Holding hands—or claw to hand—the pair raced into the Dismal Wood, where the sun was already setting. A signboard pointed the way: Waie to Wisdomme: or, The Road to Learning Harde & Rockie Be; Not for the Squeamish or Easilie Discourragedde.
Butterflies large and small, spiders spinning webs of blue and green and gold, retreated before the young pair.
“Won’t do to have you two, won’t do,” said a largish mother-spider, hurrying her brood away.
“A talking spider—a wonder! O Strap, my new, and best friend in this strange and unknown world!” breathed Clymene, her chest heaving, “Where shall we go?”
“I am a scholar, a yeshiva shade-daemon,” answered the kobold, tilting his leathern wings into an attitude of concentration, “and see only this road. I am first in my class at the Daemon Yeshiva, and, by Ashmedai, my highest teacher, will do my best to excel in whatever tests or traps we may encounter!”
“Then we cannot fail,” Clymene said, although not understanding everything that Strap was saying; as a Greco-nymph, she was bred and raised to be more ornamental than intellectual, but she thought him very daring with his brown skin and flashing golden eyes. And so, hand-in-hand, they moved along the path, claw by foot.
The birds grew larger, crows and jackdaws, fluttering from tree to stone to tree, watching them, looking about. There had been squirrels and rabbits, but these retreated before the creatures of the night.
The Wood grew darker, as the sun set and a huge harvest moon rose in the eastern sky.
“O Diana,” said Clymene, “Virgin Queen of the night, please bless our progress this evening—may your arrows and hounds guard us as we—eek!”
Her last words choked off as they turned the path and saw a serpent lying in the road, there, in the gathering dusk. No ordinary serpent, either: titanic in size, it lay in a circle, its head a-gleam and silvery-red like new-spilled blood, shiny scales tapering into a body of rainbow hue, but turning all flaked and old by the time it reached the tail. The young pair stood a bit farther away; the serpent’s eyes were closed, but its body pulsated, as though it were breathing: more, as though an electric charge were moving through its body.
Strap was first to speak: “Sir Serpent, we are Strap, a Yeshivish Kobold, and Clymene, a Greco-Nymph. We are in lo—lo—we seek passage to the Waie to Wisdomme, and a haven of safety, there to fulfill our love. Will you let us pass?”
The Serpent slowly opened one eye, the one closest to them. It raised its head from the coilly masses and groaned: a groan such as never had been heard before in earth or heaven; a groan to waken all the dead souls a-flit through Hell, or Hades, or Gehenna:
“Who are you, young people? And why should I move from before you? I have lain in this path for ever and aye; I have seen better than you pass by, aye, and wiser, but they came to naught, to naught,I tell you…. This is the Road of Life, and woe to those who follow it; young and fair you may be, but old and spare you will end, begging for me to roll across your path; aye, and end your pointless seeking…. Good—bad—indifferent—it is Life, and you cannot question.”
Having spoken, the Serpent closed its eyes, and resumed its measured breathing, with a sigh or groan or two thrown in, for good measure.
“What shall we do, Sir Strap, my Lo—my dearest friend?” asked Clymene, opening her blue eyes very wide, and clutching her hands; she let drop a flower-petal or two, which skittered across the Serpent’s path, and instantly withered.
Strap thought. “I will question him again. We could fly over him—I could carry you, Dear—my friend, but it is not polite, in daemon- or fairyland, to ignore what lies in one’s path. The Drabbis told us that whatever happens, happens for a reason.”
The little kobold advanced a step toward the Serpent, and asked it again: “We bear you no ill will, Sir Serpent; we seek only to enter the precincts of Wisdomme. You are correct in saying that we are young, and full of hope. Will you bless our mission, therefore, and let us pass?”
The Serpent looked up, and opened its mouth—not to speak, but to swallow its own tail, it seemed. It rose in the road like a chariot-wheel, spun three times from side to side on the path, and spoke again:
Young kobold, I am the Ouroboros. Mark me well. Pass or pass not; go or stay; do or stand: it is all the same. All changes, all remains. Mark-me-well.
“Oh!” exclaimed Strap, and knelt down in the road—“Do so, as well!” he whispered fiercely to Clymene, who followed his lead.
“Why are we doing this for a snake?” she whispered.
“I’ll tell you in a bit—“ said Strap, but the Serpent spoke again:
Maiden! You are, this time in your life, in the prime of beauty, health, and loveliness: but there will come one day a time when you will age, and wither, and think back on these days as a dream, a passing cloud, a veil, an illusion. I am He-who-never-ages; I mark the seasons, dawns and dusks; I am the Power that cannot fail, the Force that reckons no starting or stopping. The Nameless One who rules the universe uses Me to measure its length and breadth, and, due to me, there are those nations and peoples which will live forever. I am the Covenant in the flesh. I am the Serpent that never dies. I am the Ouroboros!
A flash; a whirring sound, as of a wheel; a clap of thunder; he was gone.
“People come and go so quickly here!” said Clymene.
Strap said nothing; he went over and sniffed at the path where the Serpent had lain.
“There is nothing to do but continue,” he said.
The pair held hands and walked along. The road seemed to be paved with carven blocks of jewels: chrysolite, carnelian, and emerald, shining in the moonlight. On either side were roses of all kinds, whose perfume filled the air. A sky full of stars: Bootes, the ox-driver, and his two hunting dogs.
“How beautiful this place is!” said Clymene.
“And I lo—lo—enjoy your company so much!” said Strap.
Ahhrrr—Ra—Ra—Ra—a sudden sound made them halt, and look around: the moon still lit their path, the stars kept their courses. Strap took out his wand, and shone a beam of Storah-light upon an uppermost branch. A flutter of wings, and it was away.
“Did you hear it?” asked Strap.
“Did you see it?” asked Clymene, shivering; Strap held her tightly, and folded his wings around her; she warmed into his grasp, but it took a time before her trembling ceased.
“What was it, Strap? What was it? So big, so formless—I could not see; and then, it flew away—so big—“ she whispered into his ear.
“I saw it,” said the kobold, slowly, and carefully, not to frighten the nymph, “and heard—it was nothing.” But to himself, he said, “The chatter of a death-demon from a tree-top.”