The priest was treacherous. The generous offer of rest afforded to The Crowned One was but a strategy to make his pain all the more cutting and all the more deep. Nonetheless he continued on. Revolution by revolution, bead of sweat after bead of sweat.
Past the seventh and eighth.
The keepers of the seventh and eighth did too challenge The Crowned One. Angels, The Hunted, Blender–they appeared as false gods. But he was not fooled. He cast from their thrones, but at a great price. His muscles ached, his mind grew foggy, his eyes became heavy, and the weight of the burden he had undertaken drew down on him as the world weighs down on Atlas.
They found him.
On the eighth day, in the eighth circle did the Beloved Friend and the Bright-Headed One find The Crowned One. Beloved Friend’s wisdom rang true and together they drove the Blender from their path. Their spirits combined moved time itself forward at a hurried pace, though nothing could be done to rid themselves of the anguish, misery, and fatigue they had borne upon themselves.
They arrived at the ninth.
Well met, Friend. More than a week of toil has brought us to where we stand. Our blood, sweat, and tears have stained the Earth, but none hath been able to halt our advance. Now at last in this ominous place, where the air chokes the lungs and the sky strangles even light from the sun, we will end this. I will summon the keeper of the ninth that we may cast aside our burdens. Pray tell me where is The Bright-Headed One? Now that we have joined as comrades I would not begin without her at our side.
He answered with remorse.
The Bright-Headed One has gone from our reach, Crowned One. Death has taken her from me. Yet grieve not for her. Surely she finds peace in the halls of Hades tending the great beasts Cerberus, Fenrir, and Nismo. A brave heart may enter Sufferlandria, but only a strong heart might journey to its depths.
I too hope that she may she find the respite guarding the heralds of Hell, Ragnarok, and Ratchet. But what of you? I stare at you now Friend and it is as if you are in this place and not in the same instance. What devilry has been worked upon you?
He was with him in spirit.
Fear not Crowned One. It is as you say that though I am here with you, I am also not. I stand beside you on the edge of the ninth circle of Sufferlandria, yet two different roads did we travel to arrive here. You the long unforgiving path, and I one that is no less forgiving, but shorter nonetheless. We have talked much now. The time has arrived to be done with this story.
His voice boomed.
I, the Crowned One summon you forth, keeper of the ninth. Come and lay your challenge at my feet. Before the sun sets this day you will bow to me, as has every other master of Sufferlandria.
The Ferryman came forth.
So a fool has come to the ninth circle of Sufferlandria? I am called the Violator, as is this place. I was your beginning and I will proclaim your end.
He readied himself.
You are not the ninth, Ferryman. You dwelt upon the edge of Sufferlandria. What is the meaning of this?
The Ferryman cackled.
You are blind, Crowned One. It was the deepest circles of Sufferlandria that called you forth. They and I are one in the same. Had you known me for that which I am when we first met, naught would have changed. Still we would have found ourselves in this place, on this day, with the whole of creation to bare witness. Now. COME AT ME!
He rode hard.
He rode harder than he ever had before.
He bested the ninth!
Impossible! Sixty-four times I have come at you, and sixty-four times you have bested me. All that I am I used to break you. But only now do I see you cannot be broken.
The Crowned One stood in the very center of Sufferlandria.
I stand here in a place of honor, Ferryman. A high price have I paid for this moment. Yet having come to this place I am humbled. It is as you said. No reward awaits me. Pain was all I found. Yet I will leave here humbled and glad for the memories, however dark and distorted they might be.
The nine masters appeared before him. The Ferryman spoke.
You will leave here with no reward, but you will not go away with nothing. Leave this place and carry with you our respect–the respect of Sufferlandria!
The nine bowed low to The Crowned One. He did not gloat. He did not revel in the moment. For in having won the respect of the nine, they too had won his. He offered a low bow, then mounted the Talon of the Kestrel, and continued his journey in search of challenges, both wonderful and terrible.