The road more traveled, part w.


The waiter's return some twenty minutes later with the first of our dishes surprised me, both at the quick service and also the nature of the food itself. This last was ample as to quantity, plain as to palate, and overall, quite edible. After half of a bowl of soup, I asked as to the nature of the meat.

“It's decent,” said Lukas, “so my guess is the fourth kingdom's meat.”

“We are still far enough north to have the better supplies,” said Gabriel, “and we are on a main road. Those tend to have better food.”

What?” I thought. “All of those stinky squabs and pigs in the second kingdom?”

Lukas looked at me, then said, “when I went down this way, I got food in the fourth kingdom for the trip so's to have it handy.”

“And the mining towns?” I asked.

“Dried goat, dried fish, dried vegetables, bad water, and not much more, unless you are talking about yellow-fruits,” said Lukas.

As I resumed eating, however, I had a distinct impression, and when I finished my soup-bowl, I began putting the bread I had in my bread-bag.

“Why so fast?” asked Karl.

I was about to speak when a fresh spate of gunfire erupted in the distance, and Gabriel pointed to the door with his knife.

“That building to the north and across the road,” he said. “Staying here isn't a good idea right now.”

Over the next few minutes, my example was followed, and when we left, I noticed a faint aroma of distillate overwhelmed by the scent of 'burning', and when I looked to the north, I saw a small red-tinted flame capped by growing clouds of soot.

“There's more,” I thought, as I gathered the blanket. “I can tell there's more...”

A rattling clangor suddenly segued into a pounding racket:

“PANK-pah-PANK-pah-PANK...”

Mingled with this hideous clangor were periodic 'runs' going up and down the keyboard of a piano, and somewhere else in the 'mess' was a badly blown horn. The whole seemed slow, revolting, and other words I could not comprehend – until someone began singing, and a drunken off-key chorus joined in.

“T-twelve time Valley music,” said Gabriel, as the pounding 'blues' beat redoubled in ferocity. It now sounded as if the piano player was striking his keys with a large rawhide mallet.

“We'd best go, then,” said Lukas.

I was inclined to agree, and led off but a moment later. The twelve-time 'number' continued with its pounding beat and sloppy horn playing, even as the small fire grew steadily larger.

“That fire is...” I spluttered.

“About the usual for a carouse down this way,” said Lukas. “I'll like it better when we're further away, especially given what they're likely to have for lanterns.”

“W-wick lanterns?” I gasped.

“Those are the usual, though some use Infernal lanterns down this way,” said Lukas. “The only people who use candles in the fifth kingdom are those who don't like fires.”

I was about to comment when a massive eruption turned the afternoon sky flaming red behind us, and I turned as the sound of the explosion blew clouds of dust in our wake. Sticks, bits of trash, and what might have charred body parts slowly drifted down from 'ground zero', which was now a shallow scorched and blackened crater. The salon was utterly and completely gone.

“What was that?” I gasped, as I turned back toward the front.

“I'd say it was lighter distillate,” said Lukas, “and that means a lamp like that one we got in the second kingdom house.”

“That pressure lantern?” I asked.

“Aye, one of them,” said Lukas. A brief pause, then, “speaking of distillate, that horned dragoon was said to drink that stuff, and the same for some chickens.”

“Those would be the black ones,” said Gabriel. “I am glad none of those have shown.”

With each mile of southbound travel, the aspect of dryness seemed to steadily grow. This area was indeed a desert, with the only greenery showing within spitting distance of the many watering troughs. Every few stops, more cryptic-looking road signs would show names, distances, and bearings, and side-trails were especially numerous. At one such stop, I thought to investigate one of the trails after looking over the buggies and horses.

The narrowness and rutted nature of the trail was something of a marvel, and when I found a slight depression full of blistered white faintly malodorous 'soap-suds', I wondered what I had found. There was little to provide further interest, so upon my return, I splashed another cupful of water on my head and three more on Jaak.

“What was that you found?” asked Gabriel.

“This, uh, soapy place...”

“That's lye-water,” said Gilbertus.

“Could we do clothing with it?” I asked.

“Only if you want your clothing ruined,” said Gilbertus. “It may be called lye-water, but that stuff is no lye I have ever seen.”

About sunset, I saw a small group of shaggy-haired creatures sheltering in the lee of a stunted copse, and I asked as to what they were.

“Those are valley goats,” said Gabriel, “and they cannot be made edible.”

The tone of absolute surety I heard was astonishing, so much so that at the next stop for water, I not only hung out the smaller lanterns, but also asked both of the older men.

“He's right about those things,” said Lukas. “About the only way to make a mature valley goat edible is to catch it alive and feed it on decent forage for a few months till the poison's gone with its dung.”

We stopped next to a watering trough about two hours after sunset, and as the tents went up, I checked the water pump. Thankfully, this instance held its prime fairly well, and after the trough filled, I wondered as to a source of fuel for bathing and cooking.

“We might cut some brush for a campfire,” said Lukas. “I found what looks like a small firepit here.”

I soon learned that 'cutting brush' wanted a common-sized knife or a larger-yet dagger, and I was wondering if I could borrow one; I was loathe to use that 'evidence' dagger in that fashion. I soon found myself tending the heating lamp while Lukas reworked the firepit into something closer to a small 'oven'.

“If you-all find rocks, bring those in too,” he said to the wandering brush-gatherers, as he laid several more rocks into the existing low wall of stones surrounding the blackened dirt of the 'pit'.

“We need to boil the water before bathing?” I asked.

“Out here, it might be best,” said Lukas. “Bathing is going to take a while, I suspect. Brush isn't the best fuel, at least at first.”

“What is this about brush?” asked Karl, as he brought in an armload of cut gray-green 'sagebrush'.

“That stuff there burns slow and smoky until it makes coals,” said Lukas. “Once it does that, though, it makes for easy cooking.”

“How?” asked Karl.

“The coals last for hours,” said Lukas, “and they make decent heat. That's a good thing out here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Does it cool off?”

“It should, at least this time of year,” said Lukas.

The brushwood fire needed a small portion of rag dampened with distillate to commence burning, which it did with thick greasy billows of smoke amid feeble yellowish flames. The gray plume of smoke seemed to speak of our consignment to the realm of Brimstone, and the flames themselves were muted with the steady additions of more 'sagebrush'.

“At least the bugs won't be as bad,” said Lukas.

“The smoke?” I asked, as I looked for a place to 'hang' my boots.

“They don't much care for it,” said Lukas, “and...”

“Not only the bugs,” muttered Gabriel, as he brought in another armload of brush. “I hope that suffices.”

“Aye, it does,” said Lukas. “Now we should manage the pots presently.”

'Presently' was but ten minutes later. The smoke died down precipitously at that time, and when I brought a pot filled with water, the reddish glare of obvious coals in the oven spoke of heat not much less than a forge. The water began steaming within minutes.

I then noticed the beginnings of a chill in the air, and when I bathed, the chill without made the warmth of the water a gladdening thing. The grass below the tub absorbed the water as if it were dying of thirst, and with subsequent bathings, the 'dampened' section spread wider.

It also added to the cooling of the evening, and the warmth of soup and camp-bread helped greatly. I was feeling sufficiently weary to not wish to work on squibs, and as I looked matters over prior to bedtime, I wondered if I would need to have all of them finished.

Within seconds, I knew better: I spent an hour grinding more powder and filling squibs prior to taking my bed on one of the cots, and in the morning, I ground more powder while on my watch-stint. We left the campsite at dawn.

About midmorning – towns of any size were truly scarce in this region – we came to a peculiar sign next to a watering trough. Between stints on the pump-handle – the pump lost prime within a minute of my turning loose – I looked around the surrounding area, and upon finishing the pumping, I looked at the sign itself.

While I could read the sign adequately, there were two disquieting aspects. The first was a knife-cut rune replacing what looked to be an 's' on the second line, and on the line below that, the word 'Pozolæ' stood by itself.

“What is Pozolæ?” I asked, as I pointed to the sign. I was surprised I could speak the word, which came out 'Po-sole-ee'.

“That's decent, if it's made right,” said Lukas. “If it's not, though... It's awful.”

'Pressing on' under a blazing sun was enough to curdle one's brains, or so I thought as we continued from watering trough to watering trough. At one such stop, I wondered briefly why the road seemed so 'deserted', and I looked northward to see what looked like a 'train' of wagons leaving slow-settling clouds of dust in their wakes. They were easily several miles behind us.

About 'noon' – the sun was directly above our heads – I felt the presence of the town mentioned on the sign we had last seen. Somehow, 'Nakhodoches' didn't seem its proper name, and as we came to the outskirts of the place, I sensed something 'electrifying' in the immediate area – and within seconds, I heard gunshots, shouts, demented screams, and the braying of an irritated mule.

“What now?” I thought.

As if to answer, a billow of dust came from the right between two 'hovels', then the brays of the mule in question increased in frequency and volume. Another gunshot, then two more, and someone rode out on the fractious beast with a bundle dragging on the ground in its wake.

The mule trotted between its frequent attempts to buck its rider off, and as the mule passed dwelling after dwelling, a slow-seething crowd formed in its wake.

“Uh, we'd best stay well clear of this,” I muttered.

More demented screams came from an area just ahead of the mule and its burden, and three rag-muffled 'beings' came out of one of the mud-brick dwellings. They seemed to hang on the 'promise' of seeing the mule, or so I thought until the mule's burden passed them. They then screamed louder, and threw rocks as if crazed.

They also hit the mule's burden, and it twitched frantically as it tumbled and rolled in the dirt.

The mule came to the juncture of our current road and its present track, and it turned onto the road with a sudden bound that nearly tossed the rider to the left when it landed. He managed to remain seated, however, even if his burden was jerked and slid to nearly the opposite side of the road's margin before it resumed its semi-orderly rope-bound tumbling progress behind the mule.

On the town's main street, the mule and its burden were greeted by more guns firing thick and smoky loads into the air, and the street was overlaid with the sooty clouds that congregated at the guns' urging. I led forward at a cautious walk, keeping the mule and its burden well away to the front, and as the crowd following mule and burden segued into a near-run to each side of us, I again wondered what was happening.

I noticed the stink of the mule first, then as the crowd continued to grow in size, I heard some of the screamed oaths directed toward the burden of the mule.

“Is this a..?” I whispered. There was no answer, even as the mule reared up in front of a weathered building but partly streaked with old and flaking paint. I began moving towards the right side of the street so as to avoid the trouble on the other side, but as I came closer, further details began showing.

A thin and bedraggled man struggled with thick bristling hairy rope as he fashioned it into a noose, while behind him stood a thick wooden post with a pulley near its top. The pole looked to come from the foundation of a livery stable, and as I came even with the pole, someone shinnied up the post with a thin cord in his teeth. He slipped back nearly as much as he made forward progress, but he finally did reach the pulley.

There, he spat his thin cord into one hand and jammed it into the open sheave of the pulley, and with the end in his hand, he slid slow and silent down the pole. The free end of the hairy rope went to this thin line, and with brisk tugs, the heavy rope went aloft. It threaded through the pulley, and when it came level with the hungry-seeming noose, both free end and noose were about mid-chest to the first man.

The thrashing 'burden' was carried still-bound to the base of the post, where two more men in addition to the four bearers began to belabor the burden with short wooden clubs between attempts remove the rope and rags trussing the now-obvious 'malefactor'. The crowd was filling the street, such that further movement on our part – ahead, to the side, backwards – was impossible, and the malefactor, hidden utterly.

With a sudden shout and a creak from the pulley, a trussed and bound man was hoisted aloft to dangle from the noose, and as he thrashed, the crowd screamed and jeered. Rocks began flying in the general direction of the hanged, and...

There was an odor of first urine, then of dung, and the dirty trousers of the now blue-faced man became damp. His eyes bulged redly as his efforts to squirm out of the lashings became progressively feebler, until finally, his face grew dark and purplish and his movements ceased. The crowd slowly began thinning.

The crowd's aura of having been 'fed' was such that I nearly gagged, and once we resumed forward movement, I again wondered what had happened, at least until I came even with the slow-twisting body of the hanged. I then saw the bullet wounds.

“W-what did he do?” I gasped.

“That witch got his just deserts,” said Gabriel. “This town at least has some hope.”

“W-witch?” I asked. “How?”

“He's dead and in hell, and that suffices,” said Gabriel. “His corpse shall remind others of the wages of sin.”

“Is it, uh, labeled?” I asked.

“Hanging like that needs no such labels,” said Gabriel, “even if it is but a pale shadow of what being hung out to dry meant in the past.”

“Aye, and he had his smelly hide aired out proper,” said Lukas. “He'll cause no more trouble here.”

I remained outside at the town's Public House while the 'usual' people went inside for beer and bread, for I was unnerved by the sight of someone being lynched and our group's attitude toward the lynching.

“Why did everyone seem so 'satisfied' by that wretch's death?” I thought, as I examined the shoes of one of the buggy horses. “Not a shred of proof, not even knowing his crime...”

I was interrupted by Sepp's voice as he came with two filled jugs of beer.

“They won't miss that thief much,” he said.

“That person we passed..?” I asked.

Sepp nodded, then said, “and he was caught with the coins in hand, too.”

“What would happen at home?” I asked.

“Most likely the same thing,” said Sepp.

“That would depend on who caught him,” said Gabriel. “Were he caught by common citizens, he would receive similar treatment.”

“And if not?” asked Sepp. He'd put away the second jug after sampling it with his cup.

“That would depend on who caught him,” said Gabriel. It took seconds to realize the repetition. “I suspect such matters will go much further in the near future.”

As we went out of the town, I thought to ask about its name, until I came to what looked to be a graveyard. The piled stone cairns stood forlorn in semi-orderly rows, save for several irregular weaving rows of weathered wooden poles somewhat off to the north side. I focused on those, and as I looked, I saw all of them to have the same carved marking.

“What does that mean?” I wondered, as I began counting the poles. “I think those marks on them are runes.”

While my question was unspoken, Kees asked the same question audibly.

“The worst thugs down this way have their own graveyards,” said Lukas, “and they don't need much of an excuse to kill.”

“P-private graveyard?” I gasped.

“That would be the usual naming for this area,” said Gabriel. “I recall that much, if but little more.”

My question remained unanswered, even as we left the town and its lynch-mob fervor behind. The desolate aspect of the country we now found ourselves in was only exceeded by the glare of the overhead sun, and at every watering trough, the chief 'need' was rehydration of men and horses.

Our going seemed to drag on interminably, and for once, my appetite was more or less gone for things other than liquids. I had a great thirst, one that seemed difficult to satisfy, and at each stop, the jugs were passed around. There, I learned my thirst was not the only one that was substantial.

The mountains to the east which we had seen the day before far in the distance were now much closer, and those to our west were roughly the same distance. It was hard to tell precisely, for some reason; I wondered if mirages were common in the area, and heat-waves seemed to billow and loom crazily when and where I looked – when I did not look at our road.

The copses I had seen yesterday were even less frequent today, and while 'valley' goats were quite rare, they tended to show in small groups when I saw them. The vegetation seemed half-buried beneath a thick coating of whitish-gray dust, and once when I looked to the north at a watering stop, I saw our trail faintly billowing soft white dust-clouds that slowly traveled toward the east.

The only sounds I heard were those made by our group as we traveled south, and when we stopped, those faint noises were commonly replaced by the sounds of malfunctioning pumps. More often than not, I needed to remain close to the pump to address 'loss-of-prime' incidents. It made each such stop longer by several minutes.

With the passing of 'noon' and those few shadows I saw growing steadily longer and more purplish, the beginnings of the east-mountains began to resolve themselves into rolling foothills. Ahead lay the road, and its slow but steady upgrade led through an obvious pass. What lay on the other side, however, was hidden from me, and that mystery did not sit at all well in my inwards. Nonetheless, a cool darkened 'lair' seemed attractive enough to want to 'hide' for a few short hours.

About midafternoon, another 'road sign' showed at a watering stop. I was too fatigued to assay deciphering it, and when I looked to the north, I again saw the long-drifting dust-clouds of the wagons to our rear. They seemed further away than the day before, so much so that I wondered about a telescope, and upon resuming travel south, I asked about the matter.

“There were two of those in the second kingdom house,” said Gabriel, “and their owners guarded them jealously.”

“When and where?” I asked.

“I saw them in the refectory,” said Gabriel. “They must have hidden them well while in the council chamber.”

Another hour, two more stops, wiping the salt-stinging sweat from dust-reddened eyes, splashing water on men and horses when and where possible, and I could feel a town ahead. It might have been but a few miles ahead, possibly, but the heat had drained us, such that one foot in front of the other while in a state of heat-induced mental fatigue was of the utmost difficulty for all in the party.

My own exhaustion was calling for a long cool bath in a horse-trough, and when we came to another of those stopping places, I splashed water on myself and Jaak when I wasn't coaxing the pump to produce water. After some ten cups of water on me, and three cups of beer in me, I spat a nasty-looking gray-tinged blob on the ground.

“This is almost as bad as when I went into the Swartsburg,” I muttered, as I set my red-rimmed eyes to the south. “Those hills...”

“We're about in the start of them,” said Lukas, “and there's a town up ahead. It's big as towns go out here.”

“Uh, stopping places?” I asked.

“They have several stone-walled places to laager,” said Lukas. “They ain't much for comfort.”

“Do they get business, though?” I asked.

“It's rare to not have them filled,” said Lukas. “I'd plan on going past that place and camping like we did last night.”

Over the next hour, the 'hills' became more obvious, and the shadows grew steadily longer and more purplish. Faint haze seemed to hang in some of the valleys, and far distant to the east I could see faint tendrils of dark-colored smoke. I suspected those to be the location of mines of one type or another, and as we 'staggered' up the road, I marveled yet more at the narrowness of the 'pass'. It might have been thirty feet in the narrower places.

I half-expected to see dead draft animals and wrecked wagons, and asked, “why aren't there more damaged wagons and dead animals?'

“Those get picked up and taken to the kingdom house,” said Lukas. “I've heard the animals go into glue...”

“Glue?” I asked. The recollection of the foul-smelling stuff used by the Teacher of Guards intruded in a potent fashion.

“It is likely he was using some,” said Gabriel. “There are three 'common' grades.”

“Common?” I asked.

“There's hide glue, which we got,” said Lukas, “and then there's hoof glue. Both of those can be had in the fourth kingdom regularly.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there's this stuff they seem to make mostly in the fifth kingdom house.”

“What's that?” I asked. The distraction of 'glue' was welcome, for I was wondering if the stuff was edible. My appetite had returned to a degree.

“It's cheap as glue goes,” said Lukas, “and it gets used mostly down in the fifth kingdom house to keep nails from backing out of packing boxes.”

“The cheap stuff,” said Gabriel with a noticeable shudder. “I suspect the instructor was using that material for his wood-swords.”

The town proper was but miles away, or so I suspected until I saw 'outlying' houses starting to show to each side of the road. These were back some distance from the road proper, and while their construction and grounds were identical to those we had seen earlier in the day, there was another aspect to them: these people were noticeably better off, and their dwellings seemed larger and better-kept. More than one such 'home' had a thin tendril of grayish smoke coming from a well-hid chimney, and the smell I caught when the wind blew east-to-west spoke of what might have been coal.

“That ain't regular coal,” said Lukas. “That's the burned stuff.”

“Burned?” I asked.

“They load these big ovens with the stuff and let them burn for weeks,” said Lukas. “Stuff comes out looking a little like what's made in the fourth kingdom, only it smells a lot worse.”

“For cooking?” I asked.

“That, and heat,” said Lukas. “Not everyone wants to burn brush.”

The town proper soon showed, and when we came to an obvious Public House, I marveled at the place: instead of mud, there was mortar; the wooden portions were far more substantial, as well as in better repair; there was a wide stoop of weathered planks with a tiled roof covering the whole building; and for lighting, a pair of unusually tall and grimy lanterns flanked the doubled iron-hinged doors of the place. A brief glance at them spoke of candles being used, and mingled with the faint recalled smell of 'fifth kingdom candles' was the reek of mules.

I looked around the sizable 'yard' once I'd dismounted, and 'hitched' when I nearly stepped into a still-runny 'mule-trace'.

“That isn't the only one of those stinkers,” I thought. “This place has its share of, uh, Genuine Plugs handy.”

I was glad for a pump that held its prime, and while Lukas, Gilbertus, and myself checked the buggies and horses, I kept looking around as much as I could. The many cross-streets seemed to hide matters especially well in the long purple-flashed shadows of late afternoon, and once the three of us had finished with our tasks, I followed the other two men into the place.

The interior of this Public House was considerably larger than the last example, and as I walked slowly in the wake of the two men, I noted numbers of people wearing clay-stained clothing and peculiar-looking hats.

The hats were wide and roughly conical in shape, with bulged bottoms and narrow uneven rims. The latticework of thin sticks hiding under the cloth covering seemed to speak of intricate construction, while the yellow-brown mottled tone spoke of many applications of drying oil to give a hard and durable 'waterproofing'.

“What are those hats?” I whispered, as I sat down next to Karl.

“Those are mining hats,” said Karl. “My uncle told me miners wear those to keep dust and dirt out of their hair.”

“And to help with falling rocks,” said Lukas. “Mine had three layers of cloth when I got it, and I put another two inside along with the padding.”

Again, we sat at a long trestle table, and while this example was cleaner and in better repair, it too showed signs of being carved by restless knife-wielders. Thankfully, I did not recognize any runes or 'secret markings' among them. I turned to my right, and looked in my possible bag, while across from me, Sepp brought out his knife. He idly wiped it with a rag that smelled faintly of 'motor oil', and Kees looked on with interest.

Within seconds, however, I heard a chair or stool move, followed by long loping footfalls made by heavy clumping boots. With each slow-paced 'thump', my mind raced at frantic speed, each 'episode' of thought beginning and ending to the sound of the boot-shod metronome – until, as if by magic, one of the people wearing the strange hats showed behind and to the side of Sepp.

His goatee was sizable, his mustache more so, and underneath his hat, long blond hair seemed inclined to hide in the deep dark shade of his 'hard hat'. His presence made for terror, and I knew speech was demanded of me, even as I found myself utterly and completely dumb.

“I saw one of those knives,” he said in a husky whisper, “and seeing knives that good is rare in these parts.” He paused, felt his goatee, then continued, saying, “now it would be a good thing to have one handy, especially when the pfuddaarn show.”

Again, I was speechless.

“They usually want to buck the kitty,” he said. “Some call those long-haired cats tigers...”

Yellow-striped soft brown fur, long and luxurious... Thunderous purring, and a scream that made the roar of a lion sound tame... A ripped-up witch so badly clawed he looked like hamburger, with the cat's blood-sodden paws...

I could smell vinegar in the air, even as I recalled the cat in question licking my hand while avidly purring.

“But I have seen them,” he said, “and better lap-warmers are not to be had. They stay put, and like petting.”

“What?” I squeaked, as I 'came to myself'. “B-buck the T-t-tiger?”

To hear the words 'Bok d'em Tyaeger' was not something I fancied hearing, even when my own mouth said the phrase, and hot on its soft-spoken heels was the question, “where did they get that phrase?”

That did not come from my mouth, however; instead, I asked, “where is it you, uh, mine?”

He pointed east with a slightly shaky and uncommonly long arm. This caused me to not merely notice the coarse-woven grayish-brown fabric of his sleeve, but also the stains, these being dabs of blackish-brown 'grease' amid thickly-caked red-tinted clayey mud.

“That hole is awful,” he said. His tone was thickly accented, dire, and worried. “It may pay twice the common for mining, but no one wants to stay there.”

I reached into my pocket, and brought out my knife. The eerie gleam seemed to hypnotize the man, and his eyes ceased their 'aimless' wandering. He seemed fixed upon the mirror finish and the rainbow coming from the edge; his eyes' steely glinting caused me to wonder briefly about Sarah – and much more about him.

“That is the metal,” he said. Again, I heard the thick accent and dire tone. “That mine has spirits of dead miners in it. It caves constantly, the dynamite explodes with no warning no matter what is done, and the powder is worse yet.” He paused briefly. “Tools go to rust so quickly in that hole that you must see it happen to believe it.”

“How fast is that?” I asked. My voice was the 'picture' of credulity, or so I suspected.

“My last mining pick was a new one,” he said, “and from the time I went down the shaft until it had gone to a pile of wormy sawdust and rusted scrap metal was but seven turns of the glass.”

“Mines are bad that way,” said Lukas, “but that beats anything I've ever heard.”

“Haunted?” I thought, as I nearly fell off of my stool. “That sounds like an understatement of the greatest degree imaginable.”

“There are some few tools that endure in that place,” said the miner, “and every one of them shines like that knife you have. We pray daily so as to stay alive, and I have been there a year.” He paused, then said, “I suspect I have been protected, as few live so long if they remain in that place.”

“Aye,” came from a far-distant table. “Few endure a month's time...”

From further yet, I heard – or, perhaps, felt – a rumbling sound of ground-shaking nature. I glanced at the ceiling, wondering as I did when it would arrive, and I saw weathered white-painted boards that showed modest soot-stains here and there.

The source of these soot-stains were more of those tall brass lanterns, and the bright flaring flames and faint greasy odors spoke of a potent light source. I then saw what held the lanterns themselves.

Long and slender iron hooks, their forging strangely even and yet somehow crude, shown blackly in the shadows, and as I looked longer at them, I suspected that they were forged using dies and a drop-hammer.

My thinking was interrupted by a faint bluish-white flickering that lined the boards above that abruptly vanished as the entire ceiling turned into roiling clouds of blue-white fire. The roar of 'arrival' made all save the noise of that disintegrating salon seem tame.

“I would have to have a cave-in happen now,” said the miner with a tone of irony so thick I wondered as to his meaning, “but this ain't a mine. What gives?”

“Look up at the ceiling,” I said evenly, “and tell me what you see.”

As he looked upwards slowly, I heard more of the clumping slow steps come closer, then another miner – he looked much as the first man did, so much so that I wondered if they were related – showed to the right of the first man. That individual then spoke.

“If that fire had heat,” he said, “I would think it firedamp.” He then wet his finger, and put it tentatively into the clouds. He then withdrew it seconds later.

A faint bluish-white glow seemed to adhere to his finger, and he put that finger in his mouth. To my complete and total surprise, his eyes jerked wide-open to well-past saucer status.

“Why is it,” I thought, “that I have the impression that these people have done prospecting? That reminds me of what a prospector might do for a field-test of ore – especially gold or silver-bearing ore.”

The coverless book I had read to shreds intruded, especially the description of the old miner named Ballou. He had tested ore in a similar fashion.

“Jan, I think we got the big one here,” said the second miner. “You coming? I am jumping now.”

He leaped and vanished an eyeblink later, and the other miner did the same. Both men returned with soul-sundering thuds but twenty seconds later, and here, I again felt reminded of Sarah – only more so than before.

“We know what to do about that mine, now,” said Jan, “and after that place is cleared out, we two are to head north to the Abbey. There is stone now, but then that witch-queen gets hers, and after that, there is a lot more.” He paused, then said in a quieter voice, “I have wondered for the longest time about what is up there.”

“Where you just came from?” I asked.

“No, not there,” he said. “Above the sky.”

The rustle at the table vanished with such abruptness that I marveled, even as he continued speaking:

“I have never heard of orange skies” – the phrase 'marmalade skies' seemed appropriate – “and stars that burn your eyes out, and those other things. There are enough peculiar things for a lifetime above the sky.”

While the two men left to gather chairs – they wished to sit with us, or so I gathered – I felt inclined to speak of the mine they worked in. I could sense its location, that being about six miles to the east, and about three south – perhaps three hours walking along well-worn paths dodging vermin and possibly thugs – and also, its contents. Both men returned, and sat near the 'door' end of the table.

“Does that mine have a lot of closed-off drifts?” I asked.

“It does,” said the second miner. “That trouble with the powder is worse in those places.”

“Do you know why it is worse?” I asked. “Something about...”

“Those things are not the spirits of dead miners,” spat Jan with an oath. “Those do not stay in or around that mine, and these things do.”

“Yes, and they like it there,” said the other miner. “One of them is taller than I am, is made of fire, and has a lot of swords and whips.” He paused while Jan looked at him.

“What are they, Antoon?” asked Jan.

“I am not sure what they are called,” said Antoon, “but I saw what that thing likes to do, and that is the paalkach. It does it on people's heads.

“What?” I gasped.

“That would be a type of dance,” said Gabriel. “While you might have the agility to do it, I doubt much you have the inclination.”

I was speechless.

“I have seen people dance a total of three times,” said Gabriel, “and all three of those times were in the fourth kingdom while I was at school.” Gabriel paused, then said, “if I go by the tapestries, however, dancing was much more popular prior to that war long ago.”

Gabriel then turned to Antoon, and asked, “those also dance upon the powder, do they not?”

“That seems much of the trouble,” said Jan ruefully. “What are those things called?”

A hush gathered itself around our table, and in the still of the flickering candlelight Gabriel spoke. His voice was barely above a whisper, as if speaking louder would cause something to 'show up' suddenly. I glanced around furtively in an instant of time.

“The spirits, or the dancing?” said Gabriel. A brief pause. “The spirits are named fire-spirits, and those dances are called fire-dances. I myself have seen one of those spirits dance in that fashion, and even now I find it hard to believe what I saw.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Jan. Again, he sounded rueful – or perhaps, more informed. “How do we get rid of them?”

“You need to understand a few things first,” I said. “Fighting them is unpredictable, so much so that experience mostly tells you who and what you can trust. Otherwise, it isn't that helpful.”

“Why is that?” asked Antoon.

“Those things are not like people,” I spluttered. “That is especially true for people here.”

How I knew that with such surety I had no clue. It did not prevent me continuing to speak, however.

“They are tricky liars, and have no scruples whatsoever,” I muttered. “That means any and all means are 'fair', and the only thing that matters is that they prefer the end result. Otherwise, all else can go to hell, and I mean that literally – other spirits, their houses, and anything that you might be able to imagine.”

The hush about the table seemed absolute, and I knew there was a larger-still hush gathering. I had to continue, however:

“One might sum up their attitudes as 'I want it, I am taking it now, and I will kill anyone who is stupid enough to stand in my way'.”

“Those sound like the worst kind of pfuddaarn,” said Antoon.

“Spirits are worse,” I muttered. “Those people have some scruples. Granted, not many in some cases, but they do look out for each other to some extent some of the time.”

As the two of them looked at us and our still-bare table, I had an impression. First, I needed to teach these people something of grave importance – as in if I did not teach them, and teach them well, they would most likely die while trying to 'clear' the mine – and secondly, I needed to do so by 'laying on of hands'.

Only for some reason, direct contact wasn't a good idea. Close proximity was plenty good.

I stood slowly while looking around. I saw no waiters in the area, even if I could hear at least one person walking. As I came out from my seat, I listened carefully yet more.

“That person's traveling enough to be a waiter,” I thought, as I moved slowly down the table to the end that was nearest the door and began moving to the other side, “and then there's someone else who's ducked out for a short time out of a sweltering kitchen, and then a...”

I had come to a spot between Jan and Antoon, and I needed to speak to them.

“I think I can teach you this way,” I said, as I stretched out both hands palm-down toward the tops of their hats.

For some reason, I could almost feel the roughness of the fabric with my fingers but an inch away from the rounded point of each hat, and as I began silently praying, my eyes narrowed down to slits. I dared not close them entirely, as I could feel 'something else' was about to happen – and that needed my eyes open and ears attentive.

“My head feels uncommonly warm,” mumbled Jan as I continued praying.

For some reason, he did not try touching his hat, even as I continued praying, and when I felt the 'inclination' leave shortly thereafter, I removed my hands and lowered them. I was wobbling a little, so much so that I accidentally touched Karl's back when getting into my seat. He yelped in pain.

“What happened?” I asked soberly.

“Your hands are hot!” he yelled.

A burning memory crashed into my mind as I sat down. I had prayed half an hour on my face behind closed doors, I came out once I'd finished...

I only wanted to show my affection for her.

And she'd screamed that precise same statement when I had attempted to gently rub her back. I had been more than a little hurt and startled then.

“I doubt greatly she knew,” said Gabriel, after licking his lips, “but I do not doubt about her attitude. She was not inclined to endure you, regardless of her stature or hair.”

“Who was this?” asked Antoon.

“A young woman he knew at the place where he learned war,” said Gabriel. “She slightly resembles another woman who waits where we came from.” A brief pause, then, “that mine?”

“It will not be haunted much longer,” said Jan. “The two of us head north right after, and that by the short way.”

“Th-the short way?”

“It follows this road until it comes to a big black one,” said Jan, “and it stays on it for a little while, at least while it is in the fourth kingdom. Once there, then there are two or three ways, depending on where the pfuddaarn show themselves common.”

“Those would be?” I asked.

“One path is close to the sea, and follows it,” said Jan. “That one is said to be faster, but the pfuddaarn like it, and the same for that big black road.”

“That one is bad to the north,” said Antoon. “Some go through the back country in that place.”

I was about to ask further questions when the earlier steps I had heard steadily drew closer. I looked up and glanced to my right, and at first, Lukas and Hendrik – as well as a thick support beam – blocked my view of the new visitor.

Or rather, visitors, for a waiter and another person, possibly the publican, showed seconds later. When the miners turned to look at them, the newcomers bolted in frantic terror.

Thudding steps of two men racing each other for the prize of life segued into frantic thrashing and brutal crashing sounds, followed by a sickening crash that caused me to think of a door being wrenched off of its hinges, and finally a bang-rattle-clatter that spoke of a door being closed and then possibly barred.

Faint steps resumed coming our way, and their unsteady nature spoke of either panic-drunkenness...

“That is tin-fright,” said the voice of recollection.

Or another matter entirely. This matter was attested to by the reek of a blasted privy, and when the white-faced waiter showed at the far end of the table, his face spoke terror in a voice I was unable to ignore, even as he spoke in a voice hinting of corruption.

“Getting rid of those will be trouble, you two,” he said. “Still, it happens – those about to sup with Brimstone are taken by spirits, they are driven mad, and then they vanish in that haunted mine.” He paused, then with a faint trace of smugness, “I have seen it happen before.”

“We do not have those,” said Antoon. “This one has us, and you want his help if you need to kick those other things out.”

“Help?” asked the waiter's tremulous voice. His fear seemed overmastering. “S-spirits do n-not help, unless...”

“Yes, this is that one,” said Jan. “God gives help that way, and names him so.”

“But that is s-supposed to happen just before the d-d-day of retribution,” muttered the waiter.

Thumping and fumbling came groping from behind and to my right, then as if coming from a far country, I heard unsteady steps coming slow and careful toward our table. I then noticed the actual position of the waiter.

He was almost directly behind me, as if I were his shield.

“What is that which glows?” he asked faintly. His voice seemed as if he were an insect roosting in my right ear. “It looks like a knife of some kind.”

Slowly, with exaggerated care – I did not wish to 'burn' Karl again – I stood, then slowly drew my sword. Again, that feral hissing noise seemed to ring in my mind as the blade slowly cleared the scabbard, and I watched his face. His interest rooted him to the spot, even as I could hear whispers about 'snakes' and 'death adders' faint in the background.

He took a step forward, and I finished drawing.

“Please, keep your fingers clear of the blade,” I asked, as I pinched the very back of the blade itself so as to hand it to him by the handle. “It makes a razor seem dull.”

I then handed it to him, and the sense of wonder he felt seemed to make all that had transpired in the last five minutes vanish abruptly. He 'felt' as if he were seeing a close-to-hand ongoing miracle.

“Sam Brumm would respect this,” he whispered in tones of awe, “especially as those old tales speak of swords with names.” He paused, then said, “oh, this one has a name, and it is very special, for I see letters written in fire there.”

What?” I screeched.

“Here, look,” he said, as he pointed to an area near the hilt. “Right there.”

I moved slowly around him, then looked closer. Near the hilt, I saw a line of minute Hebrew letters flaming with blue-white fire. I wondered for an instant as to their meaning while I thought to look at the back of the pendant, then stopped abruptly in stunned horror.

They were exactly the same as the fourth line on the back of the pendant.

“I-I-I n-never saw that before,” I blurted, “and I-I did n-not put them th-there.”

“Then who did?” asked the waiter. “This sword feels unlike anything I have ever touched, and I'd almost say it was alive in some way. There are tales that speak of such swords.”

“Such as one named 'Day of Infamy'?” said Gabriel. “That tale mentions a hungry sword.”

“H-hungry sword?” I thought. I nearly fainted at hearing such speech. It reminded me of the interplay between another waiter and myself while he spoke of the pendant. Gabriel remained oblivious, or so his speech declared him when he next spoke.

“Any blade he works on tends to be especially good,” he said. “I doubt they are hungry in the common fashion.”

Good?” asked the waiter. He was still looking at my sword intently.

“They tend to be extremely sharp...”

“More than that, Gabriel,” muttered Kees. “Those things almost have minds of their own.”

Gabriel brought out his knife, then said, “this one has stirred the guts of one brigand, and that in the hands of a clerk.”

“Is that one named?” asked the waiter.

Gabriel looked carefully at his knife, then said, “no, it does not seem to be. All that I see is the stamp on the hilt.”

The waiter gave me back my sword, and as I carefully reinserted it into the scabbard, I could feel that one sensation worsening. The waiter 'took our order' – beer, along with 'what viands you have' – and as he left, I took my seat.

My sensing had matured to a degree: this place routinely endured 'nonsense', and 'about sundown' was when it most commonly occurred.

“Now that waiter spoke of that Brumm wretch,” said Lukas.

“Who is Sam Brumm?” I asked. First Lukas, then the waiter... “And that dream, perhaps,” I thought.

Rapid shuffling steps fled from our table forthwith, then returned even quicker. I looked around quickly and saw a pair of side-by-side sewer-pipe barrels looming large and growing larger as the publican showed with a fowling piece of unusual size.

“Where is that wretch Brumm?” he muttered.

The silence answering him seemed to echo faintly, and I did not assay hiding my slumping of relief. I had been more than a little afraid, much as if he had wanted to 'air out my smelly hide' with his weapon.

“I asked as to who he was, sir,” I said, “as I've heard the name before coming here, and then another man looked at my sword and spoke of him.” A brief pause, then, “what is that weapon, may I ask? I work on guns now and then.”

“An uncommonly stiff fowling piece loaded with smaller pistol balls,” growled the publican, “and I loaded it up specially for that particular wretch you spoke of.”

He then came closer, and I stood to look closer at his weapon. In the feral light of a flickering 'fifth kingdom candle' I noticed the following:

Bores nearly thirty inches in length, with thick breaches and a smooth finish. My thumb nearly fit in the muzzle, which spoke of each barrel approaching 'roer' size.

A pair of hammers at half-cock, with dully glinting 'thimbles' ready to be 'busted'.

A substantial brass trigger guard fitting two triggers, one behind the other, and...

A single gold bead atop the upper 'strap' holding the barrels together.

If ever a weapon warranted the name 'fowling piece', this one certainly did. It looked suitable for 'dodo birds', or pterodactyls – or perhaps, the Goodyear blimp. I retook my seat with a fresh and burning question in my mind. I was not of a mind to meet Brumm, and I suspected knowing his appearance would help avoid him.

“What does this Brumm fellow look like?” I asked.

“Like what most who have private graveyards do,” said the publican. He was still quite wary. “Tall, thin, black everything, has a pair of rotating pistols...”

“Rotating pistols..?” I thought.

“And can put all ten balls on a playing card faster than I can count to five.” This last was spoken in the manner of an eyewitness.

“Does he travel?” I asked.

“Him and his people do, and that often,” said the publican. “That's why he has several private graveyards, is because that crew migrates regular on a schedule.” A pause, then, “now and then, he goes up into the Valley...”

“El Vallyé,” I muttered.

“That's Pancho's name for it,” said the publican. “What Sam does up in that place, I don't know, 'cept when he goes up in there, Pancho stays home, and when he don't, Pancho comes by.”

“P-Pancho?” I asked.

“Given the choice between those crews,” he said, “I'd druther have Pancho and his crew handy, even if he has a lot more people.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Sam's bunch is wild,” muttered the publican.

“Wild?” I mumbled.

“Does Hecht travel with him?” asked Lukas.

“Only Sam himself is worse than that fiend,” spat the publican. “Most people call him Hell.” A brief pause, then, “he uses more mining dynamite and distillate than any mine I've heard of...

A gunshot banged faint on the wind, then another. The publican stopped in mid-sentence, even as I looked around. That disquieting feeling had grown stronger, and I stood up. Once clear of my seat, I unslung my rifle, right hand going back to the hammer to touch it, then as I came to the end of the table, I knelt in the hand-deep sawdust.

I could hear the clatter of hooves coming closer.

“I think we had best kiss the floor,” I deadpanned, “as someone's running a stampede of some kind.”

A long thundering boom – it reminded me of the noise of a roer – punctuated my statement, and as the echoes died out, more and louder gunshots swirled all around. I went prone with my rifle cradled in my arms, then worm-crawled toward the doorway. It seemed far away at first, though within seconds, I knew the distance was but thirty feet or so from my current position.

I stopped crawling, then shouldered my rifle. My right hand drew back the hammer without thinking to full cock, even as my left hand arranged the hood of the front sight on the door with the rear aperture 'close' to where it belonged. As the stock nestled into my shoulder, my right finger found the trigger guard. I did not touch the trigger as of yet, for I was not completely certain as to my knowing.

Yet still, I knew. Someone was coming here.

A shrill yet tired neigh seemed to shatter the stillness of the Public House. Slow ominous thuds, each with a hint of clatter-jingle rattling, came toward the door. The boards of the stoop then rattled. My finger went to the trigger to there lay in wait like a hungry predator.

With a sudden bang, the door flew open. Time cranked to an abrupt halt.

Tall, thin, black everything. A near-shapeless black hat hid glaring blood-shot eyes. Two sizable blue-black revolvers, each hungry for death and destruction, waved their muzzles slowly side to side as if seeking prey. A foul-smelling 'cheroot' for the mouth...

“Foul?” I thought. “That thing makes the supposed stink of a horsehair mattress seem as if choice perfume!”

The thug began mumbling with rubbery lips, and it took what seemed seconds for me to understand his lingo:

“There isn't enough room in this place for marked people and us!”

The front sight of my rifle settled on the bridge of his hat-hidden nose, the rear sight lined up, and my finger pressed the trigger.

The flash and roar of the rifle seemed conjoined into a lightning strike that left my eyes seeing spots and my ears ringing as the thug dropped boneless to the ground, and as he settled in apparent death, my hands found my rifle anew and slung it as my knees came underneath so as to stand. In three straggling bounds I closed the distance, and there, I saw his pistols.

Each seemed to call for a new hand, and I grasped both of them. As I gripped them tighter, I continued on toward the door proper, and I knew the following:

Our visitor was the advance guard, and there were more thugs handy outside in the town.

The thug had collapsed with one foot between the doors of the Public House, and I moved past him to pause at the gap. The dimness of sundown was past, and in the freakish shadows of early evening, I heard echoing yells and saw brief red flashes.

I jumped outside, and as I cleared the stoop, I looked to neither left and right as I ran toward the front of the yard. Our animals would give me a measure of cover, or so I thought as I cleared them and turned to the right.

Coming at a slow 'gallop' up the road was another black-dressed thug on a mule, and in the hand not handling reins was a jug. Somewhere that hand I saw a brilliant spark-trailing red flame, and I lifted my left hand so as to aim...

No, aim was not the correct term. There wasn't time.

I pointed instinctively and fired.

The eruption of brilliant white fire was of such magnitude that I spun in place with closed eyes as the hot wind of a massive explosion washed over me, and all around, the town was lit up as if by an omnidirectional searchlight. I opened my half-blinded eyes southward to see another pair of thugs some distance away attempting to calm rearing and bucking mules, and I began backing slowly for the safety of the shadow-hidden animals behind me.

At least, I thought to do so until I saw someone trying to mount an unduly fractious animal across the road in the yard of another shop.

I pointed with the right pistol and fired. The mule did a headstand that flung a boneless body through the air to splash heavily in a watering trough as I resumed backing. The mule ran off to vanish.

The clatter of hooves came again, this time from the left, and I crouched down at the edge of where our animals stood. I looked down at my hands, seeing the pistols again as if in a dream, and I noted the thick and grimy powder stains on metal and skin. I looked up, stood, and began walking slowly to the southern edge of the Public House's yard, my left thumb having a mind of its own as it cocked the hammer. I could feel the cylinder rotating as the cap came in line; then without warning, my left arm extended straight out...

Hooves beating the dry dusty ground as the riders assayed flight, while their mules bucked and brayed...

The gun flashed deep-dark red and whipped in my hand, the muzzle going near-vertical, and the left rider hitched and fell to the side with his leg caught in one of his stirrups. The rider on his right left him behind to be dragged as his mule rushed onward.

That man on the right had nothing save flight upon his mind, for he rode past me as if I were but a bit of grime-dusted wind. I turned, mechanical, robotic as he passed; then raised my right arm stiff and precise, the thumb cocking the hammer, and...

Another red-tinged flash showed the last rider toppling in slow-motion as the back of his neck spurted a projectile column of blood, then his animal did a handstand to pitch him off as it wheeled to escape the still-bright wall of fire. He flew through the air to land among the raging flames, and as I watched, the mule he rode seemed to vanish between two blinks of my soot-stained eyes.

The silence of evening rang in my head amid the high-pitched roaring of echoing persistent gunfire, and the reek of flaming distillate overrode all other sources of smell. My hands had gone completely numb, save for a frightening tingling in the palms and fingers, and amid the previous noises within my mind, I began hearing faintly the sounds of instruments assaying 'music'. In my benumbed and grimy state, it took what seemed an epoch to recognize their purpose.

The instruments now swelled as I began turning toward the 'hovel' whence I had come, and I understood the tune they played.

“That was a film,” I thought numbly, even as time began to catch up to its 'normal' speed and timbre. The reek of distillate had grown more intense, and I wanted to spew. “It had something in it that was good, and another portion that was bad, and Ugh! That whole stinking mess was ugly.” A brief pause, then, “was that it?”

The impossible-to-characterize movie theme swelled in a magnificent chorus that reminded me of an explosion for volume and a waterfall for grandeur, and for some reason, I ignored it as I walked back toward the part-open doubled doors.

I glanced at my blackened hands, and amid deeper and darker powder stains I saw the hammers of both pistols at half-cock. I then recognized my dark and growing fear, so much so that when I looked up to see the doorway, I was astonished to see a trestle bearing a whitewashed wooden sign.

The sign had writing, this in blackened old-time 'western' script, and again, I paused in my slow rubbery stepping to look down at my filthy hands.

Faint yet unmistakable, I saw clearly five small dints upon the cold blue metal of the right pistol's backstrap, and as I looked closer, the neat line of dots glared back at me with blood-reddened madness as if to testify before a judge of my murderous nature. Evidence to that fact lay in the streets and near to hand.

I looked up again, and saw the sign. Its script had formed long lines of words spelling out 'rules' that governed life, and as a chill wind gathered itself about me to blow the flapping tails of my long black frock-coat about my black-clad legs, I began reading with slow-moving lips.

“Rule number one,” quoted the sign in a faintly metallic whisper, “is a mark upon your weapons for each kill, and each such murder demands a night spent in debauched splendorous celebration.”

I found myself paralyzed, for I was to read this tract; it was issued to all of those who owned private graveyards. I looked down at my feet, and saw the brown leather of trekking boots slowly changing into long black pointed boots copied from the feet of Black-Cap. A foul reek of rotten meat slowly gathered substance in the region where I stood, and I looked up again as the sign resumed its measured chanting.

“Rule number two,” chanted the sign, “is that an insult to your honor means deaths, and the mere act and the hint of suspicion upon your part are to be treated as if one and the same. The third and last rule is that you must die with your boots upon your feet and your guns in your hands, and die game with emptied weapons and a wall of blooded corpses fit to bear you to the lowest...”

With a sudden flash erupting in my mind, the 'spell' shattered like glass, and I leaped amid horrid screams over the doorway's corpse to fall face-down full upon the sawdust of the floor. There, I embraced darkness, for it was my closest and only friend, and I knew beyond reason that it might well have me.

The night-terror world replete with violent death wished to add mine as the latest to its long and serried lists. Above my head, faint deep-toned voices held court, and their speakers seemed inclined to weigh me upon a balance.

“Too small,” growled one uncouth voice.

“And too mangled,” spat another. “This unseemly behavior is not fitting for a murderous thug.” A brief pause, then, “more whiskey, damn you to hell and gone! Where is my drink?”

And as if the last sentence was a dread incantation that conjured a state of wakefulness, I awoke with a start and sneezed sawdust out of my nose. There was but one thing to say, and myself to say it, and with shaking head and trembling heart, I uttered the dreaded words:

“What now?”

These words came out plaintive and fearful, and as I scrambled to first my knees and then shaky feet, I saw the sole answer I was given to have. My benumbed hands still tingled, they were covered with soot-stains, and each of them held a sizable revolver. What I normally carried was significantly smaller and lighter than what I now held.

“Are you all right?” asked a faint voice that took me seconds to recognize as that of Gabriel. My ears were still whining and ringing steadily.

“I-I hope so,” I said, even as an intense odor laden with evil took over my nose. I turned to see a tall black-clad corpse blocking the doorway, and above the body, a gray mess dripped slow and patient from the lintel upon the corpse's wide leather belt.

“W-who is that?” I squeaked, as I pointed at the corpse with the pistol in my right hand

“Sam Brumm,” said the publican, with a tone like iron.

I wobbled to where my plate lay, and placed both revolvers upon it before wobbling slow and stiff toward the familiar reek of a privy. Each glance at my hands showed soot-stains, and part-hidden behind them were flaming red runes – and over this all, the intense tingling still vibrated madly on top of the slowly-decreasing numbness.

“I need to wash off the soot,” I thought, as I found the privy's door.

Amid ringing echoes I heard the chanted word 'soot' repeated endlessly, and when I went inside, the echoes aligned with the privy's stink until I sprayed green stuff from my mouth into the stool. Finally, that ceased, and went to where I could wash my hands.

That continued for what seemed an hour, until finally the soot faded along with the runes. I returned to a malodorous room that still reeked of powder, and when I came to the table the pistols still usurped my place. I went past them, and as I wobbled closer to the corpse in the doorway, faint voices spoke from behind.

“Y-yes?” I asked shakily.

“They went for the food while you were washing up,” said Karl, “and these things have bad thimbles.”

“And that wretch smells badly,” muttered Gabriel.

Gabriel spoke for the table, and he did not exaggerate. Brumm stank. Still, I thought to look at him more closely so as to know the clothing of the pfuddaarn. I first noticed his boots, for some reason.

While I initially thought them to be scuffed and somewhat worn versions of what I had seen Black-Cap wearing, I knew otherwise the instant I looked closer. While Black-Cap – and those like him I had seen since he had showed months prior – had worn knee-length boots, I had not noticed them beyond 'black, leather, tall, and pointy-toed'. Sam's were all of those – but when I saw the tarnished brass 'shin-guards', the buckles and belts, and the small iron spikes coming from the heels, I began to mentally scratch my head. I then felt his clothing.

The initial aspect of 'dirt' was as I suspected, but that – and the color – was all his clothing seemed to have in common with the examples of 'witch-clothing' I had handled before. This stuff had a somewhat coarse and uneven weave, with but a trace of stiffness.

“N-no starch,” I thought, as I touched the cloth again. Its stiffness was a product of weave and material.

I moved my hands slowly up his body, all the while moving aside his 'frock-coat', until I came to where his belt lay. This belt was worn, sun-checked, dessicated, and black going to brown like his boots, and the holsters were much the same. I began feeling at his waist near the right holster, and I 'jolted' when I felt the chill of 'cold steel'.

The long wooden handle was so dark with grease, time, and use that I could barely discern both its coffin-like shape and its crude brass rivets, and the wide thick blade had a clipped point amid what seemed eons of careful cleaning and polishing. I put the knife on his back, and resumed looking. There was something important present, and I had not yet found it.

“We had best drag him outside,” said Karl abruptly.

“W-why?” I squeaked, as I began looking around. I then startled.

“We are blocking the doorway,” I shrieked.

“No, not that,” said Karl. “There isn't much room in here to check this wretch over good, and that mess his head made needs cleaning up before it goes completely rotten.”

“You mean 'he goes completely rotten',” said Gabriel.

Karl and I began dragging Brumm by his feet, and the trail of blood and slime he left on first the stoop and then the ground was a marvel. I thought to resume checking him over when Gabriel showed with a lantern. I could hear something happening inside the building.

“They are cleaning up that mess you made,” he said, “and I would imagine the house's night is shot, as they say in these parts.”

“Shot?” I gasped.

“They do not mind much,” said Gabriel. “That man and his main people were likely to burn the place out and kill us all.”

“Th-that jug?” I hissed, as I pointed to the still-smoldering portion of the road. It was covered thickly with soot.

“That was but the start,” said Gabriel. “The only person who would carry so much mining dynamite and light distillate in this area would have been Hecht himself.”