“One!” shouted the Reverend.
“Two!” cried Gretchen.
“Threeeeee!!!!” I screamed, the tip of the sword’s blade pointing itself at the crack like a dowsing rod. The crack in the wall drew together and sealed itself. A few seconds later, it was gone. There was no trace that it had ever been there at all. I still clenched the hilt of the sword. My eyes bulged like a madman’s. The Reverend gently prized it from my grip, and slid the blade into the scabbard. He cleared a space on his couch, into which Gretchen and I collapsed like two marionettes whose strings had been cut.
“I think we could all do with a spot of tea,” the Reverend remarked.
A few minutes later, with hot cups of Earl Grey in our hands, the shock of what had just happened waned somewhat. Gretchen broke the silence.
“Am I going to be the first to say it? That was insane! What the fuck just happened?”
“You simply witnessed a textbook example of why you should never perform a summoning ritual without the proper protections,” the Reverend replied.
“But I’ve opened the box before and nothing happened,” I countered.
“Nothing? Nothing at all?”
“Well...there were the whispers in my head. And the strange dreams.”
The Reverend nodded vigorously.
“You have been weakening the wall. This time was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. It’s lucky you were here when it did, or else...who knows what might have happened?”
“The sword,” I said. “I’ve used that sword before...in the dreamlands.”
“There he goes with the dreamlands again,” Gretchen said.
The Reverend smiled like a Cheshire cat.
“Now, now, Gretchen. There are more things in heaven and earth. Pray continue, Jack.”
“I used it to cut a rope that was holding up a cage... The cage fell and Mother Goose flew out. It was very confusing. But I swear—it was the same sword. Where did you get it?”
“It belonged to my old friend, of course, who was also named Jack.”
Memories came flooding into my head that were not from my own life. They belonged to another Jack, the one before me. The old man in the shack in the Appalachian Mountains. But he had not always been old. Once he had been young like me. Young and blond-haired and full of mischief. He had been Jack. Nimble and quick. The Reverend smiled.
“You remember, don’t you Jack?”
“Wait a minute,” Gretchen said. “You two have met?”
“Not precisely,” the Reverend explained patiently. “I knew the Jack-that-was. But in many ways all the Jacks are the same person. The same, but different.”
“I get it. Not!”
I got up and lifted the sword, now safely ensconced in the scabbard. It was much lighter than a sword of that size should be. But I suppose it was not made of ordinary steel.
“The sword is yours Jack,” the Reverend said. “It is the Thursbane—the giant-killing blade renowned in phrase and fable. It belongs to you.”
A voice whispered in my head. “Take it, Jack. Take it and you will win all the fame and fortune you desire. Wine, women and power. Stacks of gold piled high in a tower...”
I pushed the voice out of my mind and set the sword back on top of the Reverend’s bookshelf.
“No. It’s not for me. I’m not a swordy kind of guy.”
The Reverend nodded. “A wise choice. It will stay in my care then.”
Gretchen, meanwhile, was fingering the book on the Reverend’s desk, the one she had been reading from a few minutes before.
“May I?” she asked.
“By all means, the Reverend replied.
Gretchen opened the cover and I looked over her shoulder at the frontispiece.
Ye Wisdomme of Fryg
Who is elsewyse knowne as
Gretchen and I exchanged glances. She flipped through the vellum pages and we saw the same nursery rhymes we grew up with as children. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle. Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop. Little boy blue, come blow your horn. But as she waded deeper into the book, the rhymes became weirder and unfamiliar. That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange æons even death may die. Something about this rhyme made my stomach flutter, and I shuddered involuntarily. I could tell Gretchen had the same reaction, for after reading the couplet, she shut the book firmly. That was one weird Mother Goose book.
“Yes, perhaps it’s best not to drink in too much knowledge at one time,” the Reverend said. “But I assure the book will come in handy when you need it.” “You mean...you’re giving it to me?” Gretchen said.
“Indeed. It is far too burdensome for me to lug around anymore.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d come with us, Reverend,” I said. “Like in the old days.”
“A tempting offer, Jack. But I am far too old for dream-quests now. The best I can do is offer a word or two of advice from my considerable storehouse of experience.”
“Then what do you advise we do with the emerald?”
“Ah, a tricky conundrum, isn’t it? It is too dangerous to keep, and yet too dangerous to give away.”
“Maybe we can throw it in Mount Doom,” Gretchen grinned.
“Ah, dear old Tolkien,” the Reverend said. “How I miss the talks we had late into the night at the Eagle and Child. The problem, my dear Gretchen, is that unlike the One True Ring, the Eye of Set is indestructible.”
“Then what are we going to do?” I said.
“You must follow your weird,” the Reverend replied. “And trust in the wisdom of Fríg.”
“Frig?” said Gretchen. “Seriously?”
“Now, now. No need to be childish. And it’s not Frig, it’s Fríg.” He pronounced the name Freeg.
“Then I should keep going to Fiddle Creak?” I said. “Isn’t that what...” I whispered the name, that terrible name. “Yog-Sothoth wants?”
“If that is where your weird is taking you, then you should let it. I have faith in you Jack. You’ll find a way to outsmart the Old Ones. You always do.”
The tea had grown cold and more than half the day was spent. It was time to go. Gretchen reluctantly put the ancient Mother Goose (or whatever it was) in her backpack. She didn’t particularly want to take it. But I had refused the sword, and we needed some ace up our sleeve, albeit a very bulky one.
The Reverend walked us to the main gate of Mousehole University, a spindly, wrought iron affair surmounted on either side by two black, cast-iron ravens. He hugged us each and gave Gretchen a kiss on the cheek. I stole one last glance at the back of the frock-coated old man as he scuttled back into the warmth of his office, and wondered if I’d ever see him again. Well, of course I would.
The clock struck one as we climbed into Gretchen’s black Volkswagen Jetta and, unbidden, a nursery rhyme sprang to mind.
Hickory dickory dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory dickory dock.
Mother Goose, Fríg, whoever you are, help us.
We were on our way to Fiddle Creak.