The Dead: Book 3 (Frag. 3)

The Book of the Story

THE STRANGE SMELLS—incense and exotic foods and wood fires and sweat and animal feces and ancient cloth and something like the scent of stone—and sounds—haggling and braying and barking and clanging and chimes—had put Ralphy into a sort of trance by the time they arrived at The Court of the Scales.

The judge was led to the front of the line, and Ralphy followed along, carrying the enormous jar. There was some argument from those who had been waiting, but they were ushered into the court, anyway.

Ralphy looked around himself, and, for the first time, it crossed his mind that this might all be just an elaborate dream. The center of the court was dominated by a huge scale—not the spring type, like he had seen so many times in the grocery store, but the balancing kind, where you put weights in one tray and the thing you were weighing in the other.

The man who operated the scale seemed to be wearing an elaborate mask, or else he really had a head shaped like a dog's. Sitting to one side of the scales was a creature with the body of a lion, and the head of a crocodile.

The Used Car Saleman gave the judge a push in the back, and he stepped forward.

The crocodile-lion opened its mouth to roar, and Ralphy stared down its throat, past the rows of ragged teeth, into the throat of the beast. He could have sworn he saw an enormous void in there, and in the distance a lake of fire filled with screaming bodies.

The dog-man at the scales motioned the Judge to come forward. He opened a scroll, and read silently from it, occasionally glancing at the judge, as though to verify something about what he was reading.

Finally, he gave the judge his full attention.

"I see that you were a judge yourself, in life?"

"I was," the judge replied.

"And how did you judge, when you were in the seat of power?"

"By the law, and fairly."

A slight smile curled the corner of the dog-man's lips.

"You must have had tremendous intelligence, to manage both, simultaneously."

"I did my best."

"You belong to the order of Zareth?"

"I do."

"Then you have come prepared?"

"I have."

The dog-man took a feather from an assistant, and placed in on one tray of the scales. They tilted with the weight.

He nodded to the judge.

The judge took the jar from Ralphy, and set it on the stone pavement. He grasped the cork in both hands, and pulled. It came free suddenly, and a scent of herbs and alcohol filled the air.