Down on the sage encrusted valley floor, Bob felt like the Subaru was sinking. Like he could drive down through the ancient soil, wild grasses, and the rock, straight down into the underworld. Where the three Norns spun our story’s at the roots of the tree of life, Yggdrasil. He wanted to know their secret plan for him or if there ever was one. His mother’s words rang in his head like church bells tolling a warning. Her references to running the family, setting his father straight in the afterworld, and the good death of his uncle added up to Bob taking another step in the family hierarchy. Thoughts and questions about how it should all go circled in his head. Was this the real world? Was all around him good old fashion truth? If so, how would he help his father in the afterworld? He knew the obvious like killing his betrayers and making the offer of the living – A sacrifice of your life to completing the tasks of the dead – but there were other loose ends that he could not fully understand. He ran the options over and over in his head, and this seemed to help him simplify things a little. And, as time passed with the dust and the sage, it all started to become pretty straightforward. But he still could not solve a nagging feeling he had in his gut that there was something deeper going on.
The Regulator needed some insight. Some spiritual backing. So, south he traveled. Ducking his way through the back rounds of the ranchlands, he moved towards the hills that bordered the wide valley. Up to the Altar. To the place where the dreams are had. Dreams that can tell of your future and all that it holds. Or at least that’s what they say. Bob was always skeptical. What if the dreams were just that? Dreams. Drug-induced, food-deprived, dehydrated dreams. The dreams didn’t help his father see what was coming. The late-night raid into his bedroom. The hail of bullets. The hundred or so bloody holes in his soul. Shit, there was barely anything left to burn. Maybe if he had some warning, he would have been holding more than a small 9 mm. Probably would have had a few more clothes on, too. His father believed in the spirit world and what it told him, and it always seemed to show him the right thing. How else could you explain his uncanny ability to know what was going to happen before it happened?
Either way, before the end of the day Bob figured he would be having some dreams himself. Why not? Let’s see what the sage can do. What deep corner of fate can he bring to the light? The Regulator could use an upper hand in all of this. Let’s just go see what the sage and spirit world have to say.
The single-lane dirt road to the Altar looked like any other mountain property access. At the entrance was a simple timber-framed archway with a wooden sign hanging from the cross log on a couple of rusted chains. The word Altanen was carved in the sign, meaning Altar. The road made its way up a tight rocky canyon filled with evergreen trees. A steep, timber-filled creek full of spring runoff rumbled down on the right-hand side. The cliff wall drove you towards the creek with overhanging rocky outcroppings. One mile up the canyon, the cliff wall started to settled back onto the mountain slopes. The trees gave way to a long open meadow full of tall wavy grass and hemmed in by 12,000-foot snow covered peaks. The creek pooled up in a calm meander through the center of the field. A backdrop straight out of Hollywood. The Regulator always figured this idyllic valley just needed a herd of wild horses running through it. That would really top it off nicely.
The Regulator felt an unease in his spine as he emerged from the canyon. Then he saw it. A strange anomaly in the air. Was it the late afternoon sun or the gusting wind? Something smelled wrong too. The air smelled sour and took on a dense look. Distorting the light like heat waves off the desert sands, but this was different because the whole sky was thick with a wavy amber tint. Everything was slightly distorted, making the distant mountains shimmer and the trees flat. Bob stopped the car and pulled his Glock from the holster. He popped the door open and scanned around him as he stood up to taking in the vision before him. The deep pine forest to his back seemed to be full of activity. Yet he could see nothing among the trunks or heavy boughs. The Regulator felt them there. Felt them and all their agitation and outrage. It was like he was being talked to but not with words, but rather with emotions. No words just feelings and a deep sentiment. He slowly scanned across the valley from left to right. He had been here a hundred times. Nothing was out of place and yet, everything was. His eyes landed on the Alter that lay slightly below his current position. A traditionally timber-framed Danish hall about half a mile up along the creek, on the opposite side of the valley. It seemed to levitate in the thick sour air. He did not feel threatened. It was not like the familiar feeling of having the enemy close. But, he did feel agitation in the air and the smell of discourse that came along with it.
The Regulator eased slowly down the left side of the valley in the shade of Halfmoon Ridge. Soon the road would turn into the open of the meadow and across a bridge over the creek. He cautiously rolled past a couple of old ranch cabins looking into the dark reflective windows for any sign of trouble. The sun was shining on the other side of the meadow and the Altar. As he dropped toward the creek, the air became crystal clear, and above him remained the thick with the amber tint. There were no other vehicles outside the Altar. A good sign, he figured. The amber air seemed to be funneling down the massive stone chimney in the center of the great hall. The popping of his tires on the gravel drive stopped as Bob parked in front of the large hall. The sound of the wind was all that could be heard in the valley. Pistol still in hand he pulled himself from the car and diligently studying the Alter and it’s surroundings. He looked up at the chimney asking himself, Was the air coming or going? He could not tell. One thing was for sure- all was not right, and he had a strange feeling it had something to do with about him. The emotions from the woods were still talking to him, and under his breath, he muttered, “What the fuck?” More out of annoyance than of intrigue. He shook his head and thought – Hasn’t enough crazy shit happened this week?
Approaching the large hand-carved double doors of the hall, he started to disarm for there were no weapons allowed inside the Altar. He unloaded the two Glocks, three knives, choking cord, and small a small ankle pistol into a small cabinet by the door. Taking a last look behind him into the meadow and the oddity above, he pushed open the door. Well, at least he tried to. It was as if something or somebody was on the other side and standing in the way. The resistance was like opening a door against a strong wind. He leaned in and tried again. The door slowly moved open just enough for him to sneak inside.
Taking a good look around, all was perfectly normal. Fires burned brightly in the braziers. The benches were arranged around the raised stone altar in their usual form. Nagli, the sage, sat in his black walnut and deerskin throne. Bob always liked the odd way the small, spectacle-wearing man looked in his oversized chair. The Regulator felt as if the no-nonsense, clever, and humble man sat in it as an ironic jester. Nagli knew it didn’t fit him, but it is the chair of the sage. The sage of the Altar. So, he sat in it, just the same. Everything was very normal indeed.
All, but the inhabitants of the hall. The first thing he noticed about them was their sheer number. Packed in like sardines they were. The second was their mood. All very excited and out of sorts. They seemed to all be talking at once and all very loudly and all with great concern. The sound was deafening. Why had I not heard this outside? The Regulator wondered. But, this was not the true wonder of what lay before the Regulator. The hall was not full of people. Well, at least not live ones. The Hall was full of ghosts or maybe spirits. It was hard to tell. Bob knew he should know the difference, but that specific training had been a long time ago. Eventually, Bob determined these were definitely spirits, and they were not happy. Not happy at all.
Their bodies and faces moved in and out of focus and clarity. If he was to look directly at someone, they would come more into focus but look away, and they would fade to a translucent amber figure. Standing with his back against the door, Bob took a second to adjust his eyes. From what he could gather, there were spirits from all times of Pegan history in the hall, and it seemed they were all looking for answers from Nagli. At that moment, Nagli was patiently listing to the complaints of a very large man in a bearskin wrap. He had long, braided hair, a scruffy beard, and massive arms. He was hefting a sizable battle-ax as easy as a golf club. Plentiful gold and silver bracelets wrapped his forearms. The Regulator figured him to be a mighty ancient warrior. One that had lead many men and concord many lands. As this ancient warrior was shaking the ax over Nagli’s head in exclamation, the sage spied the Regulator. A little smile broke across his lips and he winked. Forty feet separated them, but through the noisy, spirit crowded room Nagli, said, “Welcome, Bob.” His voice sounded upon Bob’s ears as if they were all alone in the hall and standing just feet apart.
Bob realized if he concentrated his vision on the sage the room went silent. As if putting a pair of noise-canceling headphones on at a hardcore show. The energy went on around him, but the overwhelming noise bled away. As soon as he lost his concentration on Nagli, the sound would start to rise again. He suddenly realized that the large bearskin covered Dane warrior was now looking and pointing his ax at him. For a moment, The Regulator wished he had not disarmed at the door. Then he thought about how silly that thought was. What was he going to do, shoot the dead Viking King to death? The man bellowed, “He has arrived!” All the spirits stopped, quieted down, and turned to look at Bob. The closest ones shuffled back to give him some room, seeming somewhat surprised they hadn’t noticed him standing there behind them.
Nagli, leaning on the left arm of his chair, looked over the top of his spectacles and said, “You are correct, Viggo. The son has come to seek his path. Now!” He paused and took a look around, “Maybe you can all give me some time with the Man? He has come a long way, and has had a terribly stressful week.” There was a shuffling and a low murmur among the crowd as they all looked at one another. “Alone, perhaps?” The old sage suggested as he leaned back in his oversized chair.
Viggo looked back at Nagli and straightened himself up. “He’s not the only one who has had a tough week.” There was a resounding agreement about the room. “You will make sure his dreams come true, old man? So we may go back to our rightful realms?”
“This, I promise, Viggo, or you may come take me before time has its own rights to me.”
Viggo nodded. Lifting his arms and turning about, he yelled, “Well, you heard the man let’s get ourselves out of here! These two have a lot of work to do.”
The crowd slowly shuffled toward the great fireplace in the center of the back of the hall. Slowly they disappeared up through the flames and up the chimney. One spirit dressed in a seventies-style leisure suit shuffled by Bob and said, “You best put a fix to all this boy. If we all have to hang around in this realm forever, there is going to be a heavy price to pay. For everyone.” Bob had amassed a sizable volume of questions by this point, and just as he was to open his mouth to ask one, the spirit said,” You’ll find out soon enough and to tell ya the truth I don’t envy you, my man. But, from what I hear, a man such as you has more than a fair chance at beating the odds on all this mess. Or, at least coming out of it with most of your wits about ya. Good luck.” He nodded and headed toward the chimney.
Once the room had cleared, Bob eased his way to a bench opposite Nagli. He silently nodded toward the bench in a pleading manner. Nagli gestured with an open hand as to say, “Please sit.” Bob sat down slowly. He looked up at the old sage with tired eyes. “Got a cot or something around here so a guy can get a bit of shut-eye?” Then he raised a hand, “I know, I know, but I am too tired right now to deal with what I just saw. I figure you will have a perfectly reasonable and oh-so-logical explanation when I wake up.”
The sage looked down at him form the raised Altar and looked him over with a curious brow. Then he pointed to his left. “Over that way. Grab a jug of water off the table there. You’re dehydrated. All that dammed coffee you drink.”