Midnight at the Crossroads Chapter Two
It was a couple of hours after midnight, and Alteng had been following the old unnamed babbling brook that ran near his recently demolished home, when he caught sight of the little bridge. Though it had no handrails and a few boards were cracked or missing, it had survived since the time before his youth. Never had a piece of old decrepit handiwork appeared so quaint to him as on this occasion, because it was about the only familiar thing left to him with memories attached to it (though he did stuff into one of his coat pockets the brass doorknob he had found earlier). It was a wonder to him that the water here didn't stink of chemicals and rotting garbage like so many other waterways in his homeland had done since the end of the last century.
But Alteng knew that he wasn't here to reminisce about the past tonight, he must cross that old dilapidated span and wait for the one he was supposed to meet. Since he had no love for the idea of wading through running cold water on a breezy cool night, he chose to use the bridge. To be sure, it creaked and crackled ominously as he stepped slowly, and a length of planking about twenty feet across took him nearly a full minute to traverse.
At last he was across, but when he stepped onto the other side, he knew instantly that he had just gone somewhere beyond the confines of the mortal world, and that here he would not be encountered by human eyes, like someone's private office which just happened to be a good-sized forest. Though he hadn't noticed before he crossed the bridge, the obvious fact that the trees grew tall, dark, and twisted with no sign of the scourge of human warfare was suddenly revealed to him, as if a thin veil of darkness was pulled back to show a new reality, unthought of by anyone before.
"The Lady of Secrets, she has set the stage" Alteng said out loud to no one but himself. "We'll see what she wants of the last Cuxhaven, who now has nothing to give, except..."
He didn't want to finish the thought. What did she want from him in return for her help? Maybe a quest of some sort, or his allegiance and worship? That was out of the question- Alteng had long since learned to bow to no man or lesser god, especially to one with such a dark reputation (in Kobold lore, Dolora was very wise but she was also deceitful and vain, and when angered extremely spiteful). If all she had to offer Alteng for her knowledge of the afterlife was an existence without a hope of one, he would have none of it. He would not end up like some of his old acquaintances, cursed with the denial of release from this world.
"Better that she take another piece of me with a jagged knife. Seems like everyone else has."
The breeze stiffened at his back. He was facing south now, and a cold wind hit him from behind and made him shiver though he was wearing a full coat. The plume of his hat doubled over and threatened to tickle his nose. He took this for a sure sign that the one he wished to meet was not long in coming. He sat down on a long log which lay nearby. The leaves in the boughs rattled in the early autumn winds, and it was chilly for the time of year. Alteng wrapped his coat tighter around himself and pulled down his hat, but the wind reduced his comfort, and he was eventually forced to lay down on the lee side of the fallen timber for some semblance of shelter. Having nothing to do while he waited but to watch the branches wave in the wind, their dance among the rising winter constellations in a late-night sky sent him to sleep.
The stars they rise insane to greet the eye.
They cast a thousand shades too faint to see.
It only helps to walk the darkened way,
To seek a future that may never be.
When you look back on all the things you've seen,
Is hindsight twenty-twenty where you stand,
Or does it change depending on your view?
The past is fluid as the future planned.
What's set in stone may yet be chiseled out,
Eroded by the elements in time,
Or simply toppled over with a force.
The rules are gone, and no more sin or crime.
You make your laws up as you go along
The path of progress, dreaming that you made
The world a better place while you were there,
Hoping that your memory will never fade.
But now the world no longer turns for you.
All that you knew is gone, your life is grey.
Cast out and weary, aching for release,
Beseech the darkness to take you away.
And if your journey takes you out too far
There's always comfort in your final thought
That you have seen beyond the truths and lies
Of what existence is, and what it's not.
Alteng was jarred into wakefulness but the low but loud mournful hoot of some great owl hidden in the nearby treetops. The stars had visibly wheeled overhead somewhat, and he calculated that he had dozed for about an hour. The last echoes of some long lost song were still in his mind, weaving in and out with the sound of the rustling of the trees. It almost seemed to give voice to the wind, as if it were speaking to him in some hauntingly beguiling tone. He could almost imagine a woman calling to him, fair and wild.
"Dhhhhhoooooonhhhhhhottttttuuuuuuurnarooooooouuuunnnnd" the wind hissed around him.
Now Alteng was not really surprised that he might be contacted in some mysterious way, but he was still unnerved by the very atmosphere of this unknown place, and he sat up swiftly but he stared straight ahead into the darkness of the forest. Then the voice on the wind became clearer, and it spoke.
"Do not turn around, for my form is not for the living to see."
Alteng did not yet move, but he unconsciously roved his eye sidelong. "So if I turn around, you will kill me?"
"No, indeed you shall kill yourself."
"Then you, madame, are either delusional to think you will order me about in such a way, or you are one truly ugly b-."
The blast of icy air at his back sent shivers through him, and his prized hat was blown off his head and impaled itself neatly on a nearby tree branch of thorny disposition. "I am not warm to weak attempts at Koboldian humor, don't try it again."
Alteng began to feel himself flush with indignance despite the danger he was about to fall into. "And I am not warm to invasive thoughts and mesmerism for weeks on end. Why did you want me here?"
The wind died down to a puff. Alteng heard a rustling behind him as the Lady of Secrets moved about in her characteristic secret ways. "I sent for you, Altenglisch, not to destroy you but to reward you."
Alteng almost forgot himself and turned about in spite of himself. "Reward me. How has Altenglisch Hans Cuxhaven, last mighty sovereign of his house, managed to find favor with the Lady?"
Dolora laughed in a cool way that made Alteng feel unpleasant despite the seemingly cheerful feminine air to it. "Because you once did me a great service some years ago, though you didn't realize it, the details of which shall of course remain secret. But as the hunter of souls, I admire the way you have chosen to live your life. You could have stayed at home and remained a family Kobold, but you yourself are too much of a hunter. Its not a terrible thing to seek justice in the world, nor even to seek revenge if its warranted. At overcoming handicaps and hardships, you always excelled."
Alteng was being flattered, but flattery can mean obligation to return the favor, and he just didn't think enough of the legends about this goddess to oblige. "I am humbled by the Lady's kind words, but I wonder if your meaning has been hidden by fair speech."
"Not at all," she continued. "There will be no exchange of vows, souls, or biological fluids tonight. I have simply decided that some satisfaction is due you after all this time. You have earned it after all, and besides you've proven to be not as easy to find as most of my worshipers."
"That's because I don't worship you."
"Ah, but you will be a believer after this night. You will thank the great Dolora and swear your family into her service some day."
This time it was Alteng's turn to laugh, which he did heartily and teary-eyed. "That's where you're more wrong than in anything else you've said so far. Surely it should be no secret, to one so attuned to them as yourself, that I have no family. These many years I have not seen one of my own kind. I don't even have a home to go to anymore. I have resigned myself to the possibility that I am the last Kobold in the world. And I may yet decide to leave it soon. This is no longer my time, the world of man is encroaching on every aspect of nature and they continually develop new ways to destroy each other and everything around them, and to me the future looks grim. At least when I had to kill, I did it the right way and personally faced my foes. I never pushed a button from a distance or poisoned their food and drink. People kill in such impersonal and secret ways today, perhaps they are more deserving of your attention than I. If you are a master of secrets, tell me then where honor has gone. "
Dolora sighed, and the branches swayed slightly with her exhale. "Maybe it has gone the way of other good things, or there is a different sort of honor in the hearts of men today. But for now, I will show you that honor has not died, for I offer you a very special gift in return for the unwitting favor you once performed for me."
Alteng was becoming impatient to get to the meat of the matter, and he walked forward to retrieve his hat from the nearby low-hanging branch. "Well, at least you have piqued my interest and I haven't walked away yet. Name your price."
The Lady huffed. "Oh Alteng, I've said before that there is no price, this is completely free. You might never even hear from me again, unless you offend me in some great way. You will come to realize in time that I had your best interest in heart when I offered you the chance to reclaim a piece of your old life."
Alteng narrowed his eye suspiciously. "How do you mean? Can you restore my youth, or repair my body?"
"Alas, no" Dolora confessed. "To turn back time is not my forte. I tried to pry the secret out of old Horologius the God of Time once. I graced his bedchamber for three days straight, though it felt like three years. He was terrible, an awful lecherous old goat, and much like history he had a bad habit of repeating himself. I found out my mistake too late and I wanted to leave after an hour. But he is the God of Time- he just kept resetting the clocks."
"Well that's tragic, but I didn't travel halfway round the world to hear about your love life. What did you mean by a piece of my old life?"
"I mean that you don't have to be alone any longer" Dolora explained. "I have arranged with the God of Death to allow someone you hold dear to be returned to you. You have been wandering long enough, and this should give you the chance to start a new chapter in your life. But you and I must go together to the underworld and finalize the details. You will probably encounter others you remember from your past, and you will see that they are quite at peace with themselves, and you can only choose one to bring back with you."
Alteng didn't answer her right away, but he was thinking about what Dolora had just told him. Here was his chance to have his line of the family carry on after he was gone. He could bring back one of his children with him, or... he could start all over again, with Ther. But he did have one apprehensive thought about this whole deal, and he was hesitant to bring up the subject in front of Dolora for fear of revealing some sort of 'secret' that she could use against him later. Finally he asked, "The God of the Underworld would allow me to take someone with me, even after what I did concerning Olivier all those centuries ago?"
"It's true that your soul was marked concerning the necromancy involved with reviving your uncle, and it does mean that before you meet with the God of Death, you must present yourself for a purification ritual for a period of one day. But the actual transference from death to life for the one you choose shouldn't take too long."
"But how do I get to the underworld from here?" Alteng asked her.
"Well that should be obvious, you must die."
"Don't worry, its only a mere formality. You will be, as they say in modern times, 'clinically dead'. Besides, you're halfway there now. You were near the threshold of the Underworld as soon as you crossed that little bridge. To complete your journey, all you have to do is follow the path through these woods for a little way."
"But I don't want to die. This whole affair smells of some sort of deceit to me" Alteng bristled.
"Didn't you just hear me that you're almost there already? If you don't believe me, just hold up your arms and look."
Without understanding her odd remark, he held his arms straight out in front of him. This didn't seem unusual at first, until he noticed that he no longer sported a hook for a left hand- he had a matching pair of hands now.
Dolora giggled amusedly. "Well, what are you waiting for? Let the other shoe drop- do off with the eyepatch."
Alteng whipped off the patch, and to his amazement and delight he now had two eyes to see with. He couldn't help but be curious, and he asked her "Is this part of the gift? Will my body be whole again?"
Dolora answered him, almost mournfully "Wily with words I may at times be, but I never tell a blatant lie. No, this is only temporary. Your spirit is always as your body once was, and once you have returned to your physical body, all will be as it was before you met me."
"Do you mean to say that I am in spirit form right now?"
"Yes, for to enter the Underworld this is how it must be. But fear not, I will enter with you and we will speak together with the Lord of the Dead. Are you ready to walk before me?"
It took a minute for Alteng to make up his mind and take that first step forward, into the darkness of the trees and toward the place where Dolora directed him to go. He never got to see the grey light of dawn with his spirit eyes, but he had a vision of what he would soon find and how his life might be when he returned to the land of the living.