Something Wicked this way Comes... continued

I sprinted to the end of the hall, then my shoes fought for traction on the slick floor as I slid sideways halfway to the opposite wall of the main area while heading toward the south stairwell. This time of day had full lighting for the regions in use, which meant a wall of flickering candles shedding light upon me as I ran down the middle of the now terrifyingly-wide main 'court' or whatever it was actually called. I turned, then came to the foot of the stairs while still sliding sideways, then somehow gathered myself and leaped.

I launched into space, then as I watched with fear and another yet more terrible sense that I could not name, I seemed to fly up the stairs, slowly climbing to perhaps six feet above the steps themselves, then equally slowly, I began descending. I hoped I would not crash, so much so that as the stairs slowly drew nearer, I looked ahead and saw the landing – and as my shoes cleared the last steps with but a few inches to spare, I straightened up and then prepared to land...

And slid backwards nearly ten feet while trying to turn around so as to reach the next such staircase.

I was accelerating that whole short distance, and when I had to make the turn to line up for the staircase, I was sliding crazily all over the floor once more as my boots fought to gain traction. I came to the bottom of the stairs, and without hesitation, I again leaped.

The height I managed this time was less than the first instance, and my feet began flailing as the steps drew closer to them about half way up the staircase. One foot struck stone, then another; then I was airborne again for several steps. This happened twice; and as I came to the top of the staircase, I nearly did a header. I caught myself just in time on my hands and knees but feet past the top of the stairs.

I also smelled the scent of burnt flesh, and amid dim-lit corridors, I stood, my hands feeling to make sure I had not lost anything in my mad scramble to the third floor of the house. Rifle still slung, sword where it belonged, possible bag, holster – all present. I began 'looking', now trying to find the source of the screams.

Another scream broke the silence, and my head jerked to the right. I ran down the one-sided corridor that flanked the main 'court', then as my nose caught the stronger smell of burnt flesh, I nearly spewed.

And came to a stop, this opposite a wider-than-usual corridor running to my left, one I had never seen before in my 'exploring'. I wondered for an instant how that had happened, then as I walked down the uncommonly wide hall, passing doors with candles glaring behind smoke-streaked glass panes to each side of me, I knew 'where' I was.

“This is where all of those clerks do their business,” I muttered, as I saw a partly-open door to the right. The stink was coming from in there, and when I came to this particular doorway, I looked inside.

The room was small, perhaps eight feet square, with starkly white walls and a student's lantern blazing directly in the center of the room. It was hanging from a thin chain descending from the ceiling. Another such lantern, it also lit and glaring, was on a stand next to a desk, this near the center of the floor of the too-small room. I was wondering if I was feeling claustrophobia, as when I came beyond the threshold, I saw a clerk who had fainted leaning against the wall, with his chair partly collapsed under him – and as I wondered what clerks did, especially this man, I noted what was lining the opposite wall.

Bookcases, these ceiling high and wall to wall, all of them stuffed with ledgers, most of these leather-bound and older than myself. The wall opposite the door: much the same, with varnished wood bookcases framing the light to medium tan of the leather outsides of the ledgers – and on each horizontal surface that I saw near these books, I saw not merely dust, but dust that had swirled and been disturbed by many withdrawals and replacements of these thick and loose-seeming 'books'.

“Must be busy,” I thought, as I returned my gaze to the man himself and his immediate surroundings.

Yet first, there was his desk: about half the size of Hendrik's, it was crowded with papers of one kind of another, with two open ledgers, one beside the other. An ink-globe in a wooden holder, this uncorked, showed a messily clogged quill pen laying next to it, and I wondered for an instant why that awful 'fetish-ink' that ruined documents was still being used here. I then saw a finger-length square stick of 'sealing-wax', this a dark reddish brown the color of fresh-dried blood, with an end but recently melted; a still burning tallow candle, one that was thick and noisome with the reek characteristic to poorly-rendered tallow; and finally, a wooden-handled brass block, this stained reddish-brown at the brass end. I surmised it to be a stamp, and waving my hand over it showed unusual warmth. It had seen recent use.

The slumping tallow candle then tipped over with a suddenness that startled me, and without thinking, I slapped it hard with my open hand so as to put it out. The thump of my open hand upon his desk made no impression upon the unconscious man, and as I wiped my hand with a rag, I smelled it; and amid the putrid-seeming reek of poorly rendered tallow, I once more smelled the odor of burnt flesh – and with it, the ghastly odor of 'strong' Geneva coming from a large and dark-streaked ceramic mug that I had not even noticed before.

I nearly bolted for the door, as now the stench was upon me; it had stalked me carefully during the first seconds of my glaring tunnel-vision, but its ambush was now in full force – and I had the dry heaves. I was so sick I could barely speak, for the Geneva was steaming as if someone was boiling it, and its potent fumes filled the air which I breathed.

Next to that mug lay a small embossed tin, and the contents of that tin, a mystery.

The stench, however, was not; and sick and miserable, I staggered outside. There, I gasped, my voice but barely audible: “Hans... Anna... P-Please. S-someone. P-please come. Quick. It's a burn.”

And for some reason, even as I went to my knees to there spew vomit upon the floor, I could hear an answer: someone was all but erupting from their office; two people were scrambling for the door of the house; and a fourth person, this one as swift as an arrow, shouldered the two 'scramblers' aside and shot like lightning as I looked in the mirror-pool of clear green-tinged liquid I had just brought up. This person seemed heedless of but one thing, and within seconds, I heard a faint high-pitched yell.

“S-Sarah?” I gasped, as I tried not to spew again and more green-tinged vomit came up to coat the floor with a spreading layer that seemed to flow away from me in a widening 'lake' of thin watery liquid.

The person erupting from their office, however, was not taking the clear and obvious way of the other three: he had taken the torturous, slow, and excruciating back way, thinking its apparent shorter distance would save him time – only in his case, his current frantic scrambling looked to make that a reality; and it was a question as to who would show first.

And another question, this one fully as dire as the burn: would those two 'guards' remain upon post?

I tried to 'see' the location, and thankfully, I could not do so. This was not a matter of me doing things like a witch, I now saw once more; I had a job, and I was given the help I needed, not temptation that would get me in trouble.

I stood, slow, shaky; then I wobbled back to the door. I opened it wider, hoping the evil fumes would dissipate quicker, and as I did, I said, “that stuff smells horrible. What is it?”

“I think that is Geneva,” said Gabriel's breathless voice from behind me, “and if I did not know better, I would swear it came from the potato country.” A brief pause, then, “did you spew?”

I turned and nodded slowly while wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, then, “he burnt himself in there.”

“Is he charcoal, or is he...”

I left Gabriel behind, and walked back inside, this now to the side of the still-unconscious clerk. I looked first at his left hand, and found it intact, for some reason; but when I reached for his right hand, he went from 'unconscious' to 'wide awake and screaming'.

“No, let me look at that,” I said. “I will not touch it. I promise you that.”

Gingerly, he held out his right hand, palm up. The deep-red blister-puffed area was nearly an inch wide and running the entire width of his hand, and I murmured a prayer of thanks his skin was not 'charcoal', as Gabriel had spoken in such an oblivious-sounding tone. I then remembered the commonplace infections that burns usually meant here – and their invariably fatal or crippling outcome. This one looked very serious indeed.

I then noted a sensation in my right hand, and as I looked, the palm seemed to briefly grow a brilliant scarlet tinge, just like the burn I had seen in the clerk's hand – and the pain struck, this feeling much as if I had attempted to remove a red-hot knife blank from the long forge with my bare hand. I shook my hand, and thankfully, both visual and tactile sensations vanished. I then saw what the clerk was attempting to do.

The tin was in his left hand, and with agonizing slowness and several muted groans, he pried off the lid of the thing with the fingers of his right hand. I looked closer at his hands, and then saw that the whole of this smallish tin was filled with small mottled greenish-gray lumps of irregular form streaked faintly with thready streaks of a dark and noisome – and evil-looking – shade of green. The odor this material then hit me like a brick to the nose.

“Flower sap,” I thought, as I clutched my stomach. I wondered if I would go outside to spew again, at least until I saw the man pick up an old brass spoon, one tinged with time and dosed with corrosion, and begin to spoon the gummy-looking crumbling material into the still-fuming mug of Geneva. His first 'dose' had me gasp in horror.

“That's more than I did for the man with a broken leg and Paul put together,” I thought, as he put another such spoonful into the fuming liquid. “How much will he put in that stuff?”

Three, four, then five such spoonfuls – and as the man looked at the near-empty tin, he decided against adding the meager half-spoonful that remained. He began to slowly stir his 'brew' with his left hand, all the while moaning softly. I wobbled outside, gasped, then as running steps came – they seemed uncommonly faint, fainter than before – I looked at Gabriel, and then knew that beyond his 'being here', he bordered on useless – save, perhaps, to bear me to a grave should I die in the course of my obvious duties. I turned around and went back inside, now glad for the reduced stink of Geneva.

The flower sap's foul stench had more than taken its place, however, and as I watched the man, slowly stirring his mixture – patient, slow, like an old junkie savoring the oncoming feeling of his next dose as he cooked it up, his bent and twisted needle at the ready – it took what seemed minutes for me to gather words amid the nausea and mind-bending stink of what was in that small and now horribly claustrophobic room.

“Please,” I pleaded, “let me look at that hand.”

He turned his head to me, his face writ deep with misery, his pain too much for him to even scream. All his thoughts were bent toward the mixture he was stirring, which so horrified me that I shrieked, “Stop! No! That much will kill you! It is far too much!”

He did not hear me, for he now looked at the remainder in the still-open tin, and poured the last of his evil-smelling drug into the mixture. For a moment, his face seemed to morph into that of a pinch-faced toothless skin-covered skull, the skin blotchy with premature age, the hair in wispy thin strands, the few teeth in his mouth remaining by precarious holds. The monkey had taken everything else, and for some reason, I could almost feel the blatant presence of an orange-furred ape somewhere nearby.

Only this ape was one that knew me, not the one he was too familiar with; and the drunken homicidal orangutan of my nightmares used a razor and lived somewhere in France. I shook off that nightmare and faced the one directly in front of me: high-test laudanum, mixed up by someone who had no idea of what he was doing, and I recalled the scale, the aquavit, the hot water...

“Bleah,” I gasped, as I backed out of the room, and once outside, where I was up against the wall and heaving, I muttered, “probably cooked more than that mug. He was doing a stamping as well.”

“Now you speak of something I know about,” said Gabriel. “Did he have sealing wax in there?”

“Yes, dark reddish brown, a brass stamp, and a tallow candle...”

“He must have gotten cheap wax, then,” said Gabriel.

“No, you wretch,” spat Sarah as she came running like the wind to then slide across the floor to a stop but a foot from Gabriel's chest. She looked up at him, her face writ with accusation. “That is common wax, if it is that color.”

“Letters seldom receive wax, though,” said Gabriel.

I wondered if he knew the reality: he never waxed his letters, as he was thought likely to burn himself if he did so by many people, Hendrik among them. Instead, his letters – and nearly everything that was sent written on paper from the house proper, either by post or by courier – was checked over, verified, reviewed for completeness and accuracy, stamped, copied if such was indicated, and then wax-sealed by these clerks. That constituted the bulk of their job, and they were seldom idle while on the premises – and their workdays, unlike most who worked here, were 'the usual hours and whenever called', which was a major reason as to why they tended to live at the house proper during the 'usual work-week'. I was about to tell him that when Sarah spoke for me.

“If it comes from a kingdom house proper, then that document is at the least waxed and sealed,” said Sarah, “and common wax is dark yellow, reddish brown, brown, or sometimes a dark green if the document is done in the fourth kingdom. Bright-red wax is reserved for the eyes of the king alone, and that for every house.”

“Then why do I not wax my documents?” asked Gabriel.

“That is because you would set yourself alight if you tried that,” said Hans as he came walking up. He'd been running hard, and it showed. “And while that is talk, I think there is truth to it, as I have seen you do things enough to know how you are.” A brief pause to 'catch his breath', then, “Anna is coming. Now where is the trouble?”

Hans had seen the puddle on the floor. He then looked at me as if he knew.

“It smells awful in there, Hans,” said Sarah. “I think I'm going to...”

Sarah turned away from us and went to her knees, then began retching. I hoped she would not vomit, but as Hans looked in the doorway and Gabriel once more seemed 'lost', Sarah sprayed a gushing mess out of her mouth. She then turned, reached for a rag from her satchel, then said, “that stink is awful. What is it, flower sap and Geneva mixed?”

“If it is that, then he will die if he drinks it,” said Hans. “It smells like he has been running a bad still in here with the berries and stuff in with the mash, and no rye paste anywhere on that thing.”

I moved past Hans, and saw that while the man had not yet tasted his brew, he was still stirring it, and I said, this softly, “I have seen worse injuries than what you have healed. You can avoid that stuff and its corking and nightmares then.”

His facial expression, which before was unreadable or ambiguous to me, was now neither of those: it spoke of complete, total, and utter disbelief – and had I needed to guess as to his previous expression, I would have said, 'agony' or 'I am doomed'. The latter seemed all too likely, for some reason, so much so that when he put down his spoon and tried to touch the still hot mug with his left hand so as to drink from it, I noted the following:

He was right-handed. His attempts to use his left hand for gripping were getting nowhere fast.

The burn mark now became obvious as to its source: it was not the hot wax, nor the heated and sooty brass head of the stamp. It was what he was now trying to grab ahold of. I then heard running steps coming fast, and as I turned, I heard Anna say breathlessly, “I'm here. Now where is that burn?”

“In here, dear,” I said softly between attempts to restrain my gorge. “Over here – though the smell is bad, and you might just spew if you get enough of it.”

Anna came inside, then grasped her nose. Her voice, nasal and high-pitched: “what is that stink?”

“Burnt flesh, Geneva – bad Geneva, like that stuff in that one jug – possibly burnt wood, bad tallow...”

More spewing noises out in the hallway, then Anna turned. She turned back to me, and said, “It finally got to him.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Gabriel,” said Anna. “He just spewed.” A pause, then, “now what is that smell?”

“What I told you,” I said. “Oh, flower sap, also.”

Flower sap?” screeched Anna. “Did he put that stuff in Geneva?”

I nodded, then said, “enough to kill three horses, two mules, and a Death Adder, unless I miss my guess.”

I moved to fetch the tin – the man now seemed 'oblivious', so much so that I wondered if he'd managed a sip of his potent brew – and handed it to Anna. I moved out into the hallway, with her ahead of me.

“Thank you,” she said. “I was about to spew, it's so bad in there. Now what was in this tin? Flower sap?”

“Yes, only it was not like what we have at home,” I said. “This stuff was gummy, messy-looking, lumpy, and smellier than what I've seen at home – and that tin was full of that nasty stuff.”

“I am not sure about the Death Adder,” said Anna, “but if he mixed that much with Geneva, I think you are right about the horses and mules.”

“That smells,” said Gabriel. Here, he turned to me. “You'd best deal with that hand so he does not kill himself ten times over with that drug.”

Anna looked at Gabriel as if he were mocking her.

“I saw what he did with Freek's hand,” said Gabriel, “and that hand was burned to a stump of smoking charcoal. You have seen what it is like today.”

And as if the clerk had been listening for just that particular verbiage, he turned loose of his hoarded 'sense of pain' with a nightmarish teeth-rattling scream that seemed to come from beyond the grave. I dropped all pretense of decorum, ignored the stink, and I ran inside. There, his hand laid out flat on the desktop, the burn showing, his face sunk to the top of the desk. I covered his hand with mine, leaving an inch or more between my palm and his so I did not touch his hand and make it hurt more, and prayed silently.

For an instant, nothing happened: but then, suddenly, as if a switch had been turned, he violently convulsed, his arms and legs waving wildly as he went into a convulsion the likes of which I had never seen – and this whole time, he screamed, this time a pure high-pitched shrillness that pierced mind and marrow and left sanity blasted into ruins in its wake.

“Cease with the screaming, sir,” I mumbled as I backed up. Again, I nearly spewed from the stink of his 'brew'.

Both the screams and the fit ceased instantly, and were replaced by moans of pain as the man now sat up and attempted to inhale the mug's contents. How he endured that vile reek was a mystery, but the smell was all he was getting; none of the liquid contents entered either his mouth or his nose. I placed my right hand near the mug, and felt its substantial heat at a distance of several inches. I had to get it to where he would not get burnt more, and where no one else would be burnt by the mug or scalded by its contents. I moved his head gently out of the way with the back of my left hand, then with my hand over the top of the mug, I asked, “the nearest bookshelf, please.”

The mug lifted clear of the table to within inches of my right palm, and as I turned, it stayed right under my hand, following it obediently. I then saw that there was one chief and vexatious problem: there weren't any bookshelves I could put it on. I continued turning, now seeing nowhere to 'land' the mug, and I moved slowly toward the door. Anna was about to come in – she had a rag in her hand, and it looked damp with vomit – and as I came out with the mug still under my hand, I began turning, walking slowly and steadily. I walked past Sarah – who had backed up against the wall in seeming fright at seeing me do 'the impossible' – and then when I found a clear spot some ten feet past her to my left, I began kneeling, my hand held steady, until the mug set down steadily upon the floor.

And I began coughing from the smoke it raised as the dust on that section of floor ignited from its heat.

I walked back inside, now glad the source of the stench was elsewhere, and the fumes seemed to be clearing quickly with it gone from the room. I knelt at the front of his desk, for I had a question, and I wanted an answer. I fixed his gaze with my eyes, which I found easier than usual. Normally, it took everything I had to look a person in the eyes, and I could not do so for long, no matter what I did.

I was glad my lack that way was not held against me in this culture, as the rule seemed to be 'you only look directly at a person's eyes when you need to say something important'. However, where I came from, that was expected of everyone to do that continually, and I'd needed to learn how to do that as an adult; for before that time, I never looked anyone in the eye – and everyone I spoke to thought me a liar and worse because of being that way.

“How long have you been swilling that nasty stuff?” I asked quietly.

The clerk's sole response was another moan, even as first Anna, then Hans, walked into the room. Both of them smelled of vomit now, and as Hans looked around, I heard him mutter of first the potato country, then bad distilleries. He then looked at the desk – and for an instant, I wondered if he would upend it. I'd heard of small distilleries where I came from, and I knew about the arrangements he sometimes did with the glassware in the basement.

“You do not have a distillery in here, as there is no room for one big enough to fill that mug you had,” said Hans. “Now you must like Geneva, as I can smell a lot of it in here. Where is your jug?”

“That's in his room where he lives during the week,” I said. “He was cooking some really smelly Geneva in here, and it smells as bad as that one jug – and he put something strange in that stuff.”

“Yes, and what is this?” asked Hans.

“Flower sap, Hans,” said Anna. “He had a smaller tin full of the stuff, and he put it in that mug.”

“Yes, and was this stuff cleaned?” asked Hans.

“Really nasty and gummy, with some green stuff in it,” I said. “You saw where I put the mug.”

“That stuff is but partly cleaned, then,” said Hans. “They sell it in that market down there.” A pause, “now that mug is hot enough to smoke the dust, so that is enough of that stuff to make a really strong tincture. A swallow of that stuff would kill him dead.”

“Would it kill a Death Adder?” I asked. I was truly curious.

“I am not sure if those snakes can be poisoned,” said Hans. “Besides, he is not one of those things.” Hans sniffed the air in the room, then, “yes, that is flower sap, only I think that stuff had bugs get to it, as it smells bad.” A pause, then, “you said it was nasty and gummy, didn't you?”

I nodded.

“What color was it?” asked Hans.

“Kind of a grayish green with green streaks in it, almost like that stuff that comes out of mules after it's set for a while,” I said.

That's what I smell,” spat Anna. “I smell a stinky mule. Now where is this burn?”

I went to look at the clerk, who had now once more resumed 'inert' status, and I found his right hand. Anna came with me, and asked, “where is it?”

“It was on his hand,” I said as I pointed to the place. “It was right here, only I prayed for him, and he had a fit.”

“How much of that stuff did he put in that Geneva?” said Hans. He was asking me.

“Enough to kill at least five people,” I said, “and that without the Geneva.”

Hans shook his head, then said, “that depends on who those five people are. If they are common people, then a tin like Anna showed me, even if the stuff is not cleaned good, would kill them easy, and that is so, mule or no mule. Now if they are wrong in some way, it depends on how they are wrong.”

Hans paused, thought for a moment, then said, “now I have heard that witches can swill that stuff, but I know this person, and he is not a witch, nor does he want to be one.” A brief pause. “My grandfather told me that there are some people that like flower sap, though they are very rare.”

“How rare?” I asked.

“Perhaps one out of ten or twenty thousands,” said Hans. “He was guessing at that number, because he had never seen anyone who liked that stuff, but he knew of someone who had seen a person who liked it.” A brief pause, then, “if this person is one of those people, he is the first I have seen who is not wrong in some way.”

“Wrong?” I asked.

“I have seen three people who liked that stuff,” said Hans, “and all of them ended on burn-piles once they were found out. One of those people was an incendiary, and I wonder if this clerk here is one of those people, as that person looked ordinary except for that jug he had when I saw him with it.”

I then had a question: “what do mules have to do with flower sap?”

“Mules smell bad, and that stink gets into and onto everything they are close to,” said Hans, “and there are a lot of things that get to smelling like mules if they are close to them, especially food, spices, and medicine-plants. He might have gotten that stuff cheaper because of its stink, is what I think.”

The clerk then 'woke up', looked at his now unburned hand – and moaned piteously. He then tried to spew, and as he looked up at us, I noted exceedingly small pupils and a sickly white face. He looked to be the pure and unadulterated picture of misery.

“You like that stuff, don't you?” I asked. My voice was quiet, but insistent.

He could only moan and try to spew for a reply. His hands had begun to twitch, and I wondered if he would have a genuine convulsion.

“Nod yes or no, please,” I said gently.

The clerk seemed to not hear me, and more, he was once more inert. Nonetheless, however, I was getting a distinct and growing impression: he was not a newcomer to 'the junk business'. His pinned pupils seemed to tell me something, only that something was not what I thought it was: he wasn't trashed on the stuff, but was the exact opposite; he was becoming 'junk-sick'. It made me wonder what they would be like if he wasn't that way.

“Some questions, sir,” I said. I could feel Sarah slowly edging her way into a now very crowded room. I wanted her close by me. “You first tried that vile stuff about a year and a half ago, when you thought to sample the taste of those stinky birds called squabs, and four mouthfuls of that nasty-tasting thing caused you to run for the privy, there to remain the rest of the day and the first part of the night.”

The inert status vanished, and with shrunken eyes and parched tongue, he breathed 'yes'.

“You found the effects of that tincture to be most peculiar,” I said, “and for some strange reason, you did not find yourself in a hellish nightmare world. Over time, and with repeated indulging of either raw flower sap or its tincture, the effects of that stuff seemed to, uh, 'grow' upon you, so much so that you found to not regularly take that awful stuff meant longer stays in the privy than if you ate an entire squab.”

Again, the breathless 'yes'. He looked really sick now – and my current impression was that his experiment at that now-destroyed Public House on Kokenstraat had caused him to notice a very severe problem.

“Now, to speak once more of the privy,” I said. “You've had to spend a lot of time in those places over the last two years, and the pain and bleeding you endured while sitting on the stool or whatever it's actually called were really bad. Correct?”

Another breathless yes – and to my left, a soft gasp. I looked to see Anna with her hands over her mouth, and for an instant, I wondered: is this why we got what's in that trunk? We need to do real surgery? Like I needed to have done on my rear? Anna then spoke: “that pain was awful, wasn't it?”

“Y-yes,” he said softly – and then moaned. “oh, it hurts so.” Another groan, then a grunting pulsating noise that continued for several seconds.

“Ooh, that's awful,” said Sarah. “He smells like he has lead in his large tripes.”

The sour bloody stink nearly put me on the floor, and as I looked once more at the man, I felt a burning and nauseating pain stab me in the place where I sat. It was nearly as bad as the agony of the fissure's last days – pain so bad, and bleeding so severe, that I had longed, and that with great desire, for a colostomy. The matter frightened me mindless, as now I knew what he had, and while I had wished for a 'vacuum cleaner bag' in those days, this man would need this area's equivalent if he wanted to survive much longer.

“Sir,” I said quietly. “What you have is vastly worse than those varicose veins some call 'the pilings'.” I paused, recalling the second time of surgery where I'd had a 'large one' removed when my rear had been truly 'fixed' – then said in a near whisper, “sir, you have cancer.”

A hand gripped my arm, then I turned to see Anna. Her face was shock-riven and horrified, with an open mouth moving like a dying fish out of water. Finally, she could speak.

“He h-has th-that?” she gasped. “T-the destruction?”

“Is that what it's commonly called?” I asked.

“It is,” said Sarah, “and I doubt Anna knew what you said at first, as I've only heard that word used twice before now, and both times Liza said it.”

I gasped, then said, “this kind of, uh, 'destruction' is not fun at all, and I do not wish to be a proctologist. I would have nightmares if I looked at his posterior.”

I waited for Anna's questioning, which did not come. I then wondered if she knew about the pain and bleeding from that region I had endured since early childhood – as well as the horrible and agonizing examinations and the 'surgery' I had once endured many years ago. The second instance, thankfully, had only hurt afterward, and the pain medicine had been both effectual and accompanied by medicine to prevent the notorious insanity-inducing aspects of the previous drug. I had a comment to make to the man himself, however, and it needed saying:

“Sir, you do not need cancer of the rectum.”

The man instantly broke into thrashing that made his previous instance seem tame, and we all backed away until we had our backs to the bookshelves. There, he thrashed as if enduring severe akathisia and a Grand Mal seizure commingled, and I began 'looking'. Within less than a second, I could sense – or rather, 'feel' – a sense of slow-building trouble. It might have been vague to my perception, and very unsettling to my mind, but it was also very real – and the man had hid that portion of his life very well indeed.

That hidden portion of his life, however, had more or less caused this particular problem, if not making it drastically worse.

The man still thrashed crazily. He'd destroyed his chair – it was now kindling scattered about the floor – and was now scattering everything on the top of his desk as he banged and thumped both it and the wall. The ink globe had flown backwards and splattered against the wall but inches above where his head was at the time, and the vile blue-black lumpy 'fetish-ink' was slowly dripping down from where the globe had disintegrated. His papers were on the floor now, as were the ledgers he had been working on – and yet still, he thrashed crazily. I hoped he would not break the desk apart and fling its fragments at us, for his desk was both very old and badly made, and a solid kick on his part would turn it to kindling.

“Who usually gets this, uh, 'destruction'?” I asked. My back was to the wall of books, as were those of the other three in the room. Gabriel was remaining outside, for some reason.

“Mostly witches,” said Anna as the man continued thrashing crazily. He was pounding the desk with his face, and leaving blood from a crushed nose. “I've seen it happen in two people who were not witches, however, and both of them were cursed by witches.”

“They both died screaming in pain,” said Sarah, “and nothing we did helped them. Nothing.”

“Cursed by witches?” I asked. My voice reeked of incredulity, even if the man convulsing in front of me seemed an effectual antidote to anything of the sort. “How do you know?”

“Usually, it is hard to tell, but with those two people, we found the witch who did it but a few days after those two had died,” said Hans. “He was robbing a house in the town where he lived, and the people living there shot at him and put some lead in him as he ran out of there. Then, someone I know who lives there followed that wretch, and shot him again with a load of shot from his musket, and by the time that witch got to the stoop of his own house, he had three loads of shot and five balls in him, and he was almost dead. So then, those people tied him up good to that post, and they searched his house.”

“Fetishes, Hans,” said Anna. “Those make people stupid.”

“This wretch had only two things,” said Hans, “as this person I know has missing toes from fighting those northern people, and he did the looking. He found these two carved pieces of wood painted black, each of them shaped like a five-pointed star with a goat's head mixed with it.”

“That's a common ink-marking for witches, also,” said Sarah.

“Yes, and these were different things,” said Hans. “They both had the names of those two people on the front of them, one name written in blood for each piece of wood, and then on the back of those things, there were witch-marks spelled out with these strange brass nails, so that proved that man was a murderer as well as a thief and a witch. They burnt him and his house to ashes.”

I was about to ask a question, but my mouth remained closed as Anna began speaking. “When a curse is the cause of the destruction, it kills within two weeks of its showing, which is what happened to those people. Otherwise, those who get it are older, and then its progress is very slow. It usually takes years for them.” Anna paused, then, “something is strange here – either that, or he has been cursed by a witch.”

The last statement brought to mind a peculiar recollection, and I advanced on the man. I yelled “Stop!”

To my complete surprise, the man went 'inert' and collapsed upon his now-barren desk, his legs dangling over its side and his now shoeless feet laying sideways upon the floor. I could see what looked like fresh teeth marks upon the dark-stained varnished wood amid the slow-growing bloodstains. At least he was not dripping worse. I then steeled myself to do the next portion.

“Out!” I yelled in a commanding voice with my hand near his head.

I jerked my hand back just in time, and I leaped back with arms outstretched as he overturned the desk. Hans moved toward the door, but the yelling and screaming man somehow tossed another ink-globe at Hans, who ducked the projectile and dove out of the door. The ink-globe burst but a foot above him as he left, and the ink splattered and sprayed sable droplets madly; and outside the room, I heard yelling noises as Sarah followed Hans at a run. I leaped to Anna's side, then picked her up and bodily carried her outside amid the flying wreckage that blanketed the area where we were standing. I felt the stings of nails ripping my skin as I protected Anna, then when she was outside, I went inside and turned once more to the man – who was still thrashing crazily.

I leaped toward him, then as he tried to rear up like a cobra – he had to have copied that move from Freek back when he was still a witch – I grabbed his neck with my right hand and slammed him back against the wall while simultaneously kicking his battered desk up in the air chest-high to me. The desk landed feet-first on the ground, and he slid down the wall and then thumped the top with his chest and his face. The desk made a snapping noise and then leaned slightly. He'd nearly destroyed it in his 'crash-landing'.

I came close, then looked at him while kneeling. His eyes had rolled back, almost as if he were dead, while his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water amid fresh drippings of blood from a tongue bit nearly in two. I stood, then came to his side and slapped his back forcefully with my open hand.

He coughed as if in end-stage tuberculosis, then...

A gaseous blob of vague boundaries, boundaries that faded out to nothingness without clear delineation, slowly flowed out of his mouth and nose, and as this blob continued to flow, it gathered to itself solidity and 'sparkling' tints – until suddenly, it vanished with a flash and a crackle like lighting, and the top of the man's desk was now covered with a vast number of inch-high creatures that resembled soot-blackened centaurs. All of these things – there were enough of them that where the man himself did not take up space that they were almost elbow-to-elbow – were leaping in concert, almost as if they were trained like fleas; and when they were not jumping, they were running around as if chasing one another.

And all of them were screeching like tinny-sounding inch-high marmots that had just been shot.

I knelt down once more, until my face was level with the top of the desk; I licked my lips – and then suddenly, without any kind of thought beforehand, I roared such that my ears rang like chimes and dust rose up waist-high in the air from the floor and elsewhere in the room to meet the stuff coming off of the ceiling. I instinctively leaped backward.

The man leaped up to a standing position from his formerly dead-fish pose, then flung himself nearly to the top of the ceiling – whereupon he fell down face-first upon the desk and crushed it flat to the floor with a shattering bang. The creatures, however were not present for his last leap.

They had vanished as if blown to atoms when I 'roared' – and while they were not here, I could still plainly – and audibly – hear their screeching racket. I wondered how I could still hear them audibly, especially giving my ringing ears; and more, I wondered just how I had roared like a prehistoric jungle monster.

Sarah then came to the door, looked around, and said, “this is a mess. Are you all right?”

I walked to the door, then said, “I think so. Why?”

“Because there were a great many small creatures on that desk,” she said, “and when you made that noise, they went up in smoke.” A brief pause, then, “what were those?”

“I think they were spirits,” I said.

“They were,” said Gabriel's 'woozy-sounding' voice from out in the hall. “They are not having a good time right now, and they are...” Gabriel peered in the room, then said over Sarah's head, “they do not like big hairy fiends coming after them.”

“What?” I gasped, as I began coming out of the room while brushing dust from myself. “Who is a big hairy fiend?”

“I think this comes from the cellar,” said Gabriel, “and I think I know why you thought that horned dragoon is a spirit.”

“Why?” I asked. I was finally out in the corridor, and I was checking over my things. I needed to return to my post. I could feel it blatantly now; I needed to get back, and that quickly.

“I saw one of those where those things went,” said Gabriel. “Now this is a mess, and there is a clerk in there who probably needs attention, and you...”

“I hope those people stayed put,” I murmured. “I did tell them to do that, and that plainly.”

“I suspect they presume you will deal with matters no matter where you are,” said Gabriel. His overly-sure-sounding 'oblivion' had returned, and that in redoubled measure. However, there was a most-important question, and it needed asking.

“Cooking oil,” I gasped. “Where can we get some for clearing the Abbey?”

Hans was about to speak when Sarah cut him off: “if they do not have some, I can find it. You...”

I lost the rest of her speech, for now I was running as if my trousers were burning. I grabbed the railing on the downward spiraling staircase with my left hand, then flung myself into space and spiraled around it to land halfway down the stairs then and then bound once more to the floor, where I fell on my rear and slid. I leaped up, still sliding backwards, then ran for the other staircase, where I again hooked the railing and swung around it, while this time leaping for the sky.

This time I landed at the very bottom of the stairs, then as I recovered from the leap, I sprang and began running at top speed. The lights to each side of me all seemed horribly blurred, and when I turned the corners leading to the bench, my ledger was still there.

And both of the other men were gone.

I moved my hand toward the varnished surface of Hendrik's door, and as it came near the surface of the wood, the sense of 'danger' crashed into my head with such force that I somehow unlocked the door – silently – without touching anything. The only thoughts in my head were 'the king is being annoyed' and 'I must act now' – and when I saw the pistol pointing at the king as the door swung open ever so slowly...

The holder of the pistol hesitated as to its target with a sudden tremble. Time began slowing instantly. My peripheral vision was becoming a blood-churning shade of crimson, and that redness was spreading wide its grasp upon my world like a vermilion-hazed eruption of fire and blood.

The door opened perhaps another inch as I began to move. Time seemed to have stopped, save for my movements and the shade the entire world was beginning to take on. The redness of my peripheral vision was now a deeper and darker red, while the center began strobing – hard – with dark-bright-dark red flashings. The pistol was swinging toward me, an inch at a time, this in slow pulsating jerks. I urged the door fully open as I came into the room, then saw the shooter some ten feet away, front and center to Hendrik's desk in the middle of his 'carpet'.

My sword suddenly 'materialized' in my hand, its showing following a hiss so evil and feral it that I could only call it the hunting call of a vicious predator. My right foot 'pulsed' – and as I flew toward the shooter like the bullet he wished to send my way, my sword – this of its own; there was no time to think – came around with a low-pitched tearing sound while making a glittering slow-motion arc as my legs drew up like the landing gear of a fighter plane taking off.

The pistol was centered in my vision, and it seemed ringed with concentric reddened circles, much as if I were a missile and it my target; and just past it, I had 'locked on' the head of the man holding it. I could see the pistol's old-looking fittings, the grainy-looking flecks of rust upon its dirty lock, the misshapen chewed-up screws holding it together...

The sword now kissed the front and side of his neck. There was a slight tremor that shot up my arm like a vague electric shock, then as I watched, fascinated, the blade began to shear through his neck as I slowly drew closer. He was utterly unaware of what was happening, so much so that when the blade paused for an instant as it met the bony resistance of his spine, I was surprised to see his eyes slowly roll up to become white blobs as the blade sheared through his spinal column.

His face did not even register a hint of surprise. His death was indeed 'as sudden as a lightning strike'.

His pistol hand went nerveless and slack as the blade finished the cut, and in slow motion – as I closed in relentlessly at the end of my leap – his head and a stumpy portion of his neck lifted in a slow and wobbly fashion as a thick and growing fountain of blood 'launched' it.

I reached out my hand to catch the still-cocked pistol as it seemed to hold itself in midair for an instant as his hand released it, and it fell heavily into my left hand as my right knee smashed into his chest to knock his corpse backwards under his still-lofting head. I continued flying, the blood fountaining all about me and coating me entirely, and when I came to rest, I had crushed the man to earth under my feet with his head some eight feet distant from where it had struck me in the lower chest.

I was dripping and soaked with blood, but the first thing I did was flip up the frizzen of the pistol and dump the priming powder on the corpse of the man I had just killed. It somehow seemed fitting. I then turned, and walked, slow, stiff, bloodied, and rigid – and laid the pistol, which I had uncocked with an audible click by pulling the stiff and gritty trigger while aiming it at the corpse – on Hendrik's desk.

I then began to see details: the pistol was blood-spattered. I looked up to see his face: he seemed frozen, and only when he had drained his tinned copper mug of beer could he speak.

“We do not need vipers in here,” he said with no small trace of pique, “and that man was a trusted clerk.”

“Vipers?” I thought. “Do they have that type of snake here? I want to stay clear of those things.”

Hendrik refilled his mug, then continued once he'd drank deeply, “once that door opened, that man had no chance in the world.” A pause to drink, then, “I never saw anyone move so fast in all my life – and you saved mine.”

I looked around, my thoughts blank – and then, I saw not merely the blood I had left upon his desk when I had laid down the pistol, but as I turned, I saw that I had ruined the carpet by covering much of it with thick sprays of blood.

“I th-think I ruined your carpet.” I said this with chattering teeth. I then saw – how I had not 'seen' it before was a mystery – that I myself was covered with blood. I let out a soft moan, then sank to my knees, my gut churning with nausea as I made choking sounds.

Rapid steps came closer. As I looked up, sick and miserable, blood in my eyes and covered with blood with a blood-dripping sword still in my hand, I saw Maria.

“Come to the privy,” she said. Her voice sounded urgent. “You look very sick.”

I stood shakily, then she took my hand and led me back past an obvious 'bed' – just like what was in Hans and Anna's room, save perhaps a trifle larger – and into a 'bathroom' lit by two glaringly-bright student's lanterns. At its rear was a brown door, and I laid my sword on the towel Maria laid out – and then opened the door with eagerness and dived for the stool. I barely got the lid up in time before I vomited long and hard, then when the 'normal' liquid ceased, I had the dry heaves for a second – until with a wave of sickening revulsion that roiled up my spine and into my brain, a dark green material poured out of my mouth and into the stool to leave a reek beyond the ability of words to describe and an intensely sour acidic taste within my mouth.

“Are you all right?” asked Maria's frightened voice.

“N-n-no,” I said weakly – and a fresh billow of green liquid shot out of my mouth as my guts squirmed and the rest of me nearly had a convulsion.

A minute later, I felt slightly better, and I put down the lid with a soft thump. I turned, stood, opened the door – and she took me by the hand after I picked up my sword and walked back the way she had came. There, she paused in the office.

The reek of blood, body fluids, and offal was sickening.

What a mess,” she said softly.

“I-I'm sorry,” I said, “but it was either make the mess, or see your husband h-hurt.”

“The carpet can be cleaned,” she said. “You still look very ill, and there is blood all over you.”

She left my side, then ran back to the privy, where she looked behind something I had not seen and came back with several rags in a small bucket. This last had a small amount of water, and I took the first one, wrung it out, and began cleaning my sword. It did not like blood on it, and I as I carefully cleaned the red stickiness off of the blade, I walked, slowly to the door. She followed after me, and as I touched the knob with my free hand, it clicked. I grasped the bucket, whispered “thank you” – and staggered slow and shaking outside, where I set the bucket down and closed the door softly. I then picked the bucket up from the floor, turned – and saw Anna.

I collapsed upon the bench, and again, I began cleaning my sword again. Anna came closer, then with unintelligible mutterings – I could understand the word 'blood', which I heard twice – she looked me over from a seeming distance. I wondered if she thought I would be like Georg was when he smelled pigs and had a club in his hands.

“Don't tell me,” she said. Her voice was as dark as ever I had heard from her. “There was another incendiary in there, and he tried to set fire to the king.”

“N-n-no,” I said. My half-strangled voice was the sound of choking bile back and keeping Anna from being turned green with my vomit. “Some horrible wretch tried to shoot the king. I cut his head off before he could do that, and I f-feel sick.”

Anna, I suspected, misunderstood what I had meant by 'horrible wretch', for she went to the door, and tapped thrice. Maria appeared, let her in – and seconds later, Anna came back out, her hands over her mouth while making gagging noises, and her face a distinct shade of mottled green.

“Now you know what I meant by 'horrible wretch', dear,” I thought. “He ruined Hendrik's carpet, he made a huge mess, he made both of us sick, and to top all of that rubbish, he tried to shoot the king.”

“T-that mess in there is terrible,” she screeched, “and I never saw so much blood in my life.”

A soft moaning noise escaped from my lips, and my stomach 'kicked' me so hard I made a groaning noise and doubled up, then green material dripped out of my gasping mouth and onto the floor. The taste of this stuff was beyond horrible, and when I heard steps coming to my left, I turned my head wooden and slow. It was Hans, and he looked as if he saw deathly-ill blood-spattered lunatics daily.

“Now, let me guess,” he said evenly. “There was some liar in there who called himself a doctor, and he had more of that green stuff you put on the floor just now in his head than he has brains. So, he comes, he tries to remove a false toenail, he takes off part of a foot instead, and you had pray for it. Am I close?”

“N-no, Hans,” said Anna. She sounded as sick as I felt. “We have assassins. One of them is in the office, and he's been cut into two pieces.

Hans walked to the door, tapped thrice as Anna had, was let in by Maria – and he came out even faster than Anna did, with a face that matched hers for color and expression, if not features.

“Who made that mess?” he said. He sounded as if sick unto death.

“I-I d-did,” I murmured, “and I feel horrible and sick.”

Both Hans and Anna now staggered off down the hall to the left. I presumed they were bound for that one particular privy I preferred to use, and now I, for the first time, truly noticed the sticky and horrible feeling of my clothing. I used the cloths in the bucket now, my sword out and across my knees, and my frantic labors to clean myself of blood were only sundered by the thoughts in my mind.

“Why did they wander off now?” I thought morosely. “Why? Now I am all messy and sticky, and I feel really sick – and they wandered off? Why?”

Some minutes later, steps came from the right, then they both showed, both with broad smiles, laughing, and joking with one another – until they saw me in my blood-spattered clothing, my sword in my lap, and a rag in my hand. I was trying to get the blood out of my hair, and I only now noticed its length.

“It's nearly as long as Sarah's,” I thought. “What am I, a mule-riding Veldter of that one Totem?”

Their mood changed instantly, and the taller of the two asked, “what happened to you?”

I paused with my wiping to hold my guts with both hands so as to not spray them both with vomit, then said between clenched teeth, “there is a big mess in the office. Take a look, and one at a time.” A brief pause, then, “urgh, this is exactly why I spoke of having at least one person on this bench at all times.”

The shorter of the two tapped at the door, and was let in – and he came out but a second later, with a face colored green as grass and a mouth that looked ready to hurl bile. The taller of the two looked at him, tapped, was let in – and out he came, looking identical as to coloration. He had a question, unlike the first man who still had his hands over his mouth.

“Who is that fellow without his head?” he asked.

“I did not bother to ask him his name,” I said through gritted teeth, “as he was trying to shoot the king, and I had to stop him by removing his head.” I paused, then tried to spit – and out came a small spurt of green stuff to splatter on the floor. “I hope to God that there aren't any more of those people, as I feel very sick and ill.”

“You and a lot of other people,” said Hans, as he suddenly showed to the left. “Now this is why you should only go to that refectory place one at a time, you two,” he said. He was on the verge of genuine anger – which was a first for him in my hearing. “You have made him sick, and he is already sick, so he does not need to be made worse.”

“How is he sick?” asked the shorter one.

Hans pointed at the latest spurt of green stuff with his shoe. “That is bad, if someone spews like that, and you not being there forced him to do what he did in there. Now he needs to be cleaned up, so he is not so sick.” Here, Hans turned to me, then said, “now, you need that tincture, and then some beer. Anna has gone to get those cleaner people, and I told her to get some vinegar and hot water for you.” A brief pause, then, “where is your cup?”

I found my mug in my possible bag – the bag had blood upon it, and I hoped it would clean out when I could get to it – and I handed it to Hans. He then filled it, and as I drank, he brought out the vial of widow's tincture, which I then got a full tube of. I was working on the second mug of beer when I noticed my dry mouth. I was very dehydrated, and I vaguely recalled that a dry mouth meant being in shock. I hoped I did not have internal bleeding from an injury of some kind.

“This is what we gave Georg when he was done bashing pigs,” said Hans. “He was shaking a lot, just like you are.”

“He was?” I asked. I wondered why he had done so, even if I did not wonder as to myself.

“Yes, him and a lot of other people shake after trouble like that,” said Hans. “I was about ready for dosing when that pig almost got me.” A pause, then, “swine are bad enough, but trying to shoot the king with one of those old pistols like that is twice too much.”

“Hans, I have a question,” I said. “I've heard there are pirates, but somehow, they seem closer to an old tale than real to me.” I had a slow and somewhat thick voice now, which caused wondering on my part. It had never happened quite this way before. “Those pistols look like something a real pirate would carry, and they had real pirates long ago where I came from. Are there such people as pirates?”

“Yes, there are,” said Hans, “and they are said to like that kind of pistol. Some of them carry several of those things in these wide belts they are said to like, and then others use swords, and then their ships are said to have stolen cannons.”

“Said?” I asked. I had heard Hans say that word enough to make me really wonder as to what he told me.

“Yes, this is what the harbor master at the third kingdom port said,” said Hans, “and if a man would know of pirates, he would know about them.”

“D-do they have f-flags?” I asked. The distraction was helping as much as the beer and tincture.

“Yes, though those things are of black cloth,” said Hans. “They have this skull, which is white, and then below that skull, there are a pair of crossed Desmonds so that they seem to be a little in back of where the lower jaw would normally be.”

Hans paused, then said, “now in that harbor place there, I have heard some talk that pirates are always in bad moods, and that makes me wonder as why sailors call them what they do.”

“We might encounter some on that trip, if they really exist,” I said. “What do sailors call them?”

“I have never met anyone of that name,” said Hans, “but they call every pirate that lives 'Roger'” – in our language, 'Rutger' – “for some reason. Then, they say pirates are jolly, and no pirate is like that.”

“Jolly Roger?” I asked. This came out as 'gelaach's Rutger'?

“That is what they call them,” said Hans with utmost seriousness, “though why they speak of them that way I do not know.”

I resumed cleaning my hair and skin, and as I did so, I noted that while the taller guard was still 'nearby' – within ten feet; I suspected he wondered about me and why I still had my sword out – but the shorter of the two had gone somewhere. At least I had some company, so I was not about to complain much.

“Where did he go?” I asked softly, as I continued to wipe myself. The water was now more blood than water. “He need to visit the privy?”

“He went to fetch some people to clean up the mess, is what I think,” said Hans. “Now people should know why you were telling so many people about how this bench always needs someone on it, especially when postings change.”

“I feel so s-sticky,” I said with a shudder. “I need c-clean water.” I then saw a shadow approach from the right, and as Hans moved out of the way, I mumbled, “m-my cl-clothing is r-ruined.” My teeth chattered like castanets from the chill I felt. I needed not merely a bath; I needed a blanket. I could tell I was in shock, and 'deathly ill' was uncomfortably close to the truth.

The shadow changed suddenly into Anna – only somehow, she had gone from a vague and near-formless shadow into near-enough – and solid-enough – to touch and feel. She had a rag-hunk of unusual size in one hand, and in the other, a sizable bucket that reeked of vinegar.

“Here, let me wipe you off,” she said. I guessed she was trying to sound soothing. “If we wipe you clean with this vinegar, you will feel better, and if we soak your clothing, that will come clean also.”

“Is this why I got that soap formula?” I asked.

“It just might be,” said Anna. “I have a bag of those pieces with me, in fact, and I'll tell those laundry people to use it.” Anna's voice seemed to bore relentlessly into my funk, and I looked up into her face with bloodstained eyes and a face that exemplified misery. Now Hans was missing, as well as the taller guard.

“Are you hurt anywhere?” asked Anna. “Hans went to get you some clean clothing.”

“I-I don't think s-so,” I said weakly, “but I feel very sick. Hans said I have had what is given for too much swine,” and as I said this, I noted how slow every movement had become. It made for a question, and I now noted how difficult it was to actually speak. I had to force the words out.

“Why is everyone moving so slowly?” I said. My voice was so soft as to be barely audible.

“Did he give you a whole tube of that tincture?” asked Anna.

I nodded, then said, “you feel, er, look as if you...”

Anna seemed to be 'coming through in waves' again for a second, and the horror engendered by this sensation almost made me scream. I shook this nightmare off, for I had another one approaching – and this one was real, not an ancient memory.

Hans returned less than a minute later with freshly-washed greens, and the two of them gently helped me out of my bloodstained clothing. I was covered with a sheet during much of this time, and while my skin was bared under this sheet, I was scrubbed down as well as the two of them could manage with my help. When I was finally in clean clothing and 'more or less' clean, I noticed the other guards were still missing. I spoke of this as my arms were being scrubbed again. The first time's scrubbing had left more than a few long reddened streaks and traces of blood behind.

“The both of them are in the privy a lot,” said Hans. “Now at least you are here.” A brief pause, then, “that shirt there is bad.”

“I would worry less about that shirt and more about him, Hans,” said Anna. “That blood will come out, at least most of it, now that it's soaking in vinegar, and that new soap...”

“I forgot about that stuff, Anna,” said Hans. “We need to test it on blood anyway, and that there is blood, so we can test that stuff good.”

“There might be a few stains left after we use it the first time,” said Anna gently as she lifted my shirt from my back. “Lean forward. I need to wash your back again, as there's still some blood there.”

When the 'rag-hunk' touched my back, the tingle was pleasant, but as Anna began scrubbing, I saw faint strobing spots in front of my eyes. Within two such motions, I felt as if soothed greatly, and I relaxed, even as the sensation of warm water slowly seemed to move up and down and side to side.

“That feels m-much better,” I said softly. I almost groaned, it was so pleasant to be rubbed there.

“You finally relaxed,” said Anna. “That tincture seems to be working.” She then touched my hair. “I need to wash this good, as you still have blood in it.”

Within seeming seconds, I dozed off to awaken with a start. Anna was looking at me, only instead of the last time I had dozed off, she was not seeming to irritated.

“Y-yes?” my voice was now very slow and deeply relaxed. If I could have purred like that one cat, I would have, but I had to make do the best I could. “Did Karl ever tell you about the time I was rubbed in the second kingdom?”

“No, he didn't,” said Anna, “but I've heard about you almost falling off Jaak due to being rubbed on the back then, which was why I was careful. Is your head worse that way?”

“It's very soothing, dear,” I said, “and it feels very pleasant. I'm glad there are no tinctures that feel that good, as I would be deeply into them in no time whatsoever once I learned of them.”

“Your hair is mostly clean of blood,” said Anna, “but this bucket here has more blood than water now. I hope that one guard gets back here quickly, as this clothing needs to go to the laundry soon.” I looked at the bucket, then shuddered – and then, I tried to whistle.

All I made was a faint – and obnoxious – 'bubbling noise'.

“If you are going to whistle,” said Anna, “either get a good one from the forth kingdom, or ask Sarah to do that for you.” A pause, then, “were you trying to call someone?”

The shorter guard came at a run, breathing hard, and said, “th-they're coming.”

Who is coming?” asked Anna. Her tone was surprisingly sharp, and I wanted to say, “please, be more specific. 'Who' and 'they' are very vague words in that context, and right now 'who' or 'they' could easily mean 'more assassins are coming'.”

“The cleaners,” he said. “All three of them, and all of them with large buckets.” He paused, then said, “I heard this whistle, and it nearly broke my teeth and put blood in my ears. Who did that?”

Anna looked at me in shock, then shook her head side-to-side as she left with the pail. Hans had already 'vanished' as he had done many times in the past.

“I might have been the cause of that whistle,” I said, “only I could get no noise at all when I tried.”

“Whoever did it is worse than Houtlaan right now,” he said. He was a bit edgy, which made for a mental note: 'always keep beer and the widow's tincture handy, in case some wretch causes trouble and needs to be dealt with'. I'd had plenty of such wretches in the recent past, and the effects were seeming to become cumulative in terms of how much trouble each new one caused me. This latest example was the worst in no small terms.

He turned, looked around the 'corner', then said, “here they come.”

I found an oil-rag, then began wiping down my sword carefully. While this was not planned as a 'warning', the first of these people to show – male – shuddered, then as I carefully sheathed it, he asked, “blood on the carpet, or so I was told.”

“And all over inside,” I murmured. “Please, for my sake, try to clean up the mess. I'm sorry to have made it, but it was that or let the king get hurt, and I did not want him to get hurt.” I then said to the shorter guard, “go in with them, please, and watch them closely, at least for a while.”

He tapped at the door, and as it opened, the smell of blood and offal seemed to flow out like a river of horror. The first cleaner took the smell in stride, even if my stomach did not; but cleaners number two and three – both women, and relatively young examples – shook their heads upon catching the stench of death. One of them murmured, “I hope I do not spew in there, as it smells badly.”

I seconded that thought, even as the shorter guard followed them in and closed the door. I touched it, and heard the lock click. I was now alone with my thoughts, and I used a spit-dampened rag to clean my possible bag up. I prayed that the blood would come up, and was surprised greatly that it did. I was continuing to clean my equipment up when I paused briefly.

Someone was coming this way, and I touched the hilt of my sword as the faint steps came closer. I could tell the person was a bit on the short side, even if his steady – and stealthy – tread named him male. I could feel suspicion growing rapidly. I loosened my sword, then stood and drew it, laying it in my lap as I sat back down. Seconds later, a short 'dapper-looking' balding man showed with a small leather satchel on a strap. This he carried, much as a woman might carry a purse. It was not Sarah's satchel, which was huge in comparison – her current satchel. The new one she was working on was likely to be larger yet.

He came up to me, perhaps five feet away – the middle of this section of the hallway and a bit closer to the fold than where I was sitting – and looked around. My suspicions grew stronger, so much so that I put my right hand on my leg near the grip of my sword. He then made ready to speak.

“There was a gunshot, and...”

I stood instantly, my sword was in my hand – and the point was within mere inches of his nose. His speech cut off with a strangled squawk, which gave me an entrance point of my own.

“There was no such thing,” I said coldly. “Now who are you?”

For some reason, I felt reminded of Hendrik speaking of vipers. I wondered what he meant: literal snakes, or figurative ones, such as were spoken of in the book. I would need to ask him, as my thoughts, as was usual for me, tended toward the literal interpretation. I then heard the man speak.

“I clean the dead for burial,” he said, in a tone that I could not place. “Now why are you trying to poke me?”

“Come inside the office here,” I spat. I was becoming irritable, which meant I needed to get some honey shortly. “Look at the mess in there, and then you tell me.”

I sheathed my sword, then watched as he went to the door. My hand was near my revolver's holster, which I had somehow unbuttoned. I hoped I would not have to use it inside the king's office, as my ears were still ringing from the gunfire of the day before. He tapped, the door opened – and I came inside after him. I wanted to watch him closely, as I was now truly suspicious about what was inside his 'purse'.

All three cleaners – each with a large vinegar-reeking bucket – were scrubbing the floor vigorously. I glanced at Hendrik's desk, and noted both pistol and bloodstains were gone.

In the center of the floor, where the cleaners had yet to go, lay a blood-sopping sheet with an elongated lump near its center; and the reek of blood and gore was now commingled with the thick and musty scent of vinegar. The visitor turned toward me, then tried to add his latest stomach contents to the mess; but my sword was out in a flash and again but inches from his nose, with my pistol in my left hand and the hammer full-cocked and aimed at his head – and the sight of the sword made him swallow his bile.

His reaction gave me an idea, and while I wondered at its propriety, I thought for an instant – and then brushed such nonsense aside and spoke of it anyway in a tone at once calm and yet chillingly casual – almost as if I routinely spiked heads and cut people apart, and that done because it amused me.

“Now where did that stinking head go?” I muttered. “Perhaps it needs to sit in the salt for a week, then it should be possible to break out its bones and remove them before setting it out to slowly dry over a smoky fire so that it shrinks to the size of a pear.” I paused, looked around, then back at our visitor. “That will give us a tsantsa, and hanging that thing by its hair in the doorway will make further assassins think twice about coming in here. After all, shrunken heads are bad ju-ju.”

“What did you say?” asked Hendrik. “I've never heard that word before.”

Tsantsa?” I asked. “That is a smoke-dried shrunken head. Why, is there another word for those?”

“A death's head,” said Hendrik. “They're commonly mentioned in many old tales, and that was how they were supposedly prepared.” A pause, then, “why did you speak of doing so?”

“I'm not exactly sure,” I said. “This man said and did some things that make me feel really suspicious.” A pause, then, “when you spoke of vipers, did you mean actual snakes, or did you mean people with reprehensible attitudes and worse behaviors – as in a 'brood of vipers', like in the book?”

Hendrik nodded. I knew then that he did not mean literal snakes.

“If that's what you mean,” I said, “then I suspect this man to be one of those people, as he spoke of hearing a gunshot, and there was no such thing.”

“I have seen him before,” said Hendrik. “He lives near Houtlaan, and he's on call to clean bodies for burial.” A pause, during which Hendrik drank, then, “where does that word you used come from, as I doubt it to be in the Gustaaf.”

“It probably isn't,” I said. “It's the name used for 'death's heads' by a group of, uh, tribal people who lived in this dense jungle far to the south of where I once lived – and they take the heads of their enemies and prepare them as I described. They hang them up by the hair to mark their territory as off limits to others, supposedly.”

I was not prepared for our latest arrival's actions: he collapsed on the floor in a dead face-down faint.

I was at a loss as to what to do, but as I sheathed my sword and made safe my revolver before holstering it, I felt in my possible bag. First, I found one of the honey vials, and slurped from it, then, as I replaced it, I found an odd-shaped dog-boned piece of wood, which I withdrew. The tin label attached to it by a leather thong said 'fishing string, double-strong'. I then looked at the man, and thought, “best secure him somehow. He might try something, and I'm beginning to have some questions I need answers to.”

I bent his arms behind his back, then carefully began tying his hands together. As I did this – I did not tie them especially tightly; I was suspicious, but as of yet, I had no proof, and 'fainting', while suspicious, was not the same as pointing a pistol – I began to get something of an impression; and as I tied his feet together, much as Sarah had done long ago with me while I was asleep, save slightly tighter, this impression grew.

“That one thug had help, and I bet he had more than one person helping him,” I thought. “Now how many of these people are there, and who are they?” I then looked at the man. “Maybe he knows something.”

I then said, my voice a mere whisper – I did not wish to distract the cleaners – “are there more of these people?” My voice seemed to echo, for some reason, and my reply was but little louder. “I really think there might be more of them, actually – and not just one or two more, either. This feels bigger than that, and how much bigger is a good question.” Finally, this again a whisper, “maybe that fellow I just tied up has an idea as to who they are.”

And then, past nightmarish experiences seemed to rumble through my mind, and I could not hold the whispered words back: “what if he isn't inclined to speak of such things?”

While I had but little idea as to how to question people – my attempts at getting information out of witches were not even close to what the Teacher of Guards had implied were done; those seemed more for revenge and intimidation rather than for getting at the truth – and then, I recalled, this thought train somewhat happier, “that one man. I just had to set him near the forge and do my normal work for a short while, and he told me the truth right away.”

I then realized I was not in the shop. I looked in my possible bag, found my my tools, and looked askance at the rat club. I rejected that thing out of hand. “No, too messy and far too destructive,” I thought. I then found my pry bar, and went to Hendrik. He was writing something, and the ink was working well in his pen. I waited until he'd finished a line, then as he went to dip his quill, he saw me and what I was holding.

“Could someone go to the boatwright's shop and get some carpenter's tools?” I asked. “This one might work for small nails like I sometimes use for patterns, but I'd like a bigger one for what I have in mind.”

“Are you going to pry some information out of him?” asked Hendrik. He seemed interested.

My knees gave way, and I shuddered inwardly. Every awful instance where I'd tried to get information out of obdurate thugs seemed to come to mind all at once, and I could not control the shuddering inside. I suspected that I might be getting into deep water – if not deeper-yet dung. I shook my head, then tried my best to maintain an even tone of voice when I next spoke.

“There is something really stinky going on here,” I said matter-of-factly, “and I – no, we – need to find out what it is.” I paused for emphasis. “We need the truth, not whatever people scream out when they're being thumped or sliced up” – here, I paused to drink.

My throat was dry, this time with fear. “I thought a show-and-tell session might convince this man and the others involved that telling us the truth would be the best idea.” Another pause, then, “A medium-sized pry-bar” – here, I held up my eight-inch example – “say, one about three times this size, as well as some other common carpentry tools, might help convince them.”

“Show-and-tell?” asked the king. He sounded very confused.

“I show them the tools,” I said evenly, “and they tell us what they know.” I paused, then, “I've done it before, and I got a lot of good information out of that fellow.”

“Did this involve a forge?” asked Hendrik.

“Yes, though I was most careful to let him but feel a trace of its warmth,” I said. “I made sure he was not harmed, and once he began speaking, I got him well clear of it. I made no threats, either – I just set him about four feet from it while I did my usual work until he, uh, decided to talk.”

Hendrik still seemed puzzled, but sent the taller guard – who was in the room now, standing around and looking particularly useless, save as an 'ornament' – out the door and after the requested tools. I then walked over to the tied man, and knelt down, then began gently tapping him on the shoulder with my index finger.

Of my left hand, for some reason. My right hand was idle for the moment – and perchance, hovering near my yet-unbuttoned holster or the sheath of the sword.

“Please, wake up,” I said quietly. “It's important. Please, wake up. We really need to find out what is happening.” I then saw that somehow, my other hand was on the hilt of my sword, and with a brief thought – I wondered where it came from – I drew it. Again, the episode of the forge intruded, and I thought, “perhaps it might help if he sees me holding this. It's worth a try.”

As I continued to gently tap his shoulder in an attempt to wake him up, I prayed silently for an answer; and from somewhere, this place totally unknown to me hitherto, I felt something slowly building inside of me. It was far beyond horrible, and to glimpse it in its awesome magnitude made for mental shuddering. Again, I had no idea where this whole 'mode' of thoughts and sensations was coming from; and in addition, I had no clue whatsoever as to how to control a near-mindless sense of overwhelming fury coupled with a boundless reservoir of hyper-volatile impatience. Never, not once in my entire life, had I felt this way; and I had no understanding whatsoever of what it was or why it seemed to be happening to me.

I prayed harder, this time audibly, though whispered. I wanted answers; more, we needed them, and we needed them badly. This was important, and all of us were in danger so great I had no words to describe it. Knowing of this danger, however, seemed to both grow – and feed – this strange and thoroughly unpleasant 'mode' of thinking and feeling. I could tell it was becoming dangerous; and should it come over me, I would become as if a weapon – a weapon of wrath, of destruction, of carnage, and of insanity.

I wanted out, and I wanted out now. I looked for the door, and could not find it. There was now no one else in the room save the three of us, it seemed: myself, this man I was trying to awaken and who seemed to be deliberately ignoring my kind requests, and the headless corpse of the man I had killed less than half an hour ago.

And among the chaotic mess now rampaging through my mind, one thought – pure, simple, and fully in character – became apparent. I did not forsake those who had shown me friendship. I needed no oath to protect such people; I would die for them, and if need be, kill to protect them. More, I did not like people even trying to hurt or kill those I loved – and that was the core of the matter.

These people wanted my friends dead. I did not abandon those who befriended me, for they were few, and therefore precious to me. More, I did not let them knowingly get hurt, for I would feel horrible and guilt-stricken if I did not do all I could to prevent that from happening. I looked toward Hendrik's desk, and saw nothing. It was as if these horrible people had killed him; had killed Maria; had killed Hans and Anna; they had killed all those I had met; finally, they had killed Sarah...

“Sarah?” I asked. I then looked once more at the man – and the thing inside all gelled at once and I stood up instantly, a growl building in my throat like the roar of a volcano in eruption. “Over my dead body!” The thing wanted out, and it would not be denied.

“How dare you!” I screamed, the noise loud, long, and echoing. I lifted my foot under his chest, then lifted up abruptly – and as he came up slowly into the air, I put my left hand under him in some fashion and flipped him over onto his back – and then dropped to my knees to slam him down into the floor with a soul-shattering crack that both woke him up and caused him to cry out in screaming pain.

I cared not for his cry; the rage that I now felt was both icy cold and murderously hot at the same time, and the tip of my sword found his throat as I growled like a rabid dog. A trickle of blood stained my sword's tip.

His eyes fluttered open with such abruptness that for an instant, I was shocked. The word came to mind, but one word, as I stood up and grabbed his clothing while moving my sword clear of his throat; then as I somehow found a clear section of wall and flung him face-first toward it, this word – and several others – came out in an echoing yell:

Up against the wall and spread 'em, you shamming maggot!”

My string prevented this action, but I did not care; I leaped the twelve feet from where I stood to the wall in a single cat-like spring, then grabbed him by the too-long hair as he began to slowly slide down the wall. I hauled him up to a standing position, such that my ravening face dripping with spittle was but an inch from his as I snarled at him – then I twisted him around by his tied hands and rammed my upraised left knee into the small of his back and yanked his upper body downward to bend him over like a croquet wicket.

There were no thoughts in my mind as I laid the edge of my sword across his neck as if to slowly saw his head off, then in a slightly hoarse husky whisper, I growled, “this is a hungry sword, and it seeks your life, you accursed fool. Tell me what I want to know!”

There was no wait for an answer on my part: I instantly lifted my sword, brought down my knee, then released my grip upon his hair and pushed him back into the wall such that he hit it back-first with a snapping crack. As he began to slump down, I leaped the few feet, sword still in hand...

Landed upon my left foot...

And with surprising 'restraint', pivoted and did a roundhouse kick to the man's chest that smashed him even harder into the wall than what I had done before; and as I 'recovered', he coughed blood, and moaned as he began to topple forward like a shattered column of masonry. He hit the floor with a thud to leave more blood upon it.

I reached over, then again, I grabbed him by the hair. Upon pulling him up, I saw a face so blank I wondered for the merest instant what he was doing. I then screamed.

Names! Who are they! I want them dead, and I will have them eating their balls!” A pause, then, “Someone, write for me as I twist them out of this idiot!”

His mouth opened, he coughed blood once more, then took a shuddering breath. With great effort, he coughed out a single name, this given with quivering bloodstained lips and pleading eyes. I ignored what he was showing me as if it was so much rubbish. It was rubbish; I could tell that much.

I put my sword to his throat, then slowly, with a low maniacal laugh that came from who-knows-where, I began sawing on the base of his throat for a second – until, with lightning suddenness, I drew away the sword with a move too quick for my thinking to follow, then somehow stood and grabbed him and flung him, this time with all my force, at the wall.

He flew like a rocket-propelled log and smashed into it so hard that he screamed, then as he slid down, he left traces of blood on the wall. His face was now a clotted mass of gore, with two eyes that moved wildly and a mouth that screamed – until I put my sword to his neck once more after I'd pulled him up by his now blood-clotted hair.

He spoke, this time somewhat clearer, and between swallows of blood from a crushed nose and coughing blood from a punctured lung, he began naming people. Only then did I hear the rustle of a writing dowel upon paper coming from my left and somewhat behind me.

I ignored that also, for I had words to say to this fiend, these in a bone-chilling whisper: “you will donate the first of the many death's heads, all of them to roost upon poles until they fall in rotten fragments to the ground of their own accord, while your cut-to-pieces body will hang until it too falls rotten of its own accord, you stinking maggot.” A brief pause, then, this higher-pitched and much louder, “who bought you!”

He attempted speech, but failed; for my promise had made him speechless with fear – or so his trick seemed. Somehow, however, I knew beyond all doubt it was a trick of some kind.

“Do not tell me your accursed lies,” I snapped. “I know when you lie, even if you and your reptile master think it done well. Names!”

His first gambit had failed. He was about to try another.

“I do not know,” he stammered through the blood that choked his mouth.

His ignorance, I knew, was feigned; he knew more than he had admitted, and this but fueled the fiery rage I now felt. I slammed him – this again with all my strength – face-first against the now blood-spattered section of wall once more, then leaped to his side and hooked my left hand in his bloody hair, which I then used to yank him back to where I had stood before. I then pulled him upright, twisting him as I did so, and then kneed him in the gut such that he doubled up with a groan as his feet lifted inches above the floor to then collapse face-down and immobile.

And yet still, I screamed, my voice now a crackling torrent of sound: “Names! I want names!”

He lay there, and yet I knew, my cunning growing by the second as I learned the secrets of such evils as this man, that his third such gambit was coming. How I was able to think in this manner no longer mattered to me in the slightest. What did matter was that I knew precisely what he was doing.

“One of them who I spoke of might know more,” he whimpered. “I was told but little.”

I knelt down – then somehow, my left hand grew claws of such strength that I pulled him up one-handed to his feet by his shoulder. His face seemed to relax, and I sheathed my sword. He thought he'd fooled me, especially when I turned loose of him with my left hand.

He was not expecting the left-handed 'lightning-slap' that struck him against the side of the head and caused him to cartwheel to the wall, there to strike the wall head-down and feet high. As he slid down the wall, now inert-seeming, I spat, my voice a hoarse whisper, “you accursed snake! You speak lies, and those onlyand I would rather you spit in my eyes than lie to me!

I then grabbed his feet – they were still waist-high to me – and flipped and lifted at the same time, then elbow-struck him in the face such that his teeth flew like popcorn as he slammed into the wall again. Again, I heard writing coming from behind, and I turned slowly, my hands wary and my mind primed and ready like a bomb waiting to explode.

Thomas was sitting on a small stool near Hendrik's desk, writing steadily, the noise I heard now that of a sawn piece of chalk on a larger-than-usual slate.

“How do we fetch the rest of these people?” I murmured. I was surprised I could speak at normal volume. “That one isn't going to go far, not unless my knots fall off entirely and he knows curses enough to heal himself.”

And as if something reminded me, I knelt back down by the corpse-washer. I did not mind his blood upon my hands, nor my clean clothing becoming bloodstained once more; I brought out a thin piece of rope from my possible bag, one I had found laying about in a corner during the morning's too-brief exploring; and I fashioned first a hangman's knot, which formed a noose that went around his neck. That one I set fairly tight, tight enough that he knew he had a rope there, but not so tight he could not breathe. I then brought both hands up, and tied the rope to his hands. This time, I did not care if his hands rotted off due to a lack of circulation, and I put my knee in his back to bring his head up six inches from the floor as I cinched the rope – and then, finally, his feet, those being also brought up and tied tight, such that he resembled a pitchfork's three tines. I laid him on his side in his blood and urine, for he had fouled himself, and as I made the final knot, I heard – and felt – him defecate. I then moved him and his loaded trousers back to the wall.

“That wretch knows what I just did,” I muttered. “He moves one inch, he tries to escape – and he'll sup with Brimstone once he chokes to death on that noose, just like that one thug who was strung up in the fifth kingdom.”

My voice showed what I felt inside: a fury at once insatiable, cold, calculating, and murderous; and the sole thought looming within my mind was to rout out all of these traitors – I knew what they were now; they were traitors, and this was a treason-plot of some kind – and then kill every one of them. I wanted their heads on poles, as was the proper thing for such witches; and their bodies cut up so as to hang in bags on crossbars beneath their impaled heads. More, these displays must not be private, but public, just as the four I had done the day before; and finally, they needed to be appropriately labeled.

“Each such pole and cross-piece, and each such bag, are both to be labeled as traitors and witches,” I muttered, “and for each such pole and bag, a different street-crossing in the kingdom house here, there to stand mute witness to the wages of sin until head and bag fall rotten to the ground of their own time and inclination.”

All such people were evil beyond the bounds of language; and the only place fit for them was Hell, there to burn for all time after becoming the meals of Brimstone. Traitors were the most evil of witches, just like their human leader Judas, and the term viper...

Viper?” I spat. “That's not even close to what these people are. There are no words for them and their evil in any language spoken in all of time and space!”

The word 'viper' was beyond hopeless, it being so utterly inadequate that not even what I had just said did justice to how these people were and what they did and had done. Finally, suspicions and crimes were not synonymous to me at this time regarding such people and those like them.

There were no suspicions in my mind. There were only crimes, crimes so monstrous that they had to be stopped at all costs; and the only way to stop them – the only way – was to kill those engaged in them.

How that happened did not matter.

What did matter was that they died.

That thought in my mind, I turned; slow, grim, my sword unsheathed and dripping blood; and I stalked, walking with ringing steps, a nightmare phantasm, my 'shadow' now bigger than the planet, to the desk of the king. Yet with this mountainous form overshadowing me, my voice was but a barren whisper:

“How shall we bring these evils here?”

“Thomas was not the only one writing,” said Hendrik. His voice matched my own for volume, or so it seemed to me. “I sent my list out as well.” A brief pause, then, “those tools you asked for should come soon.”

Here, there was a longer pause, then, “I have never, not once, seen questioning done as you are doing it. Heard of it, yes, and read of it in the Grim, yes – but I have never seen it done.” Here, another pause, then in a voice that seemed older than time, “and most of the tapestries I had the chance to look at with my own eyes said that only by such means could truth be gotten out of witches.”

There was no longer wonder within my mind, for much of my thinking – normal or otherwise – seemed to have been devoured by this 'other' being that I had become. I stalked, my steps the pacing of a caged beast, the seconds 'hours' and each minute 'several days' of my too-valuable time, until finally, the slow-witted and slower-moving hands and mind of that one taller fool of a guard tapped at the door. He was let in, and the old wooden cart he had come in with was padded with clean rags. Upon it lay tools, these clean, well-oiled, numerous, and well-assorted; I saw much that I might use, especially the pair of pry-bars whose ends overhung the edges of the cart, and the three 'old style' octagonal-faced carpenter's hammers, each of them a smaller version of those larger things I sometimes swung at large hot pieces of iron when I needed them to move while on the anvil. These hammers had obviously had their handles replaced, as they had no such small grinning bulbs upon their ends as I recalled seeing long ago.

I now noticed the cleaning people had resumed their work, and now both guards were absent. I had work to do, but they were hopefully outside now, watching, paranoia personified, each with a guard-musket gripped white-knuckle tight and their minds on a hair-trigger edge. I was expecting them to now want to shoot the first likely person that came within range, much as those people who had stormed the hall now tended to be when on post.

'Seeing the Hare' – and feeling its dirt and gore upon one's skin – tended to do strange things to one's mind; and those people who were willing to see the thing through, come what may and casualties be damned, were those who I could put some trifling faith in. Those who had not seen that huge critter and been dusted by it, however – those people, I now had little use for.