The road more traveled, part z.


There were fewer people laying prostrate than there had been prior, and as I walked carefully among those who still wept, I listened carefully. I could still feel the presence of great evil in the area, so much so that when I came to the passage leading to the tailor's shop, I again turned that way.

“It stinks in here,” I thought, “and I can feel some real trouble back this way. That man will need all the help he can get in this place.”

The pulsating lighting was a harbinger of trouble, and when I came to the threshold, I had an intimation, one too difficult to ignore. I reached in my bag for a candle as I all but ran to the nearest lantern.

It was hanging from a tall wooden stand, and the half-transparent aura of reddish fire I saw enfolding it was enough for me to blow hard at the chimney.

The lantern shook violently as its fire went out, and the bubbling hisses I heard for but a second as I ran to the next such lantern told me to do likewise there.

With each lantern's extinguishing, I continued on, until I came to the last example. It seemed ripe for mischief, so much so that I blew the thing out without thinking – and with a muffled booming thump, I was tossed onto my back to land in utter pitch darkness. I could feel slow-settling soot in the air.

“W-what happened?” I asked softly, as I picked myself up from the floor.

“That lantern was on the verge of exploding,” said the soft voice. “You caught it just in time.”

I sat up, then stood shakily amid the darkness. The reek of distillate had redoubled, so much so that I thought it wise to go outside so as to light my candle, and I began heading toward the door. As I did, I heard and felt a faint thrumming start up from below, and by the time I had reached the juncture of room and hallway, I felt a gentle breeze flowing past my face.

“Light your candle from one of the places outside,” said the soft voice, “and then wait a few minutes before going back inside that room.”

“So that the fumes dissipate?” I asked There was no answer.

Getting a light from a walled-off lantern proved more time-consuming than I thought it would be, for the panes of glass were fastened to the walls in a less-than-obvious fashion. Once I had my candle lit, however, I was 'ready', or so I thought until Karl came up to me.

“Yes?” I asked. “There's this room with something bad in it...”

“That one I was in has a lot of bad things,” he said. “The smoke is just starting to clear enough to go out of that place near the front.”

“Uh, watch for thugs?” I asked.

“One of them tried for me,” said Karl, “and I poked him.”

“Is that why you're out here?” I asked.

“That, and just sitting on those chairs is boring,” said Karl. “What is in that room?”

Karl was pointing at the 'tailor's shop' when he spoke, and I recounted what I had seen, smelled, and suspected. After hearing what I had spoken of, he thought being 'bored' while seated on fancy red-upholstered chairs wasn't nearly as bad as he had first thought.

Upon returning to the evil-smelling room, I needed to check my gorge amid the mingled stinks of distillate, strong drink, and unhealthy foods. I listened carefully, even as the candle's flame threw long flickering shadows over tables and screens I had not seen during my previous incursions.

“No, no one in here except me,” I thought. “Now where is that bad food? It needs to go.”

I turned left at the first screen, and walked along its length until it came to an end about ten feet from the nearest wall. Turning right so as to look behind it showed another screen, and coming to its edge showed a pair of long tables laid out with cloth and tailor's 'tools'. The 'evil' was not among them, and I returned to the front of the screen.

Moving along the wall to the left gave a sense of 'warmer', and I continued slowly, watching carefully the whole time. The reek of the bad food and worse drink seemed to be steadily increasing in potency, and I nearly spewed once when a particularly bad gust of 'stink' climbed bodily up my nose. Past another screen, then a third, and in the corner of the room, I found a table covered with what looked like badly-made gray-blotched cloth.

I removed the cloth to find numbers of 'familiar-looking' silver dishes with their lids besides each such example, and the exotic smells of 'spices' attempting to hid the reek of rotten meat made for a desire to run before I spewed.

“Why am I not spewing now?” I wondered, even as I saw several wide silver pans that reminded me of coffins, “especially given those... What?”

I had spied a once-covered pan filled to capacity with strange-looking creatures, ones that took seconds to recognize as squabs. Unlike those I had seen in the second kingdom, these still had their appendages present, as well as silver-handled 'plugs' of some kind roosting in their backsides. As I looked closer – I was feeling sick, but not sick enough to need a privy – the birds went gauzy, and I saw the purpose of the 'plug'.

“D-do-it-yourself evisceration?” I gasped, as the dry heaves started and I checked my gorge. “What are they trying to prove?”

The only answer lay before me, and I replaced the silver cover. The odor seemed lessened immediately.

Next to the 'evil birds' lay pale oblongs of pasty nature shaped like stereotypical coffins. Their faint browned aspects, as well as their foul smell, made for a sense of wondering – and for some reason, I felt impelled to turn one of them over. I found a silver 'serving fork' – highly polished, yet otherwise crude, with dents and file-marks everywhere – and picked one of them up.

“S-secret markings,” I muttered. The serving fork and loaf dropped from my nerveless hand to land upon the dish with a clatter, and the loaf showed its true nature by splitting open to show a gray pasty interior that reeked with foulness.

Steps came from behind, and I turned to see Gabriel. He was holding his nose, and when he spoke, his nasal voice made for wondering.

“This stuff all needs to go,” I muttered, as my gut tried to escape through my mouth. “Anything happen in that other room?”

“Two more thugs showed,” said Gabriel, “and Sepp shot them both when they tried drawing swords.”

“Do we have to do housecleaning here, or..?”

“It may be wise,” said Gabriel. “There are a fair number of persons who have changed, but they seem to be 'commons'. Those that would be called betters have either left, or are hiding.”

I felt in my possible bag for my ledger, then began drawing the 'edible horrors' while Gabriel looked on. He was still holding his nose.

“Those?” I asked, when I pointed to a pan of cabbage-leaf packages.

“Schalatplinken,” said Gabriel. “Those over there are Nudeln...”

“They look like tapeworms,” I muttered. “Those small round things, in that, uh, nasty-looking mud?”

“Baaswitschen,” said Gabriel, “and that 'mud' is their sauce.”

“It's mud as far as I can tell,” I muttered. “It isn't edible, and more, this stuff means, uh...”

“Yes?” asked Gabriel. “What does it mean?”

“The people that like this stuff tend to either be witches, or desire that kind of a life,” I said, “and...”

“And what?” asked Gabriel, as I began feeling in my possible bag for 'something'.

“They like this stuff,” I muttered, even as I recalled what I had told Karl about poisoning pigs. “Handfuls of spices, eh?”

“What are you speaking of?” asked Gabriel.

“Madame Curoue,” I said, as my hands closed upon the small vials. “That arsenic I confiscated from Kees.”

Gabriel looked at me with a face I could not decipher.

“Those?” I asked.

“Noegen,” said Gabriel. “How will you put arsenic in that food?”

I removed one of the vials, uncorked it, then began 'dusting' the food. To my complete surprise, the off-white powder vanished utterly upon contact with the various viands. Once I'd 'dusted' the food, however, Gabriel had a question.

“How did you pour that much arsenic out of that small of a vial?”

“I have no idea,” I said, “and I have even less of an idea how that stuff seemed to vanish like it did.” I began putting the cover back over the food – until I noticed the jugs. Those received the contents of a second vial, and I resumed covering the food.

“There was something 'bad' in here,” I muttered, “and I need to find it.”

While Gabriel left, I continued looking. Each nook and cranny in the place held its secrets, and as I checked carefully, I thought about the possibilities of 'rigging the place' beyond turning the food I'd found into 'rat-poison' – even as I found another trio of jugs.

I dosed those also with a third vial of arsenic, and as I continued with my searching, I again felt the aspect of 'getting warmer'. I came to another screened-off area – the whole room seemed to have its 'cliques', each with its own territory and supplies – and peered behind the nearest screen.

A long and somewhat narrow table was joined to two others to form a 'T' figure. Numerous long and irregular rolls of 'common' cloth stood on end near one end of the screen, while on the tables themselves stood several thick and malodorous rolls of 'congealed night' masquerading as dark-colored 'cloth'. I came closer to one of these rolls, and then saw what was keeping it in position...

The faintly reddish glow that invested the strange-looking cast-iron 'perch' made for an instant's wariness until I saw the raised red-painted runes trying to hide at its base – and near-fainting when I recognized the actual curse. As if to remind me of its potency, the curse strobed brilliantly in my mind, with fire-red figures surrounded by all of the swirling and flashing colors of the corrupted rainbow. I then touched the cloth, and pulled my hand back in alarm.

“Th-thank God I did not drop the candle,” I muttered, as I looked at my fingers. They felt as if I'd touched a particularly aggressive species of brambles.

I brought the candle closer to the prickly-feeling cloth, and saw the actual 'weave' of the stuff – or rather, I thought I saw its weave. The stiff bristling hairs jutting up from the cloth surface had an eerie effect upon what I was seeing, and I brought the candle to just outside the 'wax-dripping' range.

The flickering light showed a stiff and dark fabric of too-familiar hue, and as I again tried to decide if the stuff was a very dark brown or a black, I had an intimation.

“I want to look at these other rolls of cloth,” I thought. “It's important, even if I cannot tell much beyond that.”

The next such roll – again, it was held up by a pair of rune-blazoned cast-iron perches of peculiar form – showed cloth that superficially looked the same. I cautiously touched it, and learned of its most obvious differences.

“It has some brambles,” I thought, “but it isn't near as bad that way as that first cloth.”

It's color, however, seemed more inclined toward settling on either one or the other of the two possibilities, and here, I saw islands of blatant black amid a sea of very dark brown. I moved my candle, and noted the size and positions of the 'islands' changed in response to the angle and intensity of light. I then went to the next such roll.

Here, I was greatly surprised: the cloth felt like a slightly stiff and coarse-woven species of linen, and the color – a solid dark black – was not affected by the light of my candle. I recalled the feeling of Brumm's clothing, and made the connection instantly.

“He was wearing this stuff,” I thought.

“This was his preferred tailor shop,” said the soft voice. “You might want samples for evidence.”

I found my knife and three small cloth bags, then bagged a small sample of each cloth. As I did, I thought about labeling, and recalled the sheet tin I had among my supplies.

“Perhaps later,” I thought, as I finished cutting a strip from the last roll. “Now what is that over there?”

The cloth rolls had each been upon its own table, and I had been so overwhelmed by their presence I had not seen the two other tables that had hid in the 'shadows'. As I went over to one of them, I heard faintly a shrieking noise, followed by two more somewhat louder shrieks – and then, hot on their heels, a shuffling rumble from below and to my left.

I ducked down where I stood with my hand on the flap of the pistol's pouch. The noises became louder, then a sudden rumble changed the shrieks from 'distant' to 'right here in the room'. A foul stench drove out the other stinks endemic to the room – a stink I at once recognized as that of pigs.

The shriek of an obvious pig made my ears ring, and the noise upon the floor spoke of at least one such animal loose in the room. I stood, looked over to the left wall some distance away, and did not believe my eyes.

A 'door' had opened to show an obvious secret passage, and through the doorway I saw an endless-seeming herd of bacon-sized pigs traveling left to right at a steady trot.

“Th-those things...”

As if by intent, three more pigs 'jerked' out of the stream and all-but leaped out of the 'doorway'. The sight of three sizable airborne swine was enough to make for a desire to run, and I was about to turn when a hoarse yell came from the passage.

There was nowhere to run, and no place to hide.

A pair of the latest pigs seemed to have an idea as to where I was, for they were coming my way at an unsteady pig-trot, all the while knocking over lamp-stands, stacks of boxes, and rolls of cloth. Another pig sprang out of the doorway, then two more. The stench of 'swine' was beyond appalling.

The first of the last two pigs came within ten feet of me, and loosed a deafening steam-whistle screech prior to making an abrupt right turn. I winced involuntarily, and as the second pig flipped over a toppled lamp-stand in its headlong screeching rush, I dived for the floor to my left.

A thundering roar made my ears ring as I felt the filthy stone of the floor embrace my hands, and I began crawling hurriedly toward the bottom of the 'T' in hopes of getting out of the stinky room in one piece. I had barely made the end of the 'T' when another hoarse yell – this one much closer – made my ears ring anew. It took some seconds to recognize what had been yelled.

“Underworld German? Here?” I thought, as I moved under the last table.

Pointed boots swished by at a dead run, then a second pair followed; more pigs trotted past in the wake of the boots. I wondered just how I would deal with the 'attack of the witches' when a third set of pointed boots slammed their soles into the floor nearby.

“Wonderful, he has to march the true-step,” I thought, even as the Lurch-Pang rhythm mingled with the screech of a dragging scabbard.

The noise of the 'pig-drive' had declined markedly, and as the third set of pointed boots came past, I had an idea.

At least, until the boots stopped in mid-stride to slam down directly in front of where I was hiding. A shimmering 'ting' noise spoke of someone drawing a dagger or large knife from a scabbard.

Low-pitched and as if borne upon a foul subteranean wind, I heard the drawer of the dagger begin speaking in Underworld German. With each word, his voice seemed to inflate itself, much as if his speech gave power to his words; and when his voice acquired a strident hard-edged aspect, he suddenly yelled a rune-curse at the top of his lungs:

“Yoh-Fogh-Wikk-Thogh-Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!”

The room went suddenly 'silent', much as if he had called for death-quiet. Steps came from afar from my left, and their stepping mirrored that of the third man, only...

Those walking seemed somehow cowed, much as if they were but slaves and their master had issued them a dread command of especial potency. They came closer, turned the corner of the screen, and 'Lurch-Panged' up to their 'master'

“Slaves,” growled the third 'witch'. “Thee hast chosen thine disobedience, and acted thereupon, and now mine anger waxeth sore and full heavy.”

The aura of silence was then pierced by a faint whistle amid shuffling. A faint groan followed, then hoarse 'wet' breathing...

Blood began to drip in front of me, and the pool steadily grew in size as the whistling noise followed by the other noises happened again. A second pool of blood began forming next to the quick-massing first pool. I felt something of great evil happening. The drops of blood became larger and fell faster.

“Yoh-Fogh-Wikk-Thogh-Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!” shouted the master, even as the blood-pools conjoined and then grew steadily larger. I began to back up as quietly as I could.

The two 'slaves' seemed to be steadily 'wilting', and when one of them collapsed silently, followed by the other but seconds later, I wondered what next would happen, even as the 'master' shouted his curse a third time.

“Do that again, and I don't know if I want to hide, wretch,” I thought, as I backed into one of the table's supports.

The shriek of a nearby pig provided my answer, and as the smelly thing ran by at arm's length, the thug moved quickly to 'intercept' it.

The pig seemed enraged, for it leaped and bore the man down with a frightening shriek. I saw my chance and leaped to my left and out from under the table.

Black-cloth covered legs lay still and impotent in front of me, while the screams of someone to my right and on the floor spoke of a 'lively' struggle. Two bounds, and I was leaping over the fallen; a third bound, and I hooked the curtain with my hand. I twirled around it into the aisle, then pulled the screen up and pushed it up and toward the table.

The entire 'chain' of screens lifted up and flew crazily across the room as they detached from one another, and the room echoed with the screams of both men and swine.

I ducked down instinctively as a 'roer' fired, then rolled to the side as a smoke-trailing object flew past me. I rolled twice more, turning like a barrel as I rolled across the floor, and...

I rolled straight into the side of a pig!

El Porko was more frightened than I was, and he bolted for the nearest pathway out of the room. I had barely recovered when a massive explosion sent smoking splinters pinging throughout the room, and I dived for the floor to then slip on a strange-looking bristly rag and slide sideways for several feet.

I also 'started' another pig, and this time, I grabbed the rag and followed the pig while bent double. Another gunshot, then two more, then I turned the corner going into the main 'hallway' in the room...

And nearly collided with that ill-tempered groom.

He'd changed his 'hiding' clothing for a full set of black-cloth, and when he drew a copy of Sam Brumm's knife, I somehow grasped the revolver on the run and fired at 'spitting distance'. The witch seemed unaffected, and he leaped to the attack as I passed him.

I ducked his knife, then backhanded him with my left hand as a pig attempted to run between my legs on its way out of the room. I jumped to let it pass, then once I 'came down', I resumed running for the door with the rag in my hand.

A horror of screams and shrieks came from behind me as I ran, and I came from the darkness of the passage out into the relative light of the hallway. There, I saw the bluish-white fire still usurping the ceiling, the people still upon their faces, only...

“What?” I gasped, as I noted the differences. “These people are, uh, new...”

“Not all of those Gabriel spoke of as betters have succeeded in hiding,” said the soft voice, “and some have given up on the matter.”

I turned gasping with the rag still in my hand, and heard shrieks, squeals, and yells coming from within the room I had just escaped from.

“Perhaps I should close that, uh, door,” I thought, as another gunshot echoed from somewhere down the hall to my right. “At least closing it will keep the swine in there.”

I was the soul of caution as I came to the joining of hallway and passage, and as I went down the hallway, I had an intimation:

I needed to clear the room before we left.

“Yes, before you leave,” said the soft voice. “Until then, I would rig it as much as I could.”

“Is that room the, uh..?” I asked. I wanted to call it a witch-hole.

“As is common to the north, no,” said the soft voice. “It gets enough traffic just the same.”

I had come to the door itself. Some short distance away in the smoky mess, I saw a prostrate black-dressed body laying immobile upon the floor, and for a moment, I wondered who it was. I stopped and listened carefully.

The sense of stillness, and more, foulness, had returned to the place. I left the rag by the door.

My steps were deliberate as I came to the body, and by the time I was near enough to touch it, my eyes had adjusted fully. I knelt down carefully with revolver in hand, and touched the sleeve of the thug with my hand.

There was no movement, and a further glance spoke of why as I moved back suddenly. I had almost put my knee in a slow-growing pool of blood.

Another gunshot came from the hallway, then two more, followed by the death-shriek of an obvious pig. I lifted the thug's arm up, then flipped his limp body onto his back.

“Th-that groom,” I thought, as I saw the wet sheen covering his chest. “I must have hit him solid after all.”

I then withdrew one of the cast-iron cased bombs, along with some string. I had an idea involving the groom's boots – something about them being a type especially coveted by many local thugs.

I tied a length of string around the inside 'pull-on strap', after trimming it to perhaps four feet. The other end of that string went to the case of the bomb, while a second length of string went to the thug's leg and the pull-loop of the igniter. Finally, I trimmed the fuse to a third of its former length, and inserted the friction-igniter itself into the top of the bomb.

The bomb went into the thug's starch-stiffened trousers leg, and I turned him back over such that he lay face-down in his blood. I looked around for a final time, just as I heard another gunshot and pig-screech, and then closed the door before returning up the passageway with the rag in my hands.

It wasn't an ordinary rag. I knew that much, and I suspected it had answers.

Those out in the hall were much the same as to numbers, and by the time I had returned to the entrance to that one room, I had seen three people jump for the ceiling. It gave a measure of hope, as now, the 'king' had enough 'retainers'...

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “You will want to do a fair job of housecleaning in here before you leave.”

“Uh, thug-disposal?” I asked.

“That room will catch many of them,” said the soft voice. “It will not catch the escaped swine, nor will it bring decent food, nor will it provide the means of making healthful drink and meals.”

“There isn't any food?” I asked.

“There is, but only a handful of the 'commons' know of it. More, there isn't nearly enough to feed all of those on the premises who have changed and who will change.”

“And those pigs will want to glut themselves on it,” I muttered.

“Hence they need disposal,” said the soft voice.

I was muttering about swine when I came into the 'throne room' to find Hendrik and 'Blackbeard' deep in talk under the soft glow of a just-lit student's lantern while Gabriel and Kees took notes. The others, I could but guess as to where they were, or so I thought until Karl came from amid the 'fog of war' that still usurped the rear portion of the room.

“What is that you have there?” he asked.

“Uh, this, uh, rag,” I said. “I rigged that one room...”

“Did this room have clothing in it?” asked Hendrik. “If it did, then I'm most glad you did.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That room was the chief place of witchcraft in the house proper,” said Blackbeard. “It has secret passages...”

An unearthly scream, followed by two more such hideous shrieks, came from the entrance. I turned to see three stumbling and staggering black-dressed thugs in the passageway; all three grasped their own throats with shaking fingers, and as the first half-throttled example came unto the threshold, I saw instantly a pair of shock-bulging eyes framed by a pale gray-tinged face. The hands gripping his throat, however, were of a hideous and fungal gray – and his age, once indeterminate, now seemed as old as time itself. I turned to the others in a state of frightened confusion.

Gabriel looked at me and silently mouthed the word arsenic as the first thug's knees gave way to dump his convulsing body upon the floor. There, it thrashed slowly and rhythmically as his arms and legs steadily became stiffer. I looked past him, and saw the other two thugs fall in slow-motion one after another.

Within a minute, the first thug's thrashing had become barely perceptible, and his contorted body lay stiff and growing stiffer as a roadblock within the passage. I then heard steps coming, followed by a softly muttered oath and then a sudden thumping sound. I looked up from my 'revery', and saw Lukas cradling a still-smoking 'musket'.

“Did you have luck with that pig?” asked Karl.

“It and three others,” said Lukas, “and that ain't the half of 'em.”

“Uh, how many pigs did you see?” I asked.

“Enough to know we'd best go on a swine-hunt,” said Lukas. “This place doesn't have much in the way of food, and drink...”

“Wine, long-aged brandy, and Geneva,” said Blackbeard. “If there were other things, they were made elsewhere and brought in by those serving for their own use.”

“And that grain was for the pigs, correct?” I asked.

“Much of it was,” said Hendrik. “They overlooked grain-thefts by the commons here, provided they were small in nature.”

“Uh, they needed it to survive, correct?” I asked. “What kind of grain is present?”

“Corn, mostly,” said Lukas, “though I think I found two bags of barley and three of rye.”

“And I have no idea as to how to m-malt...”

“I might,” said Lukas. “I spent a month in a fourth kingdom malt-shed during my traipsing, and I suspect Gilbertus might know more.” A brief pause, then “what is that in your hands?”

I looked down at the 'rag', and for the first time actually saw what it was.

“Uh...”

“That is black-cloth,” said Karl. “Where did you get it?”

“That one, uh, room,” I said. “I found three types of that stuff, and I suspected it was important to get samples, so I did.”

“Is that one of them?” asked Karl.

“Uh, no,” I said, as I began laying the rag out on the floor next to where I had taken a chair. “I had to dodge some pigs and witches in that place, and I, uh, dodged a pig and collected this rag up in the process.” A brief pause, then, “what is this thing?”

“That would be an inner garment,” said Karl. “My uncle worked with cloth once he had finished his traipsing.”

I then noticed the prickly nature of the stuff, and as I looked it over closer, I began muttering. The cut of this garment resembled that of 'long johns', with a wide cutout for the neck, mid-forearm sleeves, and leg-portions that ended at the ankles, with bristly black cords to tie the ends of both arms and legs closely.

That was not all, however: red-embroidered designs all-but-covered the cloth, and as I found swastikas, the double-lightning, various bladed weapons, and other things I recalled seeing on that leather 'vest', I shuddered visibly – until I turned the thing over and saw embroidered designs that I had neither seen before, nor even dreamed.

“What animal has a triangle-shaped head?” I thought. “And this other thing? It looks like a fractal mushroom – and these things?”

These last figures looked far too strange and fanciful for my mind to grasp as being real, even if I thought of them as being spirits. I then noticed Karl was kneeling next to me.

“That is black-cloth,” he said, “though I think it is a mixed type. My uncle spoke of three types of that stuff.”

“Th-three?” I asked.

“One is common cloth dyed black,” said Karl.

“That wretch Brumm was wearing that stuff,” said Lukas. I glanced to see him cleaning his weapon with a spit-moistened patch. Two dirty cloth fragments already lay amid the dust and dirt of the floor.

“Then, there is this type,” said Karl, “and then, there is another type, one he called 'the pure quill'.”

Quill?” I asked.

“This type would be bad for wearing,” said Karl, “and that type he spoke of was a lot worse that way.”

“Uh, like wearing brambles?” I asked. “S-starch?”

“That is the only way the quill may be endured,” said Kees emphatically. “If that clothing has quill-fiber in it, it needs to be starched prior to wearing.”

Quill?” I asked, as I went for my 'samples'. “Why is it called that?”

“I am not certain,” said Karl. “What is in those bags?”

“Uh, the samples,” I said, as I reached in one bag with my pincers, and drew out that one piece of cloth that could not make up its mind as to its color. Karl looked closely at the fragment, then touched the cloth.

“Ouch!” he said, as he jerked his hand back in alarm. “He said it was bad, but this stuff is a lot worse.”

“Uh, what is it made from?” I asked.

“Goat-hair,” said Karl, as he looked closer at the cloth piece. “That would be the pure quill, or so he said.” A brief pause. “It's really expensive, just like this white cloth that he spoke of.”

“White c-cloth?” I asked. “What is that like?” A brief pause, then, “is that as fragile as I've heard this is?”

Karl shook his head, then said, “he said anything done with goat-hair needed a lot of work to keep it wearable, and that was if you were most careful with it.” A pause, then, “that white stuff, though – it was just the opposite that way.”

“It's knit, isn't it?” said Lukas. “I might have seen some o' that stuff once or twice.”

Karl nodded, then said, “you can dye linen or wool, but neither goat-hair nor that other stuff will take dye.”

I was about to put the first sample back in its bag when a second hand reached to touch the cloth – and then retreated with a barely-suppressed cry of pain. I turned to see Gabriel looking at his fingers.

“Either one wears starch, and endures clothing that is as stiff as sheet-metal, or one is sliced to ribbons,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“The pure quill is like that,” said Kees, “and the best starch to be had is none too good for it.”

Starch,” I muttered. “Has anyone, uh, checked the rest of this room?”

The smoke had but partially cleared, leaving the 'front' of the room slightly hazy. Past twenty feet east of the chairs, however, the shifting gray clouds became steadily thicker, and but ten feet past the cloud-boundary meant difficulty seeing further than a few feet. I learned this the hard way when I nearly stumbled over the dusty remains of that last 'gunman'.

All I could find of him was drifting malodorous dust mingled with fine gravel in a slow-spreading powdery mound, while to the right of this mound lay a cocked musket with a thoroughly scorched stock. I knelt down next to the massive weapon, and removed the cap prior to putting the hammer at half-cock.

“There's enough soot on this thing,” I thought. “Now what is this thing here?”

I had found an elongated lead projectile next to the charred remains of a leather pouch, and when I picked it up, I noted first its heft, and then its slightly sticky aspect. A glance at the thing showed a grayish-yellow grease in each of its three grooves.

“Hollow base,” I thought, as I turned it over in my hands. “It looks to be about three fourths of an inch in diameter, and more than twice that long. Oh, there's two more.”

All three massive slugs went in a small cloth bag, and the bag in my possible bag once I'd tied the bag's string shut. Faintly I could hear a discussion of some kind coming from behind me, and the soft yet echoing voices seemed to come from another world.

With each further step east into the smoky fog, I felt more and more ill-at-ease for some reason. It was not a sense of danger that I felt, but rather twinges of recrimination. Somehow, I had been the cause of all this death; it had been my choice, my choice alone; and now, the rank coppery aroma...

I stumbled over a thug that had been brutally sliced open, with guts pouring from his belly as he lay upon his side, then another that looked to have been chewed into hamburger by some kind of massive meat-grinder. A third man's features were sheeted with blood from a vast number of rips and tears in his skin; and while I had previously spoken of 'grenades', I had not seen their fruit – prior to now.

I knelt by a fourth man, one who had been nearly ripped in half at the waist by an exploding powder flask, and I saw his dead eyes staring into the fog – and perhaps, the teeth of Brimstone in Hell.

“No,” I moaned. “I s-sent him there. I did, me, all by myself...”

Faintly words of solace rang in my mind, words that spoke of meeting a dire and pressing need. Along with them, however, was the dread tocsin that spoke of the final destination of my sworn enemies...

“...Hell...”


I had sent them there, and that by my conscious and knowing choice. And with grim relish, I had destroyed them, just as if I had been a witch – and no, not a common witch, either.

I had acted just like an arch-witch by my destroying them all, and the others...

“Was that why they were held back?” I asked. “So they would remain unblemished, while I dipped my soul in the foulest treachery and c-cursed you to your f-face by what I did?”

There was no answer, at least at first. Seconds later, however, I heard more faint words, these words I had heard what seemed eons prior:


“...Rise Up...”


I had no answer for such a command. I could feel sorrow, and remorse; and now to feel as I did was completely worthless. Such was to happen before one acted, not after; those that felt that way afterward were the soul and definition of evil, for they had betrayed trust and gone in the steps of Judas.

“The name of every witch before he makes his bones,” I thought.

And instead of an answer that fit such thinking, I again heard the dread command:


“Rise up, and...”


“Am I dead?” I asked. My words echoed without sound to be swallowed up in the night and fog of witchdom. “Do I need to..?” I paused, heart in throat.

“Do I need to meet the judge myself?” I asked softly, with somehow-flaring words that rang in the rank-reeking darkness. “Have I done such evil that there is no shred of hope for me? Will I be forgiven for my mistakes, honest or otherwise?”

I was beginning to sob, and I told myself to quit trying to manipulate the one condemning me. I fully deserved the worst punishment known in all of time and space.

Yet I could not stop the tears, and my feet gave way. My hands caught me as I doubled up upon my knees.

“Those were not supposed to kill them,” I sobbed, as the bloody corpse next to me seemed to faintly shiver in accusation. “Those were supposed to be, uh, like these things I've heard of.”

From somewhere deep inside, I felt a scream building, and it poured fourth from my mouth like flaming vomit such that it caught me completely unawares. The smoke fled away with such abruptness that I nearly fainted, and I found myself in another room...

Another world...

And another place entirely.

In an instant's time I saw myself standing in an ancient-looking courtroom, and I could not place the location. I glanced to my rear, and saw three rows of men, all of them mired in massive fire-blackened mounded chains. Before each such person hovered a gilded balance that hung fixedly in midair, and the pointer of each such balance was bent and twisted by the massive weight of a rolled-up ribbon-tied piece of paper.

The tips of these pointers, however, were each fixated upon pulsating red dots; and as I took in the whole of this nightmarish scheme, I heard a chorus of hungry and reptilian roars billow forth from each dot. The whole of this noisome tableau was a foretaste of Hell, and I clearly understood its meaning amid a host of brain-rattling echoes.

I wondered briefly as to why these men were remanded and not I myself, for I knew myself to be guilty and deserving of all punishment. My eyes resumed their rapid sweeping of the room, and as I turned, something seemed to grab the corner of my vision and forced my continuing to turn, until suddenly with both eyes peeled back and wide open, I saw the judge front and center.

I nearly fainted where I stood. As it was, I fell facedown, and sobbed piteously. I could say but one thing to him.

“It was entirely my fault,” I moaned. “It was them or us, and I...”

I could say no more. I had failed.

And yet, somehow, there were more words. Someone else was coaxing me to say them, as they were not mine.

“C-can you give them the chance you gave me?”

Such foolish imposition was proof positive of my evil, and...

“Yes, I will,” he said. “Since you asked it, I will.” He paused, then said, “will you – this is a rhetorical question – give your hand in pledge for them?”

I rose up, shaking like a leaf, and put one foot forward, then another. My eyes were on the floor, and tears were dribbling down my cheeks. Another step, then a third. My right hand went up of its own, then the left. I could feel the stiffness of scars on the left hand, the absence of the ring finger, the tingling of ruined nerves. My right ear was gone, I was deaf on that side. I was ruined; I knew it. I had nothing to give, and yet...

I came to the judge, and put down both hands before him, palms up. It wasn't enough to put down one; I had to lay down everything, and leave nothing behind.

Laughter echoed, then words rumbled afterward:

“I thought so.”

Behind me, I could feel flashes of warmth erupting like newborn suns consuming their substance in eyeblink bursts. I somehow remained facing where I was and turned at the same time, and saw with deadened eyes the vanishing of the balances, each one for a criminal; they burned to leave no trace. Faint and dying moans came from those chained, and they fainted, one by one; for in shock and horror, they saw not merely one who was death to see – but also, what their sworn enemy...

That very one they had hunted as witches...

That thing named as useless, as a parasite; as one who did not live, who was not even an animal...

Who somehow gave all there was to give, and did so without hesitation.

I was now turned around entirely, and faced these men. Clearly, without noise or confusion, I heard a voice speak. The words were utterly familiar, for they had been read many times and written long years prior to my birth.

“Son of man, can these dead live?”

“If you wish them to live,” I said numbly, “they will.”

“Then speak to these dead, and say to them, live!”

For an instant's time, I wondered, then I said in a normal tone of voice the single word “live.”

The breathless word was of such deafening quality that all I saw imploded with a blazing eruption of fire. An instant's blackness, and I was back in the throne-room; save where there had been darkened floors and furnishings, there were now walls, floors, and ceilings of bluish-white fire.

No one was present here, save for myself and the dead; and I wept, my tears watering the broken and bloody floor beneath me as I went to each such man I saw. I knelt by each broken body, and passed my hands over the many bloody wounds; and in the wake of my hands, small splinters of pottery, shards of jagged and twisted metal, and in some cases, misshapen lead projectiles shuddered forth to then mound themselves upon the blood-sodden floor.

I gave myself entirely to my task, and it crowded out all other thoughts, even as I went to each person and withdrew splinters and fragments by the handfuls to leave mounds of them in my wake. I was the soul of care, and the body of meticulousness, and as I finished with each such body, a faint wind blew...

And the corpse lived again.

As I finished with the last of these men, the bluish-white flames faded abruptly to show red-stained black-paneled floors and walls amid ruined blood-stained furnishings. All of these now-naked men were insane with grief, and I...

I looked down upon my hands to see them sheeted with blood, and a red mist seemed to hang around my eyes. I felt exhausted, my mouth parched and gummy; in shock, with staring eyes. I glanced at the ceiling, to see turbulent blue-white flames.

“L-look at the ceiling,” I croaked. “I-if y-you see fire, jump with all y-you have.”

The thuds of launching seemed to usher in a realm of silence, and as my eyes closed in a dead faint, I knew was the only one left behind.

I awoke laying face-down upon a carpet of soft green grass, and around me, I smelled an intoxicating and delightful scent. I was smelling roses, for some reason, and above my head I heard soft muttering that soon coalesced into comprehensible speech.

“You need to take care of yourself better,” said a familiar and gentle voice.

I could not look up, yet somehow, I saw wavy brown hair and a slightly misshapen nose.

“It is never cheap to do that kind of work, but it is needed, and the price has to be paid,” he said. “You need much more help, and it is coming quickly – and I am telling you this to avoid unnecessary worry.”

He paused briefly, then continued.

“The world you were brought to was the first one to show in time,” he said, “and it is a taste of this one. What you have been shown and will be shown is so that you can do that work given to you. It is yours alone to do, and you must not fail.”

Another brief pause. I cowered in terror, for I knew I would fail.

“I will not let that happen,” he said. “I cannot raise up another. You are the last, and there will be no more.”

“N-no more?” I gasped, as my eyes filled with tears. “Why?”

He knelt, and wiped my face with a soft cloth, even as my eyes continued weeping, and he resumed speaking seconds later.

“You did what was needed,” he said, “and there will be many more such costly things that will need to be done, which is why that writing showed upon the wall. You do not have a balance. It is gone, and it melted long ago.” A pause. “You need much assurance.”

Another longer pause.

“That is why I am telling you this now,” he said, “and no, I am not chiding you. The price of discernment is a need of reassurance, and the more discernment, the more reassurance is treasured – and required.”

Somehow, I had been moved to a sitting position, and I saw him pause to remove a rose bloom from out of the air. He came to me and handed me the soft flower, its color blood-red and its stem without thorns. I hugged it closely, for it was of great comfort.

“Do that which lies before you,” he said, “and I will do the rest. Wear that pendant always, for it has become part of you, and remember this:


“Most volunteer, but the hardest jobs are filled by draftees.

Such people are drafted because they are the 'right' people

for the job. As such, they are not allowed to fail, and they

have special jobs when they come here.”


The garden faded from my sight, and I came to myself sitting upon the floor. The smoke was mostly gone; I was no longer bloody; and to my surprise, I had the rose bloom still in my hands. I heard voices swirling somewhere to my right, and out of the foul-smelling mists – that had not changed; the place still stank horribly of powder and blood – came a voice that took seconds to recognize.

“I had to go to the stables to get this,” said Sepp. “I brought some beer for you.”

I reached for the cup with soft-spoken thanks, and sniffed briefly prior to drinking. For some reason, I felt reminded of 'fermented kerosene', and once I'd drained the cup, I wobbled slowly to where the others were still sitting. I now had some vague ideas as to what needed to be done and in what order, and after taking a chair on the periphery, I spent a few minutes carefully wrapping the flower prior to putting it in my possible bag. I was thoroughly glad no one asked questions about it.

“Th-those m-men?” I asked.

“I've no idea how they lost their clothing,” said Hendrik, “but their changing gives us all great hope.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“They more or less ran the place,” said Blackbeard, as he rubbed his now-hairless chin. “Before, I wondered how long I might live. Now, it might work out.”

“As in getting food and supplies?” I asked. “They know the city here well?”

Blackbeard nodded, then said, “though how much of that information is still usable mystifies me. Drink-houses are not fit places to buy common food.”

“No, but one must travel some to go to them,” I said, “and in the process, I suspect many of those people encountered shops and other locations where those called 'commons' bought their, uh, victuals.”

Gabriel looked at me, and Hendrik nodded before saying, “so it is likely they know of places that have food. That solves one problem...”

“One of a great multitude,” I muttered, “and many of them are...”

“Which is why we are sitting here and making notes,” said Gabriel. “None of us are decent shots with muskets...”

“I once was,” said Blackbeard. “The pigs?”

Gabriel nodded, then said, “for a start. Still, I suspect strongly that I'll be taking more notes about his speech” – here, he indicated me with his eyes – “than ours.”

Hendrik looked at me, then at my cup. “The worst of this trip is over,” he said, “and based on what I have seen, I will need to speak to the hall once we return.” A brief pause, then, “I myself have seen that which truly helps.”

I staggered in place, gasped, then choked. All eyes seemed to be upon me, and I gagged before speaking.

“Th-that stuff is horrible for taste and n-nightmares,” I spluttered, “even if I cannot prove either material comes from sacrifices...”

Blackbeard made a face, then muttered, “do you speak of a type of bread and wine made up specially for churches?”

“W-what?” I gasped. “You know of it?”

“Mostly by rumor,” he said. “I have seen the materials, however – and if I go by the odor and color of that 'bread' and 'wine' when freshly prepared, I suspect what you say is very likely indeed.”

“B-bread?” I asked.

“It is not common bread,” he said, “and neither is that wine. Both are unhealthful, and I can say that.”

“Perhaps discretionary use of common bread, and uh, wine...”

“Wine or beer,” said Hendrik. “Not everyone endures wine, fermented or otherwise – and after seeing your reaction to that draught of wine in the third kingdom, I now know it was unwise to dose you with it.”

“Uh...”

“It would have been far better to permit your recovery by natural means,” said Gabriel. “I might have an idea as to why fermented wine tastes like distillate to you.”

I recalled the chemical taste of that one flagon, and gasped, “my taste is off?”

“Wine is not a suitable restorative for you,” said Gabriel flatly. “Beer is.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “We'd best leave them to their talking, as those pigs are not likely to look for distillate.”

The two of us filed out with Sepp and Karl in tow, and as I yawned and stretched, I had an inkling as to where Gilbertus was. Still, I thought to ask, and as I made ready, I heard a gunshot, then a faint oath followed by the obvious screech of a pig.

The pig screeched again, and I unlimbered my rifle, all the while listening carefully so as to locate the pig – until with a sudden fluster, a blood-sheeted pig leaped from a doorway amid billowing gray clouds of powder smoke. I aimed and fired – and a fraction of a second later Gilbertus tumbled outside to roll into a wall.

“Oh, no!” I shrieked.

Gilbertus picked himself up on one arm, then while still prostrate drew his pistol and fired point-blank into the side of the pig near its head. It did not move, even as I broke into a run.

“Now that was a near thing,” he said, as he slowly drew up to a sitting position. “I was about to blast that swine when it got outside...”

“I nearly shot you,” I squeaked. “Are you all right?”

“He is,” said Lukas. “I could tell he was going to hang back some when that pig came out of that door there.”

“Aye, and I was 'most blind because o' the darkness in that place,” said Gilbertus, “and then someone shot off a cannon, and my eyes went all white from the blast.”

“All white?” I asked.

“I've shot swine when it's dark,” he said, “and my eyes go white from the guns. It takes a few minutes to see decent again.”

“We'd best be after those things, then,” said Lukas. “They've gotten enough people now to keep this part of the house decent, but the way this place is, they will have trouble doing much more, at least for a while.”

“Uh, check the outside part once it gets dark?” I asked.

“Aye, once we get the rest of these grunters,” said Lukas. “As long as they're loose in here, they'll cause trouble.”

Gilbertus and I cleaned what we'd used, then the five of us went off in a loose-seeming group. Sepp had found what looked like a short-barreled musket, while Karl carried the group's fowling piece. I wondered for a moment if he was wasting his time until he muttered under his breath about stiff loads and stiff shot.

“Did he..?”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “One of that room's thugs had some in his belt-pouch.”

“Does it work on swine, though?” I asked.

The reply was drowned out by a shriek-chorus from the nearest corner. I turned toward it as first one pig, then two more charged hot on its heels – and chasing after the pigs came a gaggle of drunken black-dressed thugs.

I jumped for the wall as the pigs tried to run me down, then shouldered my rifle as the pigs ran by. Someone fired a weapon, then the entire hall went to flames and smoke and screams and squeals. A pig darted out of the smoke and I shot it in the rump, then as I laid my rifle down and reached toward my holster, Karl flew sprawling out of the smoke to fetch up against the wall but feet away. He bounced when he hit the wall, then lay still.

There wasn't time for checking him, however, as a thug charged out with drawn sword. He seemed nearly blind, for some reason, at least until he saw Karl. A shot boomed from the smoke and he crumpled onto the floor amid further pig-shrieks and hoarse drunken yells. His sword slid to the wall.

“I hate pigs,” muttered Karl, as he straightened up and crawled closer to where I was. He then saw the thug.

“I hate witches, too,” he muttered, at least until he saw me with my revolver cocked in my hand. “Did you..?”

“I jumped aside when I saw the pigs coming,” I said softly, “and I shot one of them in the rump. I hope...”

Someone coughed, then stumbled out of the billowing smoke. I held my fire until I recognized Sepp, who then turned and motioned behind him.

“Now I have seen everything,” muttered Karl. “You're all blacked up like a witch.”

Sepp was silent. His face spoke of a degree of fear and wariness I had never seen there before, and when he reached down to help someone up, I was astonished yet again – especially when I saw who the someone was.

“Gilbertus got hit by one of those pigs,” said Lukas. “He might have a broken leg.”

I scrambled to my feet and went around the others, and nearly tripped over a dead black-dressed thug laying in a pool of blood. I turned to my right, and ducked as someone swung something at me.

I leaped for the club-swinger's legs and bowled him over as some wretch fired at the place where I had been standing, then as I scrabbled for the throat of my assailant, an absolute hail of lead roared overhead amid billows of smoke. I went to the floor amid a host of echoing screams.

The touch of cloth under my hands, however, spoke of someone wearing clean common clothing, and when I drew closer to my assailant, he shook his head and grunted.

“How'd you get in this mess?” asked Gilbertus.

“Are you all right?” I whispered, as I looked at his legs. Both seemed uninjured.

“I got tossed by a pig,” he said, as he began crawling. I could 'feel' someone coming to my left.

I drew my pistol, then fired when I saw the pointed toe of a black boot. The thug screamed and tumbled over my back.

“We'd best hole up, then,” said Gilbertus. “My leg hurts.”

It was not my place to argue, and I kept up. My pistol resumed its holster after a few attempts to crawl with the still-cocked weapon in my hand, and as we crawled, I wondered at the slickness of the floor. It seemed all-but covered with blood and body fluids.

“How did this floor get so messy?” I muttered, as I nearly collided with a dead black-dressed thug.

“There were thugs in that room,” said Gilbertus, “and I'd bet there were more of 'em coming from behind us when they showed to the front.”

“Squeeze play,” I muttered, as I came upon a second thug. “The hallway wasn't this wide, was it?”

I was still moving forward while waiting for an answer when I suddenly banged my head into the wall. The collision brought me up short, and as I sat rubbing my head Gilbertus tried to crawl into my lap. I stopped him just in time.

“That powder smoke is so thick...”

“That's fifth kingdom powder for you,” muttered Lukas. “Is he hurt?”

“It feels like it,” said Gilbertus, “but there was no chance for a look.”

“We'd best find one, then,” said Sepp. “This place is too dark for looking.”

I took the lead in heading toward the 'throne room' with a string paid out behind me. It seemed the only way to avoid becoming lost in the thick and choking smoke was to use such means, and when I found the doorway itself, I was astonished to see the torn and ripped bodies of thugs mounded three and four high.

“What happened here?” I asked softly, as I stood in the shadow of the corpse-bulwark. “These people, uh, look as if they...

Faint coughing came from down the hall, then a soft moan. I moved in that direction, even as the others spoke of my leaving them behind. The moan grew louder, until it seemed to echo in my mind, and in my headlong rush I did not see the thugs walled thickly. I tripped and flew sprawling to nearly bowl over the nearest chair.

“I wondered what had happened to you,” said Hendrik. “I tossed every squib I had.”

“Then...”

“Someone left some capped sticks of dynamite under a chair,” said Blackbeard, “and while the two younger men were afraid to handle it, I wasn't.”

“And?” I asked softly. The hallway's powder smoke was still affecting me, and I stifled a cough.

“Those people stopped quickly enough, between what we tossed and what they did to themselves in the smoke,” said Hendrik. “I'm glad they weren't those northern people just the same.”

Those who I had left behind now stumbled in one by one, and when Karl came to one of the chairs, he looked beneath it.

“I'm glad you left that dynamite under the chair,” said Blackbeard dryly, “even if leaving the stuff capped like that isn't a good idea.”

“What did you do with it?” asked Karl.

“He b-blew up those thugs with it,” said Gabriel with a shaky voice, “and I fainted when he touched the stuff.”

Karl shook his head, then said, “I've got more, but it's in the buggy with my things.”

“And there's some of that stuff hidden around here,” I muttered. “It isn't that far away, in fact.” I paused, then said, “that hallway out there is so thick with smoke and, uh, thugs and all that...”

“We'd best find another place to hole up, then,” said Hendrik. “I'd almost try the stable after this mess.”

“Bathing, and c-cooking,” muttered Kees. He looked ghastly with stringy white areas on his face. I surmised they were tear-tracks left behind amid the soot of powder and general 'grime'. I sat down and began cleaning those weapons I'd used, then upon finishing, I looked over Gilbertus' leg.

“Here?” I pointed. The spot was just below his knee on the inside. He nodded.

I began unrolling his trouser-leg, and when I came to a lump, I thought to silently pray – and seconds later, I knew 'prayer' alone wasn't going to help much. I looked at his trousers again and saw what looked like an elongated bruise raised up nearly half an inch from the surrounding skin.

“A tush-mark?” I asked.

“Those like that don't have tushes,” said Lukas. “Why, what is it?”

“Something hit him hard enough to raise a big elongated lump,” I said, “and I was wondering what it was. I've seen pigs up north, but somehow the ones down here are different...”

“Some of them do have large teeth,” said Blackbeard. “I've seen more than one pig with eye-teeth the size of my thumb.”

“Uh, do they get huge?” I asked.

“Supposedly they do, though pigs seldom live that long around here,” he said. “Talk had it the large ones were well-hidden in that valley to the north of here.”

“Those things come from Norden,” said Karl testily, “and I hate pigs.”

“I don't much care for them myself,” said Blackbeard. “They might well be called poison on four legs, and that for meals. Their smell...”

“We'd best be going,” said Hendrik. “Can he travel?”

“Not easily,” I said, “and that injury is going to need bathing, cleaning at length, and then bandaging. I can do none of those things here.”

The smoke in the hallway was still thick as we went single-file along the wall. Blackbeard was in the rough middle of our party, and as I led past doorways and 'halls', I smelled strong drink, pigs in abundance, bad food, and 'odor of witch'. I'd never characterized that familiar reek that way prior, but now, I found it easy to do so.

The smoke carried thick to the first right turn, and from that point, it began thinning. The darkened hallway – but a few candles still burned, and them feebly – seemed to but add to the aura of shadowed hidden mysteries. When we began passing the doorways, however, I knew that those places were the realms of thugs, and a brief pause to listen spoke of a realm fertile for trapping.

“And traps are about the only way to clean this place out,” I thought.

Yet at the back of my mind, I had questions, chief among them how to keep the thugs and pigs out of the place.

“And finding places for the house's people to stay,” I thought.

I came to the last right turn, and paused. Faintly, I could hear drunken speech, and when I knelt to the floor to look around, I was astonished to see a small 'army' arrayed in a column of twos with shouldered muskets. I retracted about the corner and looked at the others.

“What's there?” asked Karl. He was first behind me.

“About twenty thugs being gone over by three or four others,” I muttered. “These people are formed up like a bad nightmare...”

A sudden shout rang out that coalesced into a familiar chant, and mingled with the beginning triplet of the hiding curse was the en-masse tramp of the true-step. I reached for my possible bag, and my hand closed upon the familiar chill of that one remaining cast-iron bomb. I drew it out, and yanked the lanyard.

The fuse puffed smoke, and I flung the bomb around the corner with all my strength, all the while praying fervently that it find the center region of the marching thugs. I could still hear the sizzle of the fuse, even as I drew back from the corner with fingers in my ears and mouth open. The others backed up with me, and faintly, I heard an echoing scream, one that soon swelled to a chorus...

The ringing blast echoed in my mind as the screams became both louder and higher pitched, and I reversed, even as the others remained stationary. With my first step, I heard two telltale clicks, then a third, and finally, steps silently moving in my footsteps forward. I indicated 'wait' with my left hand, even as I again sank to my knees to look around the corner.

The darkness of the hallway was now near-total, for many of the remaining light sources had been snuffed out by the blast, and a faintly squirming mound showed some thirty feet away. I heard no chants, only soft moans, raspy 'death-rattles', and perhaps, the dripping of blood.

“Follow me,” I said softly. “I think they're, uh, dead.”