World War I soldiers in a trench near Craonne in 1917, with smoke from artillery on the horizon.

The Last Road Maker (Part 2)

by

To The Last Road Maker (Part 1)

In his dreams that night, he stood once more by the wheel on the Sangier, still holding his lantern and cutlass. The moon hung exactly where it had been before, but this time the vessel traveled east rather than west, and he wondered what it meant.

He glanced down into the water on the starboard side and spied the black mass of the ghost ship moving abreast his own vessel. He thought he detected black forms moving up the masts of the shadow vessel toward his ship. As one of them drew near, it detached itself from the darkness. At first, he thought it a trick of the eye, until the figure pulled itself over the railing. It had the shape of a man wrapped in bulky robes, carrying a cudgel.

With a roar of fear and rage, Hodgson leapt across the deck, cutlass raised, lantern swinging loosely in his other hand. He slashed at the figure, who reeled backward to dodge the blow. And in that moment, the blade lit with a fiery glow, a supernatural light bright as day. Will felt a surge of power run through him, an almost superhuman strength.

The sword struck home, passing right through the creature, cutting it in half at the waist. An unholy scream erupted from its lips. It toppled to the deck.

The head of another of the invaders appeared just above the railing. Hodgson thrust, stabbing it between the eyes with the tip of his blade. The sword swelled with energy, a blinding flash that sent the shadows scattering.

He turned a half-circle, seeking more of his enemy, but the decks were empty. He glanced over the rail. The water lay still; the vast bulk of the pirate ship had vanished from the sea.

He laughed aloud in triumph. It was as if the power of the White Circle had returned to inhabit his blade. For the first time, he had a weapon against the darkness.

Yet, even as he exulted, a deep voice called, "Wait!"

He spun around. Another specter had pulled itself up to the railing, a shadow among shadows. Hodgson lifted his cutlass.

"Do ye want to have her back?" the ghost pirate asked. "The one who died?"

Hodgson hesitated.

"We can return her to life. She could love ye again."

"How?" he asked.

"All things are possible to them I serve," it said.

A dozen emotions ran through him: loathing, hope, fear, the heartsick loss of losing her again. "And what do you want in return?"

"The house. Give us the house."

Hodgson stood, open-mouthed, overwhelmed by the possibilities. It was too much to consider.

As if in answer to his thoughts, the vision faded, falling apart, and the brightness filled his eyes.

When his sight returned, the scene had changed, but instead of waking back in Belgium, he was in another vision, walking a road that wound down the side of a canyon wall in a series of switchbacks. The air was cold and bit like iron; there was no wind. The sky was nearly white, all the color washed from it. The rift down which he traveled was surreal in its immensity. Its slate-gray walls stretched miles below, losing themselves in a gloomy haze. Close to his position, the two forks of the canyon met at an angle of nearly ninety degrees. The sun shone at the horizon along the western branch, a crimson ball in the dusk, its rays shooting along the canyon, illuminating its walls for hundreds of miles. The northern fork was cloaked in shadow.

"The Great Bight," he muttered. Then, quoting from a book he had written years before, he said, Yet am I to my pen again; for of late a wondrous hope has grown in me, in that I have, at night in my sleep, waked into the future of this world, and seen strange things and utter marvels. . .And surely it is all so strange and wonderful to set out, that I could almost despair with the contemplation of that which I must achieve.

The road before him was narrow and formed of an unfamiliar material, with no mark upon it. He was alone, in a place hundreds of miles and millions of years from Belgium and the war; and he thought how incongruous he must look, dressed in his helmet and uniform, his Enfield rifle in hand, a soldier from a forgotten civilization. There was no sign of life—not a bird or fox, not an insect crawling across the road—only the cold, and the awful desolation, and the tramp of his boots on the road.

He trudged along, trying to absorb what was happening. But his thoughts kept returning to the pact the ghost pirate offered. In all the years, this was the first time one vision had led to another, rather than being a complete story unto itself. But, are they separate stories? he wondered. And what if the creature really could give Colleen back to me?

"I swear," he muttered, "I would deal with the devil himself for her."

With such thoughts he occupied his time, until the monotony of his trek gradually filled him, and he found himself humming. What was the song? Some variation from Kipling. He began to sing, a marching tune.

To the legion of the lost one, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England, cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.

Yea, a trooper of the forces, who has run his own six horses,
And faith he went the pace, and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin, while he held the ready tin,
But today the Sergeant's something less than kind.

Back to the Army again, sergeant,
Back to the Army again.
Don't look so hard, for I haven't no card,
I'm back to the Army again.

The road continued making sharp bends as it wound down the side of the canyon. He had never seen the Rift in daylight; in his previous visions this had been a land of utter darkness, with scattered fires and terrible monsters, and a pyramid seven miles high holding the remnants of besieged humanity. But these things were not yet come, and were of a future age. Yet, through gaps in the haze below, he thought he saw, on the canyon floor to the south, under the barrage of the sunshine, the outline of a city.

He grimaced. He had been walking for hours and the sun had not moved. With a sinking in his stomach, he realized it never would. In this age, the earth's rotation had ceased. The sun would remain where it was, lighting the eastern canyon through long eons, growing ever more dim until it was but a smoldering coal; and then that too would fail, leaving only the darkness.

Where is England? he wondered. Lost top-side in the cold wastes. Oceans frozen, or long evaporated. Lifeless. The land we shed our blood for. The war isn't even a memory now.

Tears sprang unbidden to his eyes, and he wiped them quickly, almost savagely, away. It's only a vision, like the times before. I'll wake soon, back in the trenches. He gave a grim laugh. As if that were a better horror.

He rounded a bend to another switchback and discovered a village built on a plain cut out of the canyon wall. This amazed him almost as much as his first sight of the Rift, for the excavation, burrowing into the stone for half-a-mile, was the work of machines capable of melting and fusing rock to a glassy sheen. The buildings were pyramidal, made of the same imperishable material as the road, and windowless with round doorways.

He raised his rifle. Nothing moved around the nearer structures, while those farther back lay lost in the shadow of the shelf. He gave a halloo and waited expectantly. Moments passed. He stepped closer to the buildings.

Beside one of the pyramids lay scattered bones and a human skull that stared at him with its empty sockets. He backed away. Walking with his gun trained on the village, he continued along the road, moving past the pyramids. Whoever had lived here had probably abandoned it long ago. The legendary Road Makers had built this road through hundreds, even thousands of years, paving the way for the last vestige of humanity to reach the warmth of the canyon floor; no doubt when they were far enough down, the villagers had followed. Were the bones the remains of a hermit, living alone in the heights? He would never know. He took another hairpin turn onto the next switchback, and the village was lost to sight.

He wondered if the bottom of the Rift were his true destination, and if so, why he was going there. It would take days to reach it.


He woke back in the trenches. A soft rain pinged against his helmet.

That day was spent positioning the guns. The bombardments to the south and west were drawing closer. Despite the work and the war, Hodgson kept brooding over his strange march into the Great Rift, of Colleen left alone in Kraighten House, and of the ghost pirates.

With the artillery in place by mid-afternoon, he and two subordinates, Corporal Stephens and Private Ridley, were sent out as forward observers. They traveled on foot, leading a pack horse, stringing telephone wire behind them as they went. Seeking high ground and locating the enemy was a dangerous job; he was usually almost straight in front of his own guns, and to the enemy killing an observer was like blinding the gunners' eyes; but Hodgson had volunteered for the work. He was good at it, and what he did saved British lives.

By twilight they reached a hill overlooking a wide plain that had been forest before the barrages leveled the trees. Hodgson studied the ground with his field-glasses. Two layers of British trenches ran across the plain, and beyond them, past the barbed-wire barricades, stood the German excavations. Will studied the area with a practiced eye, looking for any signs of the enemy massing beneath the cover of the trenches in preparation for an attack.

They made camp that evening behind the protection of the hill, eating cold biscuits from their kits, lighting no fires. The night was clear and the stars burned down in all their magnificence; and he thought of how the sky would someday be utterly empty.

He slept fitfully, as he always did at his observation post, but soon found himself once more on the Sangier, exactly where he had been before, though the ship now traveled west. He kept guard along the railing, watching the shadows beneath the vessel. There was no sign of the phantom ship beneath the waters.

The night passed. A mist arose, shrouding the vessel. The sea remained calm. Morning turned to afternoon and afternoon to evening, and the mist faded, revealing the setting sun. The moon rose and the vessel sailed on, guided by mysterious hands.

He grew morose. His life had been nothing but an empty vanity, a moving from place to place, always trying to escape the visions, always failing. He wondered why so many of the characters in his dreams, the monsters, even the heroes, were both nameless and faceless. Were they figments of imagination brought on by his own lack of identity? He had been an unhappy sailor, a failure at Physical Culture, a hack as a writer. Now he was playing soldier in a war it seemed no one could win. Nothing he had ever done had mattered. And it was all because of the White Circle. Why wouldn't it leave him alone?

And yet...and yet...Colleen had come back, at least in the vision. And how could he wish not to see her again? But he did not know if he ever would, unless he could find his way once more to Kraighten House.

At last, he began to feel the now-familiar dissipation of the dream.


He found himself sitting in the same chair as when he had left her. Someone touched his shoulder from behind, and looking up he found Colleen, and he closed his eyes and took her hands in both of his own, pressing his forehead against them, holding them tightly.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"I'm sorry I was gone. I don't ever want to leave you, but I can't control it."

"You've been right here. We were talking and you got the strangest look on your face."

"I've been away for hours."

"You haven't."

He studied his surroundings more closely. The last rays of the day still shone outside the barred windows. The Swine-Things still snuffled around the house.

"Come into the kitchen and I'll brew some tea," she said. "You can tell me where you were wandering."

He did so, and despite the lurking horrors beyond the walls, they sat and talked as they had not done in years; and time seemed to slip backward, returning Will to the days when they had been young and in love, and had spent many such evenings in sweet conversation. He told her all that had happened since they parted—of his failed business and his writing, of his meeting with Harry Houdini, of his enlistment when the war came, and of some, but not all he had seen there.

She watched him talk, and her eyes were dark in the shadows and very lovely. Finally, he paused, and laughing, said, "I've gone on and on about myself."

"You've talked about everything," she said, "except your wife."

He looked down at his wedding ring, his face suddenly burning. "I...guess I haven't. Not much to say, really. I—"

"What's her name?"

"Betty Farnworth. I call her Bessie. She worked for a magazine. We met because of my books."

"A fine thing, to be a writer. You always had a way with words. I'm proud of you for that."

"Colleen, I—"

"But I see the truth now, sure as the world. You've been unfaithful, Will."

"I haven't," he cried, his voice filled with passion. "It wasn't like that! I always loved you. I've never forgotten you. Not even for a moment. You have to understand. You were gone. I was lonely. But even after we married—"

"It's Bessie you've been unfaithful to," she said.

"I—" His mouth fell open, and he could not speak. A strangled noise escaped his throat.

As was always her way when a point was made, she did not say more, but kissed him on the forehead and walked from the room.


The vision faded, and he awoke in Flanders. For the soldiers, the following weeks would be brutal, for that day was the beginning of the campaign later named the Fourth Battle of Ypres. The town had been a strategic center throughout the conflict—poison gas had first been used there—and in the course of the war, 850,000 men would die to control that blighted piece of ground.

From the time he awoke from his vision that morning, Hodgson was kept busy. Though the troops directly before him remained in their trenches, at mid-morning, an almost continuous barrage of enemy artillery began to the southwest. The normal strategy was for heavy shelling before a surge from the trenches. Using his compass as a guide, Hodgson triangulated the position between the German and British guns, and telephoned the sector information back to Captain Carver. When the 11th Royal Field Artillery responded, Hodgson watched the shells fall and relayed corrections.

In combat, there is never enough time for sleep. At midnight, with only sporadic sounds of gunfire, Hodgson managed to wrap himself in his blanket while Corporal Stephens kept watch. As he drifted off, he thought of Colleen and Bessie. Faithful Bessie, who had been his friend and companion. The truth was they had not spent that much time together. They had met and married in 1912, four short years before his enlistment. Had his intentions been as pure and honorable as he had claimed they were, running off to war in the name of God and country? Had he ever truly committed himself to the marriage?

In his dreams, he was soon sailing east through the darkness, and a stiff wind filled the Sangier's sails. He wondered how many hours he was compacting in a single day, living his life in Belgium and the ship and the house and the Great Rift. He didn't feel any more exhausted than usual—one was always weary in war—and he supposed the time and effort spent in the visions did not impact his physical body. He wondered what would happen if he were wounded or killed within the dream.

The hours passed peacefully, without any sign of the pirates, and late in the night the vision changed, and he walked the eternal twilight of the road again, winding his way down the canyon clutching his Enfield rifle. He was still high above the canyon floor. Disoriented by the change, he sat down on the road to gather his thoughts. He had noticed a pattern: when the ship went east, it took him to the road; when it journeyed west, it brought him to Kraighten House, as if it were serving as a transport, allowing him to travel from vision to vision, traversing both time and space. And the ghost pirates had initially sought to prevent his passage. Yet, someone—presumably those who caused his visions—had given him a weapon. But for what purpose?

A canine bark pulled him from his brooding. He glanced around, surprised to think there might be dogs in this epoch. But, of course, there must be, for in later eons there would be the monstrous Night Hounds.

A beast came sprinting up the road, a thin-legged mongrel that barked as it came. He rose to his feet, looking at it stupidly.

When the dog was within twenty feet, he said, "Pepper?"

The hound bounded to him, bouncing its forepaws against his thighs, nearly knocking him over.

What a reunion that was, a long-lost boy and a long-dead pup, on the imperishable road, on the dying earth, in the Rift that would become the last sanctuary for all humankind. His fur was soft as down; he licked Hodgson's face as if to lick it off. Will laughed, the long, happy laugh of childhood. Not since Odysseus and Argos had there been such a meeting; and he wondered if all the dead would return to him. The idea turned his joy to brooding, for Pepper, like Colleen, had been gone many years, and he wondered again if his visions were in any sense true, or only the hallucinations of a lunatic. Many times he had asked himself if the Great Rift and the Night Land were real, and had never found a satisfactory answer.

Sitting on the road with Pepper beside him, he studied the panorama stretching before him. On the canyon floor, he could now see the towers and domes of the town that would someday be known as The Quiet City, and he could barely hear the distant sounds of machinery. He wondered if perhaps the generations of Road Makers were still at work.

He patted Pepper again and rose, clutching his rifle. "Come along, old friend. I would like to finally meet the ones who made these roads."

So Will Hodgson and Pepper traveled deeper and deeper along the switchbacks into the chasm. He hummed a marching song as he went, and the road went on and on through hours that stretched to days. And as he thought of Colleen and Bessie, he came to a resolution.


When next came the flashing light and the breaking of the image, he was once more aboard the Sangier, with the ship traveling west. He had his cutlass in his hand, and he fetched the lantern, for the moon had set and the night was black. The stars shone down in all their splendor.

A rustling rose among the masts, and he searched the darkness above him. At first, he saw nothing, but then he spied a patch of emptiness in the shape of a man, where there should have been stars. He raised his sword. The form descended the rigging, but stayed out of reach of Hodgson's blade.

"We've given ye time," the ghost pirate hissed. "Time for thought. We ain't attacked the house. But we needs our answer, y'see."

"What are you?" Hodgson demanded.

"A pirate and a murderer, and I make no shame upon it. I'm captain of me ship."

"What is the house to you?"

"Naught. But them's I serve, they wants it, and they'll have it in the end, whether ye would or no. They'll have ye too, if ye don't bargain, and yer pretty woman with ye. They ain't pleasant with them that displease 'em."

Will raised the lantern higher, so it shone on the phantom's face, but all he could see was a pool of darkness where the features should have been. But the specter turned its head and growled, as if blinded by the light.

"And what bargain did you make with them?" Hodgson asked. "What did they promise you?"

"That's none of yer concern."

"I think it is. What was it? Treasure? Immortality? And what did you get? A shadowy purgatory, an unending life as a slave?"

With an animal roar, the pirate leapt from the rigging onto the deck, but Will danced back, avoiding the creature's grasp. He made a quick slash with his blade, forcing the ghost away. The phantom hesitated, cowering from the cutlass.

"Tell your masters I'll give them nothing," Will cried, driving the pirate back. "Now get off my deck or I'll cut you in half."

With the snarl, the ghost backed its way to the railing and dropped without a sound into the sea.

Will stamped across the deck, a furious sentry. He trembled in his anger, his heart pounding against his chest, and he flourished the sword and ached for the phantom to return so he could finish it.

Gradually, his rage passed, followed by an empty despair. He didn't understand any of it; he didn't comprehend this game, in which he was nothing but a pawn. And where were the Forces of Good, the ones who had presumably given power to his blade? Why did they remain aloof?

An hour passed and the vision faded.


He was back in the kitchen of Kraighten House, looked out over the wilderness garden. The house was quiet. He was about to call to Colleen, but something made him hesitate. He picked up the rifle off the table and made his way upstairs to the study.

Bessie stood beside a Morris chair, gazing out at the gardens. She turned at the sound of his approach. Her hair and eyes were brown; she was a handsome woman.

"Hello, love," he said.

"William?"

She ran to him and guilt swept over him as they embraced. No matter how much he loved Colleen, no matter how much he wanted her back, he saw that only a fool trades the living for the dead.

"How can you be here?" Bessie asked. "And where are we?"

"I am in Belgium and you are lying safe in your bed at home; and we are meeting in an odd sort of vision."

"Impossible."

"Nonetheless, true."

He led her to the couch and they sat holding hands.

"What does it mean?" she asked.

"It means that you and I need to have a little talk." Hodgson began uncertainly, unsure what he would say. "I think I should tell you that I have not loved you as I should, and that I am very sorry. I have allowed the past to color our relationship. But I intend to change that. When I return home, I want to be the best husband I can to you."

"But you've been wonderful, William. We've had marvelous times! The days in France; the times in England. You've been everything I ever imagined."

"But I have not been everything I should. Trust that will change, my dear."

"I'm afraid," she said, biting her lip. "This dream. Don't such things portend some terrible happening? I worry about you all the time."

"Don't be frightened. I have passed through the dark of the Night Land and the dark of the ships at sea."

"Oh, William! Your literary allusions." She smiled at him.

"Silly me," he said warmly.

They spent a long hour talking, until the dream ended.


To The Last Roadmaker (Part 3)

© 2011 by James Stoddard.
The image is in the public domain and the photographer is unknown.