The Way the Story Goes
James Freud cued the song that ended his radio show, Celtic music whispering in the headphones as he slid them from his ears. His eyes had a crimson glaze -- too many hours reading too small print in dim light. The guilty book rested on the console, its covered crested with the remains of what had once been a golden rune. It seemed out of place in the room filled with knobs and dials. Troll-faced Max peeked through the square window from hall, his caffeine eyes looking troubled.
"You heard it, too?" Freud asked. "What the hell am I asking you for? You probably hear voices all the time."
Max grinned, his teeth yellowed from years of cigarettes. "That all depends on what I put in my coffee." Then, he was gone again, back into the guts of the station, leaving a lingering Freud behind -- a Freud whose fingers danced lightly over the dusty knobs.
"Mad people and malfunctions," he mumbled. "That's all this place is about."
"If you hate it so much, why don't you leave," the slightly pompous voice of Simon Lowkey said, the razor thin man rushing through the door, arms filled with books and magazines of his own. A cigarette dangled from his lips Bogart-style. "And you can give me your air time. I never have enough time to do what I want to and you wouldn't miss it. Really you wouldn't. Say! What are you still doing sitting there. It's my show now. Up, boy! Up! Let a professional show you how it's done." The thin man swept around Freud, dumping his books amid the clutter of wires and broken equipment. "Nice show this morning, Jimbo," Lowkey mumbled as he cued his own intro-song on the other turntable. "Too bad you're giving it up."
"I didn't say I was giving it up," Freud said, retrieving his book before Lowkey threw it into a corner.
Lowkey looked up, his blue eyes bruised. "Foul! First you promise to give me the hours, then you take it back. That's not my idea of a friend, Jimbo. You know what the extra hours would mean to my audience and how many more would flock..."
"If you don't watch what you're doing, you'll miss your cue." Lowkey twisted back to the console as Freud's record came an end and he potted his up. "Get out of here, Jimbo. You're screwing up my routine."
Freud turned towards the door, but stopped when Lowkey howled. "Damn it, there it is again!"
"There's what?" Freud asked.
"A hum in the headset. Doesn't anything ever work around this place?"
"Are you sure it was just a hum?"
"What else would I hear?" Lowkey asked, eyeing Freud with suspicion.
"Nothing, I suppose."
"Are you all right, Jimbo? I mean you've been acting a bit strange lately."
"I have a headache," Freud said, pressing his temples with the tips of his fingers. "I thought I heard something over the headphones earlier. It was probably just a splash."
"On Saturday?" Lowkey said dubiously, "We hardly ever get them on Saturdays. Sundays, yes, but never Saturday. I remember once a Chicago station splashing over ours, and people calling up asking about things I never said, I thought I was going out of my mind, until...."
"Good night, Simon," Freud said, waving a weary hand at the man as he turned once more towards the door.
"Say! I know what you need," Simon said, "A cup of coffee. And you can bring me a hamburger, too. I swear, I'm famished. Haven't had a bite all night..."
"I'm not bringing you back coffee, Simon."
"But you're getting some for yourself!"
"On my way out. You don't think I'm coming back up 19 floors in that rinky-dink elevator just to bring you food?"
"And coffee. Don't forget the coffee."
"Simon! If you want the stuff, get it yourself."
"And what about my program? Am I supposed to squander my precious little time on the air because you won't do me a little favor?"
"Good night," Freud said more firmly and slipped into the narrow corridor, the smell of recent painting barely able to disguise the scent of dust and decay. There was a sense of shabbiness here which would not disappear.
"Now it isn't like I wouldn't appreciate it!" Lowkey said, following him out, pushing a wrinkled single into his hand. "I'm even willing to pay my own way."
"With this? You expect to get a hamburger and coffee with a buck? This isn't 1955, Simon." Freud pushed it back into the other man's hand. "I'm too tired to...."
Freud's shoulders hitched. Lowkey frowned.
"What is it, Jimbo? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"You mean you didn't hear it?"
"The voice. The one Max and I heard this morning when I was reading my book on the air."
"Oh Jimbo!" Simon moaned. "You really should give up on that Fantasy stuff. It's effecting you."
"No more than your Shakespeare does you!" Freud said, pulling the book closer to his chest.
"Leave my beloved bard out of this. He has no goblins and dwarves in his work."
"But he has witches and ghosts," Freud said, shivering slightly as he looked down the hall again. It was empty and cold.
"Look, maybe you ought to go home and rest, Jimbo," Lowkey said, "I'll ride the elevator down with you and get my own food."
"What about your precious program?"
"I put on a little MacBeth. It should hold them until I get back."
They moved down the corridor together, passing offices, newsrooms and editing stations.
"You know we're a dying breed, you and I?" Lowkey said in an odd melancholy matching Freud's.
"Us? You mean we have something in common?"
"Not much, I'll admit," Lowkey said, "But you read -- which is more than most people do around here."
"They have other interests. Like revolution and politics."
"Literature is revolutionary. It's the stuff out of which utopias are made."
Voices of incoming people sounded from down the hall, life returning to the non-profit station after a long night. Soon the place would be hopping with brainwashed left-wing ideologies preaching their faith like born again Christians.
Freud hefted the book up. "If only I could find the places described in this book. Then, I might be happy."
And again, he stiffened, his head cocked right as the soft voice sounded from somewhere down the hall, curling up from the new gray rug, reverberating the walls and floor.
"Believe!" the voice said.
Lowkey's expression was puzzled.
"Don't tell me you didn't hear it that time," Freud said.
"I heard the air-conditioning go on," Lowkey said.
"That's all." Freud shook his head. "I must be more tired than I thought." They stepped out into the gray hall, where the real world began again.
"The front elevators don't start up until nine on Saturday," Lowkey said as Freud pushed the lifeless buttons.
"Oh yeah, I forgot." He hurried after Lowkey to the rear, where the trash was piled up in bags waiting for the day time custodial staff to take it downstairs.
"Well, I'll be!" Lowkey said, stepping into the vacant elevator. "We are in luck. I wonder where the old slouch-head is? Probably in the restroom again, reading our graffiti."
"I'll let him know we're here," Freud said.
"No, no, don't bother," Lowkey said, "I could run us down and have the elevator back up here before he's done. Even my audience won't listen to MacBeth forever."
"I don't know about this?" Freud said, looking up and down the hall. "It isn't like him to leave his elevator unattended."
"How do we know, we never see him. Come along, Jimbo. We're wasting precious moments."
Freud stepped into the cage. Lowkey closed the outer door and inner gate and sent the basket downward. There was silence now, except for the hum of the winding cables above and below them, and subtle swish of air marking the passing floors.
"Isn't that funny," Freud said.
"What's funny, Jimbo?"
"Oh, just this feeling I just got, like we were in something like a train tunnel."
"That isn't so strange," Lowkey said, "We are in a tunnel of sorts, but one that goes up and down instead of sideways."
"Yeah, but isn't it taking longer than normal? Shouldn't we have stopped already?"
Lowkey shifted the control back, trying to slow the machine. But it did not slow and the numbers the passing floors vanished as they passed down below the one they wanted.
"Now isn't that like this place," Lowkey said, "I figured one day this thing would break down, but I was kind of hoping I wasn't in it."
Lowkey hit the control again.
"I think it's slowing," Freud said, as the machine came to a soft landing before a dark set of doors. There was no number on them, as were on all the others.
"This really must be the sub-sub-basement," Lowkey said, pulling the door open, gasping as he did. "Well, I'll be a...."
It was green that greeted them, wholesome leaf green and knee high grass green, and distant mountain trees swaying to a brisk breeze. There was an unfamiliar tang to the air, of distant flowers and woodstove fires, and the definite scent of nearby moving water. Freud cocked his head. The sound of its gurgle rose like deep throated voices, singing some all too familiar tune. And yet, it was foreign, like a totally different planet. There were none of the customary sounds. No air planes. No beeping horns.
"We must have gotten the wrong floor," Lowkey said and moved to close the door again.
"No, don't!" Freud shouted, grabbing Lowkey arm. "This is more than just the wrong floor.
"And just what do you think you're doing, Jimbo?" Lowkey asked, as Freud took the first hesitant step out.
"I'm going to look around."
"Look, Jimbo, this isn't funny any more. We've obviously descended into some CIA experiment and it's best we leave it alone."
But Freud was already out, his feet crunching the pebbly soil. Just beyond the door of the elevator to the left, he could see the rising land and here and there stumble of boulders that had fallen from the cliffs above. They were obviously on the side of a mountain, the river running through the valley below. It was tree-filled and rich and quiet, though not without the twitter of a bird or two, and the motion of what might have been rabbits in the under-growth.
"Look," Freud said, "There's a road of some sort over there." Lowkey sighed and stepped out from the cage.
"Road's a wrong word for that," he said, "Footpath is more like it."
"It's too wide for a footpath," Freud said.
"But a cab wouldn't fit on it," Lowkey said, "And that's what we're both going to need to get ourselves to Bellevue."
"I wonder where we are?" Freud asked.
"Dangerous places, Master," a snuffling, hissing voice said from behind them, turning both figures from the elevator and sight of the road towards a third figure standing in their midst. This figure looked more like a toad than anything human, though with pale, almost white flesh and glowing green eyes. He had long fingers and dirty nails, and was bent over almost into a bow, head turned up towards them.
"And what the hell is that?" Lowkey asked.
"A better question might be what happened to the elevator!" Freud shouted, "It's gone!"
"I told you, Jimbo," Lowkey said, "We should have gone when we had a chance."
Only it wasn't from Lowkey that the words came, but from another creature not so different from the first, slightly taller perhaps, with browner flesh, dressed in mud-stained trousers and a strange gray hooded cloak that seemed to shimmer with the colors around it.
"Simon?" Freud said.
"I'm right here," the cloaked figure said, turning about to face Freud, "Is your eyesight going as well as your...."
The figured stopped, the bushy brows folded over a startled set of blue-gray eyes, looking deeply puzzled.
"I don't want to say anything, Jimbo," The figure said, "But you've gotten even shorter and uglier than you were before." The voice was absolutely Lowkey's. Freud squinted.
"Are you blind now?" Lowkey asked, "Too much fine print and reading under strained lights at the station. You really should give up your show before you really fall apart, boy. In fact, I think my eyes are going too. The more I look at you, the more you look like a gnome."
"M-Masterssss," the third figure said again, "It'ssss not s-safe to ssstay here."
Both men turned back to the pale gnome in their midst. The gnome that was Lowkey shook his head, a heavy pipe tumbling out of the yellow tunic under the hooked cloak.
"Which brings us back to this foul creature," Lowkey said, "I thought it was illegal to pick up hitchhikers in an elevator."
"Do you know us?" Freud asked.
The poor pale creature's bulging eyes looked puzzled.
"Mastersss, Mastersss, no time for gameses. Unsafe placeses here. No, no, we shouldn't like nice mastersss to stays here so closeses to the road."
"Fine answer!" Lowkey said, putting his pudgy little hands on his pudgy little hips. "He acts like he's known us all his life."
"All this has a damned familiar ring to it," Freud said, looking up. Above them, the trees knit a green patchwork roof, through which the slanting sun pierced. "I feel I should know this place, but I don't know why."
"Because you're half gnome yourself," Lowkey said, "And you're always reading those silly books. I swear we've wound up in one of your nightmares."
"Before you accuse me of being a gnome, Simon, I would look at your feet, and at the clothing you're wearing."
The figure looked down, the wrinkled gnome face taking on an expression of horror. "My God! Somebody stole my Pumas, and right off my feet! In fact, someone stole my feet and left me with...."
Lowkey looked up and glared around. "All right, what is going on around here anyway?"
"Well? What about it little man?" Freud asked their white-skinned companion. "Is this some kind of Government experiment?"
The other creature swallowed with a soft, but almost toadish sound. "Mastersss s-say I ssshould bring you here. I bring you here."
"Now wait one minute there, buddy!" Lowkey said, pushing himself between Freud and the toadish stranger. "All I wanted was a cup of coffee. I know the joint in the basement is weird, but not this weird."
"There's food in your backpack," Freud suddenly said, shifting his own down off his shoulder. He flipped open the top to reveal an assortment of dried fruits and breads. Lowkey did likewise, taking deference to one selection.
"Not bad! Not bad!" He mumbled and stuffed his face.
"Take it slow on that, Simon," Freud said, "We don't know where to get more."
"We'll get it the same place we got this," Lowkey mumbled snapping his finger, "Out of thin air."
"No fishes where we go," their sad companion said, seeming to agree with Freud. This figure rubbed his wrists where a slight discoloration of the flesh showed rope burns. He glared at Lowkey as the green fire came back to his eyes. Lowkey swallowed.
"I don't think this fellow likes me," he said, stuffing yet another piece of dried fruit into his maw. "And what's this?" Lowkey help up something wrapped in golden leaf, a cake that crumbled to the touch. Freud took a pinch and put it on his tongue. His expression changed. The weariness of miles seemed to vanish from his face and arms shoulders. He brightened.
"That's damned good, whatever it is!" he said.
"We must hurry," the white figure said, tugging on Freud's sleeve, sniffing at the cake in Lowkey's hand as if it was poison. "Elveses!" he hissed, "Nasty Elveses!"
"What did he say?" Lowkey said, folding the cake back into its leaf.
"I'm not sure either," Freud said frowning.
"Not sssafe to stay here," the white creature said, refusing to look at him, but stared up hill towards the rising grade, though not towards the road. He was looking to the South, where the road seemed to move away from them, leaving light, but substantial woods into which to trek.
"I vote we stay here and wait for the elevator," Lowkey said. "And if it doesn't come?"
Lowkey shrugged. "I want to say anything, Jimbo, but this fellow does not seem like the most reliable of guides. God knows what kind of mischief he might lead us into."
"And God knows what kind of danger lurks around here that makes him want to hurry," Freud said.
Lowkey glanced around, squinting at the dark patches that seemed to lie most heavily near the road. "But where does he want to take us? Tell me that!"
Freud cringed and hitched his shoulders.
"What's up, Jimbo?" Lowkey cried, "You look like someone just hit you in the back of the head."
"Don't tell me you didn't hear it that time, Simon? It practically shook the ground."
"I didn't hear a whisper, Jimbo. Frankly, I'm beginning to think you do need a shrink."
"What about him?" Freud said, jabbing at the pale figure, who was still quaking, his bulging eyes wide and frightened.
"Elveses," He said, "Nasty little Elveses!"
"Jimbo," Lowkey said, "I don't like the sound of any of this. What did this voice say anyway?"
"It said 'Believe'."
"It didn't say."
"No, naturally. None of these mysterious voices ever do. That's the problem with you fantasy hounds."
"I seem to remember a few unclear spirits in Shakespeare, Simon."
"Shakespeare isn't translated."
"See! That's the problem."
"Masters! Pleases! We go now!"
"I think we should follow him," Freud said.
"No, I mean it. Something else happened when I heard the voice. I saw something. It was if I was looking through a window of water and saw myself lying on the flat on the ground. Not this me. But the one from the station."
"So? You're were taking a nap. That isn't unusual for you."
"It looked like I was dead, Simon."
"Masters!" The pitiful creature was on his knees now, tugging at Freud's sleeve, looking back and forth between the transformed men.
Freud looked down and nodded. "Yes, we're coming. Go on, sniff out the trail for us."
The creature's trembling stopped. It straightened, looking almost affectionate, then turned, and bent again, this time moving away on all fours like a hound, and indeed, sniffing the ground out ahead of them.
"Very cavalier of you," Lowkey said, "But suppose he's up to no good. I tell you, I don't like the look of him. No not at all."
"He's all right," Freud said, starting up the rising ground after the creature. "He won't betray us for a while yet."
"For a while? And just what is that supposed to mean?" Lowkey yelled, his voice booming down the mountainside, turning up the sniffling nose of the creature ahead of them.
"Shut up, Simon," Freud said, "I can't explain it now."
"Then you do know what's going on!"
"I have a guess. But I'll keep it to myself till I'm sure."
"Or until old slime face betrays us!" Lowkey grumbled.
"Oh no, I'll know more certainly well before that."
"I'm real comforted," Lowkey said, "Then maybe you can show me the way back to the elevator. Before Rosemary has my job!"
"That, Simon, I may never be able to do."
"Fine! Fine!" Lowkey said, throwing up his hands. "Welcome to Jimbo's nightmare. Just do me a favor next time, Jimbo, let me decline the invitation!"
Despite the incline, travel was not hard, and the three strange companions did not break a sweat, resting often, as the pale figure begged them to pause as he moved ahead, sniffing out uncertain ground. The soil was soft with recent spring. The air was clear, except in the East where a brown haze seemed thick over the mountain top like a growing storm. To the West, the Sun appeared, shimmering through the trees and on the distant water. They seemed to be traveling away from the water, and bright green fields of tall grass, and other mountains of whiter rock.
"China!" Lowkey said suddenly at one of these breaks.
"That's where we are. The elevator went straight through the planet and popped us up in the middle of Asia."
"You were to China once, does this look like it?"
Lowkey looked from side to side, then shook his head. "No, but I never did get a chance to see all of it. This might be some remote region."
"And what about our little friend's Elveses?"
"All right, so we're not in China," Lowkey said, grumbly.
"Hurry," The pale figure said, motioning them forward again with a wave of his long fingered hand.
The land grew more steep and ragged after that, and both men in their forms found it difficult to keep up with the slivering and sliding figure that was their guide. The pale eyes looked back often, and the weak, croaking voice called them again and again to hurry.
"Hurry where?" Lowkey grunted, as the pack he carried sagged more and more on his shoulders. "What is in this goddamn pack that's so heavy anyway."
"I believe we'll be turning up into those mountains soon," Freud said, pointing to the left, towards the walls of stone that had risen out of the woods like forbidding walls, hewn and broken blocks of stone that were more mint from a quarry than natural bits of fallen debris. "As for the pack. You'll probably find it easier if you dump the cooking gear that's in the bottom. We won't be using it again."
"Cooking gear?" Lowkey said, tugging the pack off his shoulders, dragging out the content, of which more than half was a collection of pots and pans. "You mean to tell me you let me carry this junk all this time?"
"I just remembered you had it," Freud said.
Lowkey's eyes narrowed. "Remembered? What is this, Jimbo? A practical joke? Are you getting even with me for last year's boat ride or what?"
"No joke, Simon."
"Then what the hell is going on."
"Not yet," Freud said, "I'm not sure yet."
"Comeses," The persistent voice of their guide said, from up the hill, sliding slightly on slippery stones, "We hast to hurry. Soon we goeses to the cross roads."
"Cross Roads?" Lowkey said, his gnome face brightening. "Now that seems a bit more promising. Maybe there'll be a phone I can use, to tell Max to turn over the tape. What Rosemary doesn't know can't hurt me!"
"Even if you found a phone, I don't think you could call the station from here," Freud said sadly, huffing up the incline which led closer and closer to the lip their guide said marked the road.
"Why not! I have a Sprint card? What about cigarettes? Do know the last time I had a smoke? My God!" Lowkey clutched his chest. "I don't believe it. It's been hours. That has to be my all time record."
It was near dark now, even though there were clear signs of slanting sun from the West, a beam of red gleaming across the upper limbs of lower trees like a large fiery eye, winking at them as the heavy laden clouds spread out from the mountain top, thick as brown ink, staining everything it touched. It was smoke, encrusted with ash that might have come from early century Pittsburgh Steel Mills, and the travelers coughed as they walked, though most of it passed over their heads, the tree tops keeping it from sweeping the very ground.
"Damn it," Freud said, "Why did it have to be this time? Why couldn't it be earlier before all this mess started?"
"Jimbo," Lowkey said, closing the distance that had separated them on the trail. "I don't know if you've noticed, but you're talking to yourself. You've been mumbling like that since we've started to climb."
Freud looked up at his taller friend, although neither of them were tall now. It was Freud's gnome form that seemed unusually bent, as if carrying a great weight around his neck. He looked equally sad.
"It's where I think we are," He said, "We've come at a particularly inopportune time, when things here are rather unsettled."
Lowkey looked around. "It's seems peaceful enough -- except maybe for those horrendous clouds."
"The calm before the storm, friend," Freud said, "And if fortune had been with us, we might have been holed up many miles northwest of here in perfect comfort, blowing smoke rings with Wizards, or telling riddles to Dragons."
"Neither situation seems so peaceful to me," Lowkey said, "Wizards and Dragons?"
"Ah, but compared to the road I believe us on now, those things are but pebbles in a pool. But I'm not sure yet, and let's not speak of it until I am."
"Yes, yes," the nervous Lowkey said, looking carefully around at the deepening shadows, "I quite agree."
They came to the ridge line abruptly. A low wall seemed to separate the forest from the road. But it was old and crumbled in many places, with vines and flowers and high grass penetrating it more often than not, though over the distant, it curved perfectly with the mountain showing a great skill in its original design. Nor was the road merely dirt, but a complicated structure of stones that was as level and long-lasting as any the Romans might have put down.
Lowkey stamped his feet, leaving marks of dust and thick clumps of dirt. Freud sighed and sat on a still flat portion of wall, taking his pack off. The pale gnome rushed back from a few yards up the trail, shaking his head from side to side.
"No, no, nice masters must not rest here. Dangerous places, Masters."
"We're tired," Lowkey said, "This isn't basic training and you're not a drill sergeant."
"Just one minute, please," Freud said, "A minute can't hurt anything, can it?"
"Every sssecond precious," The gnarled creature said, but settled against another section of wall further on and sulked. Lowkey took a swig from his canteen. "My God! There's wine in this thing."
"No, just very rich water from a very precious spring," Freud said, "Take very care when you drink it. We will not taste anything so sweet in a very long time."
"I'm getting sick of all this mystery, Jimbo," Lowkey said, deliberately taking another sip. "And very soon I'm going to start demanding answers."
"You'll have your answers soon enough," Freud said, "And may not like them when you get them."
"Come, come, masters," The pale gnome said, tugging at them again, "Must go now. Very dangerous, yes."
The crossroads were exactly that: A meeting of roads, where the walls of two great ways formed a circle, huge redwood-sized trees looming around like giants, each to a dull black shadow high above the three figure's heads, more clouds than growth, forming pillars which even the road-makers would have found difficult to build better. Though the trees tops were ragged, too, broken in places, as if a firestorm had recently swept over them as they huddled to protect this little nest.
"The crossroads, yes," their pale guide said, his crooked mouth forming a sneer at their obvious wonder. "We must go that ways, yes." He pointed to the south fork, which followed the foot of the mountain, turning slightly inward and upward after a few hundred yards.
"And what's wrong with this other way?" Lowkey asked, jabbing a finger towards the other road, a road which followed the slope of the mountain down into obviously greener pastures. In the distance, the remaining rays of the sun showed pleasantly on nearly straight road, and high gentle grasses on either side where it came close to the river bank.
"Masters say we goes this way," The creature said, glaring at Lowkey, his green eyes glowing with fury. "Masters say we must find another way. This road takeses us to other way. Not that road."
"I haven't told you anything," Lowkey said, "And frankly I'm sick of all this stuff about ways and where we must go. I don't like that road one bit and I won't take it without some clear explanations as to why I should."
"Because it's the way the story goes," Freud suddenly said, his voice sounding weary and worn, and his expression was one of sadness.
"Story? What story?"
"The one we are in."
"You confuse me, Jimbo, and I don't like to be confused."
"Look over there," Freud said, "Behind that wall."
Lowkey took a few steps to the south, where the wall curved making up the southwest portion of the circle.
"Look down, over the lip."
"There's a Kings head there, crowned with flowers. Right?" Lowkey's expression changed to rage as he turned towards Freud.
"You know I'm beginning to think this whole trip wasn't an accident, Jimbo, and I don't like practical jokes. Especially where losing my program is concerned. I suggest you get us both out of here right this minute."
"I agree with you. It wasn't an accident. But it isn't my doing either. Whatever brought us here has its own intentions in mind."
"If you're not in on the little game, how do you know so much about what's going on?"
"I've read the book."
"Jimbo, please!" Lowkey said, "If it isn't a joke, then I'm going out of my mind and I don't like the prospect of that either. Tell me what you know and let's get on with it."
Freud moved beside his friend and looked over the lip of the wall. The stone kings head, indeed, was as he described it, cast down in some violent act, which had also left gnashes across the face. Whatever or whoever had cast if off the pedestal near the road entrance, had hated what it stood for.
"That way," He said, pointing down the road which Lowkey wished to follow, "Leads to an old and ancient city. It is ruins now. It has been battled over lately with many lives lost. But it's beautiful tower still stands, white against the peaks of mighty mountains. It's people are stout and brave, and it's history is rich with magic and heroism like nothing we know in our world."
"And you don't want to go there?"
Freud laughed. "I want to go there more than you'll ever know, and to the thousand other places north and west and south of it. I want to poke my head into every hole and tree trunk. I want to drink from every stream."
"Then why the hell are we following this clown if we can seek civilization?"
Freud looked at Lowkey, his eyes were sad and heavy. "Because of this," He said, drawing out a ring from under his shirt, a simple gold ring dangling on a chain. "This takes us down the uglier road, Simon, to places and things which are so ugly that I shiver to think of them."
Lowkey reached for the ring, but Freud pushed it back into his tunic.
Their guide was on them again, pulling at them, hissing and groaning and saying this was no place to stop. "Dangerous, yes, very, very dangerous. We must hurry, yes, yes, hurry before they comes and finds us here."
Lowkey stared at Freud for a moment, then sniffed the air and looked up at the thickening clouds. It Twilight now, even though down the road west and over the river, the sun still shone brightly.
"It's those damned clouds," Lowkey said, "It's almost as if the mountains were manufacturing them."
"Yes," Freud said, starting down the south road after their anxious guide, "It almost is."
It was a dark way. The trees were dark and baked on the mountain side as if from great heat, and leaves were withered and roots exposed. There roots out into the road, lifting up the well-fit stones like limbs seeking to escape an earthly prison. As the road turned into the mountain, the trees leaned in, almost falling over the wall that retrained them.
Lowkey walked, pushing bits of dried fruit into his mouth. "I'm gonna get fat this way, Jimbo."
"Then stop eating."
"I can't. I don't have any cigarettes, and my nerves are stretched then. They have cigarettes in this book of yours?"
"Pipe weed. Some of the best ever grown, from what I've heard."
"Hummm!" Lowkey said, stroking his chin. "I might look good with a pipe. A bit distinguished even. But I suppose the only pipe and pipe weed are down that other road?"
"As a matter of fact, there might be a pipe in your pack," Freud said, "And if you're lucky, a pinch of tobacco, too."
"What? You knew this and let me torture myself?" Lowkey cried and swung the pack off his shoulder, parking it on a portion of unbroken wall, tugging out the contents of his pack until he came upon the wanted items. He held up the pipe. It was big bowled, hand-carved work of art, that might have been taken from one of the large trees around them, the knot polished into its center like a glaring eye.
"This isn't exactly the look I had it mind," Lowkey said, pushing the pipe between his teeth, poking tobacco into it. "But it will do! Yes, it will do! Now how about a match?"
"I don't think they exist here," Freud said. "But you'll find a tinder box in the pack, too, if you look hard enough."
"A tinder box? Are we not carrying this charade a little too far, Jimbo?" Lowkey asked, but found the box and used it, sucking in the smoke with a satisfying sigh.
But their guide was not happy, coming back upon them, barking at them. "Not here. Not here. Nasty masteres cannot rests here. Later we rests. Oh yes, later."
"Why don't I like the look in his eye when he says that?" Lowkey asked, gathering up his things again and hurrying on with the repeated requests.
"Because he has evil plans for us," Freud said.
"You know this for a fact?" Lowkey said, pipe drooping slightly with the shock, "And you still want to follow him?"
"It's essential. It's the way the story goes."
"Look, Jimbo," Lowkey said, grabbing Freud's arm as they walked, "I think it's about time you let me in on things. If we gotta follow some predetermined scheme, I want to know what it is."
Freud told him as they walked up the road, under the shadow of the mountain, their pale guide sniffing twenty yards ahead of them, he told Lowkey the history which had led them there and the consequence of that journey, reciting the words the way from memory, the way he sometimes did, nodding at the console during the early morning recitations. Freud's eyes were almost closed with it, as his gnome lips shaped each word and each description. He was most vivid with the details of elves and the grand little lands to the far northeast.
"If only we had wound up in that part of the story," He mumbled at last, "We might have had years of pleasant times before us. Now there's only darkness and pain, and even when we finish this little part of the story -- if we do, it will never be the same." Lowkey's expression had changed, too, growing more and more horrified with each uttered word, his attention suddenly conscious to the thinning trees and thickening cropping stone.
"Now wait a minute, Jimbo!" He said, grabbing Freud's arm, slowly their pace down into a sudden dip of land, a little dark valley out of which the smell of foul water began to rise. "Let me get this story of yours straight. We're following this loser up into those mountains because we gotta get rid of that -- that ring of yours. And somewhere up in those hills, this clown is going to betray us to some monster, you're going to get captured, and I'm supposed to take you for dead?"
"That's largely it," Freud said, "It would have helped if you had read the book, so you know how to come rescue me."
"You're crazy!" Lowkey said, his sharp retort echoing off the stone, making him and Freud cringe, and their guide turn with wrinkled finger across his lip.
"Must be quiet, Masters, yes, yes, must not make such noise. Very, very dangerous here."
"All right," Lowkey said in more subdued voice. "Let's look at your logic. You say we've somehow stepped inside this book of yours. How does one do that? I mean, maybe some warp in space might have taken up forward or backwards in time. But into a book? We're talking fiction here, boy. Not real not, never real."
Freud shook his head. "It confuses me, too. But the details are all here. This is that world, whether we like it or not. Maybe books are merely reflections of what goes on in alternate realities and we've somehow crossed over into it. But we're here and we'd better follow its rules."
"Rules? We should be making our own rules, Jimbo. Why should we do what the dumb schmucks in that book of yours did, walking up there to their doom, when we know better, when there's all sorts of wondrous other things in this world we could go see."
"Because that's the way the story goes," Freud said.
"Bah!" Lowkey howled, throwing up his hands. "There you go with that stuff again."
"Look, Simon, it isn't as simple as walking away from the problem. That's what this part of the story is all about. The character has to go up into the mountains because there is no other answer, because if he turns aside the evil will follow him and hunt him down."
"Not for awhile," Lowkey said, "Maybe we can find our way back to our world by that time."
"And maybe we won't. I don't think we came here by accident."
"You're alluding to that voice again?"
"It means something."
"It means you're nuts and I'm nuts for listening to you. Right now, the both of us are walking down Broadway somewhere just barely dodging traffic, and any minute, a bunch men with special coats are going to grab up and take us to Bellevue."
"I hope it's as simple as that," Freud said. "In the meantime, we're going to play this thing by the rules. At least that way, we know how it all comes out. You and I survive. And that's something, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," Lowkey grumbled, looking away, as the road took them deeper into the little valley. A white bridge appeared over a sluggish, near-dry creek, made of the same stone, and with the same handiwork as the road and wall beside it. There was a deep layer of dust over it, through a few tracks marking the passage of horses over it.
And then, from it, the two figures saw the tower rising from the side the mountain, a spiraled spike sticking up into the darkening sky, a smooth tooth with a single red roving light at the top.
"I don't like the looks of that!" Lowkey said, "Don't tell me we're going in there?"
"What's the matter, Hamlet?" Freud said with a nervous laugh, "I thought you liked castles."
"I'll take mine haunted. That thing looks occupied and I don't want to say with what."
"Evil things," Freud said, "But among many in this world."
"Some books you read, Jimbo. I wish you were fond of Bambi or something."
"The evil of a world is often matched by the goodness it takes to overcome it. This world is a good place full of good people. That's why I love the book."
"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" Lowkey mocked.
"I don't know," Freud said, "I haven't been tested yet. Come on. Our companion is getting nervous again."
They took a step towards the tower, but the pale hands tugged them aside.
"Not that way, Masters, not that way!"
The poor creature was breathing through his teeth, sucking in the air like an excited child, a slight whistle resulting. He cowered near the ground, refusing to look up at the tower, as if it gave him great pain, or the memory of pain.
"This way," He said, crawling off the road toward a break in the wall, this side of the bridge. But Freud did not move at first, staring at the tower, both hands clutching his chest.
"Come on, Jimbo," Lowkey said, pulling Freud by the elbow. "Why are you standing here?"
"It's the ring. It's resisting. It wants to wait for...."
A drum started. A deep booming drum that filled the whole of the valley, rising up from somewhere in the tower, carrying forth like a bulletin. Lowkey looked up sharply.
"Jimbo! Come on! I don't like our little friend, but I agree with him about this place. It isn't safe."
The drum beat grew louder and the sound of clanking metal came from the nearest tower gate. There were voices, too. A dull chant that seemed to shrivel the remaining leaves on the trees.
"Masters, Masters!" The pale creature said, "Come now. Or not come any more."
But Freud still would not move. His jaw shifted and froze, teeth locked. "I can't help thinking that I'm standing somewhere near Wall Street," He told Lowkey through gritted teeth. "And nothing is going to happen to me."
"Well maybe it won't," said Lowkey, "But I wouldn't take a chance. Come on." This time, Lowkey put an arm around Freud's shoulder and tugged him along, down the rocky path along the side of the bridge to stream bed itself.
Freud stumbled and fell. Above them, the gates opened. A crack of thunder sounded and from the tip of the tower, bolts of lightning rose, blue cracks forming in the tree and sky, leaving behind the smell of ozone and the burnt timber. A fire or two lighted in the tips of trees. But it was the cry that turned their heads, a shrill cry sounding like death itself. All three fell to the ground, huddling under the lip of the bridge. And out from the open gate marched the army, all clad in sable and iron, like a dark mass of flowing oil, covering everything it touched. Some of the faces of these soldiers were human, others mocking masks of what might have once been human, while others were two legged monsters with glaring Halloween mask grins. First came the cavalry, dark horsemen with hooded heads, led by a still darker figure whose eyes seemed to glow out of a space of darkness where a face should have been.
Freud's clutched at stone, then slowly worked up his side to his chest where the ring was hidden, pulling back the fabric of Elven cloak until the ring was exposed and his fingers around it. The leader of the army stopped at the edge of the bridge. The army paused. The drum beat faltered. The leader seemed to sniff the air, turning his faceless head this way and that. His horse snorted, too, seemingly frightened, barely reigned.
"It's the ring," Freud hissed, his teeth still clenched, "It calls to him."
"Then give it to him," Lowkey said.
"I can't." Freud said, cringing again.
Lowkey eyed him. "The voice again?"
Freud nodded. "It said believe."
The Rider turned away, spurring his snorting horse down the road which Freud, Lowkey and their guide and climbed. The drum beat started again. The army moved on, the stumbling and grumbling, their feet pounding over the bridge, and, after what might have been hours, they ceased, and the heavy gates to the dark tower closed with a clang.
"They're off to war," Freud said, rising, wiping the dust from hands and shirt and face.
"Better them than me," Lowkey said, his blue eyes now dark, staring after the army for a long time. Finally, he shook his head and shuddered. "This is a strange, strange world you got us into, Jimbo. I'll give you that. What now?"
"We follow him," Freud said.
"Into the trap, right?"
Freud shivered. "Yes."
Lowkey gaze traveled up the path which ran for a time along the dried stream bed. "To the lair of some monster? This hardly seems the stuff dreams are made of," He said.
"If helps you any, you get to stab the monster."
"I do?" Lowkey said, his eyes brightening. "A bit of action?" He swished an imaginary sword through the air. "MacBeth wasn't lost on me."
"Come, come, masters," Their guide pleaded, but now his face seemed less fearful, though he cast a glance or two towards the quiet and waiting tower. "We must go now."
"The little bugger is in a hurry, isn't he?" Lowkey said, glaring at the figure. "Maybe I should stab him and forget the beast."
"We can't," Freud said.
"I know! I know!" Lowkey said, throwing up his hands as they started their climb. "That's not the way the story goes!"
The next few hours were hard. The path left the stream bed and headed more sharply into the mountains. The trees faded almost at once and cropping of sharp rock took their place. At the beginning of the incline, the path turned to a set of stairs. Even, crafted stairs, but hundreds of them, closely spaced, going up at an angle which seemed to bend them almost backwards in their climb.
The fear in their guide's face shifted into anxiety, his eyes glowing more and more as they drew near the top of the mountain.
"We're getting closer to it," Freud said.
"Ah, the proverbial trap," Lowkey said. "I sure hope you know what you're doing, Jimbo."
"It's all in the book," Freud assured him, falling into silence with the effort at climbing.
Then the stairs ended. At least the first set of them did, leaving a level bit of ground upon which to rest.
Their pale guide vanished almost as soon as they settled in.
"He's going to check with his master," Freud said. "She's no doubt very hungry."
"And we're the meal?"
"That's the way our friend has it planned."
"And you say it all comes out all right in the end."
"If we follow the book, it does."
"And how does this book get us away from this monster, if it's a trap."
"Magic," Freud said, breaking out a little of the food from his pack, the cakes wrapped in leaves that their guide said were made by "Elveses".
"What kind of magic?"
Freud shifted aside his cloak, and fingered a second chain around his neck. This contained a phial instead of a ring. His hand closed around it and opened slowly. His other hand dropped the bit of cake.
"What's wrong?" Lowkey asked.
"This thing," Lowkey said, looking at the phial more closely. "It's supposed to contain light from an elf queen's ring."
"Another ring? There certainly are a lot of those things going around."
"This isn't funny, Simon. This thing isn't working."
Lowkey leaned closer. "So check the batteries."
"It doesn't have batteries."
"Does it have a warrantee?"
"Stop joking, Simon! This thing is life and death for us. So far everything has gone according to the book, and if we expect to get through to the other side, this thing has to work."
"Then shake or kick it or something."
"One does not kick a gift from the lady of the woods," Freud said. "We screwed up somewhere."
"Not you, all-mighty master of fantasy literature. I thought you had this book memorized."
"I'm not sure," Freud said, "I think it's not so much what we've done or haven't done, but who we are."
"Now you're talking in riddles again."
"We're not who we're supposed to be. Despite these bodies, you and I are the same people that left the radio station in New York. Somehow it's effected the magic."
Then, Freud's hands leaped up to cover his ears.
"What now?" Lowkey cried, "What's wrong with you now?"
"The voice!" Freud shouted, "Can't you hear it?"
"No, for the millionth time, no," Lowkey said, "Do you mind translating?"
"It said believe."
"A bit monotonous?"
Freud's jaw shifted and a wrinkled form across his forehead. He stared off into the dusty drop a few feet from them, looking across at the other dark peaks of this saw-toothed mountain chain.
"It's been saying something to me all along," He said, looking down at the phial again. "I think the voice is trying to tell me that the magic works on belief. The people whose place we're taking believed wholeheartedly in the magic because it was natural for them to do so."
"And now you're going to blame this on me, right?" Lowkey said, "You're going to tell me that stupid flashlight of yours won't work because I'm not a convert?"
"No, not you. Me."
"What? You're the fantasy fanatic! If anyone should believe this stuff, it would be you."
"Just because you love Shakespeare, doesn't mean you believe in his ghosts, does it?"
"It's not the same, and you know it."
"Maybe not," Freud admitted, looking down at his feet. The hair dusty toes sticking through the strapped sandals like a beast's. "I want to believe. But it just doesn't come from the soul, if you know what I mean."
"No," Lowkey said, standing suddenly, glaring down at his companion. "For two days or more now, you've been ranting and raving about keeping to the pages of the book, telling me about how there's this evil enemy over on this other side of the mountain and how we're gonna knock him over by destroying his ring. You've also been telling me about this spider-like monster that's waiting inside this mountain somewhere that we -- that's you and I -- have to slay with our little swords. Now, you're telling me that the whole game's off, that the monster may indeed kill us and that we're going to hell in a goddamn hand basket all because you don't believe any of it!"
Freud nodded, then hung his head.
"That's not good enough, Jimbo. I went along with this gag because I believed everything you were saying about following the rules."
"There are no rules any more," Freud muttered weakly.
"Then why don't we turn the hell around and go find one of those pleasant little places you keep mumbling about?"
"Because they won't exist if we don't destroy the ring."
"But you don't believe it! So what does any of it matter?"
"It matters," Freud said. "It just matters."
Their guide returned, his pale form floating out of the mountain shadows like a cloud, his eyes glowing deeper red than they had in days, like batteries renewed, his tongue licking his thin lips as if tasting the morsels of a delicious meal.
"Clever masterssss, for you to have climbed so high," He said, "Just a few more steps, yes, yes, that's all."
"I'll bet," Lowkey said, his hand on his sword.
"Don't, Simon," Freud said, "We'll need him again before the end."
"But only if you get your magic working," Lowkey growled, but his hand dropped from the sword hilt, as Freud rose and they started again, East, up and over the mountain.
They climbed even higher. Their packs drooped on their backs, the straps cutting into their shoulders, as their legs pushed off against the hard stone. More steps came, and these were even steeper, and twisted around the curves of mountain like a tight belt. Freud stopped often, sighing deeply. Lowkey grumbled and glared at their companion. It was hours, maybe days later, darkness had come and gone, when the stairs ended and they fell to rest at the top.
"All this for what?" Lowkey asked. "Let me slice the devil now. That way we're sure to get him at least."
"No," Freud said, rubbing his legs. He took out the phial again. Its light was no brighter than it had been below. Their companion was furious.
"Not here, not wait here, nice masters. A little more, yes, yes, just a little more."
"We're resting," Lowkey said, "So shut up already."
"The tunnel must be close," Freud said.
"And the trap," Lowkey added.
Again, Freud stared into space, only now they were around the mountain more, sitting upon the face that looked East.
"Look," Freud said, pointing towards a cropping of rock just below them, though many twists and turns before its path connected with theirs.
"Not another tower," Lowkey moaned. "That last one was quite enough."
"But that's where I'm to be taken," Freud said, "And it's there that you rescue me."
"You're forgetting one small incidental," Lowkey said, "I'm supposed to kill the monster first."
Freud's head fell again to his chest. "Yes, yes, I didn't forget."
"Come masters, nice masters," their guide urged, "Just a little bit more, yes, yes, and then nice darkness."
They came upon the tunnel quickly, but not without warning, for the stench of it began almost as soon as they started to walk, an all pervading stench of rotting and mildew and death.
"Phew!" Lowkey howled, "Someone left the cheese out, that's for sure!"
Freud said nothing, but clutched his chest with both hands, one upon the precious ring, the other upon the useless phial. He gagged as they came to the entrance. It was not a smooth cave. The opening was more like a burst bubble in the stone with jagged points on three sides, and the walls just within, were ragged and broken for as far as the light would show.
"We're not really going in there, are we?" Lowkey asked, pausing on the brink, fingers curling around the break of rock like a man ready to fall.
"Afraid so, Simon."
"Look, why don't we call it a day. Maybe a few hours will clear the smell a little."
"The smell has been there forever," Freud said, "Or nearly so. It won't vanish overnight, and we don't have the night to kill. The sooner we get through this, the sooner we get onto doing what we came to do. And perhaps, if we're lucky, on to see the fair people before they fade away."
"But you said the game has altered," Lowkey said, "Without that fancy flashlight of yours, we don't stand a chance."
"We always stand a chance, Simon. It's just a slim one, that's all."
"And suppose I don't go?"
"Then I'm doomed to die in there. Or at the hands of creatures almost as ugly as this one."
"You make it sound so cheery, Jimbo, and you got that look in your eye again."
"The guilt inspiring look. The one that's accusing me of all sorts of callous things. Just because I don't want to go and get myself killed, that doesn't mean I'm evil."
"I never said you were."
"Not with your mouth, maybe, but you're saying it over and over with your eyes."
"Maybe it's your own conscience," Freud suggested, "Under all that gruff exterior, there is a human being."
"There you go again!" Lowkey shouted, "Stop with this, all right?"
Freud said nothing. Their guide had already vanished into the darkness, his flapping step echoing slightly in the distance. Lowkey stepped away from the cave.
"Why shouldn't I go back? I mean all this is silly, you and me carrying this idiotic ring into some dark and forbidden land? No wonder you don't believe it. It's ridiculous."
Freud stared at Lowkey, his own brown eyes watering slightly. "You know you do put me to shame. I think you believe all this better than I do. Maybe you should be the one with the ring?"
"I don't believe it!" Lowkey said, "How many times do I have to tell you that? None of this is real. We're not going to die here."
"Then why are you afraid to go in the cave?"
"No one said I was afraid."
Again Freud was silent.
"No I mean it," Lowkey said, "I'm not afraid. In fact, I'll prove it to you. Come on. Let's go. Let's see if you're any braver than I am!"
Lowkey stepped into the cave, his face reacting to the scent. He choked, fist pressing into his teeth.
"Well?" He croaked, "Are you coming?"
"Yes," Freud said with a sigh, "I'm coming."
It was putrid, oppressive darkness that swarmed around them like warm water, seeping into their lungs, eyes, ears and mouths. Lowkey was talking, but the words seemed distant and unreal, like supermarket muzak announcements, works reeling off one after another. And the stench, it choked them, Freud coughing with every stumbling step, sucking the air through his teeth as if it would keep the smell from settling into his lungs.
"So this is what you're fantasies lead us to, eh?" Lowkey said, pinching Freud's arm, tugging close to him, like a frightened child to his mother's skirts. "Why did I ever listen to you, and God knows why we bothered with that guide of ours. I ought to call the tourist's union and have him disbarred."
"It'll all come out all right in the end," Freud said, "Nothing can change a book once it's written."
"Yeah," Lowkey said, both men stumbling as they advanced very slowly, the round light of the doorway shrinking behind them. "It's all a dream. We'll wake up in the station basement with the dumb elevator man shaking us."
"Besides," Freud continued, "Why would anyone want us dead, a couple of foolish public radio DJs that happen to believe in Shakespeare and Elves"
"Shakespeare who?" Lowkey asked, his voice shivering in the now near complete dark, "And who said I believed in Elves?"
"It's going to be all right," Freud said, his fingers closing around the phial again, "All we really have to do is believe."
"God! I need a cigarette!"
Freud stopped. He looked sharply in the direction of Lowkey. Neither really could see the other now, only the vague outlines of their adopted forms in the dark.
"What? What's what?" Lowkey asked.
"The answer we're looking for?"
Lowkey's head turned in the dark, his gaze searching out the corners of the passage. "I seem to be missing some small detail here. What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you cigarettes. Or more precisely, you're pipe," Freud said, "Take off your pack."
"This is no time for a smoke, Jimbo, and besides, I used up the last of the tobacco a long time ago."
"But you didn't use up the tinder box," Freud said, "And that's the thing I'm interested in. I should have thought of it a long time ago. Maybe we can't believe wholeheartedly, the way the people whose places we have taken would have. So we have to use what tools we have. We might not have magic, but we have brains."
"And what exactly do you intend to do?"
"Create our own magic lantern. Here in the deep dark, any light is going to seem bright, and maybe, at the critical moment, we can use fire where the Elf Ladies light would have done."
"I think you're crazy. What are we going to set on fire, our clothing?"
"It necessary," Freud said, "But our packs should do. We'll only need light for a short time. I saw a rotting tree near the entrance to the cave, maybe we can make some torches."
"All right, Jimbo," Lowkey said, "I'll go along with it. But I have a funny feeling about all this."
They went back to the entrance and found the tree, and with the help of their small swords, broke it into appropriate sized pieces. They cut their packs apart and used the straps to tie the wrapped fabric around the sticks.
"What about our cloaks?" Lowkey said, fingering the hooded garment which their guide had said was made by `Elveses'. "They look like they might burn well."
Freud shook his head. "No, we're going to need them later for disguise if we get through this thing."
The "if" hung in the air and neither spoke for a time. But their work was soon completely and Freud stood, holding up nine potential sources of light.
"We'll use them only when the time is right," He said.
"But what about the darkness?" Lowkey asked, "You mean we're going to go back in there and stumble around until we find the right path? That seems a might risky."
"There are some things we have to leave to Fate," Freud said, "Fate or something brought our elevator here, I'm presuming it will take us where we have to be."
"Okay, Columbus," Lowkey said, "This is your fantasy, not mine. Lead on. Let's hope you're right."
They plunged back into the darkness, Freud clutching unlit torches in one hand and the ring and phial around his neck in the other. Lowkey followed with the rest of the torches and the tinderbox which they had removed from the pack before cutting it to shreds. This time, their step was less tenuous, they marched like soldiers into battle, sniffing at passages that opened this way and that along the main corridor.
"Not this one," Freud said, moving on.
"How do you know which is which?" Lowkey asked.
"The smell," Freud said, "It's the smell of the monster. It's bound be strongest in the sealed or dead-end passages. There are other ways out of this place, which means the smell has to get out, too. We'll just follow our noses until we smell fresh air again."
But despite their efforts, the path seemed to lead them down, deeper into the belly of the mountain. All light had vanished now, and their sense of smell and touch became acute, with Freud along one wall of the descending passage and Lowkey along the other, each announcing another opening when it came, each sniffing at the air to see if maybe this one was the one they wanted. And then, after what seemed like many, many hours later, the tunnel divided.
"Now what, Sherlock?" Lowkey asked.
Freud sniffed at the forked passages. First the left passage, then the right. "They both stink," He announced.
"Which leads us to what?"
"Fate," Freud said. "A flip of coin."
"Hey!" Lowkey said, tinderbox hand reaching out into the darkness to locate Freud. "What are you doing on your knees."
"Feeling the floor."
"For the path least taken," Freud said.
"Oh God, you're not quoting Robert Frost to me, are you?"
"Not, my literary-minded friend, I'm not," Freud said, "Nor are we taking the passage least used. The monster didn't make these caves, she inherited them. These were built by the same folks that built the road and towers and were used often at one time before the monster to get from one side of the mountain to another. Their path would lead out from this place and it would be well-worn, even after all this time."
Lowkey hummed slightly with thought. "I'm impressed, Jimbo. I never thought you had it in you. So which path is ours?"
"I would say the right one, gauging by the indented floor."
"Well, boy, off your knees and lead on."
It was largely more of the same, although both men stumbled more, even though the path was smoother than it had been, as if something heavy and fat had been dragged across it many time, smoothing out the stone. It was their legs. They had climbed too high and marched too long without significant rest, and neither suggested resting here, each looking over their shoulder into the darkness, each feeling their hair on the back of their necks rise.
"There's something back there," Lowkey whispered finally after a least another hour of walking.
"You heard it, too, then," Freud said, "I thought it was my imagination."
"It's all your goddamn imagination, Jimbo, but I happened to be caught in it, too, and this damned thing sounds big."
"It is, if the book is right."
"Maybe we should sort of hurry a little," Lowkey said, trembling as he touched Freud in the dark.
"I don't think we can," Freud said, stopping.
"What do you mean?"
"I think this is it. Feel this."
Lowkey pushed forward a hand, the tinder box tucked under his arm. "Ugh! Sticky rope!"
"Sticky web," Freud corrected.
"Web? You mean as in spider? But that stuff is as thick as bridge cables, Jimbo? How goddamn big is this beast?"
As if to answer, there was a sudden quick movement in the passage, a dragging sort of sound grinding the smooth rock smoother. A set of glowing red eyes appeared in the dark, like two hanging Christmas lights, only much more furiously intended. A sound of sucking came with a sudden increase in the level of stench.
"Damn it, I can't breathe!" Lowkey said.
"Hell with breathing, Simon, light one of those goddamn torches."
There was scraping and sparks, but no flame, the sparks showing the bent form of Lowkey over the tips of the torches.
"We need lighter fluid or something," He said, "This stuff just won't catch the way it is."
But Freud was no longer looking at his friend. His gaze was up towards the face of the monster, which was partially revealed in the occasional bursts of spark, a grotesque face of a hideous spider staring down, licking vicious chops over a potential meal. And Freud's face was distorted, too, his eyes widening as he stared, his mouth open slightly revealing a darting tongue.
"So it is real," He said, "All of it."
The beast moved. Lowkey cried and fell back against the net of sticky web. "It's no use, Jimbo. I guess we're doomed."
His voice was high pitched. His gaze dedicated totally to the where the monster's face had been, where the monster's face again appeared as a glow started again in the dark, not from the sparks this time, but from something clutched inside of Freud's fingers.
"The light!" Lowkey cried, "It works."
Freud looked down at his own hand, his face now perfectly visible in the dark, a disbelieving expression showing upon it. But those eyes rose again to the advancing beast, and they were filled with believe and rage and hope.
"Goddamn!" he shouted, "It is real! And if we get through this goddamn thing, we're going to be able to see all those things I've read about."
With each word, the light in his hand grew brighter, till it shone right through the flesh, revealing the structure of bone and vein that made up the hand which contained it.
"Then do something!" Lowkey cried, for the bulk of the monster was almost upon him, a grinning, terrible beast with many, many crooked legs, two or three of which were presently reaching out towards the fallen man's form.
Freud cried out a name. It was the name of the lady of elves that had given him the gift, and with her name, he opened his hand letting the piercing light loose in the darkness.
The beast screamed in horror. For no such light had ever dared invade her darkness before, nor was there such a light ever like this under the sun, its heat and fury burning deeply into the monster's eyes, turning their red glow pale.
It was a blinded, broken beast that howled in retreat, dragging its balloon-like bulk back the way it had come.
They could hear it crying, like a distant child.
"You did it, Jimbo!" Lowkey cried, leaping to his legs. "But we're still trapped." He pointed to the web. The light from the lady's gift was contained again within Freud's hand, with a beam released from slightly parted fingers showing them the tunnel ahead. They could smell clearer air and feel a slight breeze on their sweating faces.
"No problem," Freud said, unsheathing his small sword. "This blade is made by elves as well. See how it glows. I think it'll cut through almost anything."
It sliced each of the strands without effort, the long cables snapping free, leaving the passage ahead open for them.
"Come on," Freud said, "Now we've got to hurry."
"But we've defeated the beast. What's the rush now."
Freud stopped and looked closely at Lowkey face. "You still don't understand, do you, though I've told you over and over. This is only the beginning of the end. There's still much to be done. That beast isn't defeated yet. Only blinded. It's going to be waiting for me out there. It's going to stink me and try to carry me away. But you're going to be there with your sword. You're going to stab it through the belly and kill it. And you're going to think me dead."
"Jimbo! Talk sense."
"I'm telling you how the story goes and I expect you to remember it. We're back on track here, and if we want the end to come out as it's supposed to, we have to follow the rules. Here. Takes these."
Freud pushed the ring and lady's phial into Lowkey's hands. "Keep them safe until you rescue me from the tower. The enemy will find my body in the road. We don't want them to have these things."
"There's got to be another way," Lowkey said, his eyes shimmering with fright and pain. "I mean, you're leaving an awful lot in my hands. I never read the book. What if I do something wrong?"
"Fate," Freud said, "Trust in it. Or should I say, Believe?"
And with that, Freud was off, stepping through the cut webs, Lowkey behind him till light appeared again, the real, natural light of a cave mouth leading out.
Freud stopped. "This is where we part for a time. The monster will slip out from another exit above us somewhere and drop down on me. Stay far enough back then charge under it when it drops. You won't have strength enough to stab the beast yourself. Let its own weight do that. Just hold a steady sword, and when that's done, the beast is gone, run back into the shadows. The enemy is already gathering in their tower. They probably heard the cry of the beast and are coming to investigate. They'll find me in the road and take me back with them."
"And then what?"
"Follow behind, trust your instincts, and above all, believe."
Freud waved and stepped out into the dim light. There were in the enemy's land now, where brown clouds dampened the world, leaving behind a perpetual twilight. Lowkey waited until Freud was few hundred feet away and then began to follow. There was a noise from above and the sudden furious falling body of the beast, a blind, screeching beast with spider stinger exposed, dropping down onto Freud.
Lowkey howled and charged.
Freud looked up and watched the descending bulk of body coming down upon him, the beast's blind eyes glaring at the space where Freud was.
"Lowkey better not screw this up," Freud said, just as the stinger struck and he fell into narcotic sleep.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307