Benedict’s world erupted in fire –
Not an uncontrollable wildfire,
Not a shapeless conflagration,
But a landscape sculpted from tongues of flame.
A forest of flickering trees blazed
Like tarred poles, their smoky leaves
Fluttering down about his feet,
Settling thickly on the molten ground;
A meadow of glowing embers opened
Onto a wide clearing of charred earth,
And a tangle of hard coal paths
Crisscrossed the ghostly wilderness.
They wound their way back into
A choking haze that might have been mist
On a spring morn in the real world.
He wheezed harshly as the acrid air
Raked at his lungs; it stung his eyes,
Filling them with unbidden tears.
He covered his nose with the sleeve of his robe
But the effort proved useless; his sinuses burned
All the more, and the pungent miasma
Refused all efforts to make it more breathable.
He stumbled forward, barely able
To see the path under his feet,
Driven only by his fear and guilt.
How long had he wandered through smoke and haze?
Benedict neither knew nor cared;
All that mattered was Dietrich and Lilian.
He clutched his robe tighter around himself
And focused his cares on them, hoping
His ragged breathing would care for itself.
Then suddenly, the smoky haze was gone
And shock took its place. He knew these woods!
At least he knew woods like these.
Earlier that very day he’d stood in
This very clearing with Constable Garrett.
Indeed, at his feet was the very rock
Imprinted with the footprint of the mystery wolf –
Or rather, it was a chunk of glowing
Coal, similar in size and shape
And bearing the selfsame mark. Around him
Stood a grove with flaming trees
And smoky leaves and a river of lava
Flowing gently beside the river path.
“At last! Welcome, my wayward priest!”
Chase’s sickeningly cheerful voice
Echoed among the rocky cliffs.
“Come and join us! You’ve kept us waiting
Much too long. The lovely lady’s
Boorish hound is eager to hunt.”
Benedict heard a ghostly baying
From somewhere deep in this hellish wilderness.
Again Chase called. “Come, my priest,
And let me teach you all where power lies…
Or you can die alone. It matters not
To me, as long as you and the hound die.
The girl will merely long for death.
Come, try to save her if you dare!”