The road more traveled, part y.

I noticed it was midmorning when we resumed southbound travel. To left and right were more 'estates' similar to the one at which we stopped, with the largest of all such labeled as 'Blomfels'.

The Blomfels 'estate' was nearly as long as Roos – its width exceeded its length – and when I glanced through its trio of gates I saw numbers of long two-story brick buildings. The place seemed to add its own especial portion of soot and smoke to the air, and the filth and grime that seemed to settle upon all surfaces in its vicinity was enough to make for both marveling and a fervent desire to bathe. The stench, however, made for both gagging and gasping.

“What is that stink?” I gasped, as I pointed to a thick and toxic-looking black plume of smoke.

“A coal-oven,” said Gabriel. “That one smells as if fresh-lit.”

“Are there..?”

I looked around, and was stunned. To both right and left there were more similar plumes of greasy-looking black smoke.

“Smelters?” I asked.

“Those are a bit south of here,” said Lukas. “I tried to stay out of this part as much as I could. It's bad for the wind.”

“W-wind?” I asked.

“Breathing,” said Lukas. “I believed what Anna said about that other stuff before we went on this trip.”

“And?” asked Gabriel.

“She's right about him being sick,” said Lukas.

An intense reek came from the west, and amid the greasy plumes of smoke I saw what looked to be strangely tall orange and yellow flames. For some reason, I knew I was seeing a smelter in action, and more importantly, an uncommon example.

“Smelter?” I asked, as I pointed to the flames.

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I think that one does that special haunted iron, as its flames look clearer and brighter than most.”

I then noticed an uneven rumbling hum that quickly devolved into the banging of a multitude of 'piano-sized' machines mingled with a whirling growl that seemed intended to cause deafness. I recalled what Georg had said about 'barrels' and furnaces, and his talk suddenly seemed uncommonly likely.

“Blowers as tall as a man...” I muttered.

“They do not call them that,” said Gabriel, “even if each smelter has at least two such machines for its wind.” A pause, then, “at least yours should not give as much trouble as those here.”

Gabriel's speech had again changed for the worse, with 'mystery' being added to 'oblivion' and 'assurance'. I had no words for him, for I could feel the steadily growing proximity of our destination, and that had my entire attention – at least, until I saw the sign at the juncture of two wide cobbled roads.

“What?” I thought. “Are those districts here?” There was no answer.

The built-up portion drew steadily closer with each minute, while our current area showed what looked like huge 'corrals'. None of them seemed occupied, however, until we came past one with an open gate that positively reeked of mules.

“What is that place?” I asked.

“Where they sell mules, if I go by the stink,” said Lukas.

The 'built-up' region proved something of an anticlimax compared to where we had gone previously, or so it seemed at first. I could feel the presence of black-dressed thugs and misers, even if they seemed scarce, and I was vindicated when a pair of coaches rumbled past, each towed by a team of eight mules.

Yet still, my thoughts were for the house proper, and with the passing minutes, I was able to separate the sensing of the region itself from the house.

“That place is as bad as that copy of the Swartsburg we passed through,” I thought, “and it hides better than almost anywhere.”

“Past tense,” said the soft voice. “It is hidden no longer.”

The shops to each side of our road thronged with people, and the ceaseless stir and gabble of 'business' was enough to cause reaching for the fever-bark powder and taking two pinches. After washing it down, I looked at the major cross-streets – those were more common in this area than anywhere so far – but with each such glance, I felt my attention being pulled slightly left of straight ahead. This continued until we came to a subdued-seeming region of blackened wood and stone.

The people in this area seemed afraid of some nameless nightmare, and their furtive glances toward us spoke of something well-beyond any common notion of fear.

Faintly, I smelled salt air, and perhaps drying fish. I found myself distracted, so much so that when Gabriel spoke, I did not hear him at first.

“This is the house proper,” he said.

I looked to my left to see a forbidding walled 'compound', with a centered two-doored gate of mottled dark metal, tall spike-topped walls of blue-gray stone blocks set in ancient mortar, and a shuttered 'viewing port' next to the right leaf of the gate.

“This looks more, uh, modern than anything I've seen here,” I thought, even as I heard faint steps snapping on the other side.

With a slow, irregular, and rustling groan, the 'leaves' of the gate slowly slid to each side. I noted a shiny metal track embedded in a gray-white crystalline material – it looked like concrete – as the gate opened wider. Beyond the threshold grew a wide 'field' of deep-green grass, and bordering this courtyard were wide stone walkways roofed over with darkened metal 'sun-shields'.

Gabriel looked at me, and as I faced the now wide-open gate, I knew it was 'my' decision to go within. Echoing within my mind were various statements I had recently heard, even as Jaak turned out of line and slowly crossed the road with echoing hoofbeats to then briefly pause at the threshold. The others slowly came out of line, even as I waited.

“And for what, I do not know...” I thought.

As if the question in my mind had become blatantly visible, a 'groom' abruptly 'materialized'. I glanced at this man, wondering as I did about 'ceremony', for some reason. I then decided to go inside.

Within two seconds of actually crossing the threshold, I noted the following:

The 'groom' had vanished as abruptly as he had showed.

The 'courtyard' was more than twice as deep as it was wide, and I had been deceived about its width. It was easily a hundred yards wide, if not more, and I had thought it to be roughly forty yards wide.

The building surrounded the courtyard on three sides, with a simple wall behind us.

The interior of the place was of such a fussily clean and nightmarishly neat nature that I found it troubling, and not merely by the contrast with the outside of the wall. There was something else, and I could not determine what that 'something' was.

“And it isn't just recollections of my past,” I thought. “That might account for a small fraction of what I'm seeing.”

The cumulative whole of what I noticed made for raw nerves, and my growing sense of unease made for wondering about 'Blackbeard' – and the shuddering boom of the gate closing was only amplified in my mind by the rattling clack of the 'wall' locking up 'solid'.

The echoes in my mind were of a certain label, and I dared not think it, much less speak of it. Instead, I turned around.

Our entire party had been 'swallowed whole', and my nerves again rattled like chains. I turned, suppressing a whole-body shudder, and saw a watering trough but a short distance ahead. I had not seen it prior, and 'thirst' – I was feeling that of the animals – and my own need of distraction made it a fervent desire and longing.

I headed for it accordingly, and I had barely set foot upon the grass when another 'groom' – a different person, even if his clothing made for an involuntary gasp of recognition – 'materialized' but six feet away at the junction of grass and walkway.

I looked past – or perhaps, through – the 'groom' and focused upon the wall behind him under the 'sun-shield', and mentally wiped a sweaty brow as my eyes seemed to bore into the darkened stone of the wall. I needed but a fraction of a second to find first one slightly darker line, then another, followed by the outlines of hinges and perhaps a latch. I then focused upon the groom.

His clothing went abruptly gauzy over his chest and arms, and I saw several familiar-looking tattoos. I shuddered inwardly as I caught the reek of rotten meat and strong drink.

“And dirty skin, and...”

I then knew much more, which cut off all thoughts of his lack of hygiene.

Unlike Brumm's people, or Brumm himself, or even the trio of guard-thugs at the 'border', this man was a true expert at hiding. He turned to 'lead us on', and I 'listened' carefully. Faintly, I seemed to hear words of speech, and I strained to divine the meaning of these words.

“...witch-hole... Swartsburg... ...he stinks...”

The mystery grew with each garbled word I heard, for I could not determine the speaker. More, I felt a chilled aspect as I followed the 'groom' under the now-obvious metallic awning and its tall, sleek, and pristine-looking posts. I glanced down, and saw more white crystalline 'concrete' – and on the darkened stones to my right and ahead, I saw faint white crystalline stains. I felt reminded first of niter, and then of the thirst of the animals.

“Is there water for the horses?” I asked.

The groom halted abruptly, then turned slowly around. As he did, a 'veil' seemed to fall from his face, and I saw clearly his narrow-set brown eyes attempting to hide under unusually bushy brows. This made for a sensation that I could not recognize; and wordlessly, he turned again to resume walking.

Yet now I heard differences: his pace had altered its rhythm, and each footfall echoed faintly. With each snapping step, I heard a brief, high-pitched whine; and when I looked ahead again, I saw a wide and darkened doorway some distance away, one easily wide enough to pass both buggies at once.

Again, I heard the rhythm of the 'groom's' marching, and amid his snapping cadence I could hear the characteristic noises of the true-step. For some reason, I glanced at the floor beneath my feet – and then shuddered, for I saw faint yet distinct tracks made by obvious pointed boots. I again looked at the 'groom'.

His clothing had acquired an 'added dimension', almost an 'overlay' of some kind, such that I was seeing superimposed upon his 'commonplace' clothing something entirely different. The starch-stiffened severe-cut brown cloth, the wide black leather belt, the pointed boots...

I recognized what I was seeing instantly, and the silent thoughts formed the word 'miser' within my mind.

The man halted in mid-stride, and turned toward us. His face was an angry scowl that mirrored my latest thought unto perfection.

“Who amongst ye spoke?” he asked, in a barely-controlled angry hiss. “I heard one of ye speak, and that plainly.”

“I heard no one,” I said softly. “This place tends to be, uh, good for echoes...”

My speech paused as I looked around to see faint and growing trickles of water mingling with the jagged lines of crystalline 'niter' upon the walls, and I followed these trickles upward to see thick beads of moisture gathered in bunches along obvious seams in the roof. This made for a question, which was mine alone to ask.

“Water?”

The groom seemed 'satisfied', for some unfathomable reason. He turned, then resumed his measured 'pacing'. The whining echoes followed the part-hid crackle of his steps.

The traces of whitish salts upon the darkened stones to my right reminded me of catacombs, ones where one might find certain well-known casks of wine – and as an answer, I heard what might have been the faint rasp of a trowel upon stone. I shook my head slightly in hopes of 'shaking off' the onslaught of a nightmare – and the 'groom' slowly 'sank down' into the crystalline whiteness of the floor.

“Where did he go?” asked Sepp.

Hearing a familiar voice seemed to break the hold of the unsleeping nightmares I was enduring, and with but a few steps, I had an answer, for I was at the threshold of the doorway I had seen earlier – and at the bottom of a steep downward path I saw standing amid scattered straw the 'groom'. His disappearance was no longer a mystery. I paused again at this further 'threshold', and looked to each side before stepping down the ramp.

With each such step I took, I now felt clearer the nature of the trap we had set foot in. Above my head was a tall and darkened ceiling, and to our right along a curving 'path' was a hay-carpeted corridor flanked by stalls. I paused, looked to my left, and saw a thick door of iron-bound varnished wood.

“Go ye down that widened hall,” said the groom with a haughty clipped voice, “and array ye your mounts with all haste, for thou art expected.”

My thoughts – 'the written format spoken' – were interrupted by a certain knowledge of needed care as I walked along the corridor between mounds of hay and bags of grain. While I had doubts – many doubts, and those of abiding nature – about this place and those in it, I had no doubts whatsoever about the dire need to care for both horses and buggies. The smell that clenched my nose spoke amply to confirm it, and I knew...

No, that word was not adequate. This was a degree of certainty that I had seldom felt before this trip, and only since being given to the pendant had it become 'common'.

Mule-traces had a deleterious effect upon hooves and iron, and even the mules themselves were not immune.

“Second kingdom counselor...”

These words echoed in my mind, and perhaps they faintly trod the air – and to hear them made for questioning:

Was this memory I was hearing?

Or was someone trying to 'speak'?

My suspicions of this matter grew, and only the sharp reek of 'mule' jolted me. I softly said, “we will need to watch carefully in here...”

“What is it?” asked Lukas.

“Dried straw for each horse, carefully cleaning each hoof, and the buggies...”

I felt clearly the rising rage-mingled fury of the 'groom', and I halted where I stood. My right hand went toward the flap closing my holster, even as I turned slowly and began retracing my steps, and the others stood still as I moved among them. Gilbertus was whispering in Sepp's ear, and the face of the latter spoke as if a plain-lettered sign. I could almost read...

“Hoof rot?” My words seemed to clang echoing in metallic fashion, even though I had whispered. I wondered more if what I heard was in my ears or in my mind. Again, I heard words, and repeated them.

“Mule-traces..?”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “They'll go lame in hours if we don't clean 'em carefully, and the buggy-irons will...”

I passed Kees, then Karl, and advanced upon the 'groom' himself. With each step I made, I saw his 'mask' becoming more and more 'shaky', and with each second, I saw more clearly 'disappointment' mingled with the 'fury' and 'rage' I had noticed earlier. At first, I thought to speak calmly and logically, with words of common sense to this man; and with each such thought, I knew clearer that it would be a total waste of time.

More importantly, I knew what this man would respond to – and I had no desire to speak in that fashion. I halted but feet away – well-clear of a possible knife-attack – and looked straight into the narrow miser's eyes of the man.

He looked at his feet. I then was certain of my words.

“We will come when it seems good to us,” I snapped, “and that will be when we have attended to our mounts and vehicles.” I paused, looked down, and saw the traces of green-gray muck left by a horse.

“You know what that stuff does, don't you?” I asked pointedly, as I pointed at the hoof-print. “If your animal steps in it, and you wish it to not go lame, you need to attend to its care as soon as you possibly can. Correct?”

I did not wait for a reply; instead, I continued.

“And that goes double for anything of iron,” I spat. “If our horses throw shoes, or our buggies break down, then getting them repaired in this area...”

“Is about impossible unless you either know the right people or are very wealthy,” said Kees, “and I suspect that 'or' needs to be replaced with 'and', now that I think about it. I just hope I can do a good enough job of cleaning, as I know my horse has walked in mule's slime.”

“Perhaps, uh, salaterus?” I asked. My voice had become normal as to tone.

“No, just a good wash and then drying,” said Lukas, “and the same for the irons. It might take us a turn of the glass to do 'em all, if that.”

I then left the 'groom' to his anger, and went to look after Jaak. He seemed uncommonly 'skittish', and when I inspected his right front hoof, I did not need to guess as to why.

“I'll fetch water directly,” I said softly, as I went looking for a bucket and pump.

It took perhaps two minutes of wandering for me to find a pump and buckets at the very end of the rows of stalls, and as I began working the pump to fill buckets, I heard steps coming closer. I turned to see Karl.

“What gives with that fellow?” he whispered.

“I am not entirely certain,” I said. “I have many and grave suspicions, however.” A brief pause, then, “we need to carefully bathe the horses' hooves, then dry them...”

“Good that you found the pump,” said Hendrik, as he came to see the two of us. “I can carry two buckets.”

I glanced around, and then noted a stone-lined area but feet away. The drain spoke volumes.

“Hah!” I spat. “That place there – a drain, the pump right here, and what looks like traces...”

Hendrik looked closely at me, then shook his head. I did not need to know his thoughts to discern his thinking.

“Bring them in this area one by one, perhaps?” I asked. “They clean their animals here, even if they stable them elsewhere...”

A faint bray seemed to come from all points of the compass, and Karl left post-haste.

With two 'scrubbers, a 'pumper', a 'carrier', and the rest drying, we had the horses done within a matter of ten minutes or so. I then thought to look at the buggies, and was surprised to hear the rattling sounds of wheels coming.

“How is that groom?” I asked quietly, as I began scrubbing a wheel with a close-cropped broom. The 'mule-muck' was not merely sticky, but very corrosive, for I'd found more than one 'eaten' place on this particular wheel.

“Still waiting, and getting irritable,” said Gilbertus. “I'm glad for those squibs and things, as this place is likely to want 'em.”

“He was irritable when I first spoke to him,” I said. “He's worse now, I take it.”

“I've seen worse,” said Gilbertus. “He thinks he can hide what he's feeling.”

“He's better that way than some,” I said, as I looked around. “Now I know one reason he didn't want us in here.”

“Why?” asked Gilbertus. He took the wheel I had just finished, and doused its rim with a dipper. Someone else had removed a few buckets, and I could hear speech regarding 'buggy-inspection'.

“Uh, no places for them to spy or listen,” I murmured. “The rest of the place is almost like the kingdom house at home that way.”

“That bad, eh?” said Gilbertus. “I hope we can get more ink-pots, then.”

I was about to speak when Hendrik came in with another wheel. He whispered to Gilbertus, then took the 'clean' wheel out. Gilbertus was clearly astonished.

“Yes?” I asked.

“It seems he spoke to someone about further supplies,” said Gilbertus, “including more ink-pots.”

With the horses 'stalled' and the buggies 'ready', I returned to where I had left the 'groom'. His facial expression was unreadable beyond 'exceeding irritation' – and I knew he was predominately irritated at me.

Silently he turned, then 'marched' to the door I had seen before, which proved to be locked. After extracting an obvious key from his clothing, he fitted the thing into the lower portion of the metal door-plate.

As he began twisting and wiggling the wood-handled key in the lower portion of the lock, I looked again at his clothing. I seemed to see not merely well-hid starched articles, but also some unusual underclothing – and within seconds, I could plainly hear rune-curses being chanted. They were not conventionally audible – or so I suspected.

The first of these curses was “Aieeeh-Skrull-Och,” and its meaning abruptly blasted into my mind.

“He's commanding the hosts of hell to enter into that lock so it will open for him!” I thought. “He's treating it as though it's, uh, alive, and he wants to have complete and total control over it!”

As if to answer, I heard another instance of 'needing a privy' – he was 'saying' “Pee! Pee! Pee!” - and again, I knew the meaning of this curse.

“He's naming himself an arch-witch,” I thought incredulously, “and so that lock has to do as he commands?” A brief pause. “What?”

The lock finally clicked with a sullen noise, and he brusquely thrust aside the door to hit the wall with a muffled thump. What lay beyond was a darkened hallway that flickered with pale yellowish light. I led off behind him as he resumed his 'marching', and when I passed the door, I looked carefully at the lock. For some reason, I wanted to speak to it.

“No hiding,” I thought, as I waved my hand past it while walking. “Do not let any more, uh, witches past you.”

The lockplate's darkened blues and blacks suddenly softened and became both more uniform and progressively lighter, and its now-soft mottled shades of gray seemed to grin at me behind a faint halo of light blue haze. I left it behind, and hurried to catch up to the 'groom'.

His footfalls rang steadily, much as if he were a black-dressed thug dragging his sword while marching the true-step, and amid the faint whining echoes, I seemed to hear matters of 'importance'. I had heard these statements before, and the chiefest one was that of the second kingdom's monarch.

“All count on you now?” I thought. There was no answer beyond the obvious one but a few feet ahead of me.

The flickering light glaring from each side of the current passage seemed vaguely smoky, and a glance showed sooty panes of glass partially hiding the sources of light. I paused at one of these, and saw an obvious 'fifth-kingdom candle' with a long and smoky flame; and at the next two, the same. The fourth example, however, shed more light than those sources I had examined before, and when I paused to look at the faintly hissing thing, I nearly collapsed.

“Th-that's a p-pressure lantern,” I gasped silently.

An instant's time spoke of much more: riveted brass construction, faint traces of soot on the glass globe, and a small painted area on the lantern's tank. This last depicted a long and scaly greenish reptile dressed in black formal wear, and the recollection of statements I had heard regarding 'Infernal' lanterns spoke of my seeing a prime example thereof.

The pathway steadily dropped below grade as we followed the marching 'groom', and after perhaps two hundred yards, we came to a corner heading left. I wondered about the distance, so much so that I suspected it was greater than the size of the 'upper works', and the thought that this location had its more-important portions underground grew rapidly in my mind.

“And to speak of it would be unwise,” I thought. “All of this, or nearly all of it, is my hands.” A brief pause, then, “all count on you now?”

Never had those words seemed so utterly and completely true as they did currently.

The current passage now slightly widened to show wide iron-bound doors to the right and left. I could feel secret passages of long and winding nature hiding behind most of them; and while the floor still was white and crystalline, I could feel trouble encompassing us round about. I glanced overhead, saw a blackened metallic latticework – and for an instant, a darkened face showed amid deep and concealing shadow.

“I'm not surprised,” I thought. “Blackbeard has his spies within and without. I'd keep matches handy, and ready the squibs.”

I hoped someone in our party had either heard my thinking or had noticed my behavior. Doors again to our right and left, the floor steadily sloping down like a mine's incline, and now drifts as well as doors. I half expected to see narrow-gage railways with mine-cars half-filled with some kind of ore.

The 'drifts' were dim and dismal, with poor lighting and what might have been dust and dirt lurking in their corners, and to each side of those I looked down, I saw more doors. Another turn, this one again to our left, and the doors and 'drifts' were gone to be replaced by a feeling of strangeness too difficult to put into words.

“What is up above us?” I asked softly.

The 'groom' halted in mid-stride, and as he turned slowly, I saw his 'mask' come up to hide a face hideously distorted by rage. He was about to explode, for I felt wave upon wave of intense 'anger' and mind-ravaging irritation billowing off of him; and as if he had spoken – no, yelled, and that at the top of his lungs – I heard the following:

“Be ye silent, ye over-fool, for I hath had sufficient of thine stupidities this day!”

He said nothing with his mouth, however, and he turned to resume his 'marching'. I could again hear the crash of the true-step along with the whining echoes, and when he turned another corner to the left, I knew 'the inner sanctum' was but a short distance further.

He proved my suspicions but a short time later, for he halted abruptly and turned slowly to point with outstretched arm. I turned to look, and saw a long arched-roof tunnel lit dimly and roofed with what looked to be smoke. It ended with another iron-bound door.

The groom about-turned, and now raised his feet high and slammed them down in an obvious version of the true-step. No longer did he attempt to hide what he was, even as he came up to the door to knock thrice softly. As I watched, an eye-level peephole hissed open, then closed with a clack seconds later – and then, the door itself opened with a faintly rusty creaking hiss to admit the 'groom'.

The door remained open to show a fabric drape. Again, my choice to enter; and this time, I did not hesitate.

Smells compounded of distillate, strong drink, rotten food – not just meat, but in general – and other odors too noxious to name pounded upon my nose, and when I came to the drape itself, I hesitated until I had 'looked' beyond it. The coast seemed 'clear', and I moved the drape aside softly with my left hand prior to entering the well-lit realm beyond, where I held the drape open for the others to pass. Once they had entered, I looked around.

The room we had entered was of astonishing size, with a wooden floor of awesome and spectral mottled black. The walls that I could see were covered with old wood of a dark and fine-grained species, while the light came from numbers of head-high windows hiding lanterns behind their glass panes.

On three walls, I saw dark-colored 'heavy-looking' wooden tables replete with carving and inlay mingled among other 'furnishings' of repulsive and filigreed ornateness, and the whole circumscribed three walls of the room. I turned toward the fourth, and found them absent.

Their place had been taken by a knee-high dais, with a gilded and carved wooden chair central upon it, and but feet from the juncture of floor and dais sat a row of ornate red-cushioned chairs. I looked closer at the central chair, even as I distinctly felt two doors in the wall opposite.

Doors that hid heavily armed thugs.

The chair had armrests tipped with black metal claws, and a multitude of forged iron struts supported each armrest. For some reason, I felt reminded of Henry the Eighth, and for once, I had an idea as to why.

“Th-that's a throne,” I thought.

Following hot upon such rapid – or perhaps, rabid – thoughts were more thoughts regarding doors hiding thugs. Those, I suspected, were but one of the innumerable local sources of trouble, while the chief instigator of trouble in the area was perched upon the 'throne'.

Gabriel had been utterly wrong as to ceremony, I now realized. The second kingdom had far more than it superficially showed; the third kingdom had less than the second, but showed all of what it had; the fourth kingdom had perhaps a trifle... And this place?

“It has more ceremony than everywhere else put together!” I thought.

Looking upon Blackbeard in the flesh, however, made for scarce-suppressed dry heaves, for he stank of much more than mere ceremony: he had not bathed in quite some time; he obviously enjoyed High Meats and strong drink, and those in abundance; his clothing, stiff as sheet-metal, reeked of 'expensive' starch; and finally, his face...

His narrow-eyed gaze was but partly hidden by a thatch of unruly long black hair, while his mustache-and-goatee-bordered mouth was open partly to show yellowed black-edged teeth. For some reason, I now thought of an 'oriental satrap' – and the joke that went with that label came abruptly to mind.

“Er, sand-trap,” I thought. The joke was an old one, and much needed in the face of such acute danger as I now felt.

Danger was not all I felt as we took our places on the seats; I could hear plainly scraps of 'speech', much like I had earlier, only in this instance, the speech was actually understandable and I recognized both the speaker and his attitude. The groom had vanished, and I glanced at Hendrik, whose grimace confirmed what I was hearing.

“This fellow” – these words, and those following them positively reeked with 'acid' – “must have studied the ways of Cardosso regarding attitude and inclination toward folly.”

“And?” I thought.

“Cardosso and his people respected titles more than all else,” 'said' Hendrik, “and all of the pendants had titles associated with them.” A pause, then, “if I address him and need to speak of you, what should you be called?”

“Er, something with 'defense', perhaps?” I thought. “I suspect I will be involved with that at some level, assuming this pendant doesn't devour me entirely.”

From the still-open door, faint thumping steps came, and the slow and doom-laden snapping noise was that of the true-step. Each succeeding step was louder than those before it, until the curtain flung itself aside to show an individual who was at once familiar and yet not so.

His black clothing was stiff with starch, and its near-metallic sheen seemed to spew forth unsuppressed 'righteousness' by some strange means. His boots – stiff, pointed, toe-rot-inducing – were only exceeded by the pot-and-saucer hat on his head and the expression on his face. This last was a typical miser's scowl enhanced by a species of rage beyond my comprehension, and as I looked him over for the 'last time' – I had seen his like enough to know they were all of a piece – I saw a long and coiled brass horn at his side.

The horn reminded me of a constipated snake.

With stiff and stylized movements that reeked of formality and roboticism, this man raised his horn to his lips to blow a long tooth-shaking note suitable for the summoning of swine. The ear-rupturing volume and horrible tone quality was such that I could think of another use for the horn.

“If ever a man needed to be hung out to dry,” I thought, “that man does – and using that accursed horn in lieu of a rope.”

However, when he lowered his horn – again, his movements looked appropriate to a robot – and then screamed as if in great pain, I wondered if he had ripped his insides apart by blowing his horn. Due to the strident nature of the hog-call, it took me over a second to decipher what he had screamed.

“Mere mortals, bow thineselves down and reverence his majesty, who art High-King of Niederland!”

I heard much beyond a peculiarly obnoxious form of the written format in these words, so much so that I had trouble between choosing laughter and an expression of purest disgust. More, I knew what I wasn't going to do, and my thoughts followed this knowledge.

“I don't care if this wretch thinks himself a latter-day version of that oven-stoking Babylonian king!” I thought. “He does not rate worship.”

The truth, however obvious to myself, meant nothing. This man believed as he felt inclined, he demanded his inclination be regarded as the truth, and he would accept nothing less than perfect mind-reading obedience to his slightest whim. To our right, the horn-blasting wretch bowed low from the waist, and to our rear, I 'saw' a small crowd of armed men doing likewise. The two previously 'hidden' doors were hidden no longer.

Hendrik stood, as did Kees and Gabriel, and I did as well. None of the three bowed. I did as they did, and when they retook their seats, I had a strong impression: such improprieties were not merely the overtopping height of rudeness, but regarded as potent evidence of witchcraft.

The wretch upon the throne had been irritated and angry, and his anger grew apace into something thicker and darker than it had been, while his inclination toward violence did likewise. Gabriel sat to my right. He turned to whisper in my ear.

“You may wish to show it.”

With exaggerated care, I gingerly removed the pendant from inside my shirt. The glow coming from the back arrested my hand in mid-move, and with widened eyes I looked upon the pendant's back to see all four lines burning brightly with flickering rage. I nearly dropped the pendant in surprise.

“I wasn't about to give that fool worship,” I thought. “He cannot keep me out of trouble.”

Clear as a bell tolled soft words within my mind, and I gave them close ear:

“He needs no dreams interpreted,” said the soft voice, “for he endures nightmares of crystalline clarity.” A brief pause. “He desires greatly the bleeding 'splendor' of the Sand-Trap.”

“What?” I thought. I had heard nothing of humor in those words.

“Should he remain as he is,” said the soft voice, “and you deal with him as he deserves, it will be no loss to the region.” Again, a brief pause. “You have sufficient trouble ahead with imported witches, and you do not need domestic witches helping them.”

Hearing the man upon the 'throne' named a witch decided my thoughts to a substantial degree, and I again looked upon his clothing. Why, I did not know, save the faint possibility of learning clues of some kind.

“The same tailor as every other black-dressed thug I've seen,” I thought, “and he's got more starch in that stuff than anything.” I then saw he had donned headgear.

“Pot-and-saucer hat, two mottled purplish feathers,” I thought, even as I recalled my inventory of a certain witch's clothing. “I wonder if he's wearing starched underclothing?”

As if to answer, he altered his position slightly. The relentless crackling spoke of 'sheet-metal' underwear.

Hendrik moved slightly, then stood. I could clearly see he had his work cut out for him, and as he spoke, I wondered if he was being heard.

“That witch to the north is betting the farm a year from this coming harvest,” he said, “and when she comes, she will come with all she has.” Hendrik paused. “She will bring every witch, every sword, every ax, dagger, pig, soldier, and ship she can muster...”

“Dynamite,” I thought. “They have dynamite and distillate now.”

Hendrik seemed to have not heard me, for he continued with his own thoughts. I suspected omission of Norden's latest achievements did not matter to the man on the throne.

“She comes with the goal of killing all not her people,” he said, “and burning all else.” Another brief pause. “If we win against them, they are done – and if they establish even a small foothold to the north, then we” – here, Hendrik spoke with added emphasis – “are done.”

Blackbeard responded in the manner I had expected: his eyes narrowed further until they resembled slits, and he leaned forward slightly while his mustache and goatee bristled as if electrified.

I had never before seen such blatant aggression, even as he put his thin-fingered hand under his chin so as to 'think' – and once he had done so, I noticed the glowing.

He, his 'throne', the floor near him, and indeed the air surrounding him, now glowed a faint yet obvious neon red-orange. He removed his hand to his side, then scowled like a miser before speaking.

“That be no concern of mine,” he spat in a high-pitched voice. “I have this realm for mine own, and my pleasure is mine sole concern.” He paused for a fraction of a second, even as the neon red-orange grew more obvious and covered more of him. His eyes now glowed with a feral orange-red light.

“All that lives here exists solely for the pleasure of mine whim,” he said. I could hear much beyond what he said audibly. “Those who be to the north can rot, and that such that I am well pleased.” He paused. “It will serve such over-fools well indeed to be ground underfoot by witches, yea, and when they art crushed and slaughtered, those slaves that remain alive shall learn ere they die of those rules that truly govern existence.”

Again, he paused. I wasn't certain if he was inclined toward emphasis of his words, or not.

“Yea, and them who die shall die screaming,” he snarled, “and mine joy shall be made complete.”

His red-fired face had acquired a reptilian aspect, and when he darted his head toward me, I saw his forked serpent's tongue lick his thin and scaly lips. In a hissing tone, he addressed me:

“Thou” – he spoke as if addressing an object to which he assigned human attributes for the pleasure of his whim – “art not to the North. Thou art within mine chambers.” He paused. “And all that be found within my grasp art mine for my taking, and so thou art.”

He paused again, licking his lips, and his fangs showed blood-dripping and predatory within a face that portrayed evil bereft of humanity. Red-glaring fires usurped his eyes, and his black-nailed hands had morphed into the talons of a monster. With a voice I heard in two ears at once – in one ear, the oily-sounding voice of a cruel and vicious human fiend, and in the other, a roaring maelstrom imported from Hell itself – he spoke his final Faustian bargain:

“What thou wearest interests mineself,” he said. “Come hither, that I might take it to have for mine own.” A brief pause, then, “thou hast no need of such baubles, and my desire be greater than thine.”

Asking questions, save of one person, was a complete waste of time. Only one person had the answer, and I knew beyond all doubt that person was not me.

I stood from my seat, looking around myself seemingly in an instant while my mind raced.

He would not comprehend anything smacking of rudeness.

Nor would he endure mere words.

His type understood action, and little else.

Nonetheless, I needed to speak what words I could.

“This pendant only tolerates the one whose name is inscribed upon its back,” I said flatly. “Yours is not present.”

“Rubbish,” he spat. “Such things be but lies writ long ages ago.”

I looked intently at the man, and as I watched, his visage – and voice – changed so drastically and quickly that I nearly fell to my seat in boneless shock.

“Be that one the last of such things?” he asked wolfishly. “If it be so, then I desire it greatly, for it giveth its bearer dominion over all this world.” He paused. “Bringest thou that bauble, and give it me, lest I take it by force of arms.” Another pause. “Regardless, thou art dead at mine command, for thou shalt not leave mine presence with thine life.”

I felt a cold metallic cylinder in my right hand, and I knew not what to do with it. I took a slow and unsteady step toward the 'throne', and then another. I could feel movement at the back of the room, and with sudden shock amid slowing time, I knew those thugs behind me were aiming weapons.

I needed to act.

“Possess and implement... Much will depend...”

I twisted around too fast to think.

“Upon your actions...”

I threw the cap I had palmed and then dropped down on bent knees such that my head was even with the tops of the chairs.

“Both here...”

A firing line had formed at the back of the room, and the shooters had their weapons cocked and aimed. The cap flew like a bullet and struck the hammer of one of the rifles nearest the center – and the crack of the cap's explosion was answered by thundering roars as the shooters volleyed.

“And in the future.”

Bullets howled over my head, and as the echoes began to fade in my ringing ears, I heard an unending scream of pain.

I ignored the screamer and his agony, and reached into my bag for an ink-globe, even as those in the chairs were but beginning to realize something had happened. I cocked my arm, then threw the squib.

The glossy globe flew like a tracer bullet, and the sparks and smoke-trail spoke of a burning fuse – until suddenly, the bomb abruptly hooked to the right and dove down into an open-topped sporran.

A thug was reaching into it, most likely to reload, and the sporran disintegrated in a brilliant red-orange blossom of fire that sent three thugs flying bonelessly into the air.

My hands were not idle, even as I watched raptly amid screams and other noises, and I had palmed another bomb when one of those in the chairs tossed a squib toward the back of the room. The smoke-trail and sparks of the slow-flying globe spoke of a lit fuse.

Several of the still-standing thugs were collapsing in slow motion. That bomb had a date with their feet, and it exploded at knee-level but a few feet in front of them. Two of the thugs dropped in place, even as my second squib took flight.

The smoke-trail spoke of straight and level flight nearly half the distance, then an abrupt curve and dive followed by a circling movement as it 'flew' but inches above the floor. The open door near the right corner erupted in billows of blue-gray smoke and white flashes followed by the boneless bodies of several thugs that landed outside in a crumpled heap.

Those thugs still standing seemed in shock, and their clumsy movements as they attempted reloading spoke of abject terror. Something fell to the floor, and the thug who had dropped it followed it down mutely to then flop feebly.

I turned my back upon the room's rear mayhem, and now looked at the 'throne'. Its squirming occupant had a sagging left shoulder, and the upper left portion of his black-cloth shown with a peculiarly liquid sheen.

Instantly, I knew the following:

He'd been struck in the upper left torso near the shoulder, rendering his left arm useless.

The source of the sheen was blood, and the puddle forming on the dais was frothy and bright red.

The nature of his injury spoke of a cause far worse than a common musket ball.

“Minié 'ball'?” I thought. I had read about their lethal ways. I was now seeing what they could do.

He would die quickly, unless God intervened on his behalf.

With such grim knowledge present, I drew my sword. The hissing sound seemed to ring in the room; the man on the dais seemed oblivious to all save his wound. I turned, and took a step closer.

There was not a shred of hesitancy in my steps. His squirming grew feebler before my eyes. His eyes, wide open shock-staring, had fastened upon the blade in my hand. I had but little in my mind beyond the need to tell him the truth – and then, take matters from there.

His blood had spread quickly, and his throne was now dripping redness here and there. Much of his clothing was wet with blood.

“Two choices,” I said. My voice was a flat uninflected monotone. “Either change your heart and ways in totality, or learn of Brimstone's table manners.” A brief pause. “You have but a few minutes to make your choice, and endure the consequences thereof.” Another pause. “Which shall it be, sir?”

He moaned feebly amid yet-feebler squirms.

“That answer is not satisfactory,” I said. Again, the same flat monotone. “Those people are reloading, those of them who can.” I paused, this time for emphasis. “Either tell them to lay down their weapons and back away from them, or they will regret their decisions in hell.”

He did not speak. His faint smile was hidden beneath waves of pain. I still saw it clearly.

I turned and simultaneously dropped to my knees, then leaped to the side as one of the men fired at me. He'd come within six feet of the chairs somehow, and as I leaped to my feet, I saw a cartwheeling black object flying through the air in pursuit of the hobbling assassin as he turned toward the rear of the room. I went to ground as a massive eruption of brilliant white flashed next to the thug's head.

Most of those still standing fell to the floor. But a few remained standing.

I saw the brass tip of a powder flask poking out of the mouth of a 'sporran'. Idly, I thought the word 'explode'.

The entire back of the room erupted in crimson flames and billows of powder smoke as bodies flew crazily to land with muffled thuds. The explosions pounded hard upon my ears, even as a thick gray billowing wall of powder smoke now blocked off the entire rear half of the room.

“Good,” I thought. “They should leave us alone now.” I turned back toward the front of the room.

The man upon the dais had barely open eyes, and as I stepped closer, I saw details – pallid face, clustered beads of sweat, rapid breathing, and slowing blood-flow – that told me plenty.

“You will die within a very few minutes,” I said flatly.

He moved his mouth slowly, as if trying to speak. Faintly, I heard the words 'help me'.

“No!” I growled. “I will not help you. One word, two choices. God or the Devil. Choose!”

“Hide me,” he sobbed.

I shook my head, then said 'blithely', “hiding you as you are will send you straight to the plate of Brimstone, and that as a meal.” My voice now dripped with acid. “If you like Brimstone that much, then perhaps you should dine with him.” I paused. “Isn't that what the phrase 'Sup with Brimstone' means?”

Amid screams of agony, the man's spilled blood caught fire and blazed hot and red to envelope both the throne and its occupant in seething red-yellow flames. Black smoke wreathed the room as I shuddered soundlessly.

“N-no, no fire,” I mumbled in shock. “He has not chosen yet.” The flames went out abruptly. “If he chooses to burn, then let him do so.”

A thick and fatty aroma – the scent of burnt flesh – now reeked in my nostrils. The man upon the throne was engulfed by terror amid the ashes of his clothing, and I came closer.

The sword in my hand wavered slightly side-to-side, much as if it were hungry for the blood of evildoers, and the point seemed fixated upon the gasping chest of the man.

Much as if I were inclined to 'run him through'.

And knowing sure and certain that if I killed him, I would not stop with his death: I would cut off his head to adorn a pole, cut his remainders in pieces to bag and then hang to rot – and then put the entirety of the city to the torch, with the goal of killing all living things I found within it and then destroying the entire area completely.

“What?” I thought, even as I realized my thinking thusly was a distraction. I put it out of my mind prior to speaking.

“I would choose if I were you,” I said, in a flat emotionless monotone “and I know who I would choose.”

A pause, half a second perhaps.

“Should you choose wrongly, it will be no loss. You will burn.”

Another pause, this briefer than that before.

“You have seen it happen, and felt the flames of the burn-pile – and that at my questioning, not my choice. That says that God's patience with you is at an end.”

His moaned reply was barely audible. It made for a mental question upon my part.

“Is he in shock, or is he stalling?” I wanted an answer, and did not receive one.

I raised my left hand, turning my palm to face me, and motioned slightly with my index finger. My message was 'come', and to my entire and complete surprise, his limp and bloody body lifted slowly off of his 'throne' and drifted toward me while leaving a slow-growing trail of blood. He halted but three feet away from me still hanging motionlessly in midair.

I felt angry, for reasons unknown, and fury filled my next words.

“You are a brigand,” I snarled, “and you killed any and all that stood in your way, such that you and yours hold this region by evil means. You lie when it suits you, you kill when you feel inclined – and, not least, you specifically wished my death.”

I paused, this time for emphasis. He needed to hear the next portion.

“I suspect that makes you a witch,” I spat.

In the corner of my eye I saw 'movement', and I turned while moving to the side and dropping to my knees. Seconds later, a blood-sheeted black-dressed thug staggered from amid the clouds of smoke, his weapon cocked and shouldered amid a faint cloud of reddish haze. The weapon's muzzle waved and shook crazily, even as he tried to aim at me.

I thought one thing, and that clearly:

“Sup with Brimstone, witch!”

The reddish haze instantly changed into flames amid an eruption of gouting sparks, and as the roar of his burning cudgeled my hearing, I saw his clothing vanish as if made of 'celluloid'. He writhed soundlessly as his weapon fell from nerveless fingers; his skin vanished in a flash, followed by his flesh; and as his barren skeleton rotted into powdery dust before my eyes, I noted the gun was still falling.

His powdered body formed a dusty cushion that the gun sent flying in a thick and acrid cloud, and amid the settling dust, I heard first a deathly scream, then a rumbling reptilian roaring sound. I could almost feel spiky teeth ripping into my body.

The fading echoes in my mind became background noise within perhaps half a second, and I turned back to the still-dangling 'problem'. My sword wavered slightly, as though it scented blood and was howling for his death.

“Now where was I?” I asked acidly. “That man was a witch, and I told him in my thoughts to burn.” A brief pause, then, “it seems he did.” My voice abruptly gained both rage and volume; it became a vicious echoing growl. “Have you made up your mind, or do you wish to burn as your fully-owned witch-slave just did?”

He feebly shook his head. He was almost bled dry.

“I have not heard a satisfactory answer,” I snarled, as I brandished my sword. “You need carving.”

Quicker than thought my sword moved to make three horizontal slices joined by a single diagonal example. He moaned feebly, then somehow looked down upon his chest.

I'd sliced him to the bone, and the raw and open slices scarce showed sign of blood.

“Not enough blood left to bleed,” I thought.

This thinking, however, was but the appetizer, for I now looked at the faint traces of blood at the tip of my sword. The movement had been so rapidly the four slices had appeared as if by 'magic'. “I might have managed to count to four...” was an epoch compared to the hazy eyeblink of time I had needed. He now seemed to be in a coma.

“No, not yet,” I muttered, “and no shock, either. Another thirty seconds, please.” A pause, then more muttering, this time mostly to myself.

“I have no idea why he has not chosen God yet. Any sane man would have done so after being shot like he was.” I then raised my voice, and the tone spoke of consternation:

“Are you sane?”

Moving slow, his epiglottis waggled. I put the point of my bloody sword at that portion which had just moved. I had a precise idea, one of crystalline clarity, and I would act upon it, now; he had chosen Brimstone. I would take his head so as to spike it. His city would burn, and all in it would die.

I jerked my hand, and the point of the sword entered his throat. He shook, then screamed.

“Help me, please!”

I ignored his call to Brimstone, and slowly and with grim relish continued to push the tip of my sword into his neck. I would but need to wiggle my hand slightly to remove his head, and I knew where I could find an iron pole ready-sharpened so as to impale it.

More importantly, I had no desire to hear his witch-drivel. He needed to burn in hell where he belonged. I was past caring. I wanted him dead.

“G-god, pl-please, forgive me,” he whispered.

I halted in mid-twitch, then yanked my sword from his neck in a flash. He fell to the floor in a crumpled heap to lie there as if dead.

“Now what?” I asked. “Is he..?”

There was no answer, save a feeble inclination to wait. I thought to speak, for some reason.

“If you still live, then what you spoke suffices,” I said to the 'corpse', “and assuming you are not elsewhere...”

“...Hell...” rang in my mind.

“Then you first must be cleaned up, and that properly,” I said evenly. “That is very needed, as a dirty rag is worthless when the dishes need cleaning.” I glanced around aimlessly, seeing a still-as-a-statue room clotted with powder smoke and reeking of blood. “There is a great deal of housecleaning you must do. It may well start in here, but...”

“...Rise Up...”

Again, words in my mind. I was not hearing them conventionally, but in some other fashion.

“But rest assured, it does not end in this house,” I said. “This entire, uh, area, needs to be cleaned, cleaned thoroughly, cleaned well, and purged completely of any and all traces of evil...”

“Rise up, and...”

I looked around, wondering as to what I was hearing and wondering if I were making a heinous error. Had I heard wrongly? Had I become a worse fool than this man by doing what I had done? Words bloomed in my mind and erased the distraction.

“You shall now meet your judge,” I mumbled, “and no, that person isn't me.” I shuddered inside with a grimace of distaste at the very idea. I wasn't popular enough to be a judge.

My mouth had continued without me in some fashion, and I caught up with it. Now I could speak knowingly and with understanding.

“I am not fit to clean the lowest privies in that court,” I said with finality. “Come.”

The ceiling seemed to shake, even as I raised my eyes. Faint glowing traceries limned the darkened blocks overhead; they commenced spreading, and then with a long and drawn-out shuddering rumble, the ceiling vanished and was replaced by thick and agile billows of bluish-white fire.

I reached down, picked up the corpse – he was growing perceptibly stiff and cold – and tossed him into the clouds, where he vanished without a trace. I then felt in my possible bag for a rag, found one, and went to a chair so as to clean my sword.

“Now how could he have spoken, given I'd put two inches of steel in his throat?” I thought, as I cleaned the tip.

The silence of the others was astonishing, so much so that when I stood to insert my sword in its scabbard, I thought to look to see if they had been 'taken over'. I was about to check Gabriel when I heard a muffled thump behind me. I turned, and did not understand what I was seeing.

The corpse I had tossed had been returned to life, though with marked changes. His boots and hat had vanished, and where he had once had had long greasy hair, a goatee, and a long ragged mustache, he now had bare scalp and skin, all of it liberally hacked by a dull razor. His black clothing had vanished.

His clothing had been replaced by a shapeless rough-stitched bag of what resembled 'burlap', with ragged frayed holes for his head and arms.

His skin was a dusky – and dusty – mottled gray, and the whole formed an indelible picture in my mind. I recalled from history the term for his clothing, and had trouble believing what I was seeing. The dread descriptive phrase ran roughshod through my mind as he stirred feebly amid the acrid-tasting mounds of dust that had somehow accompanied him.

“Sackcloth and ashes?” I thought, as I walked slowly nearer. I knelt down some few feet away, well clear of the ashes and dust. With each of his movements, however, I seemed to faintly feel something like coarse sandpaper grinding on my skin.

“Your clothing was closer to sheet metal with all of its starch,” I said softly. I looked down at my arm, and noticed a scratch. I wondered how it had gotten there. “What you are wearing does not seem much of an improvement.” I paused, and softly rubbed my other arm – and jerked my hand away in alarm to then look at my right hand.

“That felt like broken glass,” I thought, even as both arms now burned and itched. I continued speaking seconds later.

“Do you have proper clothing?” I asked – and my trousers twitched twice, much as if someone had put a measuring cup of large and irritated ants inside them. I wanted to scratch, only my shirt was feeling as if Sarah had somehow put a thistle under each armpit.

The former 'thug' struggled to his knees and fell face-down, where he now wept and moaned. Nothing he said was understandable to me, and to see him weep bothered me greatly. I turned toward the others – they had awoken, seemingly – and asked in a frightened voice, “what does all of this mean?”

“This is the day of retribution,” said Hendrik, “and it looks as if he acquired sense.” A brief pause, then, “I have never seen such clothing as his, nor have I heard of it.”

“S-sackcloth and ashes?” I thought. “What..?”

Hard upon the heels of such thinking came the recollection of what 'sackcloth' was actually like near home. I glanced down at my trousers, and touched them – and knew that the same type of cloth was used for both. I then looked at the returnee.

“Th-that stuff is worse than anything I've ever seen, including sandpaper,” I thought. “Was the stuff in the book this bad?” I then answered Hendrik.

“S-sackcloth is spoken of in the book,” I said evenly, “and the term 'sackcloth and ashes' is associated with repentance.” A brief pause, during which I touched my trousers and jerked my hands away. “Not 'commonplace' repentance, either. This is when the person is willing to do whatever is required to make things right with God and those they have wronged.”

My clothing was becoming steadily more uncomfortable, and I muttered, “and what he's wearing doesn't look at all comfortable, and discomfort is a distraction I have great trouble enduring.”

An unearthly scream came from beneath the man, then he lifted his head slightly as he moaned faintly.

“S-starch is the way of evil,” he shrieked. I felt cut-off from humanity at his utterance. “It is now cinders, and they cut like knives.” Brief pause. “Black-cloth is the way of evil, and it has become a cheap sack to hold rotting meat and dead bones.” Another pause, this one briefer. “Woe is me, for I am as Cardosso was, and I sought to become as he was in all possible ways.”

I shook my head, and nearly shrieked with the sensation of sandpaper against the back of my neck before saying, “he needs more comfortable clothing badly.”

I bent down so as to pick him up, and nearly screamed at the touch of his clothing. It felt as if made of woven barbed wire, and what I was wearing seemed to be something too similar to tell apart – and to top it all, I felt so incredibly itchy that I nearly went into a convulsion.

Yet still, I lifted him up, and turned toward the others.

“Where... Ouch! Do they have c-clothing here?” I asked. “Ouch! Maybe they have s-something...”

I nearly screamed with the pain. I felt as if my skin was being torn off piecemeal, and when I looked closer at the row of chairs, it proved to be 'absent'. Neither chairs nor their occupants were currently in the room.

With no answer, I knew myself to be alone. I would need to find the clothing myself, presuming it was available. I turned toward the cloth covering the doorway, and took a first and tentative step.

“Ouch!” I shrieked.

The horn-blower was long gone, and with each step, I seemed to not merely feel as if torn apart, but I seemed to hear convulsive sobbing. I passed slowly down the hallway, each step a blazing paroxysm of pain wracked by more of such sobbing. I paused to listen.

“He's w-weeping,” I thought, even if I could not understand a single word.

Nor did I need to. My skin felt as if it was being ripped to shreds.

At the juncture of hallway and larger passage, I paused to look up. Here, the ceiling had vanished to be replaced by roiling blue-white clouds of fire, and the floor was part-carpeted with people laying prostrate amid slow-growing puddles of moisture. I was glad none of them were wearing 'sandpaper', for with each step, I was learning more and more about such clothing.

Some fifty feet and a half-dozen people away, I saw a thin woman with dark hair. I walked around those laying upon the floor, and with each step, I heard faint crackling noises underfoot. The aspect of 'crispy' was too hard to ignore, even if I could not trace the source of it.

The woman I had seen reminded me more than a little of Sarah, and the recollection of the latter woman made it slightly easier to walk closer. I came to her side, knelt down with care, and asked, “dear, where is the clothing?”

“Down the hall three doors, and then right,” she said. Her voice rang in my mind, and I could almost see Sarah in front of me. “I am glad this is happening, for I have longed for it ever so long.”

I left 'Little Miss Strange' behind me, and continued my dodging ways until I came to the doorway in question. It too led to a long dim-lit corridor, and when I came to the door, I asked it to open. The clacking sound, followed by grinding creaks, made me wonder what kind of a room we had come to.

The pulsating lighting, the reek of distillate, and the profound smells otherwise spoke of a very unpleasant place, and I moved slowly into the room.

Ahead lay a floor-to-ceiling screen made of lath and dark-brown cloth, and I walked to the right once I'd come to it. A long table formed an aisle between screen and table, and to my right past several rows of shorter tables I saw numbers of wooden 'cabinets'. For some reason, I knew their contents to be unsuitable, and I continued on.

Another tall screen blocked my forward path, and I could only go right or left. I wanted right, for some reason, and when I came to another dim-lit hall, I hurried along it, until I came to another door. It proved unlocked at my request, and I hurried inside.

“Oh, my,” I thought. “This place has...”

I wasted no time, and found a stool for my burden. I set him down, then looked at one of the 'racks' as he continued weeping.

“I'm looking for comfortable clothing for you,” I said, as I glanced in his direction. I had found piled-high trousers of some kind, and touching them spoke of clean well-used cloth.

It took perhaps a minute or two to find likely-looking shirt and trousers for the man, and I returned to where he sat with the clothing in my arms. I knelt down with them in my arms, and said, “here, put these on.”

He looked up with a face so utterly changed that I could not recognize him, and he silently took both in hand as he wobbled to his feet. I turned away, even as I heard the sounds of clothes falling to the ground, and I retraced my steps through the smelly region back out into the hall.

I needed to find that woman, for her resemblance to Sarah was too much to be a coincidence, and when I found her, she was still prostrate upon the floor. I knelt by her side again, and was surprised to find my sensation was now utterly normal.

“What do you do here, dear?” I asked.

“Laundry,” she said. She did not look up. “Why?”

“You remind me greatly of someone,” I said, “and there is something on the ceiling that you need to see. I suspect it has come for you.”

Abruptly, she ceased weeping, and as I heard her do so, I recognized a profound difference between her and most of the others in the hall; her tears had been mostly tears of joy, rather than the fear or sorrow I had heard from many of the others. She looked up.

She howled with giddy laughter – and then from a prostrate position, she sprang up into the cloud as if by 'magic'.

“What?” I gasped. “That was j-just like S-Sarah, and her face...”

Again, I saw Sarah's face, and I compared the two. They weren't twins, but the resemblance was astonishing just the same – and for far more than merely facial features. I recalled the resemblance between Katje and Maria, as well as some other people I had seen, and went back into the 'tailor's' shop.

I now noticed the smells far more, and amid the combined stenches of strong drink and bad food I faintly heard the sounds of acute illness. I was stunned and shocked to see the man I had brought inside fouling a roll of cloth with the contents of his stomach, and I grasped his hand and led him out at the run.

“Urargh-Ptttaaah!” was the sole noise he could make until I had gotten him well clear of that room. I thought to ask him a question.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

He gave forth another instance of dry heaves, then said in a quiet high-pitched voice, “that place makes me sick.”

“It does?” I asked. “How?”

“B-bad f-f-food and w-worse drink,” he said. “I ate nothing else for years, and now all of that food makes me ill to smell it.”

He then looked at me. With his eyes, he seemed to ask questions, much as if his mouth were too afraid to speak words that might be the type beloved of witches.

“Uh, come with me to that one room,” I murmured. “At least someone can look after you there while I check on things around here.”

I moved around the people still face-down upon the floor, and now saw that the situation applied to the entire length of the hallway. More importantly, I saw obvious vacancies compared to minutes ago, and while I guided the erstwhile king back to his 'office', I saw a most-plausible reason why.

Two people, one an elderly man and another a woman barely out of her teens, leaped for the sky and vanished.

I thrust aside the cloth to find the others present in the still-smoky room. Their glassy-eyed mien, as well as their waxy pallor, spoke of something I could not identify, and when I went to the man on the end furthest from where I had sat – Karl – I waved my hand in front of his face. I then asked him to wake up.

He suddenly jolted, then asked, “what happened to me?”

“I think we were ridden somehow,” said Lukas, “though that was the strangest riding I ever heard of.”

“How?” I asked.

“I wasn't able to move or speak,” he said, “but I could see and hear everything.”

“When?” I asked.

“When that man...” Lukas looked around in complete confusion, for the previously fussily-neat room was now a shambles. The 'throne' had gone to charred crumbled coals amid still-glowing iron pieces and ashes, while...

“Good, that wretch with the horn will never blow again,” said Sepp with satisfaction. “Someone aired out his smelly hide.”

“What?” I gasped. “How did th-those s-squibs...”

“I wanted to toss one,” said Lukas, “but when that witch on that chair spoke of taking the pendant, I froze to my seat.”

“As did we all,” said Hendrik. “We only 'woke up' when you awoke us.”

“You spoke that way..?” I asked.

“It was as he said,” said Hendrik. “I saw everything that happened, including those bombs you threw.” A brief pause, then, “I had no idea you had secured dynamite.”

“I, uh...” I gagged. I wanted to scream, as I knew someone was tossing things, and I wanted answers. I glanced at the man I had returned with, noted fast-fading scratch-marks over most of his body, and retraced my steps to the hallway.

Perhaps I would find answers there.