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PART III
The Which Represents a
Lacuna in my Illustrious Ancestors'
Account, Fortunately Made Good By My
Discovery of a Long Lost Manuscript by
the Undeservedly Obscure Littérateur,
Korzeniowski Laebmauntsforscynneweëld,
Companion of the Consortium Director of
Companies in That Superlative
Financier's Most Bitter and
Troubled Exile.

The manuscript which follows herein requires a brief introduction, if I may take this liberty as your narrator. For, alas, my ancestors' chronicle suffers from an unfortunate lacuna with regard to the account of the wizard Zulkeh's journey from Goimr to the Caravanserai.


The gentle reader will recall that the precipitous departure of the coach from the travel station of Goimr caused the dwarf Shelyid to be hurtled to the floor. "Master, we're off!" cried the gnome, to which the wizard responded: "Well spoken, dwarf. Our journey has begun." Know, gentle reader, that these words were scribed by the illustrious Alfred CCLVI even as he was himself flying through the air, having lost his perch on Shelyid's eyebrow (this precarious vantage point being the preferred scribal seat of the intrepid chronicler) due to the gnome's clumsiness. In his devotion to duty, Alfred CCLVI did not notice that his airborne trajectory was taking him through the window and out of the coach entirely. This fact was only brought to his attention when the industrious scribe found himself sprawled in six-legged disarray upon the cobblestones, the coach wherein reposed his life's work racing away at great speed. Hastily retrieving his scattered notes, Alfred CCLVI set off in hot pursuit.


Of the odyssey which followed, the epic tale of Alfred CCLVI's endeavor to regain the wizard's coach, I will say nothing. The interested reader is referred to Alfred CCLVI's own account of his adventures, the classic Across the Grimwald On 80 Hosts. For our purposes here, it suffices to say that Alfred CCLVI did not rejoin his clan until the arrival of the wizard in the Caravanserai.


At once, Alfred CCLVI inquired if any of his senior apprentices had compiled sufficiently competent notes to enable the great scribe to reconstruct the events of the wizard's journey. Alas, he found their haphazard jottings entirely inadequate. Hence did the irate chronicler order the immediate fumigation of his senior apprentices.


This act was perhaps hasty and ill-considered. For it resulted in the rise to senior apprenticeship of that unfortunate individual later to become the notorious Alfred CCLVII. But that disgraceful episode belongs to a later portion of our chronicle. For the moment, we are left with the embarrassment of a yawning gap in the smooth unfolding of our tale.


It gives me great pleasure to announce, however, that this gap has now been filled. After years of diligent search, your humble narrator was eventually able to uncover a long lost manuscript written by Korzeniowski Laebmauntsforscynneweëld. The author of this manuscript is one of the least well known illuminati of the famed scholarly clan. Yet, as the gentle reader will soon have occasion to determine for himself, Korzeniowski's obscurity is entirely undeserved. It results solely from the fact that—unlike the vast majority of his clan, who made a pusillanimous accommodation to the forces which triumphed in the Great Calamity—Korzeniowski Laebmauntsforscynneweëld remained true to Reason and chose exile over surrender. Thus did he accompany the Director of Companies in that latter's precipitous flight from the Great Calamity.


Of the odyssey which followed, the epic tale of the voyage of Ozarae's greatest nabob and his companions across the uncharted oceans in a luxury yacht to their final exile in the islands, I will say nothing. The interested reader is referred to Nordhoffandhall Laebmauntsforscynneweëld's classic account, Financiers Against The Sea.


The troubled and bitter exile of the Director of Companies in the heathen islands was, as the gentle reader will soon discover, brief. The final end of the leader who, prior to the Great Calamity, was recognized the world over as the supreme embodiment of social discipline, can now be told. For not only does Korzeniowski's tale recount, long after the event, the journey of the wizard Zulkeh from Goimr to the Caravanserai, but it unfolds as well the last moments of the life of the Director of Companies, the greatest man of his epoch.


Thus, it is with great pleasure as a chronicler, combined with deep sadness as a louse of Reason, that I herewith present the tale.


* * *


The Last of the Line
By Korzeniowski Laebmauntsforscynneweëld
(beginning portion)

The native boy came onto the deck bearing a tray; upon it rested four glasses—filled with an amber liquid. He moved silently to the railing; set the tray upon the stool by the Director's side. The Director of Companies turned from his view of the ocean—glanced down at the tray—glared fiercely at the servant.


"Lord!" he exclaimed. "Jim, I told you to bring drinks for everyone!"


The boy gazed impassively at the Director; then, his eyes sweeping the deck in a glance, took in the other four of us.


"But, sahib," he said in his barbarous accent, "tuan tu maik fo."


"I know two and two makes four, you ninny!" roared the Director. "There are five of us!"


No expression crossed Jim's face; his black eyes stared opaquely at the four glasses; leaning over the rail, he peered at his reflection in the waters; unknowable thoughts moved through his mind.


"Mistaik iz mine," he muttered, and left the deck.


"Lord in heaven, rescue me!" snarled the Director. "I don't believe the incompetence of these damned natives. Can't even count the fingers on one hand." He sighed heavily and stared out over the ocean. The rays of the setting sun gleamed in the mirror of the sea; of a sudden, he thrust to his feet and gripped the railing.


"Under Western's eyes," he said sadly, "this sort of thing never happened."


We watched his back affectionately as he stood looking seaward. We knew how sorely he felt the loss of his old and trusted valet; and while this loss was but the least of the calamities which had befallen him, perhaps, for that very reason, it vexed him the most. For me, things were what they were; Barley—well, Barley was Barley; as for the accountant and the lawyer, the worst of it was—that it was. But for the Director it was an affront to his entire spirit. The typhoon of his youth had brought him to the pinnacle of success and power; only then, as he stretched forth the maturity of his grasp, to find his victory swept away by the sudden madness; leaving him as he was now, an outcast of the islands in an alien world.


"It was all Mayer's folly!" he roared suddenly, without looking around. "He should have crushed the rebel when he had the chance! The idiots! All of them!" He glowered out to sea; then spoke again. "Then—then! God, to think of it—the opportunities lost! Bungled from the beginning; Mayer was only the last of the fools. From the beginning, I say! Inkman and the Angel could have done it—at one stroke—they had the chance! I gave them all they asked—then!—at the beginning!—even the Rap Sheet! And for what? For what? To think of it!" He hurled his glass into the sea.


A long silence followed his outburst. All of us shared his gloom. Barring an unexpected smile of fortune, there was no reason to believe the usurpers would not remain the inheritors of the labor and the brilliance of the past. The Director had let slip enough of the tale of his informer—his secret agent just arrived from Ozar—for us to understand the depth of the disaster.


The shadow line of barbarism had engulfed the world, taken civilization in captivity. What had seemed just another outburst in Grotum—cursed Grotum, the nature of a crime itself; age-old nursery of the craft of treason—had spread like wildfire around the whole of Joe's Sea—to Ozar itself! Madness; vile, unreasoning madness; so complete the victory of lawlessness that there was no longer any suspense in our hearts. We, once rulers of east and west, had lost our grip of the land. The heroic age was over—naught left of it but tales of hearsay, cobwebs and gossamer.


The weight of the burden lay heaviest on the Director's heart. He had lost his entire fortune—but it was not because of the dollars that the Director's every waking hour was an endless torment of recrimination; and—yes—self-recrimination. It was the warrior's soul of the man that shriveled, not the merchant's brain. He had told us, with a false smile on his face, and an empty laugh, of his plans for a peaceful old age. "What matters it in the end?" he had asked. We said nothing; he went on, "I shall forego the active life; after all, I'm getting on in years. Let savagery reign! I did my best. Here, in this far-off corner of the world, I shall maintain a little outpost of progress, a small beacon—no, no, dear friends, let us not fool ourselves still; not a beacon, a dim lamp, an ember—let those who come after us, those who will—someday—turn back the foul tide, let them perhaps take a little heart, a small sum of fortitude, from our efforts here—our last essays, you might say. I shall write some reminiscences—my notes on life and letters; a personal record, to give what help it may to others." He lapsed into silence and it burned me to see him so; he was not a man of letters; could not hope to turn his mind in that direction.


Remembering that conversation, I looked across the little lagoon where we anchored; looked to the dim dusk-shrouded huts of the native village. I thought of exile—degeneration among the savages.


"I met him once," said Barley suddenly. "The Rebel, I mean. It was long ago—as I was returning from my first expedition into the Sssuj."


The Director's face turned partly; pain filled it; suddenly I wished Barley had remained silent, much though I found myself filled with curiosity. The Director had enough anguish as it was, without being reminded of the Sssuj.


"Perhaps"—interrupted the accountant—"No," said the Director, "I want to hear the tale. It could hardly bother me now—for years I was tormented by—ah! that brave soul alone amidst the savagery—how much I would have—"


He fell silent, but he hadn't needed to continue; for all his fortune, we knew well he would have given up a considerable portion for the widow's hand in marriage. To him, she was the secret sharer of his fortune—the real partner of his fate beside whom the myriad commercial co-venturers paled into mist. But she felt otherwise—her sense of duty; that sense of duty which had taken her so many years before into the wilds of the Sssuj; to bring godliness into the hearts of the savages—none could dissuade her from her course, fraught though it was with unspeakable peril. No pleas, no entreaties, could stop her; she left that cold morning long ago, never to return—overdue and missing; in all the years since, no word of her had been heard. Thrice had the Director sent Barley into the Sssuj to seek her out; thrice had Barley returned with nought but tales of the endless reaches of the swamp—the swamp, the swamp, the great morass of the world, graveyard of so many brave missions and gallant armies.


"What can it matter now?" demanded the Director. "Can Ozar be any better today than the heart of the Sssuj?" He fell silent for a moment, then turned from the rail and sat himself in our circle.


"Speak on, Barley."


Barley brooded a moment; then, launched into his tale.


"As you may recall, my first essay into the swamp had been from the north; and, following its failure, I returned via the same route—until I reached Torrance. There, rather than return by sea, I chose a more roundabout route—partly for I was loath to bring back my sad news; partly for my rover's feet—you all know my taste for landfalls and departures! So, instead of taking ship straightway from Torrance, I resolved to journey overland through Grotum.


"I had only five companions on the coach ride to Goimr. Two of them were from Malata—a planter, Il Conde de la Manteca, and his young wife—on their way to Prygg. In addition, there was a knight, Sir Carayne, from the Crapaude—like myself, going to New Sfinctr. Finally, there were two bizarre sisters from Torrance, Karian and Ann. They were poor company. Ann giggled the whole way, and her sister contributed nothing to our wayfarers' talk except to exclaim at regular intervals—'Stop laughing, Ann!' Fortunately, they left the coach at Goimr.


"Our stay in Goimr was very brief—only the knight descended from the coach. Sir Carayne returned soon enough; his adventures, I gathered, had not been of the greatest sort, judging from the ardent glances which he bestowed on La Contessa while we waited for the next leg of the trip to begin. On the other hand, that may not be so strange. Sir Carayne was a robust man in the prime of his life, very large, his shoulders and hands of a size suited for his calling; while La Contessa—ah, my friends! you know the smoldering beauty of Grenadine women—short in duration, true enough, but while it blooms—"


"The Rebel!" interrupted the Director, rather rudely; but I thought of the troubles ailing his mighty soul, and smiled at him in the gathering darkness. Barley evidently felt the same, for he nodded his head and continued.


"After the knight returned, the new travelers began arriving. The first was a fat cleric, a local parson on his way to the Temple of the Ecclesiarchs. Following him entered a sallow-faced man of indeterminate years; by his uniform and the briefcase shackled to his wrist, a messenger of the Company. This one sat in a far corner and stared gloomily out the window, ignoring all around him. And thus we sat for some little while, until the driver and the guard appeared and clambered aboard. We seemed to be off, but there was some little delay; suddenly, a final pair of passengers arrived. They had barely entered when the coach jarred into motion. One of them, a little ugly fellow toting an enormous sack, was hurled onto the floor.


" 'Master, we're off!' he squeaked. 'Well spoken, dwarf,' said the other, a strange fellow garbed in an outlandish and scruffy robe, as is the habit of sorcerers in Grotum, 'our journey has begun.' So it was I met the Rebel."


"He was a strange sort, to all appearances the most insignificant—paltry—of persons; how confused reality is!—a veil drawn over a missing jewel in an empty casket. Whatever; they took their seats. The sack itself took up twice the room of the stoutest burgher, but fortunately the coach was not crowded. The other passengers stared at these weird apparitions, their lips beginning to curl with disdain.


"But, before any could express a protest, our attention was drawn elsewhere; for—mind you—Grotum as a whole—certainly Goimr!—was a barbarous place—the populace not yet acclimated to the ways and methods of civilization; thus, when the coach careened through the marketplace at full speed—you all know the efficiency of modern transport—"


"We who made it!" exclaimed the Director; we all smiled fondly.


"—the beggars who infested the place were struck dumb with terror. Two of them, an old man and a young lad with a withered leg, were crushed beneath the wheels. We leaned out the windows, peering back; my first thought, that they had both been killed, was proven false—the boy's screams followed us as he writhed on the cobblestones, his good leg now matched to the other.


" 'Poor lad,' said the cleric sadly, 'to come so close to heaven, only to be thwarted at the pearly gates. But then,' he continued more brightly, resuming his seat, 'no doubt this added disfigurement will enhance his mendicant trade.'


" 'What think you, gentle folk?' he went on, looking at us all with a benign gaze, 'is this not further proof of God's beneficence?'


"Suddenly the wizard spoke. 'The parson has failed to grasp the historic significance of the occasion. The truth of the matter lies elsewhere, not readily apparent to the untutored intellect. For look you, sirrahs and madame, who was that septuagenarian thus timely squashed?' He peered at the coach's passengers most intently.


" 'Yes! It was none other than he!' exclaimed the wizard. 'Even in that brief glimpse I recognized him.' 'Who?' demanded Sir Carayne. ' "Who?" you said,' spoke the wizard. 'And well might you ask, for I see by your thews you are an ignorant man. Well, let me tell you, sirrah, that now deceased deformity was none other than Stromo Sfondrati-Piccolomini.'


" 'Not really?' gasped the cleric. 'Yes, yes,' continued the wizard. 'Not—?' exclaimed the cleric, half rising from his seat in excitement. 'Yes, yes, I say—even he! The author of The Beggar's Banquet!'


" 'Astonishing!' cried the parson, falling back in his seat; he raised his hands most high. 'O Lord, blessed is Thy spirit, for in this recent crushing, Thy majesty is revealed as was Thy will!'


" 'Who is—was—this fellow, this Tromo Svunder—whatever his name?' demanded Sir Carayne.


" 'And well should you ask,' approved the cleric, 'for this saint's life is an example for all mankind. Know, Sir Carayne, that Stromo Sfondrati-Piccolomini, of the famed scholarly clan of that name, was a man whose blessed nature in God's eyes is proven by his life. As a youth he entered the field of metallurgy, the which he rapidly revolutionized—or so, at least, I am told, though I know little of these matters myself—yet—'


" 'Bah!' oathed the wizard. 'Who does not know Stromo's Hammer and Tong is an ignoramus; moreover—'


" '—yes, yes, no doubt!—' expostulated the cleric, 'but the more interesting and uplifting feature of this saint's life is its later portion. For know, sirrahs and madame, that at the prime of his career, Stromo injured himself in a demonstration of the smithing art before a lecture hall full of students.' 'Oh poor man!' cried La Contessa, clutching her bosom.


" ' 'Tis true, I fear,' said the cleric. 'Smashed his knee with a single blow of the hammer. He was, needless to say, disgraced; stripped of his post; cast out; disowned by his clan; but he saw the light, and sought to redeem himself in the eyes of God. Thus did he crawl to Goimr and give himself up to a life of beggary. But he did not satisfy himself with the expiation of his sin merely by this travail, oh no!—as well he seized the opportunity to further the pursuit of knowledge and the Lord's work by publishing his book, The Beggar's Banquet, which plumbs the controversial question of the dietary habits of beggars.'


" 'Bah!' sneered the knight.


" 'But you are wrong, Sir Carayne,' protested the parson. 'For this was no mere monograph, no paltry academic investigation filled with charts and graphs—no! no! a hundred times, no! 'Twas a profoundly religious work, whose entire purpose was the demonstration that the existence of beggars and their noxious diet is one of God's great boons to humanity.'


" ' "How so?" you ask,' he continued," said Barley; then—" 'And well you might, for 'twould appear, on the face of things, a paradox that God's boundless mercy should take the form of a mutilated dotard scrabbling midst garbage-strewn streets for the scant sustenance of his daily life—' '—Bah!' oathed the wizard; 'No paradox, but a conundrum—' '—kicked about by ruffians, tormented by mongrels—is this not passing strange?'


" 'Not at all!' snorted the knight."


"Natural order of things," agreed the Director gruffly.


" 'Yet,' went on the cleric, 'in this seeming mystery the genius and the pure spirit of Stromo, now cleansed by his suffering, perceived the truth. For, as he himself explained, this was not evidence of an ethical paradox but rather the deeper proof of God's justice.'


" 'But therein lay not the source of his genius,' countered the wizard. 'By no means. The demonstration that this is the best of all possible worlds is a commonplace; any student not hopelessly stupid in his mind can prove it by any one of several theorems. No, rather the brilliance of his treatise is found in the specifics of his study of the beggar's diet, for therein he established—with a scrupulous logic which remains an example to all philosophes—that the heretofore presumed connection between social status and diet is subject to the most precise and detailed demonstration, in that through an examination of a man's diet we can determine how he arrives at his social status. This was his contribution to science.'


" 'What bullshit!' swore the knight. 'Beggars eat what they deserve.'


" 'Precisely, precisely!' exclaimed the wizard. 'But it was Stromo who first proved it.'


"At this point the cleric, clearly irritated, resumed his discourse. 'Yes, yes, this is no doubt interesting, and goes to show once again the spiritual essence of Stromo's mind—but the essential feature of the saint's work was the further elaboration of God's justice. This is proven by the very event which we so recently witnessed, the blessed squashing of this holy man. "How so?" you ask—for is it not passing strange that such a virtuous soul should come to such a grisly end? Is this not, on the face of it, an ethical mystery?' 'Preposterous!' interrupted the wizard. 'No mystery, but a paradox, obvious to any half-wit.' The cleric pressed on, his lips pursed with rising ire—'Not so! Rather we see here the greatest example of God's mercy—for look you, sirrahs and madame, the enigma—' 'Clearly we deal here with a third-wit,' commented the wizard.


" 'You are impudent, sirrah!' stormed the cleric.


" 'In no wise!' contradicted the sorcerer. 'My characterization of your mentality has throughout been guided by the dictates of science, without a trace of spleen or personal malice. Quite the contrary! I find your intellect admirably shaped for your calling—for are you not a shepherd of the Lord, tending his spiritual flock?'


" 'Why, quite so,' admitted the cleric, somewhat mollified by these soft words.


" 'There you have it, then!' spoke the wizard, smiling at the parson in a most cordial manner, his hands outspread in a gesture of conciliation. 'What could be more fitting? For as sheep are amongst the stupidest of beasts, it is entirely proper that the shepherd's brain be suited for his work. As lambs stray about the field, it is necessary that the shepherd grasp the difference between right and left; as sheep rise in the morning and sleep at night, so must the tender of the flock be able to distinguish night from day; as they bleat—'


"This was too much. Bellowing with fury, the parson rose from his seat and made to fall upon the wizard. Things might have come to a pretty pass, but for the intervention of the Company messenger. This latter had ignored the entire exchange till then, gazing out the window in the same moody fashion he had maintained since boarding the coach. Without moving his eyes, he snapped, 'It is forbidden to quarrel in a vehicle operated by the Consortium. The fine is ruinously heavy.' The cleric paled slightly and resumed his seat.


"Conversation lagged. Soon Il Conde dozed off, and the knight took advantage of this opportunity to make his approach to La Contessa. Casually extending his leg, he began a surreptitious stroking of the lady's shapely ankle with his mailed and spurred boot. The hot blood of the Grenadine flowed freely; La Contessa uttered several remarks concerning rustic chivalry. Aside from this one-sided romance, the rest of the day passed quietly. Toward the end of the afternoon, the scattered clouds began massing. By evening, the sunny afternoon had become a dreary dusk of pouring rain.


"Fortunately, before long we arrived at the first way station. The coach came to a halt, and the passengers disembarked. Looming in the rain near the coach was a slovenly edifice built of logs and wattle. Above the doorway hung a crude sign which proclaimed this to be the Inn of the Two Whiches. The explanation for this peculiar name was soon forthcoming; for upon the main counter, behind which stood the dumpy form of the innkeeper, rose a rudely lettered placard bearing the inscription: Which do you want? Pallet or cot? Porridge or gruel? Opting for porridge and cot, I soon finished the meal—if such it could be called—and went to sleep in a corner of the attic.


"It was still raining the next morning when I arose, though not so heavily as the night before. I descended to the ground floor and made to pay my bill. Ahead of me, the wizard and the innkeeper were quarreling. 'I don't care,' snarled the innkeeper, 'you still owe me money.' 'Nonsense!' spoke the wizard. 'Honest hostels charge only for the services which they provide, and no other. This fine establishment is called the Inn of the Two Whiches for the good and proper reason that it offers a twofold option of two services—porridge or gruel; pallet or cot. As my apprentice and I slept on the floor and eschewed supper, we availed ourselves of none of your services. Hence, we owe you nothing.' And with that the sorcerer strode out the door, followed by the gnome tottering beneath his sack.


"The innkeeper roared with rage, and would no doubt have gone in pursuit, save that I stepped up and blocked his way. 'Innkeeper!' I said loudly, 'I wish to settle my bill.' 'In a minute,' he snarled, 'first I'm gonna get that lousy—' 'Now!' I insisted; 'I'm a busy man and I must be on my way!'"


"You should have let him go, Barley," grumbled the Director. "Damned impudence of that wizard—cheating on his bill!"


Barley shrugged. "Perhaps so, but at the time my burning desire was to be rid of the place; it stank, and I was rather peeved by the aches and pains in my back from sleeping on the wretched cot which this parsimonious innkeeper had provided for quite a steep charge."


"Frugality is the necessary basis of profit," insisted the accountant. "No doubt," replied Barley, "but it's unpleasant to be the source of the profit oneself." " 'Course!" snorted the Director. "Never sleep in one of my own hostels; fit only for the herd."


"In any event," continued Barley, "the innkeeper decided to forego his quarrel and returned to the counter. Reaching into my pocket, I took out a coin and tossed it onto the counter. Then, before the innkeeper could scoop it up, Il Conde's shrunken head thrust itself beside me. His eyes, normally half-closed in reverie, were now wide open; he peered intently at the coin, his lips quivering with excitement. 'Gasp!—a Ruiz!' he cried. 'Been looking for one for years!' The innkeeper made to pick up the coin. 'Unhand that, knave!' shrilled the nobleman, cracking the man's knuckles with his cane. So fierce was his countenance, so menacing the flourish of his cane, that the innkeeper fell back in fright. Not taking his eyes from the coin for a moment, Il Conde said to me, in a quavering voice—'Sirrah, I am an accomplished numismatist, and I must have that coin. What will you take for it?'


"You can imagine my irritation. I thrust the coin toward the dotard and snapped, 'You can have it—just pay my bill!' And with that, I stalked out of the inn. Outside, it was raining again and I hurried into the coach. Before long, all were aboard and we set off. The constant rain was a damper on our spirits, and only the tersest of exchanges took place. By midafternoon, however, the clouds began to scatter. The first ray of sunlight pierced downward like an arrow of gold; this shaft was soon followed by a full volley—before long the day was as bright and sunny as you could ask for. Soon an animated conversation broke out, this time centered upon the person of La Contessa.


"La Contessa's given name, as it developed, was Freya; the oddity of this name for a Grenadine being explained by a trace of Alsask blood in her family. In age somewhere between thirty and forty, her life had been spent primarily in the acquisition of husbands, an enterprise she had elevated to a fine art. Seven aisles had she trod to the tune of wedding marches, and the result of her latest wedding mumbled beside her with toothless gums. While she was too delicate to dwell upon it, it was clear enough that each of her spouses had been of the order of the current one; her husbands seemed to increase in age and wealth as her career progressed. As it was obvious that the seventh was soon to follow his predecessors, it did not take great insight to see that she had her own motives in accompanying Il Conde to Prygg, which focused about the nonagenarian figure of Prince Roman, the extravagantly wealthy cousin of the King of Pryggia.


"And so the day passed. La Contessa seemed to take a kindly interest in the wretched little dwarf. Several times she attempted to draw out from him his life story—peculiar woman!—but the horrid gnome was too shy to respond with more than stumbling half-sentences. Eventually I dozed off for some few hours, only to awaken when the coach came to a halt. Night had almost fallen, but there was still enough light to discern the features of the surrounding countryside. Would it were otherwise!—for we had arrived at the beginning of the next leg of the journey; but a few miles distant loomed the Grimwald, most ancient and somber of Grotum's forests. Shivering a bit, I hurried into the inn.


"This roadside hostel was even more wretched than the last; no one had even bothered to give it a name. The innkeeper was an obese man of apparently infinite sloth. The accommodations were very simple—no choice provided here! The traveler slept on a pallet on the floor and supped on a thin porridge; nothing else was available. The innkeeper, either through a keen sense for such things or because he had been forewarned by the driver, immediately accosted the wizard and demanded payment in advance. A round of haggling ensued; at the conclusion of which it was agreed that the wizard's apprentice would clean the hostel as payment in kind for lodging; no meal was included in the bargain. Soon the wretch was sent scurrying about by the innkeeper; at the end of his labors, by which time most of us were already asleep, the place looked no cleaner than before. The innkeeper argued that the bargain was forfeit; but the sorcerer countered that the inn was so innately filthy that no amount of cleaning could solve the problem. The argument waxed hotly, but ended soon enough—partly because the wizard was obviously in the right, and partly because the innkeeper's sloth encompassed disputation as well."


"Find out who that man is and fire him!" bellowed the Director; "I won't abide laziness among my employees!" The accountant coughed softly; the others of us said nothing; I thought of decay in the atolls; delusions brought on by misfortune; senility pressing in like the darkness which congealed upon our boat.


After a moment Barley resumed. "The next morning we went on; it was a dreary day—not raining; but the sky was overcast from horizon to horizon. All too soon—it seemed—we reached the edge of the forest—there the coach halted; we heard the driver's voice call out—'All passengers read the sign!' Startled, we leaned out the windows—there, on both sides of the road, were identical signs—


NOTICE


You are about to enter the Grimwald, so named for good reason. The Grimwald is not a subsidiary of the Consortium. The GGNESWC&EE&T Co. assumes no responsibility for losses of property, limbs, lives or well-being incurred by passengers traversing the forest. Passengers continuing onward do so in full knowledge of the situation, and have no grounds for complaint should your pleasant trip be ruined in any of the myriad ways familiar to travelers with experience of the Grimwald. Be warned. Should any passenger, upon due reflection, choose not to continue the journey, you may so inform the driver and he will allow you to disembark. It goes without saying that finding your way back to what passes for civilization in these parts is entirely your own affair. The GGNESWC&EE&T Co. assumes no liability for any mishaps which may occur, these being not unlikely as the northwestern region of Goimria is notorious for its intemperate weather, impure waters, poisonous plants, slavering carnivores, voracious insects, and—at their best—sullen inhabitants. Should you elect to stay on the coach, we hope you enjoy your trip and we thank you for traveling GGNESW etc.


" 'Anybody gettin' off?' boomed the driver's voice. 'Last call!' A moment's silence; the passengers stared at each other; stared at the forest; stared back at the landscape just traversed; shrank into their seats; and were silent. 'Pray for us!' came the driver's voice, and the coach lurched into motion. The forest closed around us."


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