Beyond the Crossroads
Jeffery Scott Sims
In olden times the wizard Jacob Bleek, seeker after strange mysteries and stranger wisdom, undertook a journey through the Black Forest that he might come quickly to Frankfurt, where would shortly convene a conclave of learned men. Amongst those assembled sages he wished to find precious knowledge for which he would bargain hardly, hoping to gain much while revealing few of his own secrets. That was his way. The accumulation of such exchanges had made him respected and feared among his peers, and this was still early in his legendary career. As matters transpired, Bleek was fated to miss that meeting. Nevertheless, adventure befell him.
At a homely village deep in the woods, where the main road curved unpromisingly to the north, he inquired of the way, putting his question to the considerate innkeeper who sheltered him the previous night. That stout fellow said, "If you would reach Frankfurt from here, good sir, you must travel east and south through the hills and forest. Take the east road, which is a fair path-- though few pass upon it except at market time-- until you come to the crossroads. There you must take the turn to Yost, which is a decent village like my own, full of goodly people who will see you on your way down the river and to the city. Do not, at the crossroads, take the road to Crost. That would be an unfortunate mistake. Long ago that was an evil place, Crost; folk say the devil danced there of nights, at the desires of the people, until they and their abode came to a bad end, one well deserved. There are no folk there now. Crost is no more, affording no hospitality to the weary traveler. Be sure you take the road to Yost."
This vagary of a tale intrigued Bleek, and he thought idly to look into the story one day, but now he was in a hurry, so he heeded the innkeeper's words and went forth from the village early that morning, in his little wagon with his few belongings piled in back, that he might come to Yost and thus depart the dark forest. His tireless pony trotted merrily between the farms girdling the eastern road, until the trees closed in again and hid the quaint cottages from view. Thereafter the beast worked harder, for the hills mounded up and steepened. Afternoon came before Bleek descended into a narrow valley with meadows in the bottom land, and there before him the road forked.
Bleek would go to Yost where, he had been assured, good folk would attend to his needs, yet the taking of this simple choice placed him in a conundrum. There intruded a galling element of ambiguity in his decision. He dismounted from his wagon to study the case. The road he traveled had deteriorated from disuse, was gullied and overgrown with increeping weeds. The paths beyond the crossroads looked similar. There was a sign, of course, a wooden post with twin boards pointing the way; one indicating Yost, the other Crost. The sign had turned, however; whether due to tempest or hooligans, it shunned philosophical certitude. The information it conveyed should have been obvious. It was not. At a guess, Bleek felt that Yost lay this way, and Crost that; so, after irritated pondering, he chose this, resumed his position in the driver's seat, reined over the pony with diffidence, proceeded.
The dank forest pressed close once more. Indeed, this road was very bad, and scarcely had he advanced a mile before misgivings assailed him. He was like to turn back and try the other fork when a shadowy glade came into view on his left, a mossy clearing by the banks of a thin brook. Three figures at the far end beneath a spreading oak caught his eye: a tall, elderly man dressed in a long black cloak, upholding in one hand an ornate silver implement, facing a young man and woman, also garbed in black, who bowed and repeated in unison a chant as directed by the old one. They took no notice of Bleek, not so much as acknowledging his presence. He rode on at last, mystified by the ritual, which he deduced might constitute a local wedding rite. He did not recognize their dialect, but then, their words had been indistinct at that distance. The appearance of human beings, though, cheered him, for it proved that he moved toward habitation.
The first glimpse of roofs past scattered trees caused him to falter, for they seemed awfully dilapidated, but when he rounded the bend in the wretched road and saw the place squarely he thought himself mistaken, for it was a fair village, well kept, spread throughout a hollow under a wooded bluff, with smoke trickling from several chimneys. The scene was oddly dark, as if the sun had fled behind cloud, but it was picturesque and warmly inviting at this stage of the afternoon with its lengthening shadows. This had to be Yost.
Jacob Bleek drew up at the inn, one like so many others that formed his itinerant homes. No one was in sight. Yost was a quiet town. With the thought he discerned a face staring at him from a cottage window up the street, then others, and he detected from various points muted whispering hitherto unheard. He must be tired not to have noticed. He dismounted with his travel bag, entered the inn.
The main hall was large, absolutely dark, apparently untenanted, the fireplace vacant. Bleek knew himself to be alone, then realized himself mistaken, for the landlord stood at his station behind the oaken counter, and there was light after all, dim but serviceable, from sputtering twin lamps on the bar. The man hailed him cheerfully. Bleek requested lodging for the night. The man said, "We don't entertain many guests here... this time of year."
He came round the bar, a short, stout man in apron, with a furry moustache and scanty hair. "Allow me, sir, to introduce myself," he said with a smile. "I'm Tobias, your eager host, at your command. My lady will serve you. You do require food?" Bleek granted this, requested shelter and board for himself and his pony. "All will be done," cried Tobias. "I'll see to your animal now. Matilda! We have a guest!"
His shout brought out from the kitchen a painfully thin woman with long, lanky black hair threaded with gray. Her sharp features were bent into a bright grin. "My wife," said Tobias. Bleek introduced himself to both. The woman replied, "This is an unusual honor." Tobias added, "We must make the most of it. Good sir, eat and be merry, while I care for the beast."
Bleek took table, waited no time at all before his meal arrived. Matilda laid before him a platter of beef and dumplings, set beside it a mug and a jug. The food gratified his palate, the wine teased his tongue. The piteous neighing of his pony, on the other hand, distressed.
Tobias returned presently. "Your beast," he explained, "takes none too kindly to strangers. Fear not; his accommodations will suit. Yours will be even more satisfactory, I trust."
He urged on his guest a second helping, directed his wife to quick action. Bleek, seeking to derive from the man information as to the journey ahead, allowed that he was fortunate, given the poor state of the roads, to arrive at Yost.
This much amused Tobias. "Do you hear that, my lady?" he called. "Our guest counts himself lucky that he has come to Yost. So you think this Yost a grand place, sir? I dare say there are better. Aye, the roads are bad. One can't be too careful. A wrong turn may lead to an ill day."
Matilda cackled a laugh as she heaped Bleek's plate afresh. "Some days more than others," she said. "I recollect an old story-- the tales folk tell!-- I don't know how I came to hear it, but it was about that other place. What was it called, husband?" Tobias only stood and chuckled, so after an awkward moment Bleek took a stab and suggested Crost. "Aye, that was it," cried the woman. "A dreadful town it was, that Crost, to hear about it."
"Never did I hear a good word," Tobias admitted.
"Surely not from the folk hereabout." Matilda went on, "Bad people, bad doings all around, they say. Crost is gone now, eaten by evil, only some do say that kind of evil doesn't die, but lingers in spots, festering like a biting disease. And there are those special days, the peculiar ones.
Those naughty folk in Crost had one in particular."
"I know the one you mean," interjected her man. "That was the high festival in honor of Azamodeus. Isn't that a weird name? Who might he be? I reckon the fell folk of Crost knew."
Rejoined his wife with a snicker, "I reckon they did."
"Oh, they knew, all right. They kept that day holy. It meant more to them than life. Every year they celebrated that one. It was about this time of year, I fancy... if old stories tell true."
"They as told them are long dead now," Matilda observed.
"And a body would expect them to keep quiet," Tobias added. "Don't you agree, sir?" Jacob Bleek, puzzled by this unusual outlay of untoward information, conceded the point. Had he been so inclined, he might have discussed with them the reference to Azamodeus, an ancient term which he recognized from his occult delvings in the most hideous of contexts. He refrained. In rare humor his host and hostess left him then to finish his repast.
Night advanced apace. Before long Bleek craved the comfort of his room. Tobias appeared at the appropriate moment to direct him to the upper floor, last room on the left, the door open. Bleek trudged with his bag up the creaky stairs, down the hall to his obvious destination. The room was small, with few furnishings, a little musty, but sufficient for a night. A small closet behind a sticky door contained only unswept dirt. A drab, dusty curtain concealed a small unpaned window. Bleek peeked outside. Lights moved out there in the dark village, the scattered flare of torches. The yeoman of Yost, he noted, were more active by evening than by daylight.
His bed was a ratty affair, a straw-stuffed mattress atop a decrepit wooden framework, with a single blanket and misshapen pillow. Fortunately the nights were warm in this season. In short order Bleek disrobed and made the most of that resting place. Sleep took him quickly.
It did not let him lie, however. He awoke from a dimly remembered dream of unpleasant nature into stark blackness. His scalp crawled with nervous tension, his heart raced. Possibly the dream had jarred him awake. He recalled discordant images, a throng gathered in hectic merriment, loathsome feasting, praise shouted from many maddened throats to the "Lord Azamodeus". It was an ugly vision, yet more than the spurs of slumber galled him. Fear assailed from an unknown quarter. His well honed instincts screamed at him of imminent danger.
He heard nothing to justify sudden consciousness. Possibly the smell of the room had intensified. A subtlely rank stench offended his nostrils. He fumbled for the oil lamp on the rickety bed stand, lighted it with the matches he had placed there on retiring. The faint glow revealed the room vaguely. All was as it was. No wind ruffled the curtain. The closet door stood slightly ajar as he had left it.
Bleek stared at that closet. The mounting odor emanated from it. Something had changed there. Yes, he saw it now. The untidiness of that enclave had crept out beyond the door. There was a dirtiness about the door which had somehow extended itself to the adjacent wall. He likened
it to oily grime-- nay, more-- to a damp encrustation of greenish-gray fungus. It looked unhealthy. Askant looking told him still more. As he watched the foetid stain insidiously spread, threw out tendrils upon the boarding, a thin coating of filth heralded by yellowish spurts of powdery spores. With a snap of attention Bleek unfocused from that spot, realized with disgust that much of the wall facing him, and very close to his face, was vanishing under a silent tide of noxious growth. Just then a puff of spores landed on his pillow, a mere two inches from his nose.
Jacob Bleek sprang from the bed. Hastily donning his clothes, he grabbed his bag and made for the hall door. A miasma in the close air choked him. He coughed out a breath of yellow dust. He threw open the door, which sagged on broken hinges. He dashed over the warped floor-boarding of the dark hall to the stairs, made to race down them, then proceeded gingerly, for with each step he took his life into his hands. Somehow he reached bottom intact, to confront a barely perceived scene of abandoned decay and rotting debris. He fled through it. The outer door toppled at his touch.
Menacing silence greeted him, the silence of a frightfully dead town bathed in the sickly glow of moonlight. He dared the unknown region behind the inn to locate the stables, found merely a weedy lot where his wagon and pony stood, tied up and unattended, amidst ruinous foundations. The poor beast practically cowered in terror, and its equine cries were terrible to hear. Bleek mounted hurriedly, lashed the animal into motion. It obeyed with alacrity.
When he turned into the empty street he heard the sound. The hissing and buzzing and scraping came at him, swelled monstrously, and then a wave of detestable vermin poured down upon man and conveyance. Flies, gnats, hard winged beetles flew into his face, crawling things sprang up from the dust, chitinous things with a myriad of scuttling legs. Bleek's pony reared, tried to dash itself to death against a crumbling stone wall, but its master, heedless of the assault on himself, sagely mastered the animal on which his life depended and drove it by main force back into the lane. As they galloped on their way past flashing images of unspeakable decay and aged neglect Bleek muttered to himself an antique charm, the sole defense he could conceive at the moment, a whispered protection against the mysterious outer powers that lurk at the rim of mind and matter.
The moldy wreck of a village fell away. The vile pests dropped off. The bumpy road, leading back the way he had come, darkened under the encroaching trees of the great forest. His pony assumed its accustomed demeanor. Bleek supposed he was safe now. The baleful influence of the ghastly town did not extend into the unspoiled realm of primordial nature. He had escaped the unquiet force that lurked in that place, though not by much, he reasoned. Maybe his unorthodox studies had prepared him, awakened him to perils beyond the ken of the typical traveler. He shuddered to think what would have happened if he had slept on in that chamber this night.
The bright after-dawn found him at the fateful crossroads once again. Jacob Bleek paused to examine that two-faced sign post with grim mirth. He suspected, naturally, that it mockingly lied, had directed him surreptitiously to Crost, a properly dead village of old evil where, quite possibly, said evil lived on dormant, perhaps to raise itself unbidden to the unwary at certain times; and he made a note to himself to look into the specific date of the festival of Azamodeus, wondering if remarkably bad luck had played a part in the night's adventure. Otherwise, the choice before him dismayed Bleek exceedingly. For if he had, after all, come rightly to Yost, and Yost was reckoned in these parts a goodly town, then what must ill-regarded Crost be like?
Jeffery Scott Sims is an author devoted to fantastic literature, living in Arizona, which forms the background for many of his tales. His recent publications include a novel, The Journey of Jacob Bleek, and the short stories "The God In the Machine", "The Love of Jacob Bleek", "The House On Anderson Mesa", "The Nasty Club", "The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge", and "In the Hills of Yost". His literary website, containing essays and latest news, can be viewed at http://jefferyscottsims.webs.com/index.html
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