The Big House, part 17 – continued.


Now was the moment, I realized, and I slowly stood up from my chair. I walked to the left of the table, then slowly walked up the aisle between the backs of the chairs to my right and the wall to my left. The main entrance door was ahead and to my right, and a few feet further to my left, sat Freek himself.

His 'assumed' geniality was purely a mask, and as I looked at him, his clothing faded from a dark black-grime-stained brown to a near-colorless gauze. There, I saw not merely an Arkansas toothpick dagger and pair of revolvers, but also several small vials of arsenic and a black stone knife.

The black stone knife,” I thought. “He wants to get that thing in me so much it must hurt.”

As I walked, I glanced at the colorless orbs of the eyes across from me. Their reddish flaming spoke loudly of the hosts of hell embracing each witch, and mentally – I moved no hand near – I checked the presence of both sword and pistol. I was glad that infernal scrap of music about mounted thugs bearing swords and pistols wasn't blasting through my mind, as there wasn't room for it right now.

“That wretch doesn't just want my hide,” I thought. “He wants Gabriel's hide for the 'temerity' of bringing an 'unlicensed pet' with him. It's almost as if there was an invisible sign that says 'no dogs allowed' in this room – and come to think of it, he called me a dog.”

This time, recollection did not hold back, and the hoarse shout of Black-Cap reverberated in my mind with his shouted canine curse.

Yet this too was erased by a surety, one I could not place save coming from one person, and its message, this:

Something was coming...

Something that would wreck this infernal conclave.

I could feel it coming.

It wanted to make my hair stand on end, and turn this place and these people on its collective blood-smeared side – and that, just before scattering it like a sower and his seed.

“Yea, to a distance of upwards of half a mile,” said a voice I did not recognize.

Each slow step closer to Freek seemed to endure for an age, and as I looked again at him, I noted his withered limbs and tormented inwards. There was something simultaneously utterly familiar and alien about him, and recollection bloomed anew, along with the proper term to describe him.

He looked like he'd been in the junk business for half a century, and had had too many encounters of the poking kind for me to like it; and as I watched, his clothing became opaque, his face a formless mask, his movements stereotypical, complete with the elbow-swinging arm reaching ever outward – and just as abruptly, he shrunk into a faceless puddle of loathsome putrescence upon his seat.

“Not merely datramonium, but that insanity-in-a-bottle tincture, and that...”

My thinking screeched to a halt as the room turned into a semi-private hospital room, where I lay in state after surgery. It was the Poe-World, with its pain-drug-induced horrors, and Edgar himself had created it specially for those like me.

The woman came to my bedside, all of her draped in a dust-ridden and worm-corrupted winding sheet, and she turned me over with spade-like hands as small white objects fell steadily from her sagging dead mouth. I lay face-down, inert, and the bite of her poniard thrust into my bottom a fresh dose of corruption, that especial type she had labeled 'Morphine', and as I was slowly returned to my last resting place, the walls resumed their bricks, mortar, niter, skeletons, and chains with the passing slow-swishing eons of sand-embedded time.

She then looked at my neck and its hidden Babylon mystery, where she then adjusted the wire-rope noose as laughing black-clad friars chanted Latin masses preparatory to the Auto-da-Fe. As the torment of the torture-drug's drip continued, my eyes seemed to glaze with the agony thrust into me by a large and stiff-moving green-brown capsule...

The nightmare vanished abruptly to be replaced by that of Freek, who was now but three steps away. He hungered for the raw meat and steaming blood of sacrifice...

“Where did that one come from?” I thought. “Still, it surely fits what I saw in that dream, and I saw that knife he has in that pocket.” A brief pause, then “oh, and a blue feather in his brick-hat.”

Another step, then another, and Freek somehow reared up like a cobra. My hands were stayed in some fashion, and as I watched in slow motion, he drew the knife. As it cleared his clothing, the red hazy glow about it was abruptly extinguished, and in what seemed milliseconds – his hand was immobile – I saw a flickering of bluish light. I turned my head just as a thundering explosion erupted brilliant white light that flooded over me like a box of exploding dynamite – and far in the distance, I heard a vague rumble answer, much as if an enormous bomb had detonated.

I turned back towards the man and saw his upturned chair to the side, and as I tried to find Freek, I smelled an odor I had smelled several times before. There was still, faint and noisome, an aroma of distillate in the air, and the two smells mingled cloyingly with those of recalled burn-piles. I then saw Freek.

He'd landed next to the wall, and a thin trickle of smoke came from what looked to be the remnants of a hand laying in his lap. I picked the chair back up, pushed it in next to the table, and began walking closer to where he lay – and again, as I walked, I could hear a thundering rumble.

This time, it came on the wind, much like a stampede of atomic weapons dropping out of an irate aluminum overcast seeding the sky with contrails and death.

With each further step, the stink of burnt flesh increased, and when I came but a few feet away, I saw the source of the stench: his hand was more charcoal than flesh, with his fingers vaporized and faint charred 'sticks' coming from the remnant of his palm.

“Arc-welding with the fingers?” I thought. “It looks likely. I'm glad I've never held a fetish when it went, not if they can do that.”

“There's a big difference between you sending them where they belong and what he tried to do,” said the soft voice, “and the outcome reflects that.”

I turned to glance at the table and its occupants. Eleven – those dressed in the cloth of misers – were frozen in place, much as if they had bathed in liquid nitrogen, while Gabriel was writing frantically in a ledger.

“Better him writing than trying to deal with Freek,” I thought, as I turned back toward the man at my front.

As I came closer – yet another small step – a faint rumble shook the floor and walls. I then looked at the nearest wall itself.

A ring of those noxious-looking carvings stretched from wall to wall at chest-level, and in the 'face' of one of them stood the handle of the black stone knife. I moved around Freek – he was unconscious – and looked closer at the knife, and as I saw its leather wrappings, I knew – beyond all doubt, I knew – that this knife was the article I had seen in the dream.

“And those carvings look awful,” I thought. “What are they, marble?”

The carvings – all of them in a row, made subservient to witchdom at their inception – were not speaking to the likes of me. Accordingly, I ignored them, and bent down toward the still-smoldering stump of a hand at my feet.

Freek's eyes then opened abruptly, and in an instant, I read them like the open book they had become:

Madness, and loathing, and a hunger for power that had been devoured, and pain...

“You thought you had power,” I whispered. “Now you shall see reality.”

I paused, licked my lips, and whispered, “come.”

The room abruptly filled with a thin and choking smoke, and above my head, with a shuddering rumble, the ceiling vanished. I looked upwards, and in a state of shock saw an eons-deep sea of roiling bluish-white fire.

“That fire is hungry, too,” I thought. “I can really feel that hunger. That room below us is nothing compared to it.”

The man below me screamed as if being burned alive in a burn-pile, or as if being broiled at the stake amid flames and wire-tied bundles of mesquite-like brushwood...

“Do they use stakes here in that way?” I thought. There was no answer, save the chattering words of the man beneath me:

“No, no flames, I, I...” He knew not how to reply, as this was not manifested.

“Yes?” I said, in a tone at once grim and relishing. “No flames. You need to burn, but not with distillate.”

I held up my hand, as if to reach out and touch something, palm upturned in supplication to the only person I truly trusted in the room. He had proved himself many times. I then spoke.

“No. You need to burn with this.”

My hand was instantly filled with a buzzing and crackling ball of bluish-white fire the size of a beach-ball, and when I glanced at it, I was at once astonished and curious.

“I've heard of ball-lightning, but this..?” I thought. “What is it?”

It sounded infuriated, much as if it were a house-sized wasp nest filled with irate foot-long brown-and-yellow wasps, yet its feel... It felt no worse – or heavier – than a canary.

“It seems to sing, for some reason,” I thought, as I hefted it and felt it bounce.

I turned down toward the man, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I think I can fix that hand. Do you want me to?” I paused, then said, “I think I have a blank check here.”

Freek abruptly fainted, as he knew I was completely correct in my speech, and I knelt down and took his hand in mine. The ball vanished with a muffled explosion that seemed to echo for an hour, and he – and I – were in another world.

The roiling blue-white fogs that billowed and hummed in this place nestled close and inviting upon us both, and the reddish glows I saw filling the man in front of me vanished with such abruptness that I expected to see Freek go to dust and powder in an eyeblink of time. I placed my right index finger next to his hand, and began wiggling my finger side to side, much as if I knew what I was doing.

The bluish-white fog began to trickle off of my finger, and before my eyes, the charred stump of his hand began to reform.

“I guess that makes you marked,” I thought. “Now you have that label, both the God-given one and the one of evil. At least you will be able to hide...”

I noticed the change in his hand. Where the new flesh had formed – and was forming – there was a subtle difference in color and texture, much like a faint scar, and I had a strange thought occur to me. I gave voice to it seconds later, or so it felt.

“Let there be a small marking here, one on the palm, that shows who has more power,” I asked, “and let that marking both stand up from the surrounding flesh, and be a different color. He can wear gloves to hide it if he must.”

“Those markings tend to be rare,” said the soft voice, “and also easily hidden.”

As his fingers began forming, I asked that they be done correctly, and as the glow finished transferring from my finger to his hand, I looked at what he was wearing – both for clothing, and for markings.

“He does not need those counterfeit markings,” I thought. “First, the goat-head tattoo.”

I pointed to his chest, and the 'severe' brown cloth vanished under the searing intention of the bluish fog spewing from my finger, until his grimy skin showed the red and black and the other colors of ownership. I flicked my finger, and the tattoo vanished in a puff of smoke to leave bleached whiteness and a pale scarring.

“My, even the dirt is gone,” I thought. “After this, sir, you will desire comfortable clothing and a bath – oh, with nice-smelling soap, too. Perhaps a nice pink bar in the pocket...”

His pocket abruptly bulged, and the odor of roses filled the area. I knew what else needed erasure, and I bent my attention to it.

“Now, that pinwheel,” I whispered. “Whatever they call those things here, it needs to go.”

“The term is much as you recalled, save its pronunciation is somewhat different,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom tries hard to bend itself around that particular language, but has trouble nonetheless.”

“Difficulty in pronunciation?” I asked. “Like I've heard before?”

“Rather less, and rather more,” said the soft voice. “Some of the less-visible anatomical differences have something to do with much of that difficulty.”

“But I could have sworn...”

“Those differences are difficult to see with the naked eye,” said the soft voice. “Where you came from would have trouble finding them, in fact.”

“Attitude?” I asked.

“The genome is sufficiently similar that only detailed and careful analysis of a substantial sample would permit discerning a clear difference.” A brief pause, then “at least, that is the case for most people here.”

“Norden?” I asked. I was still looking for tattoos, and I wanted to be certain I had found them all. I'd heard of strange places to put such markings.

“Not them,” said the soft voice. “Those like you.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“Your chromosomes were altered during your transition to this location,” said the soft voice, “as was a good deal else.”

I gave Freek a final once-over, and as I finished, I noted where we actually were. We were on a small island in the middle of a vast body of flaming blue-white 'water', and as I watched, the bluish-white tint became steadily less and the off-white grainy color of the floor began to take its place. I then had a strange impression.

“Is the head witch of a coven called the cult-master?”

“That term is one among many,” said the soft voice. “Should he choose correctly, he will provide a great many answers, including those to many of your questions.”

“Choose?” I asked.

“It's hard not to, given his destiny,” said the soft voice.

The tendrils of bluish-white fire left entirely, and I found myself kneeling with a damp shirt on the floor of the room. Freek was still 'gone', even if he was less so that while at that strange place. I could again hear the rumbling of the ceiling above, and I looked at this now-shrunken man.

“Wake up, please,” I said.

He jerked awake with a start, then began shaking. He knew his spirits were gone, and his hand...

“Yes, your hand is as good as new,” I said. “Actually, it's better than new, as there was a cross-wired nerve in there that caused you pain now and then. It wasn't Brimstone pinching you for your lack of respect.”

“What?” he shrieked. “How? This cannot be!”

“It is, sir,” I said. “I saw it all happen, and I know.”

He looked at me, and I knew I needed to say more.

“Recall what I said about a blank check?” I said softly. “Why don't you jump up in there” – here, I pointed to the ceiling – “and find out who writes those.”

His questioning eyes seemed to implore me for answers.

“No, it isn't Brimstone,” I said. “There is only one person who does those.” I paused, then said, “besides, one of Brimstone's titles is 'a liar, and the father of lies' – or is that lying? I think it's translated that way here.”

I paused, looked around – Gabriel still writing, the others still paralyzed – and resumed.

“I would render your decision quickly, sir,” I said with a slight edge in my voice. “You have about a minute and a half before those, uh, things come back.”

His fear now knew no bounds, especially when I pointed to his hand and he unclenched it. 'Engraved' on the palm was a small ring with three 'plus signs' flying over a barren hill. The symbolism seemed obvious to me, and educated what I next said.

“They will not enjoy seeing what hell names treason,” I said, “and your sacrifice of your 'traitor' will be as nothing compared to what they desire to inflict upon you. Your only avenue of safety is hidden above.”

I paused, now seeing imploring eyes. I ignored them and Freek, for I had work to do.

“There are no others,” I said flatly. “Your choices are two, and your activities – no, activity. You will do that regardless of where you go.”

“What?” he asked. He seemed to be growing fainter to both my eyes and ears.

“You must choose,” I said. “God or Brimstone.”

Thundering steps came from several points of the compass, and faint roars pounded upon my ears. I felt reminded of dragons – dragoons – and other creatures of fable and fiction. I knew the source, and I again spoke.

“You do not have much time,” I said. “Were I you, I would jump, as they dislike that place more than anywhere you can imagine.”

A brief pause, then: “so, either you burn, or they, and all the parts of your life they own, burn. That includes your clothing, by the way, as those three tailors, or people like them, consecrated it to Brimstone by embroidering rune-curses on the inside lining.”

I paused again, then said, “oh, those three thug-tailors actually did that work, and all of them belonged to the same coven. Didn't they? I think you know that I speak of them in the past tense, as they are in hell where they belong. Their master is Brimstone, and they are providing him with meals, as is their sole duty and his just due.”

Again, I paused. I had more to say.

“The sole means of worship in hell is being that reptile's meal, and thereby providing him with enjoyment.”

Freek's mouth now opened and closed in obvious panic, and the dragon-roars now seemed louder. For some reason, I recalled a sight I had seen many years prior, as well as the terminology associated with it, and I grasped Freek's 'collar'.

“You know, those spirits brought reinforcements,” I said. My voice now dripped with acid. “One of them is quite sizable, slings a whip with abandon, and is made of flame. I once saw one of those – a small one – and it was hiding inside of someone's chest.” I paused, then said, “this one is far too large to hide that way, and is not interested in concealment.”

I paused again.

“He's inclined toward incineration, with you for practice,” I muttered. “He was after someone tastier elsewhere, but you will serve for an appetizer.”

I then became aware of a presence without the walls of the room, and I turned to see the white walls next to the 'main entrance' go filmy. A reddish glow began manifesting there, even as I began counting down by single numbers from ten. At 'eight', the glow coalesced into a mobile form, and at six, I saw a red lightning bolt snake across the bluish-white fire of the ceiling.

“Was that a whip?” I thought, even as I spoke the word 'five'.

My speech was followed abruptly by the wall vanishing within the red-traced outlines of a huge being, one as tall as the room, and the wall suddenly passed a red-flaming creature brandishing a huge whip. The heat of this monster was tremendous, and as it came closer, the whip thrashed like a tortured snake. I then saw that it was taller than the room, and was hunched over.

“Leave,” I said.

The spirit turned and went back into the outline on the wall, and as it left, I heard maledictions uttered in several languages at once. I recognized none of them, and as the outline on the wall faded to its previous off-white, I turned to Freek.

“Now are you convinced?” I asked sourly.

He was not. He had fainted again.

“Awaken,” I shouted.

“Please, hide me,” he cried. “Anything but that thing.”

“There is but one hiding place safe from those,” I said. “Above. Only that person can keep you in one piece – and that thing isn't going to stay gone, either.”

Some odd question seemed to ask why, and I replied.

“Because I neither can nor will tell it to go indefinitely,” I said. “It does not like waiting.”

A brief pause, then “you will choose, and thereafter suffer the consequences of your choice.” Again, my voice was dripping with acid. No preacher dared preach this way. “Either choice, and you must and will suffer – and suffer long, and suffer grievously.”

It was time for the test, and I was to inflict it.

“Either give all you have to God, or burn now, and then forever in Hell. Those are your choices,” I snarled, “and if you choose wrongly, no loss. I will not mourn for you, but be gladdened, for you will endure the punishment you have garnered by your many murders.”

“Oath?” he asked. I did not see his lips move, and wondered how I heard him speak.

“No matter,” I growled. “I have killed witches before, and I will kill more of them.”

I cut abruptly to the core of the matter. No longer was I to tolerate such 'irruptions', as he had put it.

“Now choose,” I spat. “God has more patience than I do, but how much more is a very good question, and one for which I have no answer.”

“Hide me!” he shrieked.

“No,” I growled. My voice sounded like thunder. “God or Brimstone! Choose!”

He gulped, seemed to shrink in on himself more, then with a breathy whisper, he said the single word “God.”

“Good choice,” I said quietly. “Now we need to get you up in there, as somehow merely speaking of your desire isn't nearly enough. I know that much, if but little more – oh, I take that back. Something has to happen to you so you do not fall or falter, as it isn't going to be easy to walk that way.”

He looked at me with a strange face, then I continued.

“I suspected something – no, several somethings – happened to me that way, but that was there, not here.” I paused. “Why don't we find out?”

I looked up, and to my astonishment, the bluish-white fire had come such that it nearly touched my head. An odd sensation seemed to hover just above my scalp, and I turned to the still-prostrate man, where I knelt down.

“You just got to get in that stuff,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “I cannot stand any longer.”

“Oh, your feet?” I asked. “Perhaps those need repair...”

He nodded grimly, and tried to stand anyway. He made it to his knees, gritted his teeth – two fell from his rotten jaws to patter on the floor – and then fell heavily with a cracking sound as his brittle bones gave way. He would have hit the floor had I not caught him in my arms.

“Perhaps I should lift you up into it,” I murmured. “You don't hardly smell now.”

“Please,” he said, with a terrible urgency. I tossed him upwards, and he vanished once he left my arms.

I then stood and turned toward the table, and saw Gabriel walking toward me. His slow 'languid-seeming' movements made for wonder on my part, and when he spoke, I wondered yet more.

“I have trouble believing what I just saw,” he said, “but as soon as he returns, I am going in that cloud. I had some small doubts, and they did wish me to join them in their evil. I wanted no part of it.”

“And now you want to learn what is in there,” I murmured.

“That, and I wonder what will happen,” he said.

A sudden thud from behind me announced the return of the man who had left, and when I turned to look at him, I noticed the following in an eyeblink of time.

Firstly, he no longer looked 'shrunken', or sick, and was standing normally.

He was barefoot, with clean and near-normal looking feet. Some slight scars remained.

He was also perceptibly younger looking.

And finally, his eyes shown with a pale bluish-white light.

“I had forgotten the descriptions of that place,” he said, “and now, I have seen it. I am still surprised, both at what I saw and did not see.”

He went around me with a purposeful walk – unhurried, but not wasting an instant's time – and came to the head of the table. There, he moved both wine and glass to the side, and began addressing his captive audience. Again, he did not hurry, but he wasted no time, nor did he mince words.

“We all believed, and that by our knowing choice, a vast number of lies,” he said, “and we wanted all of this world and those upon it to be our property, to do as we willed, and when we willed it. It is not that, and it never was, in spite of all that we did to make it so.”

He paused, then said, “instead, we made firewood for our burn-piles, a place on Brimstone's dinner plate, and a last resting place in his privy. All that we did was toward those three ends.”

“And all that they do down there is serve one master, and that with one activity,” I murmured.

“Precisely correct,” he said, “and the same for where I came from. Having seen both locations, I can say emphatically to which I would prefer to go – and more, where I actually want to go. I wanted, and that wholeheartedly, to go to the other location.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Part of those lies,” he said, now turning to me. “What is believed in witchdom and what the truth actually is are two very different things. Witchdom believes the word 'servant' means 'vassal'. With Brimstone, it first means 'meal', then 'plaything', and finally, 'fool'.”

He paused, then said, “and I heard those three things straight from that reptile's mouth while he was dining.”

He took up the ledger, and began leafing through it, spending but a second or so on each page. After half a dozen pages, he set the thing down, and shook his head.

“Whoever wrote that knew the information therein needed to be read with the goal of understanding,” he said, “and I saw most of what I just read. It will need further study at length.”

“It's true?” I asked.

“What I just read corresponded closely with what I was shown,” he said, “and now I know why you spoke that way. We dare not make mistakes with those northern people, as this time isn't a half-baked attempt like the last two instances. This one is everything, or it is nothing.”

“And..?” I asked. There was more.

“There will be more,” he said, his voice rising in pitch and volume with each word, “and you have more, but first this house must change, or it will burn, and it will not wait for those northern people to set it alight!”

“A question,” I asked. “Is the name 'Judas' a common ceremonial name for those yet to make their first kill?”

“It is,” he said, “and that knife is done with its murders, finally.”

“It was handed down..?”

“Over a hundred times, supposedly,” he said, “which makes it quite old as such knives go. I've seen older ones.”

“How much older?” I asked.

“They're old enough that that only a handful of people can endure them,” he said. “Koenraad himself supposedly had one, and there are three to the south. I saw one of those.”

“Thirteen 'Powers'?” I asked.

“They have those, and much else,” he said. “Such people tend to be especially secretive.”

I glanced to my right, and saw a ledger falling in slow-motion as Gabriel walked into what seemed a stairwell heading upwards, whereupon he jumped. He abruptly vanished with a faint clanking noise, and I turned back toward the table and its eleven frozen men.

“He did wish to see what was in there,” I murmured, and when I continued, my voice increased in volume from the very first word.

“You now know you will not die,” I said in a ringing voice, “for your leader went, and he returned looking and feeling much healthier. There are more of you...”

I turned toward Freek, and asked, “covens?”

“But one term in a full basket,” he said. “That one is commonly used in this area, and when you said 'more'...” A brief pause. “Did you mean 'some' more, or a vast number?”

“Closer to the latter,” I said. “Each such group knows its neighbors, correct?”

“That tends to be the rule,” he said. “There is well-substantiated rumor that there are multiple area-wide organizations which are used for communication among such groups.”

“Mail, code-words, verbal?”

“Correct,” he said. “I've seen and done all of those, as well as delivered mail and supplies in the past as a 'messenger'.” A pause of a second. “Witches seldom manage communication otherwise at this time.”

“Church-spies?” I asked.

“That man there would be the one to ask,” said Freek, as he pointed to one of the still-frozen 'misers'. “He's an overseer.” A brief pause, then “I've got a great deal to burn in various places, and Gabriel should be returning soon.”

My recollection of the nature of that one particular overseer – he had a blood-pact, and was a murderous thug that killed for the pleasure of flowing blood bathing his weapons – was interrupted by the return of Gabriel. Unlike his leaving, his noise of arrival was a sizable sounding thump that spoke of great heft.

“Yes?” I asked, as I turned toward him. His eyes were closed, with his hands over them.

“I am the watcher on the walls,” he intoned solemnly, “the one who sees, who hears, and who knows.”

I was about to speak when he spluttered, “what did I just say?”

“What happened to you?” I asked.

With his hands still on his eyes, he said, “I, I seem to know all that is happening in this house, and all of that at the same time.”

I held up my right hand, flexed the fingers – why, I did not know – and Gabriel took his hands away from his eyes. He opened them slowly, and the glaring whiteness I saw bathing them seemed something out of a nightmare.

“What happened to you?” I asked again.

“I can answer that as soon as I'm settled somewhat,” he said. “I was gone over in that place, and it was just the start. There is more to come, and how much more is a good question.” He paused, then said, “and I would need a small cart to hold the ledgers were I to write of what I saw.”

“And where I came from?” I asked.

He shuddered, then said, “it is not here. This place has many who wish no part of witchdom. That place...” He paused, shuddered again, then muttered, “all that live there, save for a very few, are witches, and not common ones, but witches so evil there are no words for them – and they followed you everywhere and tried to kill you, and that from the day of your birth to the day you were taken from that place.”

“And when I came here?”

“But two days respite,” said Gabriel. “They have not ceased from their labors since.”

“These people” – here, I indicated those still-frozen at the table – “need another demonstration. Put your hands about six inches apart...”

Gabriel now had unclasped his hands, and put them palms parallel and fingers up.

“And say the word 'electricity',” I said.

“I hope I can speak it,” he said. “What does e-electricity mean?”

A bluish haze suddenly appeared between his hands, and the haze then snapped into a blinding electric arc. I jerked my head around while closing my eyes, and through closed eyes I could see the room lit as if by an ongoing atomic explosion. The sound of the arc was a high-pitched vicious roar that made my hair stand on edge just from the noise, and faintly amid the tumult I heard screams, howls, snarls of rage – and Gabriel's panicked voice speaking of turning the thing off.

“Switch off,” I said. “Say that...”

A muffled thump abruptly extinguished the ghastly and blinding light, and I opened my eyes and turned to Gabriel. He was looking at his hands – they were unharmed – and then at me. He was about to enter a convulsion.

“That was... What was that?” he asked.

“I'm not certain,” I said. “I've seen lightning before, and that looked close enough to scare me.”

“Was that it?” he asked.

I had no answer for him, even as my nose wrinkled under the biting aroma of ozone, and I muttered, “ozone, become as you were.”

The room shook with a ringing blast and faint trickles of dust fell down in delicate tendrils. The odor vanished forthwith, and when I again looked at Gabriel, I noticed he seemed to have a question.

“I had no idea that place was like that,” he said.

“What did you think it was going to be like?” I asked. I recalled the descriptions I had read, as well as my 'distaste' toward them.

“I knew of the city,” he said, “and it was as the book describes it. That wooded area that surrounds it makes it look small, and I enjoyed it and its smell.”

“Smell?” I asked.

“I have no idea where that smell comes from,” he said, “but that place smells strongly of flowers.”

“And these people need to see that place,” I murmured. “I'm not certain why, but they need to see it.”

“Why is it you are not certain?” asked Gabriel.

“This is not as per the common attitude I've seen and heard of,” I muttered.

“There will be more forthcoming,” said Freek. “What is needed and what is wanted are two very different things.”

“Do they wish to see it?” I asked.

“They are not currently in hell,” said Freek, “so it is likely they can choose.”

“Is it those three?” I asked. “That overseer, and his two, uh...”

“Yes?” asked Freek. He was again looking at the ledger.

“What do you call people bonded by blood-pacts?” I asked. “There was something like it where I came from.”

“I'm not certain,” he said. “I am certain the power of those things is thought to be much greater than it actually is – at least, it is now. The gap was smaller long in the past.”

“For here,” said Gabriel. “Those pacts had lost none of their considerable power in that witch-world whence you came, and...” Here, Gabriel closed his eyes, knuckled them, then opened them again, and spat, “and that woman was fit to challenge those here of the drowning itself.”

“That w-woman?” I asked. “I knew of several. One of them was almost killed in revenge.”

“That would be her,” he said. “She was kept safe just the same.”

I paused, then thought for a moment. That one overseer flamed redly where he sat frozen in time, while his two 'joiners' – where such a term came was a mystery – seemed to temporarily bloom flame more than the other eight. I pointed first to one of these men, then the other, and finally, the overseer himself.

“You three,” I said. “It is possible, then.”

“Then, there was a dark-haired witch mentioned,” said Gabriel. “She makes that one to the north seem as nothing, and then... ugh!”

“Ugh?” I asked. I was still at something of a loss with the other seated men.

“That man,” said Gabriel. “He makes Koenraad look pleasant for all save his expression. There, the difference is much less.”

Gabriel's talk seemed to have an effect, for the overseer stood shakily, then wobbled slow and meandering toward where the knife lay embedded in the carvings. He grasped it with a quiet sizzling noise and drift of 'smoke', then tried to withdraw it from the wall.

“No knife,” I said flatly. “I would jump instead.”

He did not hear me, for he turned abruptly with near-hidden eyes in a downcast face, and when he fumbled in his clothing, I heard the faint crackles of what might have been starch. He then 'found' his quarry, and with a lurching clumsy stride came at me, moaning all the while in a low-pitched disembodied manner, Arkansas toothpick clenched rigid in a bony outstretched hand.

His movement was of such a sluggish nature, however, that I nearly laughed – until he tried poking me with his dagger. I dodged his clumsy slow movements, then 'pirouetted' behind him, picked him up by the seat of his pants and collar – and tossed him several feet downrange to land heavily on the floor with a mingled thud and snapping sound. He lay groaning for several seconds, until he picked himself up and staggered back to his seat. I then saw the dagger.

The blade had shattered into nearly a dozen fragments, and as I watched, the fragments grew a thick and furry 'coating' of rust that seemed to toss tendrils of dust into the air. I thought for a moment – I had run out of things to say to these people – and then spoke.

“Enough of your rubbish,” I shouted. “Choose now, or burn.”

The last word seemed to echo – either in the room itself, or in my mind; I could not tell which – and when I smelled the faintly sulfurous odor of the 'big roaster', I had an idea.

“There are more fire-spirits about,” I muttered, “and I suspect they want to light you all up good.” A brief pause.

“Besides, they like to do fire-dances.”

Another pause.

“One way or another, this thing of yours gets broken today.” My voice had become steadily more redolent of acid and iron. “Which way you choose is immaterial. If you desire hellfire, you will get it – and I...”

I had my work cut out for me, I now knew. Simple 'cut up and burn' theatrics were nothing compared to that accursed room below. It promised to be ample trouble, and that shortly.

“I was just told my work,” I said. “That room goes today, and none of you will leave this room alive if you choose wrongly.”

I glanced at my side, and as I gently touched what was present there, I murmured, “and no, it will not be me killing you. I have my work laid out for me.”

“Today's work, you mean,” said Gabriel. “There will be much more in the future...”

A faint plop suddenly silenced Gabriel as a deep-red billowing mass of flames showed on the table, then as I watched, it grew in size until it was nearly fifteen inches tall. I had heard of fire-spirits – and fire-dances – long years before at the Devil's Playground, but I had never seen one of the dances actually performed.

I was seeing one now, and inwardly cringed as the multitude of swords and whips waved crazily, while the flame-trailing legs thrashed for a moment before becoming 'organized'.

“Th-that thing had to have learned that stuff in Russia,” I thought, “as it's doing those strange 'prisyadka' kicks like I've seen in movies.”

Those individuals had but two legs, and only kicked one of them at a time. This thing had four legs that I could see – it had more, but how many more was a good question – and every leg, both seen and unseen, was performing such kicks.

Those were but the appetizer.

The spirit was rolling, tumbling, thrashing its whips, brandishing its swords, and in general, acting like a wayward incendiary feather-duster crossed with an out-of-control rocket engine. I could almost see the table beginning to catch fire as it moved slowly across the table, until with a spring, it leaped upon one of those who had made a blood-pact. It bounced from chest, to shoulder to head, where it bounced crazily, and...

The witch screamed as the smell of burning sulfur mingled with the reek of burning flesh, and the flames of the hellish creature dripped down like molten wax until the witch writhed in the flames of hell from the waist up.

While the charring of flesh and the stink thereof was stomach-turning, the screaming was unendurable, and I leaped to land on my left foot while swinging. Somehow, I raised my right foot high, then kicked the spirit from its perch. The thing billowed soot as it vanished into the wall, and when I 'came down', I addressed myself to the now charcoal-colored witch.

“Are you convinced now,” I asked snidely, “or do you need that thing to dance 'Sulfur Lake' some more on your head?”

The witch made no answer, even as the smell of his burning increased.

“That was an appetizer,” I spat. “There are more of those things where you are going – more of the smaller ones, and more of the larger ones – and all of them are joined in the desire to dance a rumba on your collective heads.”

I paused for a second, as there was more and it needed saying.

“Then, there are the stinkers...”

“There is a special name for those,” said Freek. “I cannot say it.”

“The noise-makers,” I continued, “and then some that scent blood and act like Desmonds.”

“Those are worse,” muttered Gabriel. “Desmonds are nothing compared to those.”

“And, there are a great many more, most of which I know of but little,” I said. “No matter.” I paused. “Your collective experience with the ways of spirits was increased markedly by that one showing up.”

For some reason, I now recalled the 'bug-infested nightmare' that had once tormented me, and I spoke accordingly.

“Perhaps you people need to endure bugs,” I muttered. I then flicked my hand at them as I walked toward the front of the table.

Before I took my first step, however, there was a tightening in the very air, and I froze in place as the clothing of the nearest witch suddenly bulged in several places. A faint screech seemed to ring the air, then the bulges doubled in number while the first ones increased in size. I took another step, now giving the witches a wide berth, and as I came to the table, all eleven witches had mouths wide open in silent screams.

Their faces now crawled as the 'lumps' invaded those locations, and with each second, the hard brown capsules crowded each other. I had counted four when suddenly a shiny brown object squirted from the nostril of one witch, hit the table, bounced twice – and then leaped into the mouth of the nearest witch.

“That nightmare would put any hundred men into rest-houses for the rest of their lives,” said the voice of Gabriel from my right, “and that if they saw but a small fraction. I saw less yet, and I wanted to run.”

A steady faint creaking noise seemed to come from all points of the compass, and the rigid-open-mouthed figures ringing the table's ovoid seemed to faintly shake. Their lumpy figures were completely taken-over by the hard brown capsules that encased each such bug.

“I don't know if I've experienced worse than that one with the bugs,” I said. “I've had one nightmare that was close.”

“Which one?” asked Gabriel. “Was it the one that depicted what these men did, or was it the one involving Norden?”

I shuddered, then said, “I'm not certain that one involving Norden was a conventional dream, and I doubt that was the case with the bug one, either.” I paused, then said, “I can think of the one of Norden being worse, though.”

“How?” asked Gabriel.

“Being stripped naked and then dumped into one of Ultima Thule's advanced conjuring sessions,” I said, “with a dozen Great Knives handy for every witch present...”

Gabriel looked at me. How I could tell he was doing so was a mystery, as I had not turned my head.

“Those knives would be ones I had worked on,” I said, “and finally, all of those witches present, from Ultima Thule on down, would have had extensive training in both witchcraft and the use of blades – and experts in both subjects where I came from doing the teaching.”

The subtle sense of 'choking' I seemed to hear goaded me onto further speech.

“They'd be real witches...”

True-witches,” said Freek.

“And worth a great deal of caution,” I said. “Right now, the pigs are the worst things they have. If those witches were that good, we'd not have any chance whatsoever.”

I paused, then squeaked, “true-witches?”

“Where you came from has huge numbers of those,” said Gabriel. “In that place, there are witches, and there are witches, and the worst of them were after you. One of them...”

“Yes?” I asked.

“He was nearly as amusing as Brimstone himself,” said Gabriel. “He might not have had the power, nor the shape, nor the size, but he was a good match for temperament.”

“Who are you speaking of?” I asked. “Did this man have a peculiar way of speaking, or was he a, uh, high-ranking, uh, cultist?”

Recalling the 'palpable' sense of evil that I felt around the latter individual had made speaking of him especially difficult.

“Neither,” spat Gabriel. “I just saw them, and they could have trained this individual...”

Gabriel paused, then gasped, “I had no idea you once were the slave of that one...”

“He was a Power in that place,” intoned Freek. “He was so evil that Hell showed wherever he walked, and his owning was such that Brimstone had him in his entirety.” An instant's silence. “He was indeed owned, and that hoof, loin, and stench.”

“And that dark-haired witch mated with that man, a-and that boy...” gasped Gabriel.

I'm glad his like never came here,” said Freek.

Enough of the bugs,” I said seconds later.

The 'stretched' aspect of each witch now crumpled into dust, and faint brownish mists sifted into the air. Their acrid bite mingled with a faint aroma of sulfur, and as I looked around, I thought I saw slight cracking in these men – at least, there were cracks in the masks they showed toward the public and each other. Privately...

My thinking was interrupted abruptly by my mouth speaking on its own, and I only 'came to myself' as I said the word 'wretches'. I then continued speaking.

You really like power, don't you?” I snarled, in high and ringing tones. “But one more lesson, and then you shall see that reptile you call 'Father Brimstone'.”

A brief pause, then “why?” This portion came out as a deathly scream.

Because you have but minutes to live,” I yelled, “and your sole hope is to give yourself unto the hands of God, that he may instruct you in what he wishes you to do.”

Here, I paused longer, and my thinking truly caught up with what I was saying.

If not,” I said, this time in a low and mocking voice, “no loss. Brimstone enjoys the flavor of witches, as they season his meals with screaming, and he finds them most succulent morsels. He takes his time eating them, savoring each blood-dripping bite, and then swallowing every well-chewed mouthful slowly to rot in his intestines; and then down, down, down into the burning lake of fire where it makes an iron-casting foundry look pleasant for heat and those fire-spirits look amusing for torment. Now, here you will see your eternal resting place.”

I paused, for now was the truth of the matter to be made plain.

Look, see,” I shouted. “Weep, and gnaw your tongues in agony, you fools!”

I flung my right hand at the table as if slapping one of the men, and as my fingers came to the end of their tether, a crimson eruption gouted from them to billow onto the table. This fire took shape and form before my eyes, and within what seemed seconds, the whole of the table – and indeed, the rest of the room – became mired within a sea of noisy and noisome flames. Only where I stood, and that area behind me where Freek and Gabriel now hid, was not fully engulfed by this fire.

The billowing red flames of the realm were but buttressed by the thunderous noises, and center-stage lay a huge red-flaming top-hat-wearing lizard. This reptile opened its mouth, and did a more-than-passable rocket-engine impersonation. I then noted not merely the girth of the lizard – it was beyond merely 'fat' and into an unknown realm – but also, the silence.

That was here, which was where I stood.

Where they sat was another matter entirely.

Each witch was addressed by a tall and gangling entity with a multitude of arms, and each of these arms clutched what looked like a cross between a riveting hammer and a drumstick. The rattle and pound of the noise each of these creatures made was equaled only by the screaming of each witch as the noise-spirits beat upon the swollen craniums that lay in front of them. I could vaguely recognize some of the sounds, and when a 'tin sign' showed, it spoke of a lengthy 'tuning session'. I then fully knew the sounds as those of many heads being beaten into something closer to steel drums.

That was but one small portion, however: there were fire-spirits galore, and all of them were dancing and starting fires; there were all-teeth creatures which sucked flesh off of bones one second and sprayed brown-water and fragmented bits of dung the next; and then, the 'absolute horrors'.

These things were nauseating pools of slime when 'stable', and otherwise, continuously-morphing creatures of such fantastic repulsion that I could neither endure them nor describe them. I was glad when they went into the soot-darkened corners of the realm before my eyes.

A screech front-and-center grabbed my attention, and a troupe of small centaurs – open mouths screaming obscenely, and coal-black bodies rimmed with the gray of ashes – came bearing age-dented trash cans crusted with filth and rust. The centaurs came up the table's length, then suddenly converged upon one of the now bound-and-gagged 'fools' with high cries of rage and delight. The centaurs then set to work.

While each such hybrid being was far smaller than the witch, their strength was legion and their fierceness beyond description. The witch in question went head-first into the can in an eyeblink of time, and while that can was moved out of the way by another such group of centaurs, the 'catch-team' went after another.

The first-canned witch now received his labels. One centaur splashed on glue with a paintbrush and foaming bucket, while the others in his group slapped on crude-inked panels that dribbled down yellow and brown foul-smelling glue.

The cans were then tossed by a third team of centaurs onto creaking rust-bound trolleys, and then small groups of these reeking creatures towed the trolleys one by one to the front of the top-hat wearing lizard.

The reptile licked its lips with a rust-brown worm-like tongue in dread anticipation, then tied on a large blood-stained napkin with human-looking hands – and once the napkin was in place, it opened its mouth wide, belched thunderously, and brought forth a huge and shiny black file encrusted liberally with small flaked diamonds.

I knew not what the lizard would do until it demonstrated with a flourish, and the raspy grating sound of its teeth being filed into enraged sharpness was a shivering tocsin of fright worse than a year of fingernails screaming upon frozen blackboard jungles.

A vast stone 'sea' materialized in front of the lizard as it continued its teeth-filing preparation, and when the first of the trolleys came within its grasp, the file bounded upon the stone floor of the vast room with a snapping volley of crashes. The can upended itself, the witch rolled bound and gagged upon the lizard's dinner plate, and with two human-looking hands tipped with long black hooked talons, Brimstone seized the witch's head and feet...

Just like an ear of steaming-hot boiled corn...

And bit heartily into the side of the man with a crashing crunch mingled with screams that echoed for years.

However, I soon learned the truth of the matter: Brimstone had as many pairs of hands as he had witches to eat, and as he grasped them by the legs, they went round and round between his jaws to endure his long and spiky teeth, and this while 'dinner music' – the drones of thundering strings, headache-inducing drums, eerie high-pitched screams, and heartbreaking wails – made a cacophony sufficient to cause evil to manifest in every corner of the lizard's dining hall.

As the scenes from the realm 'below' faded, I saw conspicuous red tinting amid the charred remains of the severe brown clothing each witch wore, and a further glance took but a eyeblink's time.

“They're covered with blood,” I thought, even as the final stroke of doom seemed to ring within my mind. I had words for these people, and they needed to hear them.

“You have heard of the plagues poured out upon that place called Egypt as judgment for their evil ways,” I growled. “I think I may presume so, as none of you were born into witchdom, and even though you stayed clear of church for the most part, you were indeed educated in the lower schools for some years.”

I paused briefly.

“That with which you learned to read mentioned those plagues,” I whispered in iron-like tones, “and you all now have the plague of blood upon your bodies. You all are bleeding to death, and that quickly.”

I looked around, and to my surprise, the former tint was now a thick and growing reddish sheen. Faintly I heard drops of blood cascading to the floor, and the coppery smell of death grasped my nose.

“You have but one remaining chance, you fools,” I spat. “But a minute or two remains unto you.”

A brief pause.

“While I personally will not send you to hell, the one who will do so does not tolerate enemies.”

Again, I paused.

“His tolerance for enemies is less than mine,” I said acidly. “It does not exist.

Here, I needed to pause for a few seconds. I licked my lips, and the faint sound seemed that of a hungry beast of prey. I then spoke.

“He destroys his enemies utterly, and thinks it good, and does so when he is so inclined,” I shouted, “and that with no mercy, no relent, and no tears. Fools, if you wish to remain his enemies, you now have but a small taste of what your idiocy has earned for you.”

A brief pause, an eyeblink.

“If you wish him to do with you as he thinks good – including dumping your sorry carcasses in hell where they belong, should he be inclined thusly – then form a line and beg for mercy from the almighty judge upon your faces! Grovel, witches, weep and moan! He might hear you then!”

I did not wait for an answer: I leaped to the nearest witch, grabbed him by the nape of the neck and the seat of his charred trousers, and then tossed him bodily over the table to land in a shrieking pile upon the floor.

As the first witch slowly tumbled to then slide in his blood upon the marbled white expanse, I reached the second witch, and jerk-grab-tossed him over the table as well. I then went to the next, and the next after him, and as I tossed witch after witch, I screamed with each such toss, “no loss that you burn, witches!” and “prepare ye, that ye may endure the judgment of hellfire!” until with the last witch – a short toss, I had compassed the table around about – I screamed the loudest of all I had to say:

“Time's up, fools! Here comes that big lizard's teeth!”

The room shuddered deeply, then with hoarse roars and shrill screams a crack slowly yawned open upon the floor. Deep red clouds billowed from it, and as the floor near the crack began tilting into the shape of a funnel, first one witch staggered to his feet, then another, and the motley 'mob' assayed running away as the floor beneath them continued tilting. The witches were sliding backwards, the flames were billowing among them with thick sulfurous roars, and still, they did not leap, until as one of them toppled backwards headlong toward the now raging shaft, he jerked convulsively upwards and vanished into the bluish clouds above his head.

The leap of the first witch seemed to galvanize the others into a change of some kind, for one after another, the remaining seven jerked themselves up from the now crazily tilting floor to then tumble end-over-end into the bluish-white fire overhead. But three remained – those three, those who had written and buried blood-pacts beneath their blood-crusted idols – and as I watched grimly, the crack abruptly closed with a clanging clatter.

“Was I wrong?” I whispered in the echoing silence. “Was there something I did not see?”

The silence still rang, even as I thought to open my mouth and did so. “B-but I'm no good at preaching, and, I'm, uh, ignorant, and uh...”

“No, not preaching,” said the soft voice. “War. And as for those other matters, I would not belittle yourself.”

“And th-them?” I asked.

“They chose, but could not act physically,” said the soft voice. “Their idols in that room must burn first, and then they will act appropriately.”

“Did I m-make a mistake?” I asked.

“Their judgment is temporarily suspended,” said the soft voice. “Your description of the attitude toward enemies is fairly accurate. It is more than what you said, and less than what you said, and it varies widely, depending on a host of issues.”

A brief pause.

“For those obdurate enough to stand and rebel to the last, it fits well.”

Another brief pause.

“Most whence you came are greatly confused,” said the soft voice, “and hence, they receive more chances than they do here, where the matter is much simpler and plainer.”

I could tell the 'punch line' was coming fast.

“In all cases, however, the number of chances is finite, variable, and utterly unpredictable, hence it behooves those hearing the message to act upon it when it is first heard.”

The punch-line come and gone, I looked around the room. The eight were still gone, the three on the floor still and inert; Gabriel seemed to have gone missing, and Freek... He turned to me with the ledger in his hand. He was not wasting a second's time now.

“Your property?” I asked.

“One can only sell holdings in the Swartsburg from a position of strength,” he said. “If one is not strong then, the usual result is death followed by theft – and to show myself in that place once the truth got out would mean certain death.”

“And you cannot use intermediaries,” I murmured. “All of those holdings will need to be abandoned, as well as any other holdings you have that are known of by witches.” I paused, then asked, “is it even safe for you to be in this area?”

“I think remaining for long would be most unwise,” he said. “I never thought the traveling I had done in school would have such an obvious benefit.”

“Will they know of your 'defection' quickly?” I asked.

“They will,” he said. “Not showing in the Swartsburg for more than a week speaks either of death or things thought worse.” He paused, then said, “not many witches can see, hear, or sense in that fashion.”

“That fashion?” I asked. “You mean...”

“Nor do they communicate that way,” he said. “Some might have in the past.”

Hearing such a statement and then recalling the reactions of witches to my presence seemed to speak of two contradicting answers regarding the spiritual capacities of witchdom, and I was sufficiently flustered that I blurted, “then w-why did that one man come out? He was p-pickled.”

“Part of that was because he was intoxicated,” said Freek. “How close where you?”

“Not far at all,” I said. “Perhaps thirty feet from his door when he showed.”

“Such reactions on the part of witches tend to need close physical proximity,” said Freek, “and in nearly all such cases that I've heard of in the past, the witch in question was killed.”

“Uh, bait?” I asked. I could tell we would have returnees any second.

“Brimstone desired them,” he intoned, “and hence they were made ready for the table.”

A faint thumping noise came from behind, then as I turned, another, then more as the other council members dropped out of the bluish-white clouds overhead with sodden-sounding thumps. They rolled like old cabbages, or perhaps cannon-balls, but when they found their feet, I noted a drastic difference. Nowhere was this difference plainer than upon their tear-stained faces.

“W-well?” I asked.

“I suspect that can wait,” said Gabriel from behind me. “While Freek spoke truthfully based on what he knew, I doubt he knew much beyond what he spoke of.”

“As in?” I asked.

“Much of it was in planning for some time,” said Gabriel. “I was not surprised by that.”

A brief pause, then “I was surprised when I saw the spy-hole.”

“Spy-hole?” I asked.

“There are many of them,” said one of the latest arrivals, “and I suspect I know what we need to do.”

“Do?” I asked.

“We'll need to leave between two days,” he said. “Most likely, we'll need to leave tonight, or tomorrow night at the very latest.”

“And these three..?” I gasped.

“That and that room,” said Gabriel. “I would rest for a short time.”

Gabriel's suggestion suddenly made a measure of sense, and as I went to where I had 'shucked' my bag, I had not merely an intimation, but also a portion of comprehension.

“Tomorrow night...”

“That gives them time to be properly 'commissioned' and sent out with Hendrik's blessing,” said the soft voice, “and also, with somewhat more funds and equipment than they currently have.”

“Uh, hiding?” I asked.

“Not merely hiding,” said the soft voice. “They have work to do, also, and that...”

I looked to see Gabriel and the ambulatory councilors gone.

“Work?” I asked.

“It isn't going to be nearly as hazardous as they think,” he said, “and its importance is much greater than they can currently conceive.”

“What will they be doing?” I asked.

“First, learning about the hinterlands of the first kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and then, finding suitable persons for the future.” A brief pause, then “it isn't just you any more.”

“And those three?” I asked, as I looked to the immobile threesome laying prostrate on the floor.

“Drink as much as you can hold,” said the soft voice, “and wait for the others to return. They will not be gone long.”

As I worked at sucking down the contents of the water-bottle, I had one strange intimation after another, and by the time Gabriel showed himself, I had divested myself of all save my clothing. I was barefoot, much as if I were going to bed shortly, with my weapons, shoes, bag, and all else joining my rifle behind the tub.

“Hendrik heard,” said Gabriel, “and he thinks it a good idea.”

“Heard?” I asked, between sips from my mug. Only it and the water bottle itself remained on the table in front of me.

“Of all that occurred,” he said. “It seems one of those who posts with you encountered a General in the privy near the refectory, and hid himself nearby.”

“Hid himself?” I asked.

“And listened carefully until that General left the area,” said Gabriel. “He also overheard all that was said between that man and the one who met him once he'd come out of that passage.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He spoke of the meeting,” said Gabriel. “Karl said he told his 'messenger' to contact someone in the Swartsburg about 'seizing' property, and he mentioned Freek's name.”

“Hence..?”

“That was but a portion,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik heard yet more, apart from what Karl told him, and those men will leave tomorrow evening, those of them that can.”

“Can?” I asked.

“He knows about those three,” he said, as he pointed to the three on the floor. “As soon as the rest of the councilors find decent clothing, we can start with them.”

I finally finished my container, and when I returned from the privy, I was astonished to see several of the men come in the 'main entrance' bearing stretchers. Their 'common' clothing, and more, their smell – clean, fresh, and perhaps slightly flowery – spoke yet more.

“The others are coming,” said one of them as he began piling the seeming 'ton' of the overseer's inert body onto the gray patched cloth of the stretcher. “It will take two of us, one for each of them, and I imagine...”

“Imagine?” I asked. “That they will need restraining when it gets close to the time and place?”

“That also,” he said. “Every one of us that can needs to do as much and as often as possible.”

I was stunned to hear such an admission, and only by the faint sounds of pencil against paper and other noises in the antechamber without the room was I brought back to the here and now. I then had an idea.

“We'll need to stop at one of those rooms,” I said, “and...”

“Rooms?” asked Freek.

“Those rooms on the floors where weapons are kept,” I said. “We'll need – no, I'll need – to dig up three old war-axes, one for each man...”

“I see,” said Gabriel, as he paused briefly in his writing. “I'm not sure if you'll... What?”

“The blood-pacts,” I said, as the last of the council-members showed, and those to first carry the stretchers bent down and grasped the handles. “Each of them must 'prove himself' by taking ax to the root of his own tree.”

I then gasped, and squeaked, “what did I say?”

“I'm not certain,” said Freek, “but based on what I heard, saw, and did while I was elsewhere, I'd say it sounds likely.”

“Renunciation?” I asked.

“That also,” said Gabriel. “I think we can go now.”

I was among the last to leave the room, and as I went past the antechamber in the main entrance, I was astonished at the quantity of supplies present. In the space of three steps, I counted several fowling pieces, sacks, bags, clothing, and other goods.

“That will be retrieved later,” said Gabriel.

“Did they bring it up?” I asked.

“We went down with much of what we had when we bathed and fetched new clothing,” said Freek. “It seems some used stuff had been brought into the cloth area.”

“Used stuff?” I asked, as we came out into a dim-lit corridor.

“I think it was intended for that trip,” said one of the stretcher-bearers. “What some people think will happen, and what is to actually happen, are two very different things.” He paused, then said, “at least, I suspect that to be the case, by the clothing I saw being worked on. That place is busier than a Swartsburg manufactory.”

“In the north-central portion?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” he said. “I had an interest in a foundry there.”

“F-foundry?” I gasped.

“It was not on the dark side of town,” he said, “so its products were more 'common' than some things.”

“They were still very profitable,” said Freek. “Slossenburg's, wasn't it?”

“Y-yes,” he said. “How did you know?”

“I owned a shop near it,” said Freek, “and those rooms were among the safest I had in that area.”

We were now in the 'main aisle', and as we went toward the larger stairs, I said, “the first below-ground floor weapons room has about the most bad...”

“It gets visited more than all the rest, or so I've heard,” said another stretcher-bearer. “We can rest while you look.”

“Visited?” I asked. Going down the stairs with three heavy-laden stretchers wasn't easy, and those without poles in their hands were hanging onto the three inert men. The second floor landing was but a short distance away.

“It has the most marked weapons,” said Freek, “and that by intent.”

“Broken...” I spluttered, as I recalled the mounds of scrap-metal that had once been swords.

“And costly,” he said. “The unmarked ones tend to be a third of the 'best' price.”

“A third?” I asked. “I heard there were a fair number of those...”

“Ah, I think I know how,” said Freek. “Someone lined their pockets at the kingdom's expense.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. I was surprised he could not think of the obvious means.

“An order goes out for five 'first-quality' swords,” said Freek, “and instead of marked swords, the buyer purchases unmarked ones.”

Gabriel was speechless, so much so that I whispered, “and that wretch takes the money for marked swords with him when he picks them up, and pockets the difference.”

“Exactly,” said Freek – who then made a choking noise, and squeaked, “do those witches do that there?”

“That and much more,” I said. “I take it the unmarked swords are thought to be of vastly lesser quality?”

“By many, perhaps most that routinely carry them,” said Freek. “Only those who speak like butchers seem to prefer the unmarked kind.”

“I've heard of cattle,” I muttered, “and one doesn't want a blade to fail when dealing with them. I know that much.”

And in my thoughts, there was a similar sentiment about that which was to come. This did not leave me, even as we came to the door of that one room which had been so troubling in the recent past, and upon finding its door unlocked, I was surprised indeed, so much so that I murmured, “I hope this place isn't rigged.”

“There are few witches in the area that know more than a smattering of the bomber's art,” said Freek. “A large musket tied to a chair with string for the trigger would be something of a challenge for them.”

“That was tried,” said Gabriel.

My wariness was now engaged, and as I opened the door, I was astonished to find the place lit to a modest extent. A faint and musty odor seemed to thrum in my mind, and when I began walking down the main 'hall' to where I recalled seeing 'axes', I looked carefully. The lack of dust upon the floor seemed to scream 'trap', and when I found the alcove with the axes, I reached up to grasp a lantern. I was still expecting to see trip-lines, and was surprised to not see one.

“That one's got a wax candle,” I thought, as I took it down.

While I had never 'examined' the axes prior, previous experience spoke of what to look for, and the first example I put my hands on felt so awful I knew I'd found a 'winner'. I hefted the thing, noted its clumsy feel, and carried it outside.

“Th-that's...” Gabriel was astonished by what I'd brought out, and when I saw its markings, I had an idea as to why. I didn't need to think about the other sensation that was crawling upon my hands.

“Could one of you give me a rag of some kind?” I asked softly, as I set the ax against the nearest wall. “That one has weapons-tallow on it, and they didn't stint the lard in that batch.”

Freek touched it, then began flinging his hand as if he'd touched something too loathsome for words.

“What does it feel like?” asked Gabriel, as one of the stretcher-bearers handed me a rag.

“It does not feel pleasant,” said Freek, “nor does it feel like what I recalled such materials feeling like in the past.”

“What did they feel like then?” I asked.

“I am not certain I have words to describe that sensation,” he said, “but I found it desirable and thought it fitting, especially upon weapons.” He paused, then took the rag once I'd finished with it, and began wiping his hands, all the while murmuring about swine and what they were fit for.

“Perhaps manure-piles,” I said. “You do not want to burn those things and remain nearby.”

I could feel some questioning coming from a handful of people as I went back inside with another rag, and upon finding another 'slimy' ax, I grasped it carefully with the rag. I returned to a 'teaching session' where Freek was explaining the marks upon the ax to the others.

“They are cursed,” muttered Gabriel. “I had no idea those actually were runes.”

“The fifth kingdom doesn't shape those markings quite the same as they are shaped elsewhere,” said Freek. “I think they intended this one for display, actually.”

“Is it soft?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if it's soft or not,” said Freek, “but the markings seem unusually large and clear, unlike many blades intended for actual use.”

Use?” I asked.

“There are two classes of marked blades,” said Freek, “and the size, number, and type of markings indicate their intended use.”

As I turned to go back into the room, I asked, “those running lengthwise?”

“If they are small, carefully shaped, and unusually shallow, the sword was not intended for a decoration,” he said. “I've seen my share of 'decorations' used as 'weapons'.”

“Engraved by a jeweler?” I asked.

“Those tend to be uncommon,” said Freek, “as are older intact weapons. Both command very high prices.”

The third ax was the slimiest one of the lot, and when I brought it out, I noted an uncommonly foul reek. I looked down upon the seemingly rust-streaked head of the ax, and nearly fainted.

Amid obvious cold-shuts – long blackened streaks in the metal – and other signs of metallurgical crudity, I saw two runes, one on each 'face' of the ax. One looked like a sword, and the other, a backwards lightning bolt. Both were 'applied' with what looked like reddish-brown paint, and the rust-stains seemed to focus upon the curse that had been 'applied'.

“Good that it goes today,” said Freek. “None of these things are intended for real use.”

“B-blood,” I gasped. “C-cursed.”

“Which is why I said it was good that it goes today,” said Freek. “I intend to write what I can on the subject before I leave tomorrow night.”

As we headed back towards the stairs with the three still-inert men – at least one more floor down, I knew, and possibly two – I glanced now and then at the axes. All were in surprisingly poor condition, with deep-chiseled markings and rust showing proudly on their slaggy metal. The wood of their hafts seemed moth-eaten, so much so that once heading down the stairs again, the picture of decay I saw seemed to bring forth a recollection and words to go with it.

“One swing,” I said. “One half-hearted swing.”

“Those posts?” asked Gabriel.

“They're blood-rotten,” said Freek, “and very old. I've heard that every one of them has a multitude of pacts applied to it over the years.”

“The main s-scroll,” I said. “D-dedication. The old idols went for their metal content a hundred years before the c-curse, and those wooden copies are from that age. The room itself is hundreds of years older still.”

“That was rumored,” said Freek, even as we passed the second floor landing. “There's but one floor below this one here.”

“Is that where that room is?” I asked.

“It has its own passage,” said Freek. “There isn't much down on that floor, and we'll need to get lanterns on the way down.”

“I have one already,” said one of the ax-bearers. “It should be enough to find those down on the bottom floor.”

Passage?” I asked.

“The room is hidden...” said Freek.

“Not now it is,” said Gabriel archly. “It awaits...”

I wanted to run and hide, and only a low moan from behind seemed to stop me. I turned to see one of the 'stretcher-cases' stirring, then heard a faint question from one of them.

“Is that ax for my head?” said the faint voice of a prostrate man.

“No,” I said, as I turned to go downstairs again. “You'll need to swing it at that idol.”

“W-why?”

“That scroll you buried,” I said. There was darkness gathering steadily all about us. “By inking it with your blood and then burying it, you gave those spirits full and complete control over everything about you. The ax cuts the root, and then you can jump.”

“Jump? Th-that room?”

“I'll go with you,” I said. “All you'll need to do is swing when I tell you to.”

Yet even as I spoke, I could feel something arising below. The subtle shaking I felt was broken only by Freek's voice and a faint rustling sound.

“Some trees are very persistent,” said Freek, “and need an ax at their roots to kill them, especially this one type with a tap-root like a turnip.”

“Th-those are...” gasped Gabriel.

Very hard to kill,” said Freek. “I've never farmed, but I've spoken to many farmers over the years, and I've heard about some of the things needed to get rid of those trees. They're quite uncommon, thankfully.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“Trouble,” said Freek. “Nothing grows near them, they're deadly poisonous, and they look really strange.”

“D-dark green, spiky leaves, shaped like a...” I gasped.

“The same,” said Freek. “We'd best get some lanterns once we're down on this landing below.”

The landing in question was in deep shadow, and as I slowly moved around the others, I could feel the presence of not merely the room itself, but also the passage. The last stairs came and met the dusty floor, and in the sepulchral gloom I saw a long darkened tunnel with a rounded overhead roof stretching out before me. Its width seemed but a handful of feet to either side of where I stood, and when I turned to my right, I found an ancient-looking candle-sconce at the bottom of a tapering trail of thick dark soot.

“It isn't usually this dark,” said Freek. “Three of the party went back up to fetch more candles.”

“Are these candles here s-special?” I asked. My senses seemed muted.

“They are,” said Freek. “Few go down here.”

“Is it just that room over there” – here, I pointed down the hall and to the left – “or are there other things down here?”

“There are other things,” said Gabriel, “but their locks have no keys.”

“In general circulation, you mean,” said Freek. “There are a number of rooms, most of which have old cast-off junk in them.” He paused, then said, “at least, that is what is believed. I've heard that there are ways through that junk to the hidden doors.”

“That join with the secret passages?” I asked.

“I never was able to find out that much from those people,” said Freek, “even if I do know something about the other rooms down here.”

“You never went looking?” I asked.

“It seems the key to that one room opens the doors to the others,” he said, “but those 'hidden' doors take keys unlike any I've ever seen.”

“You've seen them?” I asked. I could hear people coming down the stairs.

“It took me some hours to get through the junk in each room I checked,” said Freek, “but out of three such rooms, I found two with well-hid doors and hidden locks.”

“And the third room...”

“Would need you looking for the door,” said Gabriel, as he held thumb and forefinger apart in a strange manner.

The soft glows of lights seemed to be coming steadily closer from above, even as Gabriel wiggled his fingers; and when I thought to ask him what he was doing, a small flash erupted in his hand.

“What was that?” asked one of the light-bearing men as he turned the last portion of the downward-spiraling stairs.

“I think I might have an idea how this works,” said Gabriel. He then pointed his finger down the hall, stuck his tongue out part-way, grimaced – and then a faint sizzle came from somewhere nearby.

“I didn't have to speak the last time,” he said.

“For what?” asked one of the lantern-bearers, as he began handing out lanterns.

“I've seen lightning before,” said Gabriel, “and I wondered...”

“You haven't fired artillery, have you?” I asked.

“No, I haven't,” said Gabriel. “Have you?”

“No, but I have come close to being blown up enough to not...” I paused, then said, “I think I know why your finger misfired.”

“Why?” asked Gabriel.

“Imagine that cannon from General's Row firing in this closed space...”

I could hear shuddering, then a soft moan.

“There may be a use for it, though,” I said. “In that room...”

“It isn't that big of a room,” said Freek. “It might be ten paces wide and twelve long, and firing a cannon in it does not strike...”

I looked toward the room itself, picked up a lantern, and began walking. With each step, I could feel the presence of a vast multitude before me, and this presence grew in both intensity and numbers.

“Those worms stink,” I thought. “That whole room stinks.”

Yet even as I thought thusly, I had a distinct impression: the room wasn't bounded by physical limits at this time, and more...

“Only three axes, not four,” I murmured, “and... N-no time. S-spirits don't need time.”

As if to answer, the crack around the doorway vibrated and shook, and faint red glowings flashed and winked in the fading gloom.

“Once you're there, you're there permanently,” I muttered, “and out of time, and out of space...”

“So that's why the book spoke as it did,” said Gabriel. “Freek's found his key, but I wonder about that door.”

“Why?” I asked. “He isn't going to chant at it, is he?”

“No, he isn't,” said Gabriel. “The door might not open for him now.”

What?” I asked.

“The tapestries,” said Gabriel. “The witch-realms were stated as being secured by special doors.”

“Wasn't that in those old tales?” I asked. “That instructor...”

“He didn't go to the higher schools,” said Gabriel, “and much of his knowledge that way was rumor and hearsay until very recently.”

“And yours?” I asked.

“I spent much of a day reading that tapestry,” said Gabriel, “and much of a week's travel to get to where it was.”

Freek came past me with a lantern in one hand and a common-looking key in the other, and as I walked with him, I noted his determination. Faint grunts spoke of those behind lifting the stretchers, and amid shuffling and varied gloom, we slowly converged upon the door in question.

“This hall is all there is?” I asked.

“It looks that way, and with good reason,” said Freek, as he fitted the key into the lock with care. “I hope this works.”

A faint snapping noise came from the lock, then as I watched, Freek turned loose of the key. The portion with the handle fell to the floor with a faint and sad clacking noise to bounce twice before its dissolution, and a brown cloud of rust sifted down to the floor after it. The key had 'died'.

“At least you've been in those rooms before,” said Gabriel morosely, “and after seeing that, I suspect you will need to open it.”

“How?” asked Freek, as he turned to me.

“Uh, ask it to open,” I said glumly. “I've done that before.”

As the remainder of the party came to gather around the door, I thought to have the stretchers put head-to-the-wall on the south side of the passage a few feet down from the doorway, with the axes leaning against the wall between them and the door itself. As this was done, I noted the three that had buried blood-pacts seemed unconscious.

“Once the door opens, this will need to happen quickly,” I said. “They'll need to wake up...”

No...” came a faint scream.

“Then one at a time, be helped into the room with an ax in their hands,” I said. “I'll need to go in with them once they're there.”

“Where you came from was like living in one of those rooms,” said Gabriel. “What will you do once you are inside that one?”

I looked at the others, then turned to the door. From somewhere inside, I felt a sensation begin gathering itself, and as it tried to 'escape' – I could not describe it terribly well – it was reflected back inside, such that the sensation and that which engendered it fed upon itself in some fashion and grew exponentially. I looked down at my hands, saw them faintly shaking, and then suddenly, an eruption of red mist within my mind blew my sanity and all else of normalcy away in a twinkling.

I opened my eyes to see hands covered with hair, and as I did, the door vibrated amid clouds of acrid 'hot' smoke. I now understood: this was war...

But three dimensions past the portal: time was not, and hell was coming at a dead run, and once there...

There,” I thought. “Those things are awful solid for spirits, and those mired there with judgment reigning down upon them are the same way, and...”

“When it is time, Gabriel,” I said in a slightly shaky voice, “point your finger at those things and light them on fire.”

“The lock,” said Someone. I could not recognize the voice.

One step, then another, then the threshold itself. I put my right hand on the door. All that remained between myself and the limitless expanses of Hell was a thin veneer of iron-bound wood.

“A rush job,” I muttered. “Get them ready...”

“What?” squeaked a half-dead rat crushed under the weight of a planet.

“I might have a slow count of ten in there,” I said softly. “Get ready.”

I then spoke the most important words in the whole of the day, and them in a breathy whisper:

“God, if I ever needed your help, I need it now.”

The eruption of sound that flashed in my mind was of such magnitude it made any previous instance seem as nothing, and as I gave tongue to it, it flowed from my wide-open mouth out into 'space'. The whole of the passageway abruptly filled with mist, and as I looked down amid echoing thunder-like roars that rang, snarled, and beat endlessly amid the stones of the hallway, I saw the doorknob disintegrate into a yellow-brown powder that sprayed outward in a fulsome spray, followed by a blizzard of rust as the walls began shaking and smoking. I moved toward the axes, even as the once-solid door erupted smoke and dust like a howling storm, then in slow-motion amid deep red waves of heat, the door went to pieces and powder and fell to the floor amid the glaring crimson doorway.

“Now!” I shouted. “A man, and an ax!”

I turned toward the inner realm, still a foot from the threshold, and saw a dark and malodorous realm of strange and spectral nature. There were no boundaries, none whatsoever, and I recalled a certain closet long ago in the Devil's Playground.

“It felt like an oven in there,” I thought, even as a stumbling man showed to my left with an ax cradled in his hands. It was time.

One, two, three, go!” I shouted.

I leaped past the threshold, and the darkness fled to be replaced by a red glow as the temperature climbed like a skyrocket. I turned in mid-air, somehow stopping, then...

“Oven?” I thought. “This is a coal-stoked crucible furnace!”

The first man hung back at the door, now seeming mired in the rotten stench and burning heat before him. I landed at his feet, grabbed his hand, then turned and flung him and his ax at his idol even as I saw 'his' scroll sparking like madness to the right of the central altar.

“The other two are on the back side of that stinky thing,” I thought, as the other two men were being herded like cattle into the doorway. I grabbed one, then flung him with a grunt in a low arc. He nearly slid off the top of the altar and fell on its other side.

The third one. Now! Heave. He flies to the left of the altar, and I leap convulsively to the first man I had tossed.

He had become waxen and catatonic while standing stiff and statue-like before his 'idol', and I knew what needed doing in the face of such complete spiritual control. A wild-animal snarl came unbidden from my throat as I grasped both shoulders, then another earth-shaking roaring sound seemed to make the place echo as his ax raised woodenly to chest height, then fell to embed the cheap rusted wrought-iron bit haft-deep into the punky blood-rotted wood of the post.

The ground shifted beneath his feet, then seemed to open its jaws wide – wide enough to swallow him and stop me. I grabbed him amid sulfurous erupting flames, leaped to the side, then flung him at the doorway just prior to leaping towards man number two.

While I had expected 'battle', I was getting much more than I had expected, and as I flew through the air and over the smoking altar, I seemed to not merely hear the voices of an angry multitude of spirits, but also smell, feel, and see them coming in their massed formations as they came up from the shores of a vast body of blazing red fire and the ruins of a town.

I reached my man, and in my peripheral vision – nearly at my left elbow, in fact – I saw not merely the encroaching ruins of the town, but also one of the drumstick-wielding noise-spirits I had seen earlier today. It wanted to tune my head with its hammers, and as I glanced at it, I not merely saw it turn tail – long, thin, no point, and a vague and sulfurous-fashioned posterior for a starting point – but then run, howling like a burning dog to find a hole to hide itself within.

Above me the ceiling began glowing a dull red, and as I touched my man, I saw the black-iron-looking rough-carved ceiling seem to vibrate with heat. In an eyeblink's time, I saw the following:

The corrupt wooden blood-bucket hanging from the altar's side was beginning to billow smoke, and the altar itself had low and guttering flames coming from its uppermost surface.

The second man was stiff, waxen, controlled, and sinking down.

The ground beneath my feet was very warm, in some places glowing red, and it was beginning to turn into molten lava.

My clothing, and that of the two men, was billowing smoke. It would ignite any second.

I did as I needed to do, just as with the first man, then tossed the second over the now flame-billowing altar as I leaped to number three.

My mid-air travel through now billowing near-colorless flames saw the second man hit the floor outside and roll like a corpse until he hit the wall, and as I billowed steam and sweat, I felt as if burning. I looked at my arms, and saw flames as I landed next to the last man.

He stood immobile, and was buried up to his knees. The caked blood – on the ground, on the instruments, the altar itself – now blazed like gasoline, and the altar cracked in two in the oven-like heat.

Now!

The ax falls.

I grabbed him in my arms, and ran for it as all hell broke loose.

The ceiling began falling, and the brick, safe, and piano-sized chunks rained down hot and jagged to the thunder of an avalanche, while the altar disintegrated in a burst of crimson flames and a maelstrom of angry sparking horizontal molten stone.

Whole sections of the floor gave way under my seeming slow progress, and as he had gone waxy and dead to the world in my hands, I needed to carry him. I could not toss him as I had the others, and his dead weight didn't help much in my downward-sinking passage. Ten feet to the door, eight feet...

I tossed him like a boulder, then leaped toward the hazy outline of the door with all my strength.

As I flew through the flames, a brilliant white sheet seemed to erupt from all corners of the world at once, and as my world went from red to sepia to black, I felt the rushing wind of a massive explosion pushing me out of the door. I hit the floor, bounced once, hit the wall flat amid putrid billows of smoke, and then fell to my knees in a dead faint to awaken what seemed seconds later.

The holocaust seemed still around me, for the choking smoke and dust was thick enough to walk upon, and when I looked at my clothing, only small places still showed green. The rest was a deep and pungent brown where it was not charred unto blackness, and in my daze, I stood and wobbled toward the doorway I had just left. The smoke and dust parted way for me, and I looked within what had once been the doorway into hell.

“It's just a r-room now,” I spluttered amid hacking coughs. “It might be...”

I paused in mid-sentence, then just above my head was the frame of the door. Most were but an inch or two higher than the crown of my head, and this one was about the usual.

“There needs to be a sign of some kind there,” I thought, “something like that one in Dante's Inferno...”

Reddish lines began forming, and over the course of seconds formed letters, then words:

Abandon all hope if you enter here.

Hope isn't good enough to fight this kind of war.

Swine and witches are poor losers.”

I wobbled back to the side of the passageway amid the darkness, where I sat down next to the wall amid approaching exhaustion, and I wrinkled my nose at the smell. The explosion had blasted loose eons of grime and filth, and as the dust and dirt slowly settled, I saw bodies steadily emerge from under the blanket of grime. As I watched, they awoke coughing, one by one amid the gloom. A match flared, a lantern was lit, then another, and then two more.

There was more, it needed doing, and it dare not wait. I spoke but seconds later, and that in iron tones:

“Pick them up, and follow me.”