Special soap?” I asked.

“You have some,” he said, “and Maria used it to clean you up after the bridge. In your case, you were caked with blood. Him, I don't know.”

“Perhaps he wants to be as clean as possible,” I said. “Come to think of it, that may well be the truth, as Freek...”

“You're right, he had some, and he used it,” said Gabriel.

“And, since most of the witches I've seen up close tended to be dirty...”

“That would explain his desire, but not his need,” said Hendrik. “He was bathing the same as the rest of us.”

“Was he bathing, or was he 'bathing'?” I asked. “He didn't stink like a lot of witches seem to, but I wonder how...”

“When you said bathing that second time, did you mean he merely acted as if he was bathing?” asked Gabriel.

“Did he scrub, or did he simply dunk himself briefly and dry off?” I asked. “He was stated as being especially good at concealment.”

The evening snack started once everyone was present, and I applied myself to the contents of the pot after refilling the heating lamp. I was about to start on my second helping when Sepp pointed at my button.

“Now what is this?” he asked.

I was tongue-tied, so much so that I was glad Gabriel was otherwise. “He received the first two. Andreas has been working on more as he has had time.”

“No, not that,” said Sepp. “I knew about the two of those, as Anna spoke of them. This one's changed from what she said.”

I removed the button as Gabriel walked around the table, then picked it up. He asked for my magnifier, which I gave him, and he began mumbling.

“What is it?” asked Kees.

“This looks like an added engraving,” said Gabriel, “only it is obvious it isn't one of those. No jeweler can cut something this neat.”

“What is it?” asked Hendrik.

Gabriel handed him both button and magnifier. I waited for the outburst, for I could think of a great many 'markings'.

“What happened to it?” I asked feebly.

“I think this relates to the cellar,” said Hendrik. “What has happened since has only added to it.” A brief pause, then “you didn't wear shoes, did you?”

“In the cellar, no,” I said. “I was told to not do so. Why, what does it show?”

“A bare foot crushing the head of a snake,” said Hendrik.

“Oh, no,” I murmured. “That w-will cause trouble.”

“I doubt any of those troublemakers saw it,” said Hendrik. “That marking is visible to the naked eye if you look at it closely from a distance of perhaps eighteen inches. In order to fully appreciate it, it needs a magnifier of some kind.”

“That one might well be too strong,” said Gabriel, as my magnifier and button were returned.

“I suspect it is,” said Hendrik. “I've heard of ones like that before, and they aren't merely a matter of money.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“There are three small marks on its side,” said Hendrik, “and I've only seen instruments and tools marked that way but a handful of times. In every case, they were made specially, for a given person, and their cost was reckoned in the time and labor of those making them more than in guilders.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “as will be that sextant you are working on.”

“Is there a special term?” I asked.

“Such instruments and tools are said to be restricted,” said Gabriel. “That means only certain persons can have them.”

“And that one man who put in the order for the sextant?”

“He does navigational charts,” said Gabriel.

More Raw-Deal sauce had been brought out, and I was dipping my bread into it. Karl tried the same, ate one bite – and then dropped spoon and bread and grabbed his mug with both hands.

“No wonder Brimstone dislikes you!” spat Karl after he drained his mug. “That stuff would set fire to him.”

“Be thankful it is not made from this one species of pepper where I came from,” I said, as I dipped another piece of bread.

“What color are they?” asked Sepp.

“A strange yellowish-orange color,” I said, “and they are called Habañero peppers. They are much hotter than whatever is in this.”

“Were they red peppers, I would not wonder,” said Gabriel. “I have heard of red peppers being used on swine.”

“Does the pig sneeze?” I asked.

“They burst into flames,” said Gabriel, “and making up the bombs using those peppers is very hazardous.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “Raw-Deal is made from long-fermented turnips.”

“Aye, and the only fit use for those muddy-tasting things,” said Lukas, as he gingerly dipped his spoon in the sauce. “I just dip the spoon and wipe the bread, and it suits me fine.”

“Wasn't that stuff called Kim-Chi?” I thought. “They made that stuff with cabbage, not turnips.”

Cleaning and packing went on apace once the 'snack' finished, and I retired to bed shortly thereafter. I was glad we would be leaving tomorrow, so much so that after a visit to the privy I silently prayed upon the matter in the darkened room, and drank a small cup of dark beer. I fell deeply asleep within seconds, and there were no dreams.

I awoke 'in the morning'. When that was seemed a difficult-to-answer question, as no one in the room had a watch or other timepiece, and we were 'immured' deeply within a dark and somewhat chilly stone building. Since we had come, I had discerned the difference in hours between the 'commons' and the 'betters', but among the first party mentioned there were those thought especial drudges.

They tended to keep my hours, at least for awakening.

After a dose of the widow's formula, I lay back in bed. My stockings were in place on my feet, but my boots were not. I thought to pray.

Within seconds, I heard footsteps coming, and I sat up. These steps were slow, and halting, for this person was well beyond any common concept of 'lame'. I felt reminded of that one elderly man in the Mercantile at home, and I looked around as I put on my boots, then the remainder of my equipment, and began walking toward the faint outlines of the door.

When I opened the door, I knew who I had heard, for some reason; this person – an elderly woman – was the 'supervisor' of the laundry department. She was opening the door, with a long brass key rattling in her shaking hand, and I had heard it as if she were using the key upon our door.

I had a strange feeling about this woman, and I began walking in the direction of the laundry area. She was not merely 'elderly', but old enough to pass for Father Time's wife; more, I wanted to ensure we didn't have starched clothing. None of mine had returned yesterday, and the idea of underwear resembling sandpaper made for shuddering on my part.

As I came to the main hall, I noted several younger women wobbling closer. With one exception, all of these ladies were stifling yawns, and the exception appeared to be sleepwalking. The house proper seemed nearly 'dead', with most of the candles burnt out and the few still burning in grave need of wick-trimming or replacement.

I came to the long hall just after two of these women, and I stayed next to the wall as they wobbled steadily toward the door. I could feel the presence of 'Mother Time' growing more potent with each step, and as I saw one of the women ahead of me open the door to show a well-lit laundry area, I thought, “she might not have had children of her own, but she certainly helped with raising enough of them. If anyone deserves such a title, she does.”

I came to the door of Mother Time's 'lair' – where that term came from was a matter for wonderment, but it seemed to fit – I paused, then gently tapped. The grogginess of those within made for faint murmurs in the space beyond, and the presence of another yawning woman behind me made for gently pushing the door open, then holding the door for the woman behind me. I then turned to my right.

While I had seen this desk before, I had but taken little notice of it, for it had been mostly hidden by sacks of laundry. Not only was it now not hidden, but Mother Time was standing in front of it. She seemed more than a little dazed, much as if she had had far too little sleep for most of her life, and her expression seemed an impenetrable mask of sadness.

“She really needs cheering up,” I thought, as I went to her desk. I knew about the chair, and once I had retrieved it, I brought it to where she stood, where I set it down behind her with care. She looked at me with wide-open eyes as she slowly – and stiffly – sat down.

“Madame,” I said quietly, “aren't you accustomed to people treating you with the respect that you are due?”

“What are you?” she asked. Her voice was a hoarse-sounding croak that spoke of inconceivable age, and her appearance seemed to cement that impression with irresistible fact.

“Someone who is visiting for a few days,” I said softly, as I found our now-finished clothing. I held up one of my trousers, felt the cloth with my cheek, and murmured, “these look fine, and feel better than they look, and thank God, they aren't starched.” I paused, and then tried to sound droll. “If one is riding long distances on horseback, starched underwear is the last thing wanted.”

“Who are you?” Again, that hoarse croak, though I somehow heard a peculiar inflection. I felt reminded of a physics professor I once had.

“One of a party of eight, Madame,” I said, “and those meetings were boring at their best. Most of the time I was frightened out of my mind.” A brief pause, then I went to where she was sitting, all the while reaching for my money pouch with one hand and feeling for the widow's tincture with the other. I found the money first, and took out five large silver pieces, which I put near her elbow. She looked at them with amazement, then at me.

“Madame, you need to get a lot more sleep,” I said. “Insomnia is awful, and I have endured it enough to know about it. That money is for that tincture you need, and I can mix you up a vial shortly so you have enough until you can get your own.”

I looked closer at this woman, now stooping down such that I was eye to eye with her, while her 'arthritic' hands scrabbled to put away the money. I felt reminded of what images might be on the coins, and that list had grown since I last thought of it: it now included Mount Rushmore and a sick grizzly bear.

This woman reminded me greatly of Katje, and as I looked closer, I could tell her hair was once long, lustrous, lush, and a deep dark black. She was far older than Katje, however, and even older than she appeared to be; she was much worn with cares and sicknesses, most of which were severe and chronic.

Her hair was now a thin shoulder-length silvery gray, and her entire body was dried up and wrinkled. Most of her teeth were gone, and those few that remained were precariously rooted in the front of her jaws. She was very old and extremely ill, and I suspected...

No, I knew. She'd endured more than any ten women I had ever heard of on the surface of two planets, and she warranted my utmost respect. I bowed to her from the waist, and said softly, “my compliments, Madame. You are great in wisdom.”

Her eyes rolled back abruptly and she slid bonelessly out of her chair to hit the floor with a thud.

I leaped to where she lay and dropped bag and rifle on the floor as the shrieks of the other women echoed in the room and in my mind. I felt her bony wrist, and noted an erratic heartbeat. Her slow stertorian breathing was mingled with rattling noises, and I reached for my bag. I wanted a rag for her head, and once I'd found one, I folded it and put it under her head – and as I set her down, the pain hit me full in the chest. I could not breathe.

Just like with Maria long ago.

My reaction was instantaneous: the room flashed with darkness as I prayed aloud, then the ceiling vanished to be replaced by blue-white fire, and I was up to my neck with her dead body in my arms. I was swimming, heading toward a distant island showing amid a swift-flowing flood.

The current was strong, and the waves crashed, and the sky above and all around me was as black as a dense thicket beyond time with its vegetation long gone to coal and dust. Somehow while I swam, I placed my right hand over her heart and the other on her back, and thought the single word 'electricity'. She convulsed violently, and I felt her heart start again as we grounded upon a sandy shore.

The shore was uncommonly small, and the island, tiny. It might have been the size of an ironing board, and I was holding her head out of the water, which was as ice for chill. Her arms and legs drifted in this sea, but her body lay upon this narrow spit of land. I hung on somehow, how I did not know.

Her heart, while beating, was still erratic. I prayed as loud as I could, in words I could not understand. Like before, it was 'getting through'; and unlike any previous time, it was accomplishing things I could not dream.

I panted, shivered, and felt a sense of crushing responsibility; her death would destroy me, and I screamed as if burning while alive. Something happened in the darkness, and it began to lighten, and as I watched, I saw a snowstorm of tiny white flakes blast free of her inner being...

“Th-those are arteries,” I thought. “They were badly occluded.”

That was not the only thing. I hung on with one hand, and with the other, I kept her head above water – and as I watched, the silver began fading, and her hair began to darken as well as lengthen.

I looked, and the lightening of the darkness had been but a deception; it was not turning into day. The sky was now fiery red – just like that of the Cellar when all hell broke loose – and as if in a dream, I saw the vast ranks of hell coming on the run. I felt enraged.

“Over my dead body will you take this woman!” I screamed. “She is not yours, and you may not have her.”

Amid the echoes of my voice a tableau opened in my mind, and I saw how this woman had been hunted as if an animal for ages. She had finally escaped the worst of the hunters, but she had endured premature decrepitude as a consequence; I wondered briefly if she were marked. I then decided that did not matter; such treatment was undeserved, and that regardless of appearance or other considerations.

I gently stroked her hair, then rubbed her face. As I did, I said, “dear, there must not be such evil in your life. You do not need such curses poured out upon you. Now live, and be yourself, and see as you should, hear as you should, think as you should, and speak as you should.”

With stunning abruptness, her body became mist-shrouded, and the mists swirled madly, much as if they were flames and not mists. What seemed seconds later, the mists lifted slowly, and I began to see a form unlike any creature, human or otherwise, I had ever seen.

“Is she..?”

She was, and that indeed, and that beyond any comprehending I could manage. Her cheeks were full and rosy, her hair now a long and luxurious glossy black, her mouth made for laughter, her figure lithe and graceful, and her hands...

I had never before seen such hands. Their fingers were long, seeming spidery, yet strong beyond imagining, with their former gnarled aspect banished to another world. A picture leaped to mind of this woman being a teacher unlike any I had ever heard of; her capacities dwarfed those of people I had seen and heard of. More importantly, she was a true leader, intended to set an example – and for some reason, I felt reminded of wolves.

And my feet touched dry land an instant later.

I picked her up and carried her off of the island into shallow water, and from there, into a clearing. Tall trees stood straight up and down as I dripped water in rivulets onto the sandy shore, and as I watched, the trees began to fade. They seemed to become more flat gritty planes described as rectangles, and with a faint plopping noise, I found myself sitting in the laundry area with this woman some few feet away.

Or, I had thought I was sitting, for I was on my face, and overhead the ceiling still glowed with a piercing blue light amid clouds of slow-drifting haze. I looked at the floor, and saw redly the shine of blood, and through reddened eyes I strained to move. I brought my hand close to my face, and saw it filmed with blood; I coughed, and the pool beneath me splattered with more blood.

I felt ill, worn, and sick, and I was surprised I was still breathing.

“Thank you,” I whispered. It took nearly all I had.

A soft and somewhat drowsy voice came from nearby, and I turned to see the woman I had 'rescued'. She was awake, and again, she spoke.

“What are you?” she asked. Her voice seemed the melding of music to form speech.

“I was brought here for a reason,” I said weakly, “and I was made to be as I am. You were dying, and I was to bring you back to life.”

I paused, and coughed again.

“There is much that needs you doing it,” I whispered. “Soon, you will go north, and there begin the rest of what you are to do.”

I struggled, then resumed: “there, you will see the invisible, understand the incomprehensible, and do the impossible.” I was on the verge of blacking out. “This... is... what...”

I was no longer able to continue, and when I came to myself, I felt uncommonly groggy and weak. I was lost, lost in a foggy-seeming waste, and beneath me was soft green grass that felt like well-padded carpet. I wanted to sit up, but was far too weak to move.

The smell of this place was delightful. I smelled a multitude of roses amid other sweet-scented flowers. This scent was enchanting, and I wished to smell it for a long time, but someone began calling my name.

“Y-yes?” I said weakly. I was too weak to open my eyes still. “I'm here.”

The source of the voice did not hear me, and I listened carefully. It took some seconds to recognize this voice, and I knew who it was – this gently kind voice that had broken my heart so many times when cruelty seemed intent upon encasing it in stone, and the evil in men's hearts had wished me dead to that voice and alive to the god of that world – the god this place called Brimstone. This voice was not that of that reptile, but someone much more trustworthy.

More, this person had loved me as I was, unlike any mere person I had ever known, and had manifested a species of love for which I had neither words nor comprehension.

“That is not true,” said the soft voice. “You knew of it and named it long ago, even if such a phrase isn't common where you come from. I believe it was 'give without thought of return'. Wasn't it?”

I had no answers for him.

“You just did it again,” he said. “Wake up. They desire to see you.”

I shook violently and awoke in a bed, and where I was, I had no idea. A woman came close to me, then picked up my limp hand in a distressingly casual fashion. She then spoke.

“I thought you were dying, or perhaps dead.” Her 'jaded' voice spoke volumes.

“Are you..?” My voice gave out in a fit of coughing.

She shook her head. Again, that aspect of 'jaded', as if people lived and died far too commonly to be missed and then mourned. This was not the attitude of the battle-hardened warrior, but someone much closer to a completely powerless slave.

“Rachel is much younger,” she said, “and why, I do not know. I know even less about how she has been so changed.” She paused, then continued, saying “she spoke as to what I was to do, and I did as I was told.”

“Told?” I croaked. “What did you do?”

“You were covered in blood,” she said, “and you were washed well preparatory to burial. There were many who wished to do that immediately, but neither Rachel nor your party would let them, and several of your party said you were far from death, which is why that was not done.”

Again, she paused, and I wondered as to both her reasoning and motivation.

“Now, you must eat and drink.”

The way this last came out implied I was to be glutted with squabs and doused with high-test brandy prior to being ignited as a Flambé, and I sat up warily. I felt as if I had been struck on the head with a large crowbar, and then lit on fire. Before me on a stool was a mug of what looked like grape juice, and without thinking – I was very dehydrated – I grabbed the thing and downed it in a frenzied gulping.

I then gagged, and my face became the color of sickly grass.

“That was very special wine, and from an old cask,” she said.

“Gack!” I spluttered. “That was horrible! It tasted like cleaning solvent!”

“I told you he did not like fermented wine,” said Gabriel.

“What was I to give him?” she said artlessly. Again, I heard that 'so what' tone. “Geneva? Rachel said wine was best, and doctors here are worthless, assuming you can find them when they are not pickled.” She paused, then said, “at least Rachel has some idea as to what might help. Enough happened to her that she does have some idea regarding food and drink.”

“Yes, dear,” I spluttered between spitting into a handy rag. The cleaning solvent's flavor was not going away at all quickly. “It may have woken me up, but to call it a rude awakening was calling it wonderful. You would have been better off to use cough medicine.” I finished with a final spit into the rag.

The woman was utterly nonplussed, much as if she endured such reactions commonly, and she left to be replaced by someone unlike any person I had ever seen before. I recognized this being as female, and when I saw her, I thought, “if ever there was a woman with 'prophetess' written upon her, this is she.”

And with that statement came a flood of recollection, most of it dealing with a book I had once read. There was a woman therein whose 'label' was the exact same, and her true name was mentioned later. I struggled to recall this latter moniker.

“Deborah?” I thought. “No, not that one – oh, now I recall. Her name was Ayesha, and it was pronounced strangely.”

The woman in question found a chair, and sat upon it. She was weeping as if heartbroken.

I wobbled off of the bed and fell to my knees with my rag in my hand. I crawled to where she sat, and said softly, “please, don't cry, dear. Don't cry. It hurts badly to see you weep like this.”

She looked at me in stunned amazement.

“I'm fine now,” I said. “I get tired when I need to help people.”

She took the rag and began wiping her face as I watched. She looked... I had no words to describe how she looked, even if she reminded me in a way of Sarah. Sarah, however, was a much stranger woman, and I realized I knew my answer to her inevitable question.

“I was touched by someone unlike any being I had ever seen,” she said in a low and tear-wracked voice, “and though I had heard of such beings, I dismissed them many years ago. This one looked like a play-toy I had when I was small, and he carried me in his arms to safety amid a terrible flood.”

She sobbed, and blew her nose. I then remembered what I had done to the rag.

“He was willing to die for me,” she said, “and there was another, who I saw, who had taught him. I had wronged this other person, for I was evil, and I asked forgiveness. Between that furry creature, and that man, I knew my wickedness for the first time in many years...”

She choked, then said, “no, that is not true. I thought I knew it. This was the first time I genuinely knew I was wicked. I did not wish to be that way...”

“No, I don't want to be a witch,” rang the voice of recollection.

“But instead, clean and whole, and the two of them did as they needed to do. Now...”

The woman loosed a terrible shriek, then moaned, “I now see perfectly in both eyes, my hearing is better than it ever was, and otherwise I am as I was the day I was to be married, only I am different inside. I am clean now.”

Again, she wiped her eyes, and once she had finished, she dropped the rag in staggering shock. She pointed, saying, “look! I see writing on the wall, and it is a type I once knew.”

I turned to see a blank wall, and before my eyes, I saw letters forming. I vaguely recalled their 'different' shape from the brief reading I had done of the Hebrew books the day they came.

“Didn't that stuff read right to left?” I thought, as the letters formed left to right. “Why is it forming backwards?”

And as I thought this, I understood what had showed on the intention level. I had once had a balance; it had been tossed; and now, I was to continue.

“I have no idea what that means,” said Gabriel's shaking voice, “even if it is very important.”

“Important?” I croaked. I was becoming more aware of people in the room, even if I was still unsure of where I was.

“Many important books are written in that language,” said Gabriel, “and I have seen my share of them.”

Gabriel was overwritten by another voice, however. “First, you heal a deadly burn, and now this. What kind of a person or... Thing... are you?”

I shook my head as if to dispel the nausea and mental fogginess induced by the 'special wine', and spluttered, “God only knows. I don't, even if I have an idea as to what I am to do.”

“What would that be?” The question, though uttered by the local king, seemed upon the lips of all save myself and this woman. She knew, that beyond her mere understanding – and me, I wasn't sure, at least until I actually said it.

“To guard those entrusted to me,” I said. I yawned briefly.

“Is your name Michael?” she asked.

I looked at this woman with open-mouthed fright, and when she hugged me, I learned that not merely was she unwilling to take silence for an answer, but she was far stronger than she looked. Once she turned loose, I noticed her hair.

“Th-that stuff grew,” I thought, as I gently touched it. “It's now halfway down her back, and it's like a waterfall for thickness.”

“I remember you touching my hair,” she said softly, “and I recall how the years fell away along with the curses and beatings of those who wished my death. I will teach at the Abbey, for it is north.” A brief pause, then, “but for a time, there will be a town called Roos, and several people in a small house at the northeast end of town. Two of them are blond, and one of them is very strange.”

“Strange?” I asked. My voice seemed inaudible.

“There are places to stay nearby, many of them,” she said, “and I will need to move around between them to a degree. Still, there are a multitude of books, and they need study.”

I looked closer at this woman's eyes. Like everyone else I had seen here, the iris was a soft and vibrant-looking brown color, but as I watched these two laughing orbs, I noted a flashing flicker of bluish white, like a bolt of lightning. She seemed to shake slightly, and then, she spoke.

“What is happening to me?” she asked in a tone of wonder. “I feel as if I understood all there is, and was, and will be – and this world, and its books. All of them.”

She paused, then looked at the letters now etched into the wall. I had not noticed this before, but now I did; they were indelibly etched into the walls of the room.

“I recall that language,” she said. “I learned it growing up, and more, I could teach it.” She paused, then said, “that means you once had a balance, it was thrown out with vigor, and you are to continue as you are led.” She turned to me, then said, “it has a very rich and varied meaning.”

The number of people in the room had grown slightly, and all in our room – I now finally recognized where we were – save myself and this woman had open mouths and astonished faces. I felt astonished, but my astonishment was most likely a different species from that of the others present. She then asked a question.

“What is this in my pocket?”

“I am not cert... No, I am,” I said. “You have two pieces of sawed chalk.” A brief pause, then, “are you inclined toward writing?”

She stood and walked to the wall next to where the inscription now faintly glowed, then with a piece of chalk in each hand she began to write. Her hair rose straight up from her head, much as if it had been impregnated with static, and seconds later, I recognized what she had written.

“S-second order differential equations,” I gasped. “M-matrices. Oh, that one's nasty...”

She solved the 'nasty' one as fast as she wrote it down, and went through all of the steps in the process – and then jumped to Laplace transforms, which she wrote down in a swirling cloud of chalk-dust.

“I would hate to keep her in chalk,” said Gabriel to my right. “What is she writing?”

“Uh, mathematics,” I said. “I've seen and done some of that stuff, but not all of it – and with most of what I've seen so far, I would take much longer to give a doubtful answer, assuming I could actually do it.”

After chalking up twenty feet of wall and dusting two beds, she went from mathematics to languages. She promptly lost me, save when she began writing a too-familiar language – whereupon she grabbed a hidden rag from her clothing and wiped the words off of the wall, all the while muttering as if she'd been taught by Anna. I understood perhaps two words out of twenty. A minute and three more 'alien' languages later, she turned to speak.

“Those northern people write what they do using the same glyphs for languages and curses, and to write those figures down is very unwise. There is a special way to represent those, and it requires equipment we do not have.”

“Then it is no help,” murmured Gabriel.

“Though we do not have that equipment,” she said, “there are people here who do have it, and that in abundance. Most importantly...” Here, she pointed to me. “You know how to use that equipment. Now, for that which worries you most.”

She paused, and put away two worn nubs of chalk in her ragged-looking clothing. I now saw how much it had been mended.

“You have three names, not the usual two. The first of these names is very important, for it says who you are, while those that come after it shape, focus, and direct what direction the first name takes.”

She paused, then said, “that first name is very rare, and here, it has a very special meaning. It says you are as a frenzy. Now, for the second name, which I wondered about for a moment when I learned it, but it is as you said. You guard those entrusted to you.”

“And, your third name.” She seemed on a 'roll'. “Marked people hide under that name, and it is their synonym. It is magic, that name, both as to its meaning and what it does, and it has nothing to do with witches or their deeds.”

She paused for emphasis, as if it were needed.

“Witches do the cheap imitation, while that which that name refers to is the real one, and it comes from God.” Again, she paused. “Those children were witches, as were their parents, and all of them conspired to destroy you from before your birth to the present, and you have run in the fire, you have ridden in the flood, and then, you have walked in hell.”

“That cellar looked like that place,” muttered Gabriel.

“That was but the latest instance,” said the woman, “and compared to those times before, merely more concrete. The old tales speak of a person like that, one who will either win or die trying, and if anyone can win that battle, they will have these signs.”

She paused for emphasis. I looked around in fear, and noted all around me had faces made expressionless by emotions I could not read.

“They will raise the dead,” she said, “heal the sick, destroy evil, have a special name, and...”

She looked at me fixedly, then said in a lowered voice, “that witch to the north has spoken in her evil and ignorance, for she knows but part of what she has said. She said this:

'Hail great Brimstone! We shall destroy those who are not of this world

and make it pleasing to you, and those that are most hated, they shall die

in great pain with screams that you delight in. First shall be those who

have no ears to hear you, then those with no hands to serve you, then the

rest of those misshapen evils, and then the rest that do not wish to have

your will in their hands and your voice in their ears. Hail Brimstone!'

She but knows what concerns her, while the part that she does not know concerns the fate of not merely this world, but all of them linked together in time and space, for what happens here affects all of them. This is the head pointer to all of the linked lists in the sea of time, and if it comes adrift, all are lost, and will not be found again.”

“Rachel,” said the king of the second kingdom, “did he truly walk in hell?”

“He did,” she said with emphasis. “Nothing on his feet as per instructions received, thin clothing, and the place is as described.”

“You mentioned other instances?” he asked. “What were those?”

“One was a white vehicle...”

The mention of the Toyota and what had happened caused a horrifying flashback, and I again saw and felt all that had happened. The sudden impact, the flames, Sabrina's panic, the flames, dragging her clear – “I need to keep her back in tension, in case she's hurt” – the cut on her face, her crying for her shoes...

“He was hurt and went into that burning thing after her shoes.”

“Did he...”

“None whatsoever,” said Rachel. “Her shoes were more important than anything.”

The flashback faded as Rachel finished speaking of 'an elderly woman', and then she finished: “there were fires, explosions, and evil beyond anything we know of, and that was there. It has continued since he came here.”

“That cellar?” asked the king of the second kingdom.

“We have the remains of his clothing,” said Hendrik, “and it is on display in a glass-fronted case. There were no marks upon him.”

“He should have been a cinder,” muttered Gabriel. “That place was trying to devour him alive into the pit.”

“He was protected,” said Hendrik. “Then, there have been injuries that would be called certain death that were healed at his hands.”

“Just like sh-she said,” said the king of the second kingdom in a shaking voice. “Th-three names, and th-those names, and...”

“Yes,” said Rachel. “It is time, and he is the one, and I shall need to train someone to take my place.”

“I k-know,” said the king. He suddenly seemed to have aged a hundred years, and his former 'masterful' nature was obliterated by 'fate'. How I knew this was beyond me. I then saw that I had somehow sat down on the bed.

“Our clothing?” I blurted.

“It's all here,” said Gilbertus, as those not of our party began to leave the room. “Now that was something. I never expected to see anything like that.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“That king there,” said Gilbertus, as he looked carefully. He was gone, as was Rachel and those not of our eight. “He did what he wanted, when he wanted to, and he answered to no one, and I mean no one, 'cept maybe God.” Gilbertus paused, then said, “and to see someone like that taken down that much that fast is something I'd never thought I'd see.”

“How?” I asked.

“That woman,” he said. “She was like out of an old tale, only that tale didn't go much into detail. I recall something about her like, and she was not to be crossed.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“She was likened to a she-wolf,” said Gilbertus, “and while I feed wolves when and as I can, I give the mother ones a wide berth. They're fussy about their children.”

I went in search of cider, and once I'd found the stuff, I filled my mug. I still had the horrible taste of that wine in my mouth, and I went to the privy. There, I began retching, and I spewed until what was in my gut came up green.

Once I'd finished, I returned to the main room, and there drank the cider. I thought to look at the mug that had once held 'wine', and picked it up. The stink was still dire and poisonous-feeling, and I brought it to Gabriel.

“What was this stuff?” I asked.

Gabriel sniffed, then said, “I think this stuff was reserved for the king. Why?”

“Cleaning solvent?” I gasped. “It made me spew.”

“All the more reason to avoid fermented wine,” said Gabriel.

“Especially that type,” said Kees. “That stuff is about as old as can be drunk without its drinker becoming acutely ill.”

“Vinegar?” I asked.

“No, it gets things like worms in it,” said Kees. “I've heard them called wine-worms, and I've known more than a few witches who have died from drinking such contaminated wine.”

“I thought that stuff had arsenic in it,” I gasped.

“I doubt that,” said Kees, as he carefully looked in the mug. “Arsenic is not the easiest thing to use in commonplace food.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It has a definite taste,” said Kees, “or, so I was told. Food that is strongly spiced and made from High Meats is a far better place to hide it.”

“And wine?” I asked.

“It tends to settle out and show as a whitish sediment,” said Kees. “I had some that was supposedly from Madame Curoue, and even that settled out over time.”

“You what?” gasped Gabriel.

“I had several vials of arsenic with me, along with a dagger,” he said, “and I am very glad they are gone.”

“Madam Curoue?” I asked.

“An old and vengeful witch that once lived in this area,” said Kees. “She used her knitting to keep track of those who had angered her, and she was celebrated among witchdom as a maker of poisons.”

“I disposed of the dagger,” I said, “and I kept the vials for Hans. He might put them to good use once the rats start at home.”

I paused, then said, “uh, roll the wheels out to the buggies?”

“I would wait upon that,” said Hendrik. “Besides, you need to eat something beyond that half-mug of cider.”

I managed passably with jam and rye bread, and as I ate, I noticed more of the room. The others were still much in 'packing mode', with clean clothing being stowed in bags, while the part-burnt wax candles in the room were being replaced by what might have been tallow examples. I thought to ask a question between bites of bread.

“Someone brought over some better tallow candles,” said Lukas, as he removed our wax 'stubs' and replaced them. “These don't smell near as much.”

“Are they older candles?” I asked.

“I suspect they are, as the bags had a fair amount of dust,” he said. “These wax ones here are about right for those smaller lanterns, and we may want to get more of those things if they show.”

“And more errand-slates,” said Sepp. “I saw that one you have.”

After finishing my meal, I began checking my supplies, and I bagged up two slices of bread along with more dried meat. I tucked those into my bag, and after 're-stowing' those things in my pack, I checked the spare revolver. It was rust-free, though a little 'drier' than I liked, and after wiping it with an oily rag, I wrapped it back up and slipped it in its bag.

“So you have a spare too,” said Lukas. “How do those things work?”

“If they've been fitted properly, quite well,” I said. “The one I commonly use has saved my hide a number of times.” I paused, then said, “do witches tend to be unusually hard to stop?”

“Some do, and others don't,” he said. “Those black-dressed people, especially if they're really stinky, are almost as bad that way as those tin-wearing northern fiends.”

As I finished my 'packing', my thoughts returned to that woman who had been named Rachel. I recalled better her ragged clothing, and how it had not changed, even as she had changed mightily. There was something about her that was unlike any woman I had seen here, and while I puzzled myself near to starting a headache, I could not place the difference itself.

“Was it her height?” I thought. She was at least two inches taller than any woman I had seen here, and was but an inch or so shorter than I. “No, not that.”

I then recalled her figure, and gasped, “no, it cannot be.” I said this last with a perceptible shudder in my voice.

Yet it was indeed that, I now saw. Unlike all other women I had seen here, Rachel had a slightly protuberant chest. In contrast, every other woman I had seen prior was entirely and altogether flat-chested.

“Is it the clothing?” I thought.

For some reason, that line of thinking seemed especially plausible, as most feminine attire...

“No, not just feminine attire,” I thought. “A lot of clothing here seems good at hiding things.”

That included the 'undress' clothing I had seen, and that made for a strange thought.

“Warmth,” I muttered. “Anna feels cold more than Hans does, even if she's much less inclined to speak of it compared to Hans.”

Some few minutes later, I heard steps out in the hallway, and Rachel showed. She had changed her clothing into something that was much less ragged, and now, she looked much closer to 'normal'. Within seconds, she was followed by the king of the second kingdom, along with his announcer, and then several more people.

I was glad none of them smelled, and when the king went to Hendrik, I heard whispered words, then a 'fraternal' handshake, followed by embracing, and then kissing each others' cheeks. The king then drew his sword – an obvious fetish-grade instrument, I surmised – and bade me come near.

“Yes, right here,” he said. “I have something for you.”

With questions in my mind, I came to where he was, then knelt as directed. I doubted strongly he would slice me, and I closed my eyes. It was good that I did so, for I heard a paper being straightened out, and then he began reading.

Within an eyeblink of time, I knew he wasn't speaking the common language, but something altogether different, and the musical words seemed to fall softly like falling leaves. I knew what was happening was very important, and when pictures came unbidden, I knew more.

I saw a person – the original speaker – swinging a censer filled with incense, and all about this scene implied familiarity with the contents of Exodus regarding the tabernacle. The words again seemed to flow, and I saw that what I was hearing audibly matched word for word with what this man was saying on the screen within my mind, save for a difference in pronunciation.

I felt the flat of the blade laid gently on my right shoulder, then upon the left, and then removed.

“Stand,” he said.

I did so, and opened my eyes. The 'announcer' had a small box in one hand, and what looked like a shaved leather scroll in the other, and the king gently took the box from his announcer's hand and placed it in mine. The box looked to be made of a darkly veined brown wood – much like rosewood, in fact, though finer grained – and the heft of the thing implied it was filled brimming full of gold monster coins.

I knew implicitly that what had been 'presented' was of extreme importance; it meant a great deal, though what constituted a great deal was a mystery...


Two days more. The third day. Today...

“That disk has changed everything. What happens next, however, will make the disk's effects seem as nothing.”

“And those that do not listen now will only listen to the words of Brimstone,” said the voice of recollection.

“You can open that box now,” said Gabriel's voice.

I carefully looked at the box to see if it was latched, which it proved to not be; instead, there was a small notch for the finger, and I held the bottom of the box and carefully lifted. The lid popped open with a faint puff of dust to expose a sparkling and glittering gold setting encrusted with gems.

The red stones glittered as if polished blood, while the four triplets of blue gems seemed to hem in the red '+' symbol, and surrounding these two were roughly thirty bluish-white stones. None of them were perfectly round or precisely faceted, which merely accentuated the aspect of complete and total reality 'bound' to this relic from a bygone era.

I felt intensely embarrassed, so much so that I began weeping, and through my tears, I heard the king's speech.

“Friend, wear it worthily, and be true to your calling,” he said. “All count on you now.”

I lifted the thing from its box, and was astonished at its heft. It had a small boss in the rear for a 'string' or something by which to hang it, as well as a clumsy-looking pin. I opened this last, and knew 'looks' had no part of this 'device', for the closure opened smoothly, and the pin was sharp enough to readily pierce the fabric of my shirt. It closed smoothly, to my complete astonishment, and more, it seemed 'anchored'.

And my face showed the gamut of emotions: terror, despair, and a feeling of dread misery, one too intense for mere words. The king bowed slightly, then left with Rachel and the others following.

My head was in my hands, and I sobbed as if in great pain. My voice cracked when I asked, “what does all of this mean?”

“More than nearly anything on this entire continent,” said Hendrik. “Recall what he said in that meeting, how things would change?”

“Uh, this?” I asked.

Hendrik nodded, then said, “they changed more than he, or I, or anyone, most likely, could imagine.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “when those were made after the curse, there was a widely-known understanding that whoever bore one of those had a special task of grave importance, with the well-being of all dependent upon that individual and his performance – hence, those were associated with a great many privileges, as well as titles and lands.”

The sinking feeling I felt seemed to multiply rapidly, and I looked down at the floor. I wondered if I were going to be swallowed alive into the pit.

“It has been nearly three hundred years since one of those was given out,” said Hendrik, “but even diluted by time, we will have no trouble with you wearing it.”

“N-no trouble..?” I murmured.

“No trouble,” said Hendrik. “The pendants always had willing ears ready to listen.”

“Be glad none of them have been given out in so long,” said Gabriel. “They tended to draw mobs in the past, and that was for the first six. That one is the last one, and there are special things associated with it.”

“Special things?” I asked. “As in I should not wear it openly?”

“I would be very careful who I showed it to, in fact,” said Gabriel.


“Them also,” said Gabriel. “The first six given to those died with their tasks unfinished. The last pendant will not merely finish that crucial task given to it and its bearer, but complete all of the work the seven were made for, and then at the end of that tale, it says this:

'and the stars remained unbroken in the heavens, until the end of days'.

That tale is in the Grim Collection, and it has a very strange name.”

“What is it called?” I asked.

Alice in Blenderland,” said Gabriel. “It is thought to describe the future.”

I spent perhaps five minutes looking for a thong and small bag, and after threading the thong, I padded the back of the 'medal' with the cloth so it did not poke my chest. The thong tied, it went around my neck, and as I finished the matter, I looked around.

“Where did everyone go?” I asked.

“I would head out to the buggies,” said Gabriel. “They are rolling the wheels, and Kees and Hendrik went after help with our things.”

I hurried to catch up with the others, and the rattling rumbles ahead spoke of my 'target'. It was not easy to catch up in time, for they had several minutes of start upon me, and only once I was outside did I catch up.

“What was all of that about?” asked Sepp.

“This, uh, thing,” I asked. “I was afraid we'd have to fight those northern thugs alone, and now that won't be the case.”

“How?” asked Karl. “I could tell these people wanted nothing to do with us.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“I could tell,” said Karl. “I am not sure how I could tell, but I could tell they weren't inclined to give much help, and with those people coming...”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” said Karl. “It isn't just talk, either, nor is it dreams. I can tell something is happening with that stinky witch that runs that place – something about her saying 'I do not care what you have to do, I want those pigs fed such that they get huge in a hurry'.”

“When did you learn this?” I asked. The buggies were ahead under the 'eaves'.

“I started knowing this stuff a few years ago,” said Karl, “and there was no one to talk to about it, so I said nothing. The preacher would not hear me, I knew that much.”

“Given how preachers are supposed to be, I'm not that surprised,” I said.

“How are they supposed to be?” asked Lukas.

“Based on what I learned,” I said conspiratorially, “they're supposed to be very serious witches that look to be precisely the opposite, and they are to enrich themselves and those over them by careful and systematic theft. Hence, it would be very unwise for Karl to speak of something like that to a preacher he did not know very well.”

“Do you know of any such people?” asked Karl.

“At this time, I know of one,” I said, “but if this deals with that witch, then you may wish to speak to us as well. We need all the information on Ultima Thule we can get.”

We reached the buggies but a minute later, and I briefly ducked under to examine the linkage after glancing at the cups and cones. My 'inspection' was brief and to the point, and when I emerged from under the second one, I wiped my brow.

“Is that why you checked them?” asked Lukas. “You were worried about it coming back on you?”

“Yes, that especially,” I said. “We have enough trouble, even with this thing I was, uh, given to.”

I finished with my 'inspection' by filling the wheel reservoirs and slowly turning the wheels, then helped lift the buggies off of the barrels. Those went in the back, and while the others rounded up the horses, I removed Jaak's blanket from my pack. I was glad it had been washed, and after laying it on the side of the buggy I was leaning against, I thought to look at the pendant.

As I did, I had an understanding of how it had been touched and empowered for its task, as well as the manner of its 'giving', for that meant a great deal, and not merely in the physical sense; its impact was far greater in the spirit world than in the physical one.

“And the effects in both planes of existence are much a mystery,” I thought. “I think this thing needs a silver chain of some kind, actually. That thong isn't near strong enough for it.”

Over the course of the next hour, we packed the buggies, and in the early afternoon, we left the house proper. As we traveled along the road toward the 'pass', I acquired a better understanding of both the ceremony I had 'observed', as well as its purpose; for not merely were those bearing the pendants called to be true to their tasks, but they were protected and aided in the process of carrying them out.

Each of the seven pendants had its own special blessing imparted to it, but the one I had been 'given to' had this particular meaning:

“In this last piece there is bound the fate of the others, that of the planet,

and that of many other worlds. If the one given to it fails, time and space

shall fall. If that person completes their task, this world will be whole

again. If, however, the others fail, and the last does not, the stars in the

heavens above shall never be again broken. And so, I say to you who shall

bear this: may the stars shine on you brightly wherever you go.”