The road more traveled, part o.


With another helping of meat and flatbreads, I began to slow down enough with eating to notice something other than what I was eating. The other people in the Public House were eating much as we did, with the same viands present and the same methodology. Small dishes of various 'savories' graced each active table, and each rolled-up flatbread commonly got dipped before each bite.

Along with the 'savories' were small glasses, and when a jug-bearing waiter came by to 'top up' the glasses, I noted a strong and sharply astringent scent heavily laden with alcohol. I wondered what I was smelling, and asked the waiter.

“A digestive tonic,” he said in his accented speech. He then looked at the Raw-Deal sauce.

“Does it have a name?” I asked.

“Ardent-water is what it is called this side of the mountains,” he said, “but in the valley, they speak differently. I cannot speak as they do.”

“It smells really strong,” I said. “Is it?”

“It is, which is why one adds it to a glass of boiled water before consuming it,” he said. “Some drink it as it comes, though.”

I grimaced, and the waiter resumed his malodorous chores. I then saw Gabriel looking at me.

“I have heard of drink that gets rid of worms,” he said, between mouthfuls, “but I have yet to hear of drink that has worms put in it deliberately.”

“Worms?” I gasped. I wondered how the idea of 'mezcal' had come up.

“That drink he spoke of,” said Gabriel. “I've seen it consumed in some very strange places, many of which have spinner tables and those who wager upon the outcomes.”

Again, I wondered where Gabriel had learned about mezcal and its most notorious ingredient.

“Down in the mining country, spinner tables tend to be busy,” he said, “and those gambling are not merely sore losers, but tend to carve each other and those who win more than they like.”

I wondered how Gabriel had gone from mentioning 'mezcal' to speaking of old-time gambling halls.

“There are other places with spinner tables,” he said, “and those tend to be a bit safer. Still, gamblers tend to consume strong drink avidly and their judgment is affected for the worse.”

“Uh, how does that stuff I was asking about figure into this?” I asked softly.

“That name they call it,” said Lukas. “I think it was called 'Ah-goo-yard-dee-en-tie' or something like that.

Aguardiente?” I asked. “I've heard of that stuff.”

“Yes, where you came from,” said Gabriel. “I am not certain it is the same thing here.”

I left out a gold monster coin for a tip when we left, reasoning that this area wasn't particularly well off and a meal free of mobs and squabs was worth a good deal. The publican noticed the gold slug gleaming among the silver and was grateful, even as we left the rapidly emptying Public House to emerge into late-midafternoon.

“Ain't possible,” muttered Lukas. “That turnoff is a good five hour's ride, and then...”

“Is that the port, or the kingdom house?” asked Kees.

“I'm not sure if I recall correctly,” said Lukas. “The left one goes to the house, and it's an hour or so riding from the turnoff, and the right one might be a bit shorter, but it's rough in places. They're both in the same general area.”

“Then we had best do as we can,” said Hendrik. “This area is dangerous, and sleeping in it is not wise.”

We resumed our southbound pace. The sun seemed to be behaving oddly, for some reason; it was as if it had forgotten its normal channels and was heading down in a wayward and haphazard manner. I felt 'strange', unlike anything good or bad of a familiar nature I had endured recently, and at the next stop for water, I began to have ideas as to why.

Amid the goat-flocks and sheep-herds, along with the small hovel-like farmsteads and strangely tall trees Gabriel identified as 'great-oaks', there was a dark and noisome thread running throughout this area, and when I checked over the hooves of the horses, I found reddish brown flakes that reminded me of dried blood. I checked the horses in question for injuries, found nothing amiss, and asked both Gilbertus and Lukas.

“That ain't from the horses,” said Lukas. “I'd guess this place sees a lot of death.”

When we resumed, more pieces of the puzzle seemed to arrange themselves in my mind. To the west and south lay the chief port of the continent and the source of most of the third kingdom's income, and to speak of that place being busy was to call a springtime beehive 'dead'. More importantly, every thug for miles not merely knew of the place, but commonly came there of an evening.

And there lay the trouble. The sun was dropping steadily, and the road – and all around us – was growing darker.

With the darkness of the road's surface increasing, I seemed to see grim and spectral shades that shrieked as if they knew precisely how to conjure madness. The road itself writhed briefly, as if it were being sacrificed upon a witch's altar, and when the 'madness' faded, I understood yet more.

I hoped I understood enough. It felt as if it were the most important thing imaginable.

Looking down on the surface of the High Way as it jerked past, I noted what looked to be darkness impenetrable, and amid the tarred stones I saw thick and glutinous threads of dried blood holding the whole road within its grasp. I looked ahead, and shuddered.

The current crop of the third kingdom's brigands were mostly from the back country, and those not from that location were much as they were for beliefs.

“Bilingual brigands,” I muttered. “Witches, or people that wonder...”

I then understood more, and thought, “if they are doing that in this area, then they most likely are witches, and probably serious enough to...”

In the background, I heard in high and mocking tones a chant of runes mingled with Underworld German, and the black-dressed mounted chanters foamed at the mouth while spitting words too evil to endure.

“Sacrificed and then eaten,” I muttered. “Every brigand in this area is an arch-witch.”

“I thought so,” said Gabriel. “They did not speak of it that harshly at school, but even so, no students stayed in the third kingdom after dark unless under guard at the house proper.”

“Under guard?” I asked.

“Two guards in the room at all times,” said Gabriel, “and they stayed awake while we slept.”

The sun was still sinking, and I guessed we had an hour, perhaps a bit more, before sundown. I could hear the screaming of the multitudes that had died for the pleasure of witches upon the road we were on, and as this horror-thought rumbled rough-shod through my mind, I seemed to hear some kind of an answer.

“Can we be hidden from our fears?” I asked softly.

At first, nothing seemed to happen beyond the unrelenting descent of the sun into the east. As the darkness gathered slow and swirling, I seemed to gain a measure of encouragement. Perhaps something would happen. I reached into my shirt, slowly removed the jewelry, and then asked softly, in a voice barely audible...

“Please, hide us from evil, and all that frightens us.”

My head was jerked down abruptly by what seemed an upper millstone, and as where I was sitting faintly swirled – I was now sitting upon the lower millstone, and was being pulverized – the darkness gathered mass and mist about us. Within seconds, I raised up my head to look at the ground.

Our speed within the boundaries of our misty bubble was unchanged, and over all of the ground I saw, a strange and mobile blob of pale bluish light seemed to flicker. I wondered as to the source, and looked ahead.

A wildly mobile ball of bluish-white fire leaped and danced so as to guide us. Then, I looked to our side.

While the walls of mist and darkness seemed impenetrable at first, a small 'window' opened up to me, and I gasped in shock.

We were not traveling at the stately pace of a walking horse, but much faster.

“And how much faster is a mystery to me,” as I watched trees shoot by in a blurring wobble that made for a near-solid living fence.

“F-fifty m-miles an hour?” I thought, even as I again looked to the front.

While I had once been a decent judge of speed, I had greatly gone out of practice, or so I thought when I saw through the gray-blurring walls of bluish light. The ball of fire moved to the side, and as I looked 'closer', the blurred aspect reduced itself to give a clear picture of what lay ahead of us.

To the right in the distance I saw a sizable group of black-muffled horsemen. All of these men were heavily armed, and several of them were stroking long gleaming swords with a malodorous material that I recognized instantly as 'witch-grade' red-tallow. I then heard sounds – chanting – and their speech was a mingled hoarse growling composed of rune-curses mingled with Underworld German.

With each second, I saw clearer what these people 'had'. From their blackened faces reeking of death and datramonium to their blades and pistols, they were nightmares made tangible. I wondered about their source of such face-grease, even as one of their horses became 'restive'.

That condition seemed to be catching, and when one of the other horses launched its hind-legs skyward and dumped its rider face-down onto the ground, all of the remaining animals took its example to heart. The horses reared and bucked, then as the brigands fell, the horses began kicking them crazily before running off into the darkened scrubby forest behind them.

Time seemed to grow nebulous and undefined, much as if in a dream, and far ahead, I saw what might have been roads intersecting the High Way. One lay to the right...

“No, don't want that one,” I thought. “I... Where are we?”

While I had no answer, I became convinced that the left turnoff just beyond the right one led where we needed to go. Still, I thought to ask, and did so.

From behind came a rumbling booming noise that seemed to signify the word 'yes'.

I wondered how to 'take' the turn at our current speed, then looked down. Jaak was still making his common excursion speed, and could easily turn in less than his own length.

“Does apparent speed determine maneuvering capability?”

While there was no answer, I suspected it did, and I moved out in front of the main body as the turn drew close. At its apex, I leaned into it, and the rumble that came from behind was such that I marveled – until I heard the coughing and choking noises mingled with echoing gunfire that came from our rear.

Our 'cloud' now glowed as if lit by a pale blue flame, and the previous bouncing ball was gone. All around us was a burning blueness, and beneath us was mist; to our left, mist; and our right, our roof, our front, our rear – all had become a thick mist. I began to wonder as to what was happening, even as suspicions grew in my mind, and within seconds, a plausible explanation occurred to me: time and space were being manipulated, and we were going quickly indeed.

The road – narrow, somewhat bumpy, and most of all dark – now began rising up slightly. Jaak seemed unaffected, for some reason, even if I felt marked and growing fatigue. The weight of the jewelry seemed to have grown drastically – it was well beyond forty pounds now – and the darkness was thick, with clutching tendrils of mist that groped for us like misbegotten hands.

“Only a little more,” I murmured tiredly. “Then we both can rest.”

A turn to the left showed a somewhat steeper rise, and I took that turn as I had the last one. This path was sufficiently narrow that two horses side-by-side left precious little room, assuming they were harnessed to a buggy. Riding otherwise made for a distinctly 'tight' feeling, and from behind, the luminous yellow-tinted glow of the moon now became evident. It was lighting up a vague and foggy-seeming 'mass' a mile or two distant.

This object made for wondering as it drew closer, and when it seemed to blot out the whole of the frontal arc I could see without turning my head, the mist ahead began to gather itself into a glowing bluish-white ball that abruptly shot into the sky to vanish with a faintly hissing noise. I shook my head with fatigue as Jaak came to a slow and somewhat unsteady halt, and then 'opened' my eyes. I did not believe what I saw, even as the darkness now closed in like a smothering blanket.

“Th-that's a castle,” I spluttered.

Perched atop a brush-strewn rise was a 'stereotypical' castle, complete with turrets, barbicans, a portcullis, an old-looking wooden drawbridge with moat surrounding a tall wall pierced with embrasures, sixteenth-century armor-plated soldiers with pikes and halberds, and other things I could not name due to fatigue. It looked like a haunted castle full of Spaniards – and I felt like someone that was to be kept out or subjected to an Auto-da-Fé as a heretic.

The barbicans were first to our front, with two of them flanking the lowered drawbridge. Jaak moved forward slowly as I heard the squalling sound of a horn followed by faint-sounding steps that rattled and jingled. I was well-beyond anything close to a normal state of fatigue, so much so that I felt as if swaying.

At least until I was startled by thumping steps drawing steadily closer. I looked up, opened my eyes again – and nearly fell to the ground as four armor-plated soldiers 'materialized' but feet away, all of them brandishing long pikes with glittering broad-bladed steel points.

“Wonderful,” I thought, as I swayed again. “I bet they cannot wait to poke me with those things.”

One of these men seemed to read my mind, for he turned and shouted loudly a billow of unintelligible speech. More rattle-thump-jingle steps ensued, then another 'armor-plated Spaniard' showed with a drawn 'broadsword' in his right hand, and in his uplifted left hand, an intensely bright lantern.

The brilliant light seemed to awaken me slightly, and I turned to see our latest arrival with suspicion writ large upon his face. I looked at him with weary and slitted eyes, and he seemed to look at me – or perhaps, through me – and as he did, I noted the gleam and sparkle of what I was wearing. It wrote a peculiar pattern upon his face, and his suspicions vanished with such terrifying abruptness that I jolted. He now had an unreadable expression, and he turned to shout at the barbicans from whence he came.

“Here are friends,” he said. “They need sleep, food, and drink.”

He did an about-turn, and we followed him while flanked by the other four as he walked to the barbicans. There, I saw a thick wooden gate made of iron-reinforced beams propped up carefully, and once past its twenty feet of ancient stone, it was the turn of the drawbridge. I looked over the side to see the darkness of the heavens above reflected in a thick and viscous-looking pond that seemed impervious to light, while the creaking of the worn planks underfoot was not cheering to hear. I was much relieved to see the pontoon supporting the middle of the span when we passed it, and relieved yet more when we were on solid ground.

The creaking we left behind seemed a fit confirmation of our arrival, and in my case, it was a woeful tocsin and a harbinger of nightmares. The others seemed perfectly oblivious...

“It's not their problem,” I murmured in a half-asleep state. “It's mine, and mine alone.”

The proof of their oblivion was silence, and as we went up the short distance between drawbridge and the entrance to the castle proper, I heard creaking and groaning mingled with a sing-song chant. I listened carefully – “no, no runes,” I thought – and mumbled, “heave-ho?” A brief pause, then, “what is that gate called?”

“A tough one to get through when it is closed,” said a voice from the rear that took seconds to identify as that of Gilbertus. “I've only heard of three of them done like that.”

“The Compendium lists gates, and gives their descriptions and locations,” said Gabriel, “and the other two like that are much smaller. That one is called the Iron Gate.”

“Iron Gate?” I asked.

“Most likely as it is made of iron,” said Gabriel. “It used hundreds of hot-peened rivets.”

“How many were burned?” I mumbled, even as I felt faintly a warmly metallic touch at the back of my neck. The portcullis was continuing to climb slowly amid continued creaking sounds.

“Nineteen,” said Gabriel. “Of that number, ten died, seven were crippled for life, and the remaining two were bedridden for weeks. Then, its erection killed three. Since that time, it has crushed people when its latch has given way.”

“Does it do that often?” I asked.

There was no answer, at least initially. I then heard a startlingly loud clack, followed by the sounds of two thick timbers being put under the gate and then carefully wedged. Jaak moved forward, even as the others remained in place, and once past the portcullis, I stopped to look around.

Inside the dark stone of the castle entrance, the gate's ambiance conjured visions of hell so real and intense that only the inscription above the door to Dante's Inferno seemed an appropriate label, and as the others came past the propped-up 'Iron Gate', I resumed travel – travel from outer darkness, and unto the inner darkness of the courtyard.

Therein was a wide pasture, and once outside of the passage – a hundred feet in length, if not more – I looked around. I saw numbers of pumps and watering troughs, and ahead of us, the light-bearing 'Spaniard' that had vanished as we were in or between the two barbicans.

“How did he get ahead of us like that?” I asked. There was no answer, save perhaps a faint snoring sound, and our guide was heading with his lantern toward a room whose open door seemed a harbinger of ongoing arc-welding, if I went by the glaringly intense light that spewed from its doorway.

I was brought out of my 'funk' by an earsplitting rattle followed by a thunderous clang with a shattering bang at the end.

“Th-the gate?” I asked. There was no reply save the myriad echoes amid the ancient-feeling stone walls of this 'fort' that now enclosed us.

Once the echoing of 'closure' had died away – twelve tons of 'Iron Gate' would provide closure – I heard, or rather felt, Jaak laugh. I had no idea that horses could laugh, and as I looked at the grass, I suspected why: it was soft, dense, and thick, and most likely tickled his feet. I rubbed his neck in a woozy fashion, and then, I noted some other things about where we were.

The thick walls and tiled roofs, as well as faintly gleaming varnished planked doors, reminded me in some ways of a Spanish mission, so much so that I wondered about friars, and more, the Inquisition.

“F-friars?” I asked. My voice seemed to faintly screech.

“There is no need for such,” said Gabriel. “Witches burn if and when they show, and those to hand do so as they are able. However, according to the Grim, the witches themselves once had such beings, and their work...”

Work?” I asked. I was befuddled with tiredness.

“Was the destruction of those not as they were, with emphasis specially upon those marked.”

Gabriel's oblivious voice seemed that of one of the 'Friars' he had spoken of, and amid the screamed rune-curses of a thronging multitude standing around glaring white watch-fires, I saw the furnace door ahead billowing flames long and red in their brilliant hunger. Again, the bronzed bell-tone spoke:

“Many of those marked were ended under torture in those days,” said Gabriel, “with the goal of the witches then being their complete and utter extermination. That northern witch said a line far older than she herself when she said it.”

“S-said it?” I asked. I wondered if I was awake.

“She named those unable to hear and do the will of Brimstone disgraced,” said Gabriel, “and to merely be unwilling to hear and serve that reptile signified heresy when that curse was written long ago. Such were thought addled, and likely to come to their senses given modest inducement.”

There was more, and my ears pricked up to hear it, in spite of fatigue sufficient to drop me onto the grass forthwith.

“It was thought unthinkable and inexcusable to be unable,” said Gabriel, “and in that time, to be unable was thought a deliberate choice, one made prior to birth. Supposedly, witches still believe that to be the case.”

The glaring light of the moon now showed chill and white around us, and when I turned, I saw the front of the house proper lit up as if by a floodlight. Behind the frontal wall I saw more 'armor-plated Spaniards' congregating in groups of two or three, and at the uppermost embrasures I saw what might have been the rear portions of cannons. The stars still shown brightly, and when I turned back toward the front, I noted Jaak had halted. I wondered why until I saw our 'guide' struggling to put the lantern on a tall iron stand.

He managed that 'trick' readily, then walked away slow, stiff, and clinking into the gauzy-seeming reaches of the surrounding darkness. I was about to fall off, and I could hear a bed softly whispering to me.

“N-no, not yet,” I thought. “The horses, then check the buggies...”

I slid off of Jaak's back, then wobbled over to where the buggies were. A hand on the first hub spoke of normal-seeming coolness, and as I touched the other seven, I heard groans mingled with fearful whispering. I was too tired to do much beyond begin to check the hooves of the nearest horses once I had checked the buggies.

The soft aspect of moonlight overhead seemed to charm away the fears of the recent past, and as I checked each hoof carefully, I heard grain-pans being filled, followed by the soughing sound of water being pumped.

“At least this pump works good,” muttered Gilbertus. “Those last two were barely holding their water.”

I had more horses to check, or so I thought until I nearly collided with Lukas. He'd been checking hooves also.

“What next?” I asked. My voice spoke loudly of exhaustion, and the words barely came forth.

He had no answer for me, and as I looked around, I noted the hanging lantern. I closed my eyes when in direct line with it, and once I saw the glaringly-white doorway, I began stumbling toward it. Each step seemed to be 'called out' by a faint chant, and upon coming closer to the doorway, I heard sounds indicating occupancy.

“The latest addition of corpses to that crematorium,” I thought as I neared the threshold, and once at it, I saw what was inside.

Two more man-made suns blared out their retina-crisping message, and I muttered, “no, I do not need to try arc-welding without a helmet.”

Gabriel came to the door, and put his hands over his eyes before muttering, “it's not just me. Lukas went after our guide in hopes of turning those things down.”

I staggered back from the doorway, then leaned against the wall some feet away. My legs began wobbling, and I slid slowly down the smooth stone of the wall to land with a faint thud upon the stone walkway beneath my feet. More weary-sounding steps came closer, then to my surprise, Karl nearly collided with the wall before sitting down.

“Uh, tired?” I asked.

“More than if I just did harvest all day,” he said. “I think I need a nap of some kind.”

“You were not carrying that pendant,” said Gabriel. “It tends to gain weight when it is working.”

“What, does it weigh more?” asked Karl morosely.

“A great deal more,” said Gabriel. “I doubt you would enjoy a small milling-stone hung around your neck.”

Karl's silence made it marginally easier to hear steps coming in the distance, and I turned left to see another 'sun-bearer' coming at a leisurely-seeming walk. As he drew closer, I noted Lukas' limping, as well as his haggard-seeming face, and then, the 'sun-bearer's' clothing.

“No sun-shade,” I muttered, as I staggered to my feet, “and perhaps a bit cleaner, but otherwise, he could pass for a border-guard.”

He came to our doorway, then went inside as if he was accustomed to the blinding glare of three intensely bright lanterns, and returned as I staggered near. He was about to leave, but one glance at the room's interior – it was still glaringly bright, and seemed no dimmer – had me ask, “could you show me how to turn those down?”

He wordlessly turned, and I staggered in his wake until he came to one of the lanterns. I seemed to see through closed eyes an obvious knob, which he turned to cause the light to vary slightly. I placed my hand on this knob, noted its knurled finish, and began turning.

I had to turn it twice before I could open my eyes, and as I continued dimming the lantern, he asked, “how can you endure such darkness? Does it not frighten you?”

“Not as much as those brigands did,” I murmured, as I noted an instability in the flame and turned the lantern back up slightly. “The way this one was, it was hurting my eyes.”

As I began turning down the other lantern, I heard soft sighs and mumbling, followed by weary footsteps. Questions on the part of our 'sun-bearer' seemed endemic, with all of the queries applied to me.

“How can he endure the sun?” was one such question. Along with it, perhaps, was another question, this one unspoken:

“Only witches seek darkness in which to hide. Is he a witch?”

“He seems to manage passably,” said Gilbertus, “and if you are thinking him a witch, he's had enough witches try to kill him and us recently.” A brief pause, then, “you wouldn't happen to have a hat like he has?”

There was no reply beyond frantic-seeming steps that quickly left beyond the range of hearing, and as I adjusted the first lantern up slightly – I had backed it off too much because of the other's glaring – I asked “why did he think me crazy for not fearing the darkness?”

There was no immediate answer, save for more weary steps to bring in our supplies. I looked around, and saw rows of beds, a long narrow table, a pair of doors in the rear of the building, and...

“Why does one of those doors show a white washtub, and the other a big brown crock?” I thought, as I wobbled next to a bed. I was beyond exhaustion, and needed to lay down.

I removed boots and stockings, then collapsed as if hit with a club to be awoken what seemed seconds later, and the smell spoke of food. I sat up and saw the whole of the party collapsed upon beds, while two 'border guards' – no hats, nor boots, and the cleanest clothing of that type yet – placed covered 'platters' upon the table. Sweaty jugs seemed endemic, and as I knuckled my eyes, I noted the smells.

“More roast, flatbreads, savories, and, uh...”

I ceased speaking, for a sour acid smell seemed to sweep away all of the other odors and place itself where they had once occupied my nose. I stood shakily, even as the others of our party began stirring themselves and came closer to the nearest of the two tables. Our 'servers' were leaving in a tearing hurry, and when I turned to look out the still-opened door, I had an idea as to why.

The brilliance of a man-made sun awaited their presence without, and when the last man left, the glaring light retreated amid faint clanking noises.

I lifted up the nearest cloth, and noted a plate of tall-stacked flatbreads. These seemed fresher and a bit 'better' than those earlier in the day, and when I lifted up another cloth, I noted a mound of 'steaks'. These last were covered with a wire-mesh 'cage', and when steps came closer, I turned to see Lukas.

“Good, they covered those things,” he murmured. “Once we get some food down...”

Lukas interrupted himself to gently scratch his arm, then the seat of his trousers. He looked at me, then said, “and we'd best bring in that tub, too. I'm down to two sets of clothing, and they don't do laundry here very often.”

“V-very often?” I asked.

“I recall once a week as being the usual here,” said Gabriel weakly. “They take a whole day doing it.”

“A whole day?” I asked.

“Those who take much less than that typically have fewer clothes than they like,” said Gabriel, as he scratched the clothing covering his stomach, “and between expensive soap, dirty winds, limited water, and much else common in the third kingdom, you need at least one set of clothing for each day.” He paused, then said, “if you travel, or see men of importance, or preach, or live at the house proper, you want more than that.”

“Dirty winds?” I asked.

“Dust storms coming from the east,” said Hendrik, as he uncorked one of our jugs. “I'm not sure I want to try what is in those they brought.”

After 'getting some food down' – a tortilla or two each – we began setting up for bathing. All of our supplies came in first, then the doors with the white tub began to be busy. I went back in that direction after a second tortilla, and learned of an unpleasant issue.

“Bathing?” I asked.

“That we can do,” said Lukas, as he looked carefully over the pieces of a dismantled bronze pump, “but we'll spend our time getting enough water with a decent pump. This one...”

“Hold,” yelled Gilbertus. “Check to see if this leather works.”

Gilbertus brought a leather 'cup', and Lukas carefully tried it. A smear of deodorized tallow went on the leather, and five minutes later, the pump first croaked, then a splash of water came out with each stroke. I was surprised at the modest quantity.

“Limited water?” I asked.

“That, and it's bad for sickness,” said Lukas. “If you want to use water from this point south, it needs boiling.”

“For bathing?” I asked.

“That, drinking, and general use,” said Lukas, “especially here. Only the fifth kingdom house is more ignorant of medical matters than the third kingdom.”

“How is that?” asked Karl, as he built a fire in the ancient-looking stove.

“If you get sick here, they treat it it as if it's a curse of some kind, no matter what the cause is,” said Lukas.

“Uh, Anna said...” I spluttered.

“There are some sicknesses caused by curses,” said Lukas. “Some are caused by these little creatures too small to be seen with the eyes alone, and bad water is filled with 'em.”

“Illnesses caused by curses?” I asked. The whole matter reeked of superstition.

“Thank God those are rare,” said Gilbertus.

“They aren't as rare as you might think,” said Lukas. “I've found what witches use to curse people, and the names on those things matched the names of people who died suddenly of certain illnesses. Anna said her journals spoke of that being the case, and she and Hans have seen it happen too.”

While I still found the matter hard to believe, for some reason, I wondered, at least for a few minutes – or until the buckets on the stove began steaming. The baths started shortly thereafter, and once they'd finished, the washing began.

As clothing was a time-consuming task, the food received further attention on an intermittent basis. Lukas took some of the steaks and began cutting them up, then put them in my larger pot. I wondered as to his intent.

“Soup for the morning,” he said, as he added spices. “It'll need cooking for a while before we go to bed.”

“Uh, do these people do breakfast?” I asked.

“Only if you like the same things as they commonly serve at the other two meals,” he said. “That, and they tend to serve it later rather than sooner. I'm glad we have bread in our bags.”

After checking over my things, I thought to look at the lanterns themselves. One glance told me it would be difficult indeed to duplicate them with what I possessed with tools and materials.

“What did they make this thing out of?” I muttered. “Titanium?”

The steely-gray mirror-finished metal spoke loudly of not merely that metal, but also a degree of precision that I recognized as being 'aerospace grade', and as I looked closer, I noted not merely the manner of execution – inhumanly precise welding, sinuous curves, a carefully knotted wire mesh 'mantle' – but also a faint hissing noise. I touched an obvious pump, then the control that adjusted the light intensity, and worked the latter with an eye to estimating its friction.

I fully appreciated the 'feel' of the thing when I touched it this last time, and the backlash-free smoothness reminded me of a very expensive precision measuring instrument.

“But a lantern?” I thought. “An aerospace-grade lantern? Why would they..?”

While there was no answer, the impression grew apace: where these lanterns were made, this level of workmanship was both commonplace and routine – and where I came from, it was neither of those things.

When my clothing finished rinse, I draped it on the front of a bed next to my own. That seemed the usual manner of drying in this wide 'whitewashed' room, and once I had done so, I sat again on my bed. The bestiary was handy, as were the instrument-maker's books, and I thought to read the latter. I had but barely cracked the cover of volume one when my eyes blinked shut and I fell asleep with no warning to be awoken 'seconds' later.

“Y-yes?” I asked sleepily. I put the book to the side.

My 'awakeners' were two young men that reminded me of Thomas as to age and build, if not clothing or demeanor. Their curiosity was profound – and genuine – and their clothing, ornate, frilly, and embroidered, with soft pointed shoes...

“No, not pointed black boots,” I thought, as I looked them over closer. “Shoes, velvet, lace...”

The attention then broke through my sleep-fuddled mind, and I jerked backwards. One of them was using what might have been a magnifier to examine something on my person.

“Why are you two giving me so much attention, yawn?” I asked sleepily. “That man with the red hair warrants it, not me. I work for him, and this button says so.”

“Is that what it means?” asked one of them, as the other began looking closer. Again, I noticed the magnifier, then heard my new 'examiner' speak of a 'Serpente'. He looked at the other, mouthed the word again followed by a few others – and then both of them screamed as if being lit on fire and dived for the floor.

“W-what now?” I squeaked, as my eyes shot open fully and both 'pages' wept bitterly.

“Recall what what is on that button?” asked Hendrik. “It means a lot at home, but it means more here, especially given how the brigands are said to fly a banner showing a lizard.”

“L-lizard?” I asked. I hadn't seen any banners flying among those brigands I had seen earlier.

“Your statement regarding them being witches is a well-known truth,” said Hendrik. “Brigands are one of the chief reasons this house is built as it is.”

I had been groping for one of my bath-towels while the talk had flown, and I stumbled from bed to my knees with it in hand. I went to the first page, and wiped his eyes, and as I wiped the eyes of the second, I said softly, “please, don't cry. It breaks my heart.”

The unuttered question came from the second page's mouth, and my answer lay ready at hand.

“It needed doing, and there was no one else. There, there, do not cry.”

“Who are you?” asked the other 'page'. “There is this light that surrounds you, almost as if you came from an old tale called 'Day of Infamy'.”

“It fits, also, even as to the name,” said Gabriel. Amid sleep and yawns I could hear more than a trace of oblivion.

“What?” I squeaked. “I do not understand.”

“Anna spoke of telling you a portion of that tale,” said Gabriel amid yawns. “That person had your name, he was a plague on evil, and this is one of those areas associated with him. In fact, this is where he was murdered.” Gabriel paused, then said, “the city that was once here was destroyed utterly by fire as an act of retribution, and that retribution was not done by human hands.”

Faintly the floor shook to the sound of distant thunder, then as I looked up, the sense of 'arrival' seemed to grow steadily in my mind. Faintly the wooden beams of the roof seemed limned with a faint bluish glow for what felt like seconds, then with a sudden and shuddering roar the wood vanished amid bluish-white torrents of fire. The page nearest me looked up, as did his partner, and stood shakily. He took the hand of the other, shouted with gladness – and both 'boys' jumped as hard as they could.

“H-how is this happening?” I gasped, even as I suppressed a yawn. I now noticed my growing fatigue once more, and I longed for sleep. My stark-staring eyes heard more rumblings from 'elsewhere', then with no warning whatsoever, one of the 'pages' came down, followed by the other.

I was greatly surprised at both their lack of noise and bouncing upon impact, but when they turned toward me, I wanted to put my hands in front of my eyes. Both of them had white-flaming eyes like molten iron.

“You never really had a choice,” said Gabriel's oblivious-seeming voice, “but now you know that, don't you?”

I was too tired to think, and Gabriel continued.

“You were shown something – no, many things – that are very important. Correct?”

The taller of the two – the thickness of a finger; otherwise, they seemed closely related – came closer to me, then spoke in a high-pitched echoing voice that made the room ring faintly.

“You” – here, he pointed at me – “were mentioned by name, and no, you are not a witch. You are to keep this place safe and take it where it is to go. The one who said this does not lie.”

I toppled from my seat with a crash and the floor rushed up with chilling speed to halt but inches clear of my face, and my fatigue not merely grew, but became mingled with a sense of great unease. I could not contain the whole of what I felt, and it came from my lips thusly:

“Me?” I whispered weakly. “Why would anyone want me, save to express their hatred?”

Before my eyes, the cold stone of the floor began fading, and the smells of soap, dinner, sweat, and labor became absent abruptly. I felt soft carpet-like green grass under my hands, and the smell of roses permeated where I was. I looked up slightly, such that I saw that which lay ahead of me rather than under my nose, and saw two bare feet less than a yard away.

Two bare feet with sizable wounds in each of them.

I wondered briefly as to who had been injured – I was still quite befuddled – and looked up further.

I seemed to abruptly lose sight and sanity as the vague foggy recollection strobed into the front of my mind to be erased by the actinic light of clear and unmistakable vision. What I had seen years before was dim, faint, and clouded; and now, who I saw was none of those things. The hair – medium brown, wavy, almost curly, sun-streaked – was as I recalled, as was the scrawny yet muscular build; and the injuries, as I had heard and read of them.

I was seized with fear so great that I did not at first realize he was speaking.

“Do not be afraid,” he said. “Finish the job, and you will come here and be with me. Go, and be blessed.”

The grass began fading with his pronouncement, and I abruptly blacked out to find myself again on the floor. I shook, shuddered, and squirmed with illness, and coupled with the physical ailment seemed a vastly worst spiritual one: I felt lower than a Desmond, more evil than the amalgamation of every witch that ever existed in time and space, and deranged enough to believe both situations were unadulterated fact. More, I seemed blinded in some fashion, for I was thickly shrouded in a pungent fog.

I then came to myself entirely, and I saw where I was.

The ground itself was rejecting me. It wished nothing to do with my presence, for it was shrieking like a damned-to-hell soul and going up in flames. The fog was not fog; it was smoke, and it was billowing up in thick grayish clouds that announced my burning. I felt as if sinking down, much as if I myself had written every blood-pact that had once lived in the cellar to condemn others to sink down catatonic to perdition; and I slowly began crawling toward the doorway.

If I was destined to sup with Brimstone as his chief competitor, I needed to do it alone. I did not wish the others hurt.

My moving, such as it was, seemed the passage of a glacier, and my thinking seemed cognizant of little else. Again, Desmonds seemed the only valid life-forms worthy of comparison, and my thinking reflected this:

“I make a Desmond look quick for crawling, and pure for morals.”

Flames billowed yellow and orange around me, and my vision became strange, for the whole room was billowing full of pulsating flames as the walls shuddered and thundered and smoke gouted up from everywhere I touched.

The doorway lay but feet ahead, and with each slow dragging motion as I crawled, it came closer. I touched its thick stone and pulled myself out, then crawled to the right several feet, where I collapsed. I was well beyond mere 'weakness'. Sick and shivering, the same. I thought I was about to die.

The other times I had thought thusly – there had been several time in the past – seemed to be utterly buried by this realization, as this instanced seemed indeed likely.

I had nothing left to lose, for I had lost everything, and I murmured softly without thinking the slow faint words, “take me, I'm yours.”

The passage of time had been affected in some fashion. I could not tell if it had slowed, or halted, even if I could tell it had been affected – and I lay face-down amid still-thick clouds of smoke and steam. Finally, the fumes dissipated somewhat, and with great effort, I lifted my paralyzed-seeming right hand. Below it lay a glass-smooth hollow nearly a half-inch deep. I lifted my other hand, and saw that the same thing had occurred.

“Oh, no,” I thought dimly, even as the recognition of what had happened seemed to filter into my mind. “I turned the stone into s-smoke!”

I slowly raised up on my knees, and as I saw the 'engraved' paving blocks, I noted every detail of my body and clothing preserved indelible in glass-smooth high-relief upon the stones. Beyond their basic non-sedimentary status, I knew nothing of the stone itself. It looked like marbled gray granite.

My mind was seized by what I had done, and I squeaked in terror, “what did I do?”

“Nothing, really,” said the soft voice. “You needed to know what people are like up here.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Evidence such as you just received is given for special reasons, as you know – and no, you will not be murdered, especially in that fashion. The things you have yet to do here are so huge that you cannot be told of them ahead of time.”

I was somehow not surprised to be told this, even if I was greatly surprised at what I heard next.

“Stand up, and go in. They're waiting for you.”

I staggered to my feet, and in the process, I needed to brace myself against the nearest wall with my right hand. More 'steam' billowed off upon my touch, and removing my hand showed an indelible palm-print etched deeply into the stone walls of the building.

“Oh, no,” I shrieked. “I marked up the wall.”

I backed away in horror from the still-smoking place on the wall, and blundered back indoors. My previous state of fatigue had been erased by a sensation too overwhelming to endure, or so I thought; it seemed compounded of grave illness, exceeding wear – as if I'd been walking overland around the clock from where we had originally set out – and something else too alien to initially describe.

“I feel as if I'd been gnawed at length by a monster Saint Bernard, complete with black paint, blood-bucket, and glaring red eyes,” I thought. I then found my bed and again collapsed upon it.

My chin flopped down, and there, I saw both button and pendant. Both were flashing like strobes and glowing like brilliant searchlights. I tried speech, and my mouth felt as if full of dust. I could not move further, for now, I was paralyzed by weariness. I tried to make some noise with my mouth.

All that issued forth was a soft and pain-wracked moaning noise, and someone – who, I could not tell – came with a measuring cup. The lack of odor spoke of water, and the warmth said it had been boiled.

I drank it off without thinking, then coughed before trying to talk.

“D-did I r-r-ruin things?” I asked. My voice was perilously weak. “Th-there is a hollow in the walkway outside, and I th-thought I was dying.” I paused, hacked briefly, then gasped, “is anyone hurt? I might manage to help them in a few minutes.”

One of the 'pages' went to the doorway, looked closely, then turned to his fellow, who came close. I could hear vague scraps of speech, then feel the touch of fingers to the polished surfaces – and then, with no warning, both of them ran. I could hear the lithe footsteps recede rapidly into the darkness, and that made for muttering on my part.

“Wonderful, just wonderful. I've done it now – wrecked relations with a neighboring kingdom, get sick unto death, light the place on fire, damage property, and now anger the people who live here. Could I possibly do worse?”

“Are you all right?” asked Gabriel.

“I'm not sure,” I mumbled. “I hope I didn't ruin things irreparably. That just happened, and I had no say in it.”

Hendrik went to the door, looked for a moment, then returned, saying, “you did not ruin anything. In that tale named 'Day of Infamy', there is mention of that precise thing happening, and...”

“And what?” I thought. “Did that get him killed?”

“They will not replace any of those marked stones,” said Hendrik. “Most importantly, those men that came will do our work for us, and the meeting here is likely to be very brief.”

“Brief?” I mumbled. My eyes were on the verge of closing involuntarily.

“It will not take hours, nor will we endure unhealthful food,” said Gabriel. “Here, let me fetch something for you.”

The smell of herring seemed potent in the air nearby but minutes later, and as I ate the 'fillet' with a tinned brass fork, I wondered if I was awake. I'd barely gotten the thing down, along with a cup of beer, when I blacked out in a dead faint.

While I needed my sleep badly, someone else had other ideas. Within seconds, someone was shaking me awake. I glanced down at my clothing, and dimly saw that I had been 'looked after' in some fashion. An ethereal voice then spoke.

“I think you can go now.”

“Y-yes,” I said while dreaming. “I can go visit the ether bunny.”

Someone must have overheard my talk, for a tall and chilled mug was thrust into my palsied hands. The foul reek of this potion was enough to cause nausea, and when I tried to ask what it was, I was abruptly commanded to drink. I numbly did so, and nearly spat mug and contents across the room.

“Drink, you wretch!” shouted the command. “This be an Orc-Draught, and we be...”

“Enough already,” I spluttered between swallows of the poisonous-tasting 'beverage'. “I don't care if that one sore-headed wretch sent you his-own-self.”

Threatening scimitars waved in my face, along with grunts and roars in a language that made the speech of Norden sound good, and once I'd drained off the Orc-Draught, I was dragged to my feet and half-carried out into a world that seemed to be ablaze, much as if it were a white-light-shrouded kiln stoked unto melting heat.

While the vile-tasting stuff had made for intermittent sputtering and spitting, it seemed to work, for I felt both less drained and slightly more awake. I still felt inclined to stumble and collapse upon the ground beneath my palsied legs, and only by rough gripping on both sides did I not fall face-down.

“Who are you people?” I muttered, amid long shadows and lunging shafts of dim light. There was no answer, at least until the first halt a minute later.

I then knew the effects of the Orc-Draught were more upon the minds of my keepers than upon myself, for I could barely walk, even with resting. The softness underfoot soon gave way to a harder surface, and the jagged yet regular roughness of this surface underfoot made for constant stumbling – until I came to a smoother variant of it amid light and deeply mobile shadows.

The smoothness of the surface beneath my feet spoke of other smooth surfaces, chiefly beds, and I thought myself to be walking upon a soft and delightful example. It was all I could do to not collapse and curl up with my thumb in my mouth and a blanket hiding me from my bearers, while noises to each side of loud and abrupt nature jolted me but little. A hideous creak echoed loud and long in my mind, and I glanced upward to see a doorway coming steadily forward. An instant later, and the dread gate was past.

I was now thrust into a sizable and utterly unfamiliar room amid disorientation so great I could scarce stand apart from assistance.

Strong arms held me captive to vertigo's demands, and a faint mist-shrouded scene lay before me. A long table and billowing light-blobs suggested faintly to my overloaded mind that I was in a council chamber, and the noise, bright colors, fervent designs, and rhythmic gabble of what might have been speech spoke of a capacity crowd. I suspected a meeting was in progress.

The meeting came to a screeching halt – or, perhaps, it had halted previously, and was now resuming. The gabble of voices shrilled, howled, and sputtered as it pounded louder upon me, and now and then it formed words of a sort – words at times clear and comprehensible, and more often, closer to the sound of a badly distorted electric waterfall of sound:

“I have the full story on what happened last night, and the other information... That tells me a great deal... Both what I was told, and... Seeing it myself... Still, people with gather... Look... Talk... The hollow in the stone...”

There was a great deal of such gabble, but I found it impossible to decipher its meaning among the steady and irrepressible rumble that engulfed it. The noise soon moderated to the point of near-silence, and someone put a gun to my ribs. I understood but little as to what I was to do beyond 'someone does not like me much', and the blurred aspect of the room helped but little. Echoing words seemed to slowly and faintly tumble from a point somewhere beneath the tip of my nose:

“I am... Exhausted... Have little understanding... Last night.”

The room swirled to form a maelstrom of whirling daggers, and I was dragged away from its flaming portal back into another world. This realm teamed with strange and mobile hungry floors, and their open-mouthed toothy screams made enough noise to rattle my fevered brain. I looked ahead through the mists billowing up to see an approaching waterfall.

We – those holding me, and myself – rode the bumptious rapids downhill for what seemed an eon, until we shot out from under the toothsome gate and out onto the furry pathways of the ocean. I looked around to see the sails of a vast number of ships, and their sailors were running madly to seek refuge from the coming storm. Ahead lay a haven, it having both my number and my berth, and as its yawning cavern mouth showed dark and dim against the packed and blocked snow, I stumbled...

Fell...

And knew no more.

The time of the former state was undetermined, and slowly with groping thoughts I began awakening, until my eyes fluttered open and a pleasant smell tickled my nose. I wondered where I was briefly, and sat up slowly with my head in my hands. My brain was pounding as if I were enduring a hangover, and I looked around the empty room as faint greenish shadows flitted about for a second to then vanish. I then heard the noise coming from without the darkened room.

“Why does it sound like there's a carnival outside?” I thought slowly, as I looked for my stockings and boots.

I found them, and then learned something I had never noticed before: my boots were definitely 'right' and 'left'. I had never noticed that portion before – I'd assumed they were symmetrical, just like boots were of old, supposedly – but as I struggled to put them on, I nearly toppled onto the floor. I was glad for their support when I stood.

Just the same, I nearly kissed the floor before I swayed in the direction of the privy.

I'd added to the stink of the place markedly before leaving it minutes later and as I wobbled back toward the door leading to the outside of the room – I now recognized where I was, even if the details were fuzzy to an astonishing degree – I noted a number of odors. One of them was that sour acid reek I had noticed the night before, only it seemed strongly tainted with the fermented kerosene stink of wine. Another was that of drying clothing, and the third, the savory aroma of grilling meat. It was obvious that the last scent had awoken me, and I murmured softly, “it never fails. Good food tends to wake me up every time.”

I then spied the source of the wine-tainted odor, and as I stumbled toward the place on the table where the mug stood proud of its accomplishments, I recalled a horrible nightmare, one in which I was sleepwalking and conversing with dignitaries in the company of a huge white rabbit – a rabbit that wore an ornate copper name-tag spelling out its official title.

“Can I travel tonight?” I thought. “I want out of this dread zone, out of this brigand-world, and into...”

The grilled meat odor provided a potent incentive to explore what lay without the room, and I turned toward the door while my hands groped toward my chest. I wanted to ensure the pendant was hidden, and once I had tucked it inside my shirt, my mouth completed the previous thought unbidden. My mind – what there was of it – was in my stomach:

“And into a less dangerous place, and that while it is dark.”

As I came closer to the door, I noted a small group of people forming a line. I wondered why they were present until I came within a few steps of the door while attempting to hide in the shadows.

“Why is s-someone tracing those hollows?” I thought, as I took another silent step.

All attention seemed rapt upon that portion of the landscape. I took a silent deep breath, eased to the left margin of the doorway, and walked softly out the door.

The line proved longer than I first thought, for it took several seconds to reach its end. The glaring sun coming down seemed to wash out the colors of the tent city that had sprung up in the field, and as I passed the end of the line, I noted the carnival sound once more...

“This is a carnival,” I thought. “Lots of people, tons of tents, cooking meat...”

A shout from behind interrupted my thoughts, then hot on its heels I heard the thunder of the stampede as the line changed into...

I turned to see the last people in line turning slowly while those at the former front of the line had both hands raised and mouths open in full 'howl'. An earth-shaking rumbling noise was vibrating my mind, and I turned and began running in slow motion as the mob forming behind me gathered its numbers and fervor – and I ran from a big mess and into a much larger one.

Ahead lay an aisle thickly clotted with humanity, with perhaps ten feet between one row of tents and another. I dodged one clump of lethargic-seeming people dressed in rainbow-bright colors and nearly ran into another, then leaped around them to find all of twenty feet and two tents clear of people.

I used up the space in what seemed an eyeblink and nearly ran into a solid wall of people dressed as if they were a portion of the duke Prospero's revelers, then saw a gap between two tents to my right. I leaped into it headfirst and arrested my flight using my hands, then pushed away such that my feet went sprawling skywards to land upon them standing in the next aisle over.

It too was crowded with people, all of them moving slow as molasses and dressed fit to kill. I leaped and dodged my way around them for a few feet, then saw another gap between two tents. This gap had a goodly number of mounded 'carpet-bags', and I dove headfirst into them, then wiggled to my right. A soft gray 'wall' was there, and a brief touch of my hand spoke of fabric. I lifted up, and began squirming my way into the tent amid the sounds of conversation. Only when I had gotten entirely inside did I realize who I was hearing.

“Hide me, please,” I squeaked, while hoping Sepp would hear me. “Those people are after me.”

Wordlessly Sepp looked down, shrugged his shoulders, and picked up another mound of rugs as the proprietor came from behind his table, then without further ado, he dumped the mound of rugs atop me. More rugs came down while I heard the thundering steps of what sounded like a huge mob come at a dead run through that portion of the tent city.

A frantic-sounding voice howled mournfully, and through a pinhole in the tent cloth, I saw an ornate-looking soft brown boot but feet away. It seemed to belong to one of the mob, and when I heard excited speech coming from its owner, I shuddered again.

“Do they know where I am?” I thought. There was no answer.

Another voice answered the first, and its owner – higher-pitched, feminine-sounding, and fiercer yet – spoke in a voice I had trouble following. She seemed to be screaming about someone described best as either 'an exalted monk' or 'an insane ape' – and beyond that, her speech was a mystery.

I kept silent until the sounds of shouting and the thunder of footprints faded, and then I spoke:

“Anna spoke of mobs, and 'a bit much' isn't half of it.”

“He does not look like a thief,” said the proprietor. His accent named him a local. “Do you know who he is?”

“I do,” said Sepp, “and he is no thief. I am not sure what he is, but he is strange enough, and enough strange things have happened since we left home.”

“What manner of strange things?” asked the proprietor.

“I think that mob has to do with the latest of them,” said Sepp. “He made stone go to smoke, and got hot enough to make one of those lamps they like here seem dim.”

“That sounds like an old tale,” said the proprietor.

“He looks and acts like one,” said Sepp. I shuddered soundlessly.

“Of which tale do you speak?”

“Find some dealing with marked people,” said Sepp, “combine them, and you will get an idea.”

The thundering herd was returning, and if I went by the chaotic-sounding roaring rumble, it had grown mightily in size. Amid the thunder, I could hear screaming coming from seeming everywhere. I could hear strident voices howling the word 'retribution', then the phrase 'let all witches sup with Brimstone' a second or so later.

“Now I doubt him to be a witch,” said the proprietor. His voice indicated a measure of consternation and interest I found troubling. “I've been near witches before...”

“He's had enough witches try for him,” said Sepp. “Now what were those people like?”

“I have trouble speaking of them,” said the proprietor, “as how I felt was too strange for words. Someone told me I had been ridden, but I doubt that to be the case, as I could still think some. Supposedly, one can only do as one is told then, and thinking cannot be done.”

“It is like that,” said Sepp. “What are they yelling now?”

“I am not sure,” said the proprietor. “What I heard a moment ago reminded me especially of one tale that is told commonly in this area, one called 'Day of Infamy'. They give it much meaning here.”

“Oh no,” I murmured. I hoped the rugs hid my voice passably.

“Gabriel spoke of that one,” said Sepp. “It speaks of strange things.”

“M-mobs?” I squeaked.

“At first, no,” said the proprietor. “Once that ruler's city was destroyed by fire, though, they would form whenever evil was discovered, and those in them would scream that man's name while burning everything and everyone suspected of doing evil. If one did not live right in those days, and do so without cease or stint, one died as a witch, and that man's death had much to do with it.” A brief pause, then “he helped enough people before he was murdered, supposedly.”

The shuddering was too much to hide, and Karl's voice came in the doorway, followed by his heavy-sounding thudding steps.

“What gives with those rugs shaking like that?” he asked. “I came in here to get away from that mob.”

Again, I shuddered. It was beyond my control, as was my mouth, and I softly moaned.

A brief silence, then “they went back to the front of that room, only now that line is a good hundred paces for long and half that for wide.” Another brief pause, then “they are crazy for it. Did they find a witch?”

“N-no, please, don't...” I moaned.

“They're after him,” said Sepp. “He's hiding in here.”

“Is it true,” asked the proprietor, “that those people think the true day of infamy is coming, when all shall choose and reap their just deserts as was written in the last writing?”

“What is this last writing?” asked Karl. “There is much of that tale that I could never understand.”

“That wretch called it lies before he had that man murdered,” said the proprietor, “and it vanished. It was said to speak of the future.”

“The fires?” asked Karl. “That was the hardest part.”

“Fires?” I gasped.

“First the fire of cleansing,” said the proprietor, “and then that of judgment.” His knowing tone was especially troubling to hear.

Beneath me, I felt a faint tremor that slowly grew in intensity amid the chaotic sounds that raged about us. I strained to hear it better, and with each such effort, the sound grew both louder and more distinct.

“Karl,” I asked. “Do you wish to learn what that fire is like?”

“Why do you ask? Do you think I could jump into such a cloud if it showed?”

His questioning made for wondering on my part, chiefly as to what I had heard. Where I came from, those behind the pulpit made out all in life to be the result of willful choice, and I knew that wasn't true. This melded with what Anna had once said about choice – and my reply – and what came from my mouth seconds later seemed to have nothing to bear upon the matter.

“If you think that cloud reserved for those like me,” I spluttered, “you have much to learn. I do not feel special in the slightest...”

The cloud was coming. It had heard me speaking, and I shuddered involuntarily.

“And more, really inept. All of this attention bothers me more than words can speak, and I'm not worth a fraction of it. Now if I feel that way, how come you're so special?”

“I guess not, then,” said Karl with a voice of finality. “If it shows, I will jump.”

The cloud was coming rapidly, and the ground began vibrating. I could almost hear the chants of witchdom being ripped apart and scattered as the cloud came closer both spatially and in other ways.

“Really?” I said. “It's coming, and it's not...

The vibration became so great I was having trouble staying put on the ground.

“Wasting...”

The very air seemed liquid and frantic with energy about me. I wanted to scream.

“Time... Time... Time...”

My voice echoed for an instant and was swallowed up by the thundering roar of arrival amid shrill screams and the sounds of running feet. The tent seemed to 'explode' with power, and the 'pressure' coming down from above made me glad for my hiding place.

“I do not believe this,” muttered Karl. “Are you coming? I am jumping.”

The ground shook once to the sound of a muffled 'Whoom', then repeated. I remained hidden, even as the noises without the tent seemed to continue endlessly. Time seemed to drag like a rusted anchor hanging up on the bottom of a weed-filled lake.

I could feel the sun hovering slow above the eastern horizon. It was late afternoon – much later than I thought it was. Dark would happen in a few hours.

My stomach growled like a rabid dog. I needed to 'get some food'.

Footsteps were coming closer to the tent amid the swirl and howl of the tent city.

As I listened to these familiar steps – I knew at least one of the people making them – a muffled thud hit the ground but feet away from where I lay, then another. The tent seemed electrified in some strange fashion, and the resulting comments confirmed matters.

“You two look strange,” said the proprietor. “Your eyes seem to glow.”

“Th-they do?” asked Karl's voice. He sounded as if he'd been frightened out of his mind – which would have been a first for him. “That place smells good.”

“P-place?” I asked.

“Yes, a garden,” said Karl. “Someone is coming, and we'd best be getting ready to go.”

“Why?” asked Sepp. “Those thugs on the road?”

“Them especially,” said Karl. “I hope Gilbertus or Lukas is up to fetching some decent food.”

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“I ate already,” said Karl. “You need to eat. I can hear something growling like an angry long-haired cat.”

“Was this a common-sized long-haired cat?” asked Gabriel, as he ducked into the tent.

“No, I think it was one of those larger ones,” said Karl. “Why?”

“Good, I asked Lukas to fetch three skewers of meat without worms,” said Gabriel. “Now where is he?”

“He?” I asked.

“Under those rugs,” said Sepp. “I'm glad I still have bagged bread.”

“You'd best eat it quick, if it is from the north,” said the proprietor. “That stuff gets white-thread quickly if you take it here.”

I began to slowly worm my way out from under the rugs and cloths, and as I made feeble progress – there had to be a foot or more of them on top of me – I heard more speech of undecipherable nature, then Gabriel's voice.

“That mob should clear out quick enough,” he said. “I suspect I know why it formed, also.”

“That place near our door,” muttered Sepp. “They think it is out of that one tale.”

“Were matters otherwise, I would call people here unduly superstitious,” said Gabriel, “but that tale did take place here, and the tapestries confirm much of what it speaks of.” A brief pause, then, “it is very hard to argue with that kind of a marking.”

Again, I tried to get out from under the rugs and cloths, and a thundering rumble passed by at a quick-march. I stopped moving in fear of a reformed mob.

“That marking seems indelible,” I murmured. I could barely speak, and was becoming weak from hunger.

“It is more than its written-in-stone portion,” said Gabriel. “It also shows the signs spoken of in both tale and tapestries.”

“Signs?” I gasped.

“The left hand shows an injury that yours does not have, as well as scars,” said Gabriel, “and the shape of those scars...”

“Do they form a whip?” asked the proprietor.

“They do,” said Gabriel, “and no ordinary whip, but the type spoken of, with four unequal branches knotted with bronze pieces.”

“Th-the symbol of retribution,” muttered the proprietor.

“Yes,” said Gabriel. “Both tale and tapestries speak of it. Then, there is where the ring was cut off.”

“What?” I gasped.

“The last joint of the ring finger is gone,” said Gabriel. “That fiend cut it off himself for the ring that was on it, and that is spoken of as a sign and indicator of that last message coming to pass. Then, there was a marking upon the head.”

“Head?” asked Sepp.

“It shows disfigurement,” said Gabriel. “That ruler was a witch, and sought to open that man's head to the word of Brimstone by cutting his ear.”

“Which ear?” I asked.

“Neither account speaks of a preferred ear,” said Gabriel, “but if I were to guess, I would think the right one to be more likely than the left. Witches prefer to mutilate their prey a certain way, such that the pain is worst, and it is known that to ruin the left hand hurts more than the right.”

“Th-the l-left hand...” I muttered. I nearly added “of darkness.”

“That is the hand that feeds Brimstone,” said Gabriel. “It is usually called 'the hand of darkness' on the tapestries.”

“So he tried to put Brimstone's will in his hands?” I asked.

“I suspect so...” Gabriel spluttered, then shouted, “what did you say?”

“I think he answered something important,” said Karl. “That crowd is going back to their rooms, so we can move soon.” I began to feel movement above me, then the rugs and cloths began to be lifted off of my back and legs. I squirmed slightly, and then the rugs and cloths came up quicker.

A trace of wood-smoke blossomed from nearby, followed by two more as the last of the rugs came up, and when I turned to crawl out of the enclosed space, I looked at my left hand. Faintly I saw bluish-white outlines on the back that traced out the markings that I had forgotten about since I had come here.

“What did this whip look like?” I asked, once I had gotten into the crowded portion of the tent.

“The descriptions of such whips are somewhat cryptic,” said Gabriel. “Beyond what I spoke, the handle was braided of the four pieces to make it thicker, and the bronze pieces were square, with sharp points.” Gabriel paused, then said, “the tapestries show them being used to lash witches.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “Th-those s-sound like f-f...”

“The whips were not named,” said Gabriel. “Their actions were described in detail.”

“They r-ripped people up with f-f...”

Gabriel looked at me, then slowly nodded before speaking further.

“It was commonplace to flay evildoers in public,” he said, “and the sole limit upon the number of lashes was the duration of sunlight and the beater's strength and stamina.”

“F-forty minus one...”

“No,” said Gabriel. “Sunrise to sunset, and the beater to lay them on with a will.” A brief pause, then, “and otherwise, the beater was to receive the balance of the lashes.”

“Flayed?” I gasped.

“The sign of a true beater was the capacity for full-strength two-handed lashes from dawn to dusk,” said Gabriel, “and the result of a good beating was a well-gnawed skeleton with but few shreds of meat remaining. There were many such endings described in the tapestries.”

I smelled more wood-smoke, and heard the quieting of the tent city. Soft speech drifted up and down the near-deserted aisles, and when Sepp went out into the aisle fronting our tent, he said, “this place is nearly empty now.”

“Where is the sun?” asked Gabriel.

“We might have two hours,” said Sepp. “It will take us an hour or so to finish packing, and we want to leave before they blow dinner.”

“Blow dinner?” I asked.

“I think we can go shortly,” said Gabriel. “He and his people need to eat.”

“Aye,” said the proprietor. “Lucila” – pronounced 'loo-cheel-ah' – “is wanting the fire-pot stoked, and I need to get at the wood.”

The close and clinging scent of grilled meat seemed a fitting accompaniment to our leaving the tent, and when we began walking back toward our room up the nearest aisle, I noted numbers of small cast-iron 'braziers' smoking under sizable loads of meat. Some of these waist-high firepots had their tops off, with flames and smoke billowing up as their firewood burned to coals.

“How do those things work?” I asked. Our room was still a good hundred feet away.

“Those things?” asked Sepp. “I never saw them before.”

“My uncle spoke of them,” said Karl. “I think those are the bigger ones, as he said there were ones that might come up to one's knee.”

“Those are common in the fifth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “Now I hope you can eat enough before we go.”

“How long did I sleep?” I asked.

“Most of the day,” said Gabriel. “Give how tired you were after all that happened, I am not surprised.”

I paused at the threshold of our room to glance briefly to the left at the impression I had left in the pavement. A brief glance wasn't enough to dispel the shuddering that ensued, for the palm of the hand showed familiar-looking scars, and the shortened ring finger was an added shock. The impression of the head, however, showed the right side, complete with long and lurid scars and a severely mangled ear.

I did not remain overlong, however, for packing had resumed in earnest within our room. The two lights were out, thankfully, and as I came to my bed, I noted 'my' clothing and other things had been neatly arranged in mounds. I began packing my tub, and as I put inside the leather tool pouches, I heard steps coming from behind. I turned to see Hendrik.

“Are you up to another trip like that one here?” he asked.

“I should manage,” I said softly. “That mark outside scares me.”

“Then that might provide an explanation,” he said. “Someone put into my mind the idea that it is wisest to travel at night in this dreadful region.”

“Dreadful?” I asked. Again, I recalled the phrase 'dread zone'.

“Someone named it a dread zone,” said Hendrik, “and given the talk of brigands I heard today, it seems aptly named. They've loaded the wall-cannons with bagged musket balls and full charges, and the lanyards...”

“They're using friction igniters?” gasped Gabriel. “I had no idea...”

“Port-fires are too slow when you expect an attack at any moment,” said Hendrik, “and someone must have gotten ideas from around home, as those I saw were waxed.”

“Was food s-stowed?” I asked, as my stomach growled again.

The silence that descended was pierced only by my stomach's noises. No one had thought ahead...

“This place's food doesn't stow,” muttered Gilbertus. “You cook it and eat it as soon as you can, or you wish you had. Not even the fourth kingdom has food go bad as fast as it does around here.” A brief pause, then, “I got three big skewers, and I made certain they left off the Krokus and the worms.”

I then noticed the smell of grilled meat, and I sat down numbly as I was handed an arm-long 'skewer' laden end-to-end with sizable chunks of still-warm meat.

“They like to wrap those things in worms,” said Gilbertus as I began chewing on the tender meat, “and that's when they don't put them in the soup.”

“W-worms?” I gasped between bites. “I-I've had n-nightmares with bugs in them...”

“They make those things so's they're like these bad things called Nudeln,” said Lukas, “and while I've never had Nudeln, I have had boiled worms before. Boiling tends to make them easier to eat.”

“Worms?” I nearly gagged.

“They call them that,” said Lukas. “If they wrap skewers with them, they look like worms from up around home, and then they're bad for corking and wind.”

“They're bad for corking no matter what,” said Gilbertus.

“Then why do they eat them here?” asked Karl.

“I think it's because of their beer,” said Lukas. “It might not look like uncorking medicine, nor taste like it, but more often than not, it acts like that stuff.”

Packing continued while I ate, and once I'd downed all three skewers – I was astonished at my hunger, and more at my ability to contain the food – I thought to finish up with some bread. I looked in my possible bag, found the bag I'd put bread in – and removed a shrunken brown 'brick' marbled with what looked like coarse bleached-white thread.

“That piece is bad,” said Gilbertus. “I've yet to find any bread we've brought that hasn't either had drubs or white-thread in it.”

The bread went in an old bucket to join a surprising number of similar chunks, and I returned to my packing after washing hands and face. As I finished up with 'my' packing, a familiar acidic reek twisted my nose, and I turned to search out the source. I then saw the mug that had contained the 'Orc-Draught'.

“I was given something this morning,” I mumbled, “and I, uh... What was it?”

“Fermented wine seems to wake you up,” said Gabriel, “and after checking all of what they brought, it was either their wine, or nothing whatsoever. Hence it was used.”

“Th-their wine?”

“What they brought in,” said Gabriel. “They might brew beer of a wretched species here, and import worse-yet wine, but that's all that is thought safe to consume. No one in the house drinks the water, even if it is boiled.”

“But..?”

“No one,” said Gabriel. “It is thought to be tainted with the leavings of mules, and based on the smell of my bath last night, I wonder little as to their beliefs.”

I then realized fully what had happened, and gasped before screeching.

“You dosed me with fermented kerosene?”

“It could not be helped,” said Gabriel. “It seemed to work.” He paused, then said, “at least the fourth kingdom has decent beer and good wine, and I hope we are there tomorrow.”