Midnight at the Crossroads Chapter Three
They journeyed on, into the grey light of whatever morning was supposed to be like on the other side. The sky slowly grew light enough for the stars to disappear, and something that resembled a pale imitation of the sun made its presence known in its own good time. Time didn't seem to matter that much here, and nothing was in a hurry to grow up or grow old. Trees bent and creaked with the wind in the same general way as they would in the mortal world whenever Alteng approached (with Dolora just behind him), but now there was a sense of dreamlike listlessness about movement as a whole, as if matter were being slowly forced into a state of inertia, or at least extreme complacency. Translucent clouds smeared themselves into existence across an otherwise weary bluish-violet sky. Morning dew begrudgingly decided to seep into grasses and linger on stone and wood only to overstay its welcome. An occasional drip from an overhanging branch would plop onto the ground in a display of lazy phlegmatics. Action did not have an equal and opposite reaction in the underworld- it was all merely a matter of adequate response.
Now that Alteng had two eyes, he discovered that he really didn't gain that much in the end. Fall colors in the leaves were muted, and if not for some pastel blues, violets, and browns, he would have sworn that everything was black and white. He also came to the opinion that his hearing was stifled. The branches were moving with the goddess's breath, but their creaking was rendered dull and hollow.
He was getting impatient for them to reach their destination, even if it was the land of the dead, and he let his displeasure be known to Dolora without delay. "How much farther to go? Does everyone have to walk this far just to get good and dead?"
Dolora blew out her breath just behind him, and the feather in his hat curled under his chin. "Oh, no" she replied, "This is just one of the scenic routes. Most of the time you'll be right there at the point of death. It just depends on whether you float there, or fall into it."
"Will I be hungry or thirsty while I'm there? Because if I still need food, I'd better get something soon."
"Most people still eat and drink in the underworld, but their needs are met without too much exertion. Some particularly glutinous souls are even punished with all the food they can stomach, and more. I'm sure there are enough wild dangerous beasts wandering around there for you to earn your keep by killing and eating."
Alteng liked what he heard. "Madam" he said, "Even I like a banquet on occasion that was prepared by someone else, as long as they take the first bite. You're the goddess of secrets, so tell me- what's the best way to detect poison in your food or drink?"
"Well, I don't like to give away trade secrets, but for one so small and cute as yourself (when you have all of your body parts), I will tell just this once. Always cough violently after your first bite. If people become concerned and they rush over to help you, the food is likely safe. If they start looking at their watches, then something is wrong."
Without knowing why he did it, Alteng pulled out his pocket watch (a gift from an old admirer, now deceased). He expected it to not be running, and he wasn't disappointed. He was not even surprised to find that he could not get it to run again. He felt it useless to ask Dolora about this new mystery, because deep down he thought he knew the answer already, but she spoke anyway even as he spun the thought.
"There is no time here. It has not stopped, but we are outside of its influence. The underworld is a repository for all times, but it is partial to none. The one I spoke of earlier, the God of Time Horologius, he has no power here. Even my powers are diminished, and I am but a guest of Halcymanius the Lord of the Underworld. He already knows who you are and why you are here. By my honor, you are one of the few given the grace of returning to the lands of the living when your choice is made. Choose wisely, for you may unravel the threads of your own fate. To die is not the end you would wish, either upon yourself or those you love. But the worst fate of all is to be truly fateless, deprived of your future and your soul cursed to wander without a final home. If I were in your place, I would choose one who has no desire to change history or to rule the world, but is content with the comforts of home, with good food and children under foot."
Dolora was right of course, both because she was very wise and Alteng happened to understand her meaning anyway, which automatically made her right in his book. He knew all along who he ought to choose, and he hoped he could find her soon. It had been years since he had seen his wife Ther. She had just given birth to their only daughter (named Miranda). Her brother William played the roll of midwife through Ther's labor, but now as Alteng looked on helplessly William was trying to save her life, for the birth had gone badly for her. "I have done my duty as a mother, now you must do yours as both father and mother" she said to Alteng, before words failed her.
Alteng never forgave himself for the death of his wife. There was no one to hunt down and seek vengeance upon, no medical malpractice, not even an accident. He rushed her into starting a family too soon, and they already had made an heir to the Cuxhaven name some ten years before. He got too greedy for a glut of children, and she paid for it. Now he felt that even if he found her, she would not come back with him just to be saddled with more of the same. He could not even take her back to their home, because now it was gone. What would she do with her life in these cold modern times? Maybe they could wander together, but he doubted she would be interested in a life of adventure, or danger.
A chilled hand touched him on the shoulder. He almost pulled away in surprise, and without thinking he turned around. Very tall Dolora was, and her robes and cloak billowed around in the breeze. They were dark, of a violet or greyish hue, though it was hard to tell which in the wan light of the underworld. Only her long hair showed definite color, and it was black as jet and swirled around her face with such vigor that only her grey eyes were visible since it concealed her features as well as any mask.
Alteng looked up at her in a moment of awe, then he gave a smirk and actually laughed out loud. "Well, I didn't kill myself for you after all" he remarked snidely. "So do you have any better tricks for me?"
Dolora let out a half-amused, half-annoyed hiss, as if she couldn't believe Alteng's ignorance. "You didn't die because you are already dead, of course. Now no more foolishness, we are almost there. And remember, show some respect for the dead."
"Even the ones I had to kill in the first place?"
"Yes, well... even them, I suppose, if you meet any, and I don't think they'll be too happy to see you again either if that makes you feel better. You did have a bad habit of making enemies with your short-tempered swaggering ways. I shouldn't doubt that there will be a mob at your heels if you stay here for too long. So you had best choose wisely, and choose quickly, or you may get used to the place and not want to leave."
"I doubt that one. But what about when I go back? You said that the underworld is outside of time. Does that mean you can plop me back into the past if I desire it?"
"Oh, I'm afraid not" Dolora lamented. "You can hardly go back and meet yourself, could you? For that matter, would you want to? You would just end up killing each other. The underworld is outside of time, but it must respect time's laws, otherwise everybody would be wanting to go back and rewrite their own histories. However, it might be possible to send you into the future, because you haven't been there yet."
"Never mind, I have a feeling that what the future holds I won't be happy with."
Morning was getting on, and the noon hour was arriving. Alteng ordinarily would be asleep right now, but the sun wasn't too blazing bright for him and the nap he took after midnight was keeping him on his feet. He was about to insist they take a break, when ahead of them was seen a clearing in the trees. Mists floated around them in defiance of the noonday sun which was high enough to be described as a pale white orb with a detectable outline.
Alteng and Dolora reached the edge of the tree line. A rolling meadow on a gently sloping hillside met their gaze. A breeze caught the grasses and pushed them to and fro with a distant rustle. Alteng had hoped for something a little shadier, like a cave or the bottom of a canyon. Here they were too exposed for his liking, and the light was too starkly white.
"Ah, here we are at last" Dolora announced proudly. "I wonder that we haven't met anyone yet."
"Do people actually live in the middle of meadows here?" Alteng queried incredulously. "Shouldn't my kind be underground, or at least inside somewhere?"
Dolora moved ahead of him, away from the trees and up the first slope of a hillock. "They wander all over the place, getting under foot and into their typical mischief. No wonder so many of them worshiped me once upon a time. Some of them wanted much the same things I wanted- knowledge. Some wanted it for merely scholarly pursuits of course, and some others used knowledge for power. But more often than not the pursuit of power proved to be their undoing, and there was war even among their own kind."
Alteng bristled as he stalked up beside her. "Yes, and I suppose you're very proud of that- causing hatred and greed in the world."
It was an unfortunate remark that came out of Alteng's mouth shaped (whether by design or accident) in a vicious way. Now it was Dolora's turn to anger. She appeared to noticeably grow in height and her voice deepened . Her shadow dwarfed Alteng, and the noonday sun was blotted out as if by an eclipse. The very warmth was withdrawn from the place where her shadow fell. "I didn't cause anything" she countered. "Your kind brought doom down upon itself, with your endless petty thieving, your clan-feuding and wars, always tinkering and prying in the deep places, arousing the wrath of powers best left alone. Recall your brethren of the black hair, and you'll find that they were marked for a reason. But you're better off to never discover why. Just ask your surrogate wife if you ever see her again, which you won't because she was among the most guilty of the lot! Even now she chokes on the smoke of her own soul's burning!"
Alteng's sword came out in a flash, and he snarled a curse as he advanced like a rabid badger. "What about my wife? If you've done anything to Ther..."
"No, not Ther, she is happily oblivious to your treachery, how you abandoned her memory by taking up with one so undeserving of life that it was cursed away from her centuries ago. You know of whom I speak- a murderer and betrayer of her race. She nearly brought the wrath of the gods down on everyone, even me. For that she will never be forgiven, and she will pay the price, forever!"
Dolora's tirade was like a fist in the face to Alteng. His rage was so great that he really could see nothing but black and white all around him now, stark and harrowing. In spite of his desire to slash and dismember, she continued. "Put away your sword you dandy-dressed fool, it will do you no good in the land of the dead. You could not kill one of the Enforcers here, much less me. Now we must go on to see Lord Halcymanius without delay, so let's stop arguing because it won't carry any weight in this place anyway."
Instead of admitting defeat, he merely turned his back on her, as if she weren't worth the trouble of whittling away. All night and all morning he had thought of nothing but what he would say to Ther to convince her to come away with him for a new chance at life. But he had given absolutely no thought to his second wife Narrinda, and in his heart he was ashamed. Dolora knew how to push the wrong buttons when she had to, for sure. And now as they stood together in the middle of a field, within the confines of the Underworld, Alteng wondered for the first time what Narrinda's fate had become, and if it was a wretched fate, could he do something to change it? Now he must make a choice- reclaim the wife who was his first great love, or rescue the wife who through years of adventure and toil had become his best friend?