Garrett Roth hadn’t expected to live, anyway.
From the moment he’d crossed through from the world he knew into this other place, this other dimension, he’d known he would never return. There are some things men were never meant to know and some places they were never meant to go. Those are the provinces of God and when a man extends himself, goes beyond his limits, only ruination can follow. Roth had known this, even accepted it.
He did not accept the way in which it happened.
They had traveled with the creatures to their cave, himself and the lawyers and Saint. The beasts had given them food and drink. Roth had found it difficult to accept that such abominations could intend anything but harm but had at last offered thanks to God for the kindness, even if it came from such an unexpected source.
Not all things comely are true, he’d scolded himself, and not all things ugly are corrupt.
Saint, after all, bore a handsome countenance.
“Look here.” The creature that could speak, the one Saint called “Songbird,” had pointed with a gnarled finger at a design painted on the cave wall.
Saint had shrugged. “What about it?”
The spiral design on the black stone wall, uneven and rendered in a reddish paint, had been about the size of a manhole cover.
“Do you see how it flows to the right, in a clockwise pattern?” Songbird had said. “This is the symbol of the Right Path. If ever you see such a pattern in the reverse, counter-clockwise, this denotes the Un-Right Path, the way of evil and discord, the worship of T’uul.”
Even such fallen creatures as these, Roth had thought, in the practice of their crude and pagan rites, can recognize the difference between good and evil.
“The reverse spiral is considered a symbol of evil among certain Indian tribes,” Arly Youngblood had said.
“Yet even to the followers of the Un-Right Path, Maka’kahu is an outcast,” Songbird had explained. (To hear a creature such as this speaking had seemed so unnatural, a perversion.) “It is said that he has bartered the bones of one of their ancestors to obtain passage through their territory.”
“The skeleton!” Arly had said. “Remember, he stole those bones from Patterson’s dig site!”
“To barter his passage,” Songbird had explained. “Even the Not-Cleans will not tolerate the presence of the Most-Vile in their midst without some form of tribute to appease them.”
“I don’t care about any of this!” Roth remembered saying at the time. “All I want to know is where it has taken Kiersten!”
“The Most-Vile keeps a den to the west of our current location,” Songbird had said.
“There is, I believe, more than a passing chance that he would have taken a captive there.”
“Then that’s where we need to go!”
“I will draw for you a map,” the creature had said, and had done so, drawn a crude map with some kind of black oil and a feather on a canvas of deer skin.
“Why won’t you take us there yourself?” Roth had asked.
“For me to do so would require permission from our Chieftain. As we are in a time of warfare.”
“Jus’ point me in the right direction,” Saint had said.
“Us, you mean,” Roth had corrected him.
“Gon’ get dangerous, sure ‘nough, from here on out,” Saint had said. “Why don’ y’all stay here with our big fuzzy friends while I go take care a’ business.”
Pete Corelli had been all in favor of remaining behind.
“You are welcome,” Songbird had said. “There are supplies enough here to sustain you for weeks. Or you may return with us to our village, wherein your collective safety would be vouchsafed. I stress the latter proposal.”
“No sir!” Roth remembered saying, standing, shaking his fists. “I’m going after my granddaughter!”
But it hadn’t played out that way. He, along with the lawyers and Saint, had loaded up with some light supplies of water and food, carried in bags of animal skins, and had wrapped themselves in cloaks and hoods of fur, and had taken their leave of the creatures. They had followed the crude map. Followed Saint. And at the worst possible time, the wolf had shown his true nature.
It had happened after they had left the cave. Several hours had passed, but Roth couldn’t be certain how many, as there seemed to be no nighttime in this bizarre place, nor did it ever grow lighter, nothing to mark the passage of days. Just one long, unending dusk.
They’d been following a trail that carried them along the ridge of another deep ravine, this one steeper than the one they’d encountered upon their arrival in this strange world. At the bottom of the chasm flowed a thin, silvery ribbon of water, on both sides of which were piled large slabs of jagged, broken, upturned rocks. In numerous places the cliff wall bulged out into the narrow trail, forcing it right up to the edge of the drop-off.
“Ya’ll watch out,” Saint had said. “That first step’s a killer.” Had he spoken in mocking?
Leading the way, Saint had just gone around a bend in the trail. They had to cross single-file. Arly Youngblood followed Saint, and Pete Corelli had just stepped around when the attack came. It came from several hundred feet below them on the canyon wall. The monster’s shriek—*God in Heaven!*—a high-pitched wail filled with all the anger and pain in all the world, the sound of a skillsaw biting into sheet metal, freezing the blood in Roth’s veins, provided scant warning as the thing (Roth had caught only a fleeting glimpse of it) hurled a large rock up at them.
*Up* at them.
The boulder hit the bulging cliffside close to Roth and he fell. His hands, acting as if possessed of their own will, clawed for something, anything to cling to, latching onto a shelf of jagged stone. His feet, seeking purchase, kicked the air. He dared not look down.
Then Roth got a good look at the monstrosity, the abomination against Heaven and Earth that had taken his beloved Kiersten, as it clambered up the hillside past him, just a few feet from him, moving with the ease of a lizard. Its body looked stretched-out, segmented, like one of those stick insects. Matted yellow hair clung from its skeletal frame. Roth couldn’t look at it. He squeezed his eyes shut. The stench of it made him gag.
And his hands were slipping.
“Dear God, help me!”
He heard gunshots. From where? Only Saint had a gun. For a hundred years, Roth listened. The gunshots stabbed his eardrums. The silence that followed, relieved only by the ringing in his ears, lasted centuries longer; cruel centuries in which Roth’s lungs, gulping for air, grew raw and desperate; centuries in which his hands threatened to break off at the wrists, in which his arms at the shoulders threatened to tear from their sockets. It felt like he could hear his muscles straining, popping like threads, the ligaments and tendons ready to snap like guitar strings stretched too far.
“Looks like you’re in a mess, boss.”
Roth opened his eyes. Saint stood on the ledge about ten feet above him, looking down at him.
“Help!” Roth managed.
Saint didn’t move.
“Might fall myself,” Saint said. The cold wind whipped at his cloak of gray fur and his long blonde hair.
“You can’t just let me die!”
Saint only looked at him.
“I’m no choir boy, boss,” Saint said. “Reckon you all done forgot that.” He turned away.
“Damn you!” Roth muttered. As the last of his strength gave way, he turned loose of the ledge.