The fifth kingdom's mess.


I came slowly from around the corner, heart in mouth and rifle in my hands. I recalled from some dim memory long in the past that 'warfare' supposedly got easier with practice, and I contrasted that thought with what I now felt amid the gloom and the reek of death that now rode roughshod over all other smells.

“No, it isn't easier with practice,” I softly muttered, as I came to the first dead thug. “Where are all of these people coming from?”

“Some of them more or less lived here,” said Blackbeard.

“Generals?” asked Hendrik.

“Them especially,” said Blackbeard. “That man there looks like one of them.”

The man in question lay still upon the floor, and his outstretched hand showed where he'd tried to dig his fingers into the floor during his death-throes. Faint traces of blood showed darkly upon his fingernails, and their overall dusky hue but added to the perceptions I was enduring. I moved around him, stepping carefully so as to not touch blood or other fluids.

Bodies covered more and more of the floor, and shiny blotches showed here and there upon their clothing. I saw a face staring open-mouthed with blood-soaked hair laying in a slow-growing dark pool, then another with a jagged rip across the bridge of the nose that left a thumbnail-deep bloody trench where the eyes had once been.

“What was that thing?” asked Gabriel. “Not even the worst jugs...”

Gabriel ceased speaking upon seeing another ruined head, and as I glanced, wary for shamming, I saw a sooted-up single-shot pistol clenched tightly in the hand of a corpse. The 'busted' thimble but added to the impression I both saw and felt.

“He ended himself,” said Hendrik. “Watch for these...”

As if my rifle had a brain of its own, the muzzle jerked up and to the right. I barely had time to think before the roar deafened me and a pink mist wallowed thickly over the slow-collapsing trunk of a now-headless pistol-wielding thug.

“I...” gasped, as I slung my rifle and drew my revolver.

“Good that you saw that wretch,” said Hendrik. “I was speaking of the others, not you.”

I paused, looked closer, and continued slow-stepping around the bodies. Blood had entirely usurped the floor in this region of the hall, and thick red-dripping splashes showed upon the walls where splinters had gouged deeply.

I was so wary for movement that I stepped on the severed hand of a thug unawares, and I leaped up twisting to come down with a faint crackling splatter some three feet away. I looked down, and nearly screamed at the sight of pureed brains upon my boots.

“How could that th-thing..?” The shuddering in my voice was impossible to hide.

“You might want to use those for traps,” said Karl.

I wasn't able to answer then. My mind was screaming, and only the greater fear of 'ambush' was enough to keep my lips tight-shut.

But a short distance further, and then, safety. My thoughts were these, and these alone.

How I knew this was a dire mystery. I concentrated on my feet, as here, the thugs were such that finding bloodless places to step was nearly impossible. I leaped over three piled bodies, landed upon one foot, leaped sideways nearly to the wall, gently trod upon the blood-sopping back of a corpse, and leaped further down the hall. There, I turned briefly to look upon my path, and nearly fainted in shock.

Every one of the others walked upon the dead and through the blood as if they were drifts of strangely-colored snow, and their unburdened aspects...

“N-no,” I gasped. “They did n-not kill them. I did.”

The silence seemed to howl for my destruction, even as it echoed in my mind, and I turned slowly to resume my task. As I did, I felt moisture upon my cheeks, and my lower lip curled down as I choked back a sob.

I looked again for the door, and saw it still-closed nearly a hundred feet away.

Closer, however, were more butchered remnants of the thugs, and as I carefully avoided the bodies, I listened. Somehow, I could hear someone chiding me for my 'unnatural care' as I stepped over and around the corpses.

“Now why would anyone want to walk on dead bodies knowingly?” I thought, as I came to 'less crowded' regions. “I'm going to need to spend enough time getting the blood out of my boots and trousers as it is.”

With the end of the thugs, I felt as if I could relax, and I turned to see the others again walking upon the bodies and through the blood as if they did so routinely – and, perhaps, with great relish. For some reason, their moving was oddly slowed, such that their feet rose slowly – much as if they were weary beyond speech – and then their feet descended with ever-increasing speed to crush underfoot the bones and blood of their enemies.

The worst portion, however, was audibly hearing bones crush underfoot as if rolled under the wheels of a mountain-sized ox-cart.

I thought to pray, and within a few words, the whole of what I saw flashed to vapor to show the truth, this being the others walking slowly, in single file – and in my very tracks.

“W-what?” I asked. “Why are you..?”

“It seemed like a good idea,” said Hendrik, as he came out of the worst of the 'mess'. “I recall how you walked in the fields near that mine.”

“Aye, around the traps,” said Lukas. “These witches might be dead, but they're still trouble.”

“As in...” I asked, even as I recalled talk speaking of witches spouting curses after their deaths. Somehow, that did not seem as far-fetched as it once did, given my experiences in the second kingdom house with that one particular witch.

“I've been around enough swine and witches to not enjoy this much,” said Gilbertus. “I wish I had a light with me.”

I looked for still-lit candles, and saw but two still burning nearby at 'my' end of the hall. The last hundred feet before the door would be in steadily growing darkness.

“Should I pay out the string again?” I asked softly.

“You might,” said Hendrik, as he came out of the bloody mess and stepped up to me. “I hope I can sleep tonight.”

As the faint light of the candles faded behind me, I stepped slowly into the deepening gloom. My eyes seemed to see faint forms moving slowly along the walls like ghosts scurrying for cover. Amid the darkness, a darkness darker still showed faint upon the wall, and I paused to turn toward it. I stretched out my hand, and felt the cold slick iron outline of an obvious door.

“Remain open, please,” I asked silently. “I need to, uh, close all of these doors later.”

A faint clicking noise came from a foot below where my hand had touched the door frame, and softly a whisper of dank wind came past my head as the door itself opened nearly an inch.

“What did you find?” asked Hendrik, when I resumed walking toward the end of the hall.

“Another secret passage,” I said. “I'd bet those thugs in the hall went that way.”

And as I said this, I knew beyond all doubt or reason that my 'guess' was indeed the truth. The doorway lay but a short distance more, and I walked slowly toward its faint outlines. Tugs to my rear spoke of the line tied to my belt, and when I reached for the door's knob, I paused.

I needed to see or hear what was on the other side of the door – and more than that, I badly needed rest and sleep.

The distractions of hot food and cots were enough to make me shake my head, then try harder – and somehow, I had the impression that was not merely wrong, but unnecessary. I but dimly recalled speaking to the lock about witches – and also, not hiding.

The door became vague and gauzy at my thinking, and on the other side, I saw an empty region. I placed my hand upon the door, and gently pulled it open.

“It's, uh, dark,” I murmured, as I led into the darkened stable. I turned toward the mouth of the place, and began walking up the ramp as the others slowly fanned out behind me.

The difficult steps leading upward needed concentrated effort so as to climb them, and when I came to the entrance, I noted smoke and fog drifting overhead amid a slowly darkening sky. It was nearly the end of the day, and as my ears 'opened' I heard long and loud screams, the tormenting shrieks of pigs, a hellish multitude of hoarse yells, a steady booming and banging that reminded me of my last minutes in the Swartsburg, and finally – again – the shrieks of a multitude of pigs.

As I looked longer, however, I seemed to see part-hidden drifting clouds of blue-white fire. Upon 'seeing' that, I looked down at the grass.

A well-worn 'trail' showed the dragging marks of balky wheels, pointed boots, a vast collection of mule tracks, and here and there, the gray-green messes left by unhousebroken mules. These last seemed to faintly smolder as the darkness steadily gathered, and I turned to go back into the stable. As I descended, I heard faint speech, and saw what might have been the faint and wavering yellow of a candle's flame.

The light multiplied itself by three by the time I came to the main area, and by the time I'd reached where the horses were, the light-sources had increased again by one and grown substantially in brightness. Sepp was setting up the bathtub, while Gilbertus was removing his boots. I then recalled my need to look after his injury, and I began looking for my medical supplies.

“Now this is strange,” said Lukas. I had just found what I was after. “I thought you said he had a marking on his leg.”

“He did,” I said. “Why, is it gone..?”

I received no reply, and when I came to where Gilbertus lay, I began looking. Within less than a minute, I knew the lump was either hiding, or it had vanished at the behest of my previous prayer.

“No hiding,” I said softly.

Within seconds, a red mark blossomed in the place I recalled, then as I watched, the 'blister' swelled up to the size of my middle finger before my eyes. The dark red-purple of this thing was surprising – until the lower end opened abruptly and the pent-up blood gushed out to stain Gilbertus' leg and the hay where he sat.

“Wonderful,” I thought. “I...”

At the back of my mind, I knew the wound needed opening and possible exploration, until I thought to gently touch it on both sides with my hands.

“No, I'd best clean it first with aquavit,” I thought. The heating lamp was in use, and a pot of water was beginning to boil.

As I carefully used hot water and aquavit to clean Gilbertus' leg, the open portion of the wound steadily enlarged. The vast clusters of blue dots I saw made for repeatedly asking the dirt to come out, and the wound grew a faint and barely visible light blue halo that flickered with faint whitish flashes. I reached for that one tincture used for cleaning wounds, and with a dropping tube, I carefully 'dosed' the wound.

“At least we have some bandages,” I thought, as I wrapped the injury. “Now how will he bathe? Like I did when I had surgery on my knees?”

“Good thing we have some o' those things they use for scrubbing in the fourth kingdom,” said Lukas. “He'll need to bathe that way until that's mostly healed.”

“Uh, I wondered about that,” I said, as I began cleaning up my mess. “I'll need to check that injury every chance I get.”

“Why did it smoke like it did?” asked Karl. He was setting up cots in an unoccupied stall.

I'm not sure,” I said, “other than I've heard that happened once before.” A brief pause. “I just hope it does not get infected.”

I then looked at Gilbertus, and saw that he'd 'fainted'.

“Did I, uh, hurt him too m-much?” I asked. “Gilbertus? Please, wake up!”

He stirred suddenly, then yawned. His bleary-eyed aspect was such that I wondered what had happened, at least until he spoke.

“It feels a lot better now,” he said. “Did you..?”

“He did, and you fell asleep while he was working,” said Hendrik. “Had I not known better, I would have thought he had dosed you with tinctures.”

“D-do you want s-something?” I asked.

Gilbertus' eyes opened wide in shock as he woke up abruptly, then shook his head to indicate 'no' – and at the back of my mind, I heard the ringing 'electrified' sound of a huge crow cawing amid the old-gate creaking sound of the single word such birds commonly spoke. I silently mouthed the word 'Nevermore', and Gilbertus broke out in a cold sweat.

“He don't like that bird much,” said Lukas between yawns. “Now we'd best get our baths, and then food.”

Bathing happened surprisingly quickly, then dinner. The noises I had noticed in the background continued steadily, and during an 'intermission' – the used utensils had been set to boiling, and a fire-cheese was roasting over a crude 'brazier' that Sepp had found buried in a pile of castoff junk – I went back to the entrance of the stable to observe the darkened outer world.

The sky had fully darkened, and the flashes to the west and north seemed endemic amid the sounds of gunfire, the shrieks of pigs, and now and then, the brays of mules. I was so absorbed in what I was doing I did not notice Blackbeard at my side.

“They cleaned out the other stables,” he said.

“Where were they?” I asked.

“The south wall,” he said. “There's a hidden door in the inner wall, and another door on the outer.”

“Hence they just, uh, led them out..?”

He shook his head, then said, “all of the mules, their harness, the coaches and buggies – all of it's gone.”

“Uh, mules are a bad idea...” I mumbled.

“I'm not sad to see them or the other things missing,” he said. “The thing that concerns me most is that outer door.”

“As in they might well get in there?” I asked.

As I spoke, however, I knew that the south wall's 'secret door' was one of the chief means of entrance into the house proper – and between 'closing' it and the underground passage into that one room, the house was effectively 'cut off' from the outside.

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “The south door is the chief means of entry.”

“That room?” I asked.

“Its 'door' was but little known,” said the soft voice, “and that underground passage isn't common knowledge, even amongst the wealthy and powerful.”

“It isn't?” I gasped.

“That witch who sacrificed two of his underlings was the head of a leading fifth kingdom combine,” said the soft voice, “and that passage was his personal property. Outside of himself, his retainers, and a handful of people at the house proper, it was unknown in the region.”

“W-why did he have it?” I asked. “Was this like, uh, Koenraad's tunnels?”

While I heard no answer, the recollection seemed to tally closely, and when I turned to go, Blackbeard asked, “I have heard that man is dead. Is he?”

“Uh...” I found myself tongue-tied, so much so that I could not speak, and when the question came up again during the second course, Gabriel nodded before speaking.

“Him and the Swartsburg,” said Gabriel. “I saw his head planted, and I've heard of his realm's destruction.”

“There are places within the walls that still stand,” said Kees, “but if you speak of the place as a whole, it is ruined.”

My initial desire as dinner finished was that of sleep. Fatigue seemed to blank everything except itself from my mind, and only with the greatest reluctance did I stay clear of my cot once I had washed my face and hands.

It was not merely my desire, but also my recollection – recalled sage advice straight from the mouths of those I lived with...

“All count on you now.” The words grew echoes that rang clear as bells in my mind.

“Who spoke..?”

My enfeebled thinking seemed to supply an ample answer: I was too fatigued to do anyone any good, or so it now seemed.

“Perhaps...” My thinking seemed to shudder in place upon hearing soft words melding with the 'pung' noise of a cork emerging from a jug. I smelled beer.

“Is that an answer?” I thought. It seemed likely enough upon an instant's reflection

Two large cups of beer later, I felt restored – if not fully, then sufficiently so as to contemplate action to ensure our safety prior to sleep. As I began a mental inventory regarding possible ingredients of traps, I heard the rustling of straw to my side and rear, then steps, soft and drawing closer rapidly. I turned and saw Sepp.

“Run a watch tonight?” he asked between half-stifled yawns.

“It might be wise,” I said. “I need to make up a few, uh, traps.”

“I hope they are not as bad as what you tossed,” he said. “It nearly got me when it exploded.”

“I have no idea how that bomb did what it did,” I muttered, “even if the others like it I did were awful.”

I found a pair of friction igniters in my possible bag, and Sepp retrieved four sticks of dynamite from Karl's box. These dark brown sticks were just over an inch in diameter and nine inches long, and while their initial sense was different, I learned the truth of them within seconds upon handling them. A dose of fever-powder had but little effect upon the skull-crushing headache that quickly showed when I inserted the friction-igniter-cap assemblies into each two-stick charge.

“Why end-to-end?” asked Sepp.

“Perhaps to spread the blast,” I murmured. “Does that scrap pile down the hall have any old rusted chains?”

Chains proved uncommonly scarce – Sepp found but one short and rusty piece – but he made up for their paucity by finding an abundance of broken and worn slivers of horseshoes hidden in a trio of squat and dirty kegs. We tied them onto the dynamite charges with lengths of uncommonly rusty wire.

While Sepp went to clean up – he'd gotten uncommonly dirty attaching the metal pieces to the dynamite charges – I heard questions being sent his way. These questions indicated unusual curiosity – curiosity as to how he'd managed to become so dirty, and also curiosity as to what I had planned for the night.

While I readily recalled speech regarding the inner door to the other stables, I had a strong sense as to the wisdom of using another entrance if one could be found. Both common entrances hid secrets, and possibly, traps.

If?” I thought. “There's one in here, and I suspect I know where it is.”

As I moved toward the area in question, I heard more steps coming in my wake. I paused, then turned to first see Lukas, then Gabriel.

“The inner entrance is outside,” said Gabriel. “Why are you... Oof!”

“He's looking in here for a reason,” said Lukas. “Is there another entrance?”

“I think so,” I said. “It feels like it's around here somewhere.” I then noticed Gabriel rubbing his stomach.

“What..?” I asked.

“You got enough trouble without him adding to it,” said Lukas, who then turned slightly. “I won't be so gentle next time.”

“Only the blade of a dagger makes your elbow seem gentle,” mumbled Gabriel.

Lukas did not reply, and I returned to my searching.

The sense of 'warmer' grew steadily as I went closer to the very rear of the stable, and when I came to the very end of the 'hallway', I came to a 'wall' of bagged grain. The sense of an entrance being nearby was very strong, so much so that ignoring it seemed impossible, and I began moving the sacks of grain. Before I had hefted the third such sack, I had Lukas' help, and talk far to our rear spoke of where Gabriel had gone.

“It's good he fetched some sense,” said Lukas between bags.

“Sense?” I asked. “His talk?”

“Aye, that's it,” said Lukas. “He'll want close watching, at least until we're headed out of here and toward home.”

“Uh, this place is like a witch-hole,” I spluttered, as I dropped a bag on the growing mound, “and it's affecting him...”

“Him and the rest of us,” said Hendrik, as he led the rest of the party in. “At least we can move that grain.”

The grain sacks came steadily from the wall to mound themselves haphazardly in a straggly rectangle some five feet back from their former resting place, and as the bags came down, the 'wall' became steadily more apparent – or, rather, the stained coarse fabric became more apparent to me.

It was not apparent to the others: all of them were behaving as if the other side of the cloth hid a crowd of curse-spewing witches. Recalling the too-obvious witch-ploy at the border of the fifth kingdom made for a fresh feeling of rank disbelief on my part, even with further evidence staring me in the face.

“I still cannot understand how those thugs hid themselves so easily,” I murmured, as I moved toward the cloth 'screen' so as to touch it. “Curses, or no curses, they had to have painted that cloth.”

Touching the cloth showed a coarse and somewhat stiff weave with a wooden support hidden behind it. A glance at the now-immobile group showed waxy stiffness, traces of pallor, and faint trickles of sweat. I thought to speak.

“No hiding.”

The previous smells of the stable – hay, manure, cooking odors – abruptly vanished, and in their stead grew rank and potent the evil reek of 'mule'. The others seemed unchanged, immobile, their corpse-like pallor and statue-like stiffness now all the more ghastly to behold. I turned back to the wall.

The cloth began to shake. Faint tendrils of dust began to slowly sift down amid patches of slowly unraveling cloth that now showed against the artificial whiteness of the fabric. My mind suddenly pictured the effects of starch, even as one of the unraveling places suddenly 'erupted' bursting threads, then another – and, as I watched seemingly transfixed, the small regions showing 'fiber' darkened slowly to a black-threaded brownness. I smelled what might have been well-hidden flames.

The change of the cloth seemed to halt, then with a shuddering flash, cloth and framework went to dust in the blink of an eye. As the brown-gray 'dirt' slowly sifted down to leave a linear mound in front of the wall, the others knuckled their eyes, yawned, and returned to the realm of life and sanity.

My eyes were yet upon the wall, however, for now plainly I saw a faint rectangular seam outlined in darkened rust – and to my astonishment, Blackbeard showed himself as mystified as the rest of us.

“I did not know of that door,” he said, as I moved closer to the wall. A finger's touch spoke of smooth dry stone blocks that somehow had the sense and aura of a venomous reptile, and the phrase “the reptile's way inside” coursed thrice down the halls of my mind. I was about to repeat what I was hearing in a state of reverie when a hand touched the sleeve of my shirt.

“That line is from a most-evil song,” said Kees, “and until I gave up on the matter, I worked hard at trying to learn it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“If this chant is what I think it is,” said Blackbeard, “then it is most common hereabouts.” He paused, then “was there mention of a snake or reptile?”

“There was,” I murmured, and as I looked again at the wall. I had a suspicion, which educated my next thinking.

“Is there a curse on the other side?” I thought.

There was no answer, either from those standing huddled next to me or the one whose voice I most longed to hear, and my suspicions grew, even as the thoughts of speaking to the door grew louder. Amid such thinking, however, came the thought of why didn't the thugs use this particular door themselves. I looked again at the rust-outlined frame of the door, and wondered yet more. It made for a peculiar question.

“Was it beyond their knowing,” I wondered, “or was it beyond their capacity?”

As I pondered this, I sensed the time of thinking was finished. It was not getting earlier in the day, and I needed rest. The word came unbidden from my mouth, and as I spoke, the unbidden word came forth far louder than I had hoped.

“Open.”

The rusted rectangular seam suddenly spat dirt in a thick reddish-brown cloud, and the door juddered open with a deep-pitched rumble. The reek of 'mule' doubled, then grew yet more intense. Someone behind whispered darkly of a fervent desire to spew.

“Best let him go in there, then,” said Lukas. “He might not like mules much...”

“They took all of them,” said Blackbeard. “I wish they had taken their stench as well.”

I went to the side, then looked past the now-open door to see an obvious coach thickly dusted with dirt and time. Two steps further, then I touched the coach.

“Yech!” I spat, as my fingers began itching insanely. I reversed course, and only when I'd found a rag and dampened it with aquavit to wipe my hands did I feel better. I walked back toward the doorway, all the while wiping the grime from my fingers.

The stench was not improving in the slightest, and I again heard whispers, this time speaking of stink and mess.

“It would be better to endure stench and dirt,” I said. “That inner entrance is a lot quieter...”

“And no thug can open this door,” said the soft voice. “They stayed well clear of this portion of the stables, and that for a very good reason.”

“Which is..?” I asked. “The curses were too strong for them, and they died...”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice.

“And that nasty, uh, coach?” I asked.

“Will need disposal prior to your leaving,” said the soft voice. “I would speak to it from a distance, as its last user named it a most-powerful fetish.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I turned to see the others gone waxy and pallid once more.

“That hiding-curtain was nearly as powerful,” said the soft voice, “and that one particular copse upon the border had been in use by witches for many years. Both curtain and copse used the same curse-collection.”

“Is that why..?”

“That is much of it,” said the soft voice, “but the common beliefs are an issue also, much as you surmised.”

I left the others standing where they stood and fetched both bombs. After wrapping each bomb in rags, I tucked them in my possible bag and stepped back into the gloom that lay 'coiled' snake-like beyond the threshold of the doorway. There, I stood for a few seconds so as to think in the flickering shadows of the lantern I held down low at my side. I turned sideways, then began walking with my back to the wall's filth so as to not again feel the coach.

My second step toward the coach was arrested by a strange 'crawling' sensation caressing my hands in shuddery waves. While this sensation lacked the intense horror of actual contact with the dust and dirt-smeared hide of 'the great beast'...

“What?” I thought. “Why..?” The coach remained unmoved at both thoughts and speech.

Just the same, the sensation that crawled upon my hands nearly made up for the sickening sensation I had but recently endured: my hands felt a chill dryness – it spoke of age beyond the concept of 'time' – an icy chill, and an intense sense of 'moral decay' that overrode the mere feelings I now discerned.

I tried ignoring this sense, and failed utterly.

My third step brought me even with the rear portion of the coach, with the seam-stitched patchwork of black leather that formed the 'boot' overtopping my head by the span of a hand. I looked down, and amid growing lantern-tossed shadows I saw the gray iron of the wheel's rim traced thinly with rusted cracks, the age-dulled coppery tint of an obvious 'cup', and a glistening oil-slicked 'cone'.

Over all of these new discoveries I heard faintly the singsong words of an obvious chant, and with each second, the grating words seemed to come from a clearer source and direction. I took another step, then another, and here, I saw the door of the coach itself.

Again, the darkened and dusty hides were canaled with stitched seams, and the wood of the door's framework showed drum-taut under its dessicated covering. Three hinges, dusted thickly and slimy with grease, showed a near-hidden whitish gleam, and opposite them I saw a gleaming latch but partly hidden under the dust of centuries.

And upon that latch, a single red-tinged fingerprint.

I looked straight down to see scattered white gravel half-buried amid softly flowing mounds of dust, and a faint wind, one that seemed conjured specially from hell, blew past me with a scent of roasting flesh tainted with burning sulfur. The rotten meat stench grew apace, as did the reek of 'mule'.

The area beneath my feet now showed fine shreds and scraps of black-cloth, then a moldy chunk of black leather as the wind slowly scattered the dust. The 'gravel' became more obvious as to its nature.

“Who d-died?” I asked softly amid the flickers of my lantern.

There was no answer, save an apparent twitching of the gravel – until the faint sounds of the background vanished utterly for the space of a breath. I looked up.

“No man dare steal that which I name mine!” roared the echoing silence. I shook my head, even though I had heard nothing conventionally. My mind still counted the echoing words.

“A th-thief?” I asked softly. My lips did not move, and only in my mind did I hear speech.

“But the most recent of many,” said the soft voice. “He died a few hours ago.”

I left the witch to his rotting, and sidestepped again. Another wheel was but a few feet ahead, and as I came to its age-encrusted bronze 'cup' and well-oiled steel 'cone', I saw a small puddle of oil lying in the dust below the preternaturally-bright steel of the cone. The whole brought forth bad memories, though why eluded me for several seconds – until I saw the smoky-looking placard just behind the driver's seat.

The silvered oblong showed dirt and what might have been tarnished brass showing forth where the plating had worn away under years of polishing, and as I looked closer, I noted not merely the red-tinted runes, but also, the reddish vapors that seemed to form an added edge to the metal piece.

“I've never seen that curse before,” I mumbled, as I recalled the coach's description – and more, my term for it. “Great beast indeed.”

The memories returned full force as I resumed edging past the thing, and when I came to the front 'boot', I knew precisely what they were:

“Perfection,” I muttered, as I moved away from the wall to face the long guide-pole. “Perfected in...”

I ceased speaking and looked closer, even as the memories washed over me again and again. I was to be a monster, a machine, inhuman in perfection, painstaking, precise...

The words came like a waterfall into my mind:


“Son of a lying snake! You must be as the Great Dragon, and kill all

that you see! You were raised to be an animal, to murder and to kill,

and give me a thousand death-poles! I made you to be so, and my

chanting and curses must not fail. I will have you dead if you do!”


“Perfected in evil,” I muttered.

The placard seemed to 'grin' at me like the stretched-wide jaws of a dessicated skeleton, and I glanced back at the front of the coach. Here, I saw the seams, the stitching, the whole showing impossible levels of control – control so utter, so complete, that only by perfected mind-reading could the thing be done as per the inclination of the customer.

“And those cups, and cones...” I murmured. “As good as anything I've ever done...”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if that vehicle shows far better workmanship than the usual – and yes, your assessment about being 'perfected in evil' is accurate.”

“A better grade of fetish?” I asked.

“And all the more coveted by witches,” said the soft voice. “Coaches commonly fall apart within a few years of their building.”

“And that one is..?”

“Several hundred years old,” said the soft voice. “No witch has used it recently.”

The dust and dirt beneath my feet showed several faint tracings of pointed boots, and with each step, these tracings became more noticeable. The foul wind had ceased blowing, and in the stillness, I heard the rumbling explosions and screams coming from without the walls of the stable. They seemed muffled and yet distinct, and both of those things at the same time.

Another twenty feet slow-walked amid increasing dust and grime, and I came to a wide vestibule some thirty feet across. Looking to right and left showed the vestibule to be at least twice as long as it was wide, and the 'clean' nature of the floor was marred heavily by straggly mule-traces.

Unlike the passage I had just left, there was no dust to be seen.

Stepping out into the vestibule, however, spoke of that lack of dust to be strictly relative, for I came across an area more 'dust-free' than the floor surrounding it. Looking to my left showed faint red-glowing marks upon the floor that indicated the movement of both mules and an obvious vehicle, and traveling thirty feet in that direction showed more and more of such markings upon the floor.

I also found two more darkened 'holes' to my left, and another to my right.

The first of the 'holes' to my left proved to be a modest workshop of sorts, with two aged and dust-strewn workbenches nearest the front. As I passed these, I saw worn and rust-tinged tools hanging from pegs in the walls, and near the end of the left bench, I found a battered anvil. Touching this last made for cringing, for it had been greased heavily.

To the anvil's left was a blackened and foul-smelling forge made of sloppy-looking firebrick set in gray crumbling mortar; beyond forge and anvil, however, lay a mystery – and only touching and smelling some of the lumps taken from the sizable chest-high mound gave clue as to what it might well be.

“Coke!” I spat, as I tossed one of the egg-sized lumps back on the mound. “There must be enough here for, uh...”

“I would place one of those devices near that pile,” said the soft voice. “When the witches return, they will come with scoops and bags.”

“Uh, decent c-coke?” I asked, as I picked up another lump and held it close to my face. “This has very little smell.”

While there was no answer to 'how good' the stuff was, I had received an answer regarding where to set a bomb, and I hid the thing just under the edge of the coke-mound with an 'anchor string' tied to the anvil and three other strings tied to one or the other of the workbenches. Once I had finished, I returned to the main region of the stables.

The gloomy shadows showed an obvious wall roughly thirty feet ahead, and to both right and left I saw the remaining 'holes'. A glance to the left had me gasp in shock.

“Two c-coaches,” I muttered.

“Those are the other things they plan to steal,” said the soft voice.

“Good r-riddance to bad rubbish?” I asked. “Rig the main door with the other device?”

As I said this, I had the strong – no, more than that; this was a major degree of certainty – that the witches would initially show in a vast swarm and attempt to clean the remaining valuables out. Detonating the door-charge would but embolden the survivors – and those people would try for anything that was movable.

“We don't need the coaches, so...”

“And you do need that coke,” said the soft voice. “Used judiciously, that pile has sufficient fuel for the house proper for most of a year.”

“And by then...”

There was no answer beyond that which my mind furnished: by then, those at the house proper would either solve their problems or...

“I hope not,” I thought, as I went further into the gloom toward the main door.

That door proved to be not merely further away than I had thought, but was also surprisingly easy to rig. I used string to hang the bomb from an overhead beam such that it was waist-high, then ran several strings from its detonator to the door-frame. Once I had finished, however, I stopped and listened.

The outer reaches had gone strangely quiet, so much so that I could hear rattling wheels coming steadily closer. I did not have much time left.

“More than you think,” said the soft voice. “I would make a quick inventory of the rest of the stables, so you know what is present.”

“Is there..?” I asked, even as I turned to my right to face another 'hole'.

As I walked slowly into what I quickly learned was a slimy-floored passage with stalls on each side, I gagged with the intense reek of 'mule'. My palsied legs seemed to have minds of their own, and each tottering step seemed on the verge of breaking into an uncontrollable run as I glanced right and left. Between each stone-walled stall, I noted small places mounded with piled hay and bagged 'grain', and when I came to the end wall, I was astounded to see another wall-covering of bags. I gagged, checked my gorge, and looked closer.

“N-number one m-m-mule feed,” I spluttered. “N-no ingredients l-listed.”

“It works fairly well for goats, also,” said the soft voice, “and live goats are not merely common in this area, but very cheap.”

“And hence feeding them up..?” I asked.

“Will provide a ready source of fresh meat,” said the soft voice, “and that for both feeding refugees and trade.”

“But the witches...”

“Trade with freighters, among others,” said the soft voice. “Once matters calm down in the area, deliveries to the house proper will resume – meaning messages can be smuggled out, and food can be brought in as well.”

I retraced my steps out of the one 'stall-avenue', and went left until I found another like it. This was much the same as the first, save that the supplies that had been left were greater in quantity. I then came out of that area, and to my astonishment, I found not merely the 'inner door' – but also a trio of jugs parked in front of it.

I came slowly closer to the nearest jug, and as I knelt down, I saw a crude-looking cork with an obvious friction-igniter attached. A string went off into the darkness.

“Those wretches rigged that d-door,” I spluttered.

“And had you gone in that way, you and the others would have been blown up,” said the soft voice.

“These aren't that sensitive, are they?” I asked, as I began following the string.

“They are sensitive enough,” said the soft voice, “as unlike that door you opened, the others would have crowded in unwittingly in spite of your urging them to stay outside.”

“A c-curse?” I asked.

“The witches thought it to be much stronger than it actually is,” said the soft voice.

“Why would they have..?”

The behavior I had observed since my arrival now seemed to flow past my eyes like a stream of strobe-lit pictures attempting to hide themselves in darkness, and I gasped again.

“N-no consideration...” I murmured, even as I untied the line and began retracing it back to the jug. I was watching carefully as to where I stepped.

“Recall what Gabriel said?” asked the soft voice. “How he would get himself scattered had he tried to help you, even as to cutting fuses?”

“He was right?” I asked. There was no answer, beyond the recalled speech regarding 'bombing'. I then mouthed the words I recalled clearest.

“None of us, you excepted, are bombers,” I said.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice, “even if he spoke in ignorance.”

With the first jug untied, I placed it between both coaches, and tied strings to the nearest front wheel of each vehicle. Bombs number two and three went to the mouths of the 'stables', and when I opened the inner door, I went outside to look at the sky.

The drifting clouds of blue-white still hovered here and there in the darkness, and otherwise, the cacophonous racket of screams, gunfire, explosions, and shrieking pigs continued on as it had before. I observed this, noted it mentally, and went back inside.

My eyes once more adjusted to the gloom, and the scent of death seemed all-encompassing, unlike before. I turned to my right, and saw yet another 'hole', and I began walking forward slowly with the lantern held out in front. Here, I noted broken 'flags' beneath my feet, and as I came to the juncture of the two 'realms', I felt a near-invisible barrier. I stopped, and swung the lantern around, and as I looked, I became more aware of the nature of the barrier itself.

It was a spiritual matter, not a physical one, and I looked closer at the 'hole'.

As my eyes adjusted further, the walls of the place seemed to glow faintly red. The stink of death grew stronger by the second. My feet seemed to have ideas of their own, such that they wished to walk ahead without my leave.

“Is this..?”

My question was unspoken, and it was not answered. I knelt down, holding the lantern ahead of me at arms' length, and the reddish glow near the floor coalesced into two 'blobs' some fifteen feet away and separated one from another by perhaps the length of a musket. The smell was coming from them, and I looked just in front of my feet to see mounded dust piled inches deep.

I stood, then cautiously took a step. Dust spurted up from my boot and caught the foul breeze that had returned. I wanted to sneeze – and knew doing so to be very unwise.

Two more steps, and I again knelt down. From my low position, I looked up, and saw a thin line. Touching it gently with the fingers spoke of another bomb, and I reversed and stood prior to following it to the wall.

“Another j-jug,” I spluttered, as I went back the other way. I suspected I would find a second jug, and I was not disappointed – at least, I found what I suspected I would find there.

I also found two other jugs next to it.

These had wide green stripes upon them, and the smell I seemed to 'feel' upon touching them spoke of them having contents of especial flammability. I put the two jugs near the mouth of where the ancient coach lay in wait, and one after another, I removed both bombs to that location as well. I then returned to the last 'hole'.

The feeling of caution was lessened, and I came back to my furthest inroad. For some reason, I now knew what the blobs actually were, and when I came within six feet of them, I saw the two heads, each in its own pool of blood and surrounded by blood-writ runes.

“Those wretches s-sacrificed them,” I spluttered. “Is that part of that curse?”

While I heard no answer, my suspicions seemed proved, and I looked to the nearest wall. There, I saw blood-dripping rune-curses of a type I had never seen before, and looking further back in the gloom, I saw swales of mounded trash that reached nearly to the ceiling.

“They put their, uh, kills here...” I murmured.

“Much as they always have,” said the soft voice, “and those curses were the ones the witches thought especially powerful.”

“They would have compelled entry though that door?” I asked. I recalled my legs acquiring their own desires but minutes before.

“Not as you discerned, and with far less control,” said the soft voice. “The results would have been lethal just the same.”

I left the heads and curses lay, and as I ferried the remaining bombs back into our stable, I suddenly had an idea as to what to do with them. I put them away in a disused corner, then thought to close the door.

The door slowly swung shut and closed with a faint gasp.

“I-I...”

There was no answer save the obvious, and the still waxen figures stood before me as statuesque reproaches. I spoke to awaken them, and with faint moans, the 'statues' came back to life to stagger silently into the recesses of the stable. Within what seemed seconds, I heard a chorus of snores.

“N-no watching,” I muttered, as I went toward my bed.

Yet as I moved toward my cot, my ears seemed to prick up at the rattling sound of unlubricated bearings once more – and, a further undertone of furtive footfalls. My mind had been far too occupied with the safety of those 'next' to me to think overmuch of the larger picture.

“Are those..?” I asked softly, amid the racket of snores that steadily grew louder with each passing tick of my mind's clock.

“They are,” said the soft voice, “both the witches and those commons that still survive.”

“S-survive?” I gasped. “Did the witches..?”

“Those who welcomed the cloud lived,” said the soft voice, “while those who found witchdom a desired end thought to offer themselves up to the witches. They then learned first hand about the 'rules' of that society.”

“Treachery?” I asked.

“Sacrifice,” said the soft voice, “much as that one witch did with his two 'disobedient' underlings.”

The footfalls I had heard previously now drew closer, even as I began removing my boots. I paused when I saw movement in my peripheral vision, and turned to see an emaciated woman clothed with a patch-strewn cloak.

“Yes?” I asked. I barely managed to suppress a yawn.

“It's too smelly and noisy in there,” she said, as she pointed back the way she came. “I'm but one of many coming out here to sleep.” A brief pause. “I hope it will be quieter here.”

“Pigs?” I asked.

“Those stinking things were awful,” spat the voice of another woman as she, two other women, and two men stumbled wearily into my 'stall'. “I just hope we can get this smelly slime off of us.”

I then noticed the intense acrid 'acid' smell of 'pig', and I gasped, “slime?” I retched, then spat, “pig-d-dung!”

“That too,” said another of the three women, as she checked a previously-hidden shortened 'musket'. “I shot one of those stinky things when it tried for me.”

Over the course of another twenty minutes, more and more people came into the stable from the house. As they passed by my 'stall', I noted grimy powder-stained 'muskets' upon many shoulders, occasional fowling pieces – these too were badly soot-stained – soot-streaked pots and pans, innumerable bags of various sizes and states of cleanliness, assorted well-used knives, a few swords, and overall, a pungent aspect of filth and grime. I heard the pump begin to work intermittently, even as my eyes began closing apart from my desire, until with no warning whatsoever, I toppled over and fell onto my cot from exhaustion.

There were no dreams, save at the very end of my time of slumber – when a massive thundering roar shook the ground underneath my cot. I was in mid-fall when an echoing blast of similar magnitude answered the first explosion. I then heard a host of screams and a herd of braying mules.

I sat up with bleary eyes, and as I absent-mindedly put on my boots, I heard the grating movement of the outermost door in its well-rusted channel. Faint creaks and groans, mingled guttural oaths – Underworld German predominated, though I heard a few rune-strings pronounced – and muffled mule-brays seemed to come from all points of the compass.

I looked down. My boots were on, and I was ready to die.

“No, not yet,” said a strange voice, one wrung through and through with the sound of mourning. It was followed closely by an echoing forest of clicking noises. I understood implicitly that every gun in the house was loaded, though their propellant was of such poor quality...

“No, fill those things up with decent powder,” I murmured in my somnambulant state. “Perhaps some like I have, both for strength and grain – and oh, good niter, too. As good as can be had.” A pause, then, “they stint that stuff in most powder mills.”

And, as if I were a foreteller of dire fortune, a titanic roar flung me from my cot to land face-down in a sketchy mound of hay. I pushed myself up to hear bedlam screaming amid ringing ears and the howls of an enraged multitude.

“Now what?” I mumbled around a mouthful of hay.

There was no immediate answer save for a great rustling all about me. As I spat out the hay from my mouth, I wondered if my dream was indeed a harbinger of the current reality – and then, for some reason, I wondered if I had received the dream of another.

“Eating grass?” I muttered.

“You ain't had any ovens stoked recent, have you?” asked a familiar voice from somewhere close by. “You ain't that king, not by the longest Laeng.”

“What?” I spluttered, as I now truly woke up to spit a well-gnawed cud of hay from my mouth. “How..?”

As if I were among their number, I heard the 'stealthy' arrival of first one large party of black-dressed thugs outside the main door of the stable, followed seconds later by the grease-muffled rattle of a mule-drawn wagon. The wagon's passengers began leaping from their ride to land upon the cobbles with plainly audible clanking thuds.

“Turn out, people...” I muttered. “We have c-company...”

A huge blast preceded a volley of eruptive screams and I staggered to my feet. I stumbled to the doorway of my 'stable' to be met by Lukas.

“Those thugs have blown the door,” he spat.

I wondered for a moment as to how he could have known the details of how I had rigged the door when a second such ringing blast ripped apart the night and the sanity of a multitude. Calls went to all points of the compass from everywhere around me, and seconds later, a bedraggled brace of young women showed with muskets near the door of my 'stall'. I still felt uncommonly bleary-eyed, even if my thinking gave the appearance out to be a partial untruth.

“Yes?” I asked weakly, as I checked my revolver. My rifle was already hanging from its strap.

“They've come,” said the taller of the two women. I pricked up my ears. She had more to say.

Another massive blast interrupted her speech and rocked the ground underfoot before spewing a potent blast of mule-stink into the stable. The heat-wracked reek caused me to awaken fully.

I staggered to my feet – I had fallen to the floor from the last explosion – and nearly did a header into a nearby mound of hay. I made perhaps three steps before another huge explosion nearly brought me to my knees.

“How many of those stinking bombs did I..?”

A gunshot came from the stable's mouth, then another – and then two more, followed closely by a drunken-sounding scream and another more-muffled explosion. I turned and tottered toward the mouth of the stable, then dove for the ground at the base of the ramp as a massive roer-sent cloud of shot streaked overhead.

“You..!” I muttered, as I drew my revolver and fired at a thickly-muffled black-dressed figure emerging from a thick and murky cloud of powder smoke. He 'hunched', dropped his weapon, and followed it to the ground a second later.

Lukas was hiding himself somewhere to my right as I began creeping up the slope. Amid the swirling maelstrom usurping the mouth of the stable I saw red-tinted flashes and heard screams. A sizzling hiss flew overhead, and as I watched with bugged-out eyes, a lit stick of 'mining dynamite' – a thick stick, one easily a foot long; it was not one of Karl's puny things – bounced off of the pavement at the mouth of the stable and leaped into the cloud.

A second later, a brilliant white flash stabbed my eyeballs and turned the night into glaring day as a brilliant white fireball engulfed the mouth of the stable. I dropped my head where I lay as the flames roared hungrily and screams tore apart the air to the front.

Faintly – my ears were ringing like the bells of a vast cathedral, and the flames roared hungrily to my front – I heard steps coming from behind, and I turned and rolled to my side to see someone at once spectral and yet familiar. For a second, I smelled roses.

“There is more where that came from,” said the dark-haired woman. It took me seconds to recognize her, and seconds more to see upon her face the likeness of Sarah. “I made sure to get what I could.”

“Y-yes?” I asked, as I turned to see her more clearly. Her torn clothing was heavily smeared with soot and grime, and smoke-stains dirtied her face. “What do you usually do, dear?”

“Wash clothing,” she said, “cook meals, hide from black-dressed stinkers, and...”

“Down!” I shouted.

To her credit, she dropped like a rock as a storm of gunfire ripped the air overhead. I turned back to the doorway of the stable to see a trio of charging thugs, and I brought up my revolver to begin firing.

My first shot hit the center thug just above his wide black belt, and as I cocked my revolver for another shot, someone else fired another shot-loaded roer over my head. Unlike the last instance, this shot-swarm was outbound.

The right thug ran into an invisible wall and crumpled in place atop his fowling piece, while the left thug came on unimpeded. He was too close to dodge, and I shot him 'somewhere' at a range of six feet. I rolled to my right as he tumbled overhead to slide down the slope minus his 'musket'.

The white-ripped holocaust to my front had more or less died down by now, and amide moans, faint screams, the brays of mules, and what might have been the 'roars' of sundry huge and mangy half-wild dogs, I listened carefully. I could 'feel' silence stirring itself once more in the immediate region of the house proper, and I cautiously drew myself up to my knees while hiding as much as I could of myself behind the down-slope of the stable's entrance. I heard faint moaning noises coming closer from behind me, and they rang in my mind like windblown chimes.

I turned to see Karl staggering closer while dragging a sizable musket on the 'concrete'. He was making the moaning noise.

“Y-yes..?” I asked. My voice seemed to echo in the steadily encroaching stillness.

“I-I n-n-never shot anything l-like this g-gun be-before,” he muttered between further moans. “It's worse than yours.”

“It ought to be,” said Gilbertus' voice from somewhere behind. “It might not be a full-dose roer, but it ain't much less.”

Karl moaned again, then turned to walk slowly back toward the stalls.

Over the next few minutes, the smoke to my front slowly cleared to a small degree as those of our party came one at a time to the mouth of the stable. I felt inclined to wait for a while before investigating the 'mess' to my front.

“What time is it?” I thought, as I tried to see through the slow-clearing fog-bank that walled off the mouth of our 'cave'. I could not tell, and more, there was no answer.

Further listening, however, spoke of a growing and abiding stillness, and I cautiously stood a moment later. I turned right and saw Lukas emerging from his 'hide'.

“I heard about grain sacks when I was traipsing north last,” he said. “They do stop bullets, if you use enough of 'em.”

“Did you..?” I asked. My voice reeked of horror.

He turned, then asked, “is it bad?”

A sizable blood-stained ripped place showed left-to-right across the seat of his trousers, and I came closer. For some reason, my mind was more on the clothing than his injury.

“I think I can fix those,” I said. “Does it hurt much?”

“Only when I sit on it,” he said. “Is it deep?”

“You'll have a stripe there,” said Gilbertus, as he showed to my left and knelt down. He was careful not to touch the wound. “I'd guess it might be three lines deep, if that.”

“Uh, a bad scrape,” I spluttered. “It looks worse than it actually is. A pause, then, “uh, why don't you get a change...”

Lukas left his 'hide', and I followed him dumbly back into an all-too-crowded stable. The number of refugees had grown mightily, so much so that finding a private place to 'work' was the foremost thing on my mind. I was surprised to hear someone calling from between the buggies once I had fetched my supplies.

“Karl?” I asked.

“Just follow your nose,” said Sepp. “He's getting into the Geneva jug.”

“I hope he's not d-drinking...”

“He has tasted it before,” said Sepp, “and I never saw anyone spew like that before I saw him try it.” A brief pause, then, “how bad is it?”

“Uh, what?” I asked. Sepp's back was to me.

“I fired a fowling piece,” he muttered, “and I don't know who loaded it, or with what, but...”

“Valley powder,” said Blackbeard dryly, “and with stiff shot, and both of those to excess. I am more than a little surprised that gun did not burst.”

“Uh, excess?” I asked.

“A common fowling piece of forty-line bore, and a fifty-line measure,” he said. “Valley powder wants a thirty-line musket's measure for powder, if that.”

I was still mystified as to the nature of Sepp's injury, so much so that I asked, “and then what?”

“He was lucky he landed on a pile of straw,” said Blackbeard.

“Is it where you, uh, sit?” I asked.

“There, my back, and my head,” said Sepp. “My shoulder is the worst, though. It's already starting to turn colors.”

“And you want the Geneva,” I spluttered. “I'll fetch my liniment vial.”

Once Sepp was off in a corner rubbing himself with Geneva and Lukas was bathing, I found myself getting the 'aid station' ready. Help, even though I had quietly asked, was not forthcoming, or so I thought until that one woman showed with a steaming bucket of water.

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“I've looked after...”

My hearing 'blanked' for a fraction of a second while the realization burned into my mind like the fifth kingdom's sun. This woman had about as much business washing clothing as did Rachel, if not less yet. My hearing came back up abruptly, and she was still speaking.

“...my injuries, and had good luck with them,” she said. “They're common around here. A brief pause, then, “I wish heartily I knew more.”

“You can help me...”

My words were cut off by the words of a man limping closer. I had no idea as to what had happened to him beyond the visually obvious.

“There's nothing for doctors here,” he said testily, “and if a place ever needed them, this place does.”

She looked at me, then said, “there are those who name themselves doctors, but they are far better at drinking...”

“And stinking, and cursing, and robbery,” spat the man. “Most of them smell like those stinking mules that used to be in the regular stables.”

“Black-cloth, strange hats, pointed...”

“Aye,” said Lukas, as he came with a towel wrapped around his waist. “I'll keep this up 'cept where that crease is...”

I nearly fainted where I stood!

Yet somehow, I gathered my wits and courage and knelt down with Lukas' posterior but two feet away. With closed eyes, and groping hand, I...

“Just tell me what to do,” said a soft female voice. It was the dark-haired woman. “I've known people like you are.”

“You have?” I spluttered incredulously. As I did, however, I could almost feel the injury, both as to where precisely it was located in the spatial sense and as to its exact nature. It was deeper than it looked, and far more serious than it superficially appeared to be – as the bullet had been blood-dipped as part of a curse, and was therefore seeded deeply with infection.

“Y-yes,” she said. “Mother was like that, and my younger sister nearly as bad that way.” A brief pause, then, “I knew why she was that way, too.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. I could feel ragged lacerated flesh between my thumb and forefinger, and the sense of filth – and more, evil, of a type especially associated with swine – made for a sense of revulsion so intense and so real I nearly screamed.

“With mother, it was her left foot,” she said. “She tossed a jug at a pig two years before I was born, and she nearly died from the burns.”

“M-marked?” I asked.

“Y-yes,” said the woman. “Not all of her toes remained, even if she otherwise healed fully. My sister, I'm not certain beyond she was more like mother than I was.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. My hand was nearly touching the injury.

“I left home before this happened,” she said, “but there was word of her tossing jugs at swine – and knowing her, those pigs are dead.”

“Dead?” I gasped. “Those pigs are not the easiest things to stop.”

“If you wish to burn swine,” she said – she sounded as if quoting a hoary and time-tested maxim – “you must get close enough to not miss.”

“Aye, and chance the flames yourself,” said Lukas. “I can feel something happening with that place back there, like it's being cleaned out.”

I nearly burst into tears upon hearing such speech, and shook soundlessly with the thought. My grouping hand touched against something – what, I could not tell, other than I instantly felt acutely ill – and with a soft moan, I began praying.

I scarcely managed three words when I heard a shocked intake of breath to my left, then a rustling noise followed by soft muttering. This last sounded much as if Anna had tutored the speaker.

“I am not certain that wound will need bandaging,” said the voice of the dark-haired woman. She was at my right. “I've heard of such things happening, but that's the first time I've seen it.”

“W-what?” asked Lukas. He seemed genuinely afraid – which was a first for him in my hearing.

“That wound,” she said. “You have a barely visible mark where it was a minute ago, and there's a big smelly mess on the floor here.” A pause, then, “it's one of those bad bullets.”

“B-bad bullets?” I asked. My eyes were still very much closed.

“They dip them in the blood of swine,” she said, “and then grease them with this liquid that comes from these stinky birds.” A brief pause, then, “they speak strangely when doing so...”

“Rune-curses,” I muttered, “and the bacteria in that stuff acts like a virulent poison, so if you hit someone anywhere, no matter how slightly...”

“Curse-bullets tend to work most reliably among those who seldom bathe,” said the voice of Blackbeard. I realized now that he'd been the speaker I'd heard on my left minutes before. “Talk has it that bathing and then drowning minor wounds in aquavit usually results in ready healing.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “That may be true for some of those things, but whoever did this one knew what he, or, uh – no, she was doing.”

“She?” asked Blackbeard. “There are no woman poisoners in the area – at least, I have not heard of any.”

“S-second k-kingdom,” I gasped, as my eyes opened of their own accord and my gorge attempted to escape from my mouth. “Madame Curoue. She did that batch of bullets herself.”

“But she is dead, and has been...” Blackbeard was astonished beyond measure at my statement, and his assurance had vanished utterly.

“No matter,” I said. “These bullets remain lethal for years if stored properly. They were wax-dipped upon completion...”

I looked down, then stepped back. Lukas was no longer in front of me, and I nearly spewed as I pointed with shaking hand at the writhing milky-white bullet lying in the puddle of putrefaction that lay nestled at my feet.

“What?” I squeaked.

“That's a...” Blackbeard stopped in mid-word upon recognizing what I had spoken of. “You're right...” A pause. “I never saw one done like that before.”

The bullet ceased its 'movement' a second later, while the stench of the material surrounding it grew apace. I wondered where a shovel could be found, and as I glanced to the side furtively, a deep-pitched grating noise 'spoke' of someone having a similar idea. My eyes then focused upon the trousers of Gilbertus and the shovel he held.

He'd scooped up the bullet and its mess somehow.

“I'll toss this thing out in the...” Gilbertus was moving toward the mouth of the stable with the shovel held out in front of him, much as if he intended to fend off an attack of the night's air.

“No, best burn it...”

This last voice – Blackbeard's – seemed the precise voice of reason, and as I wondered where to find fuel with which to immolate the bullet and its mess, I had an impression:

“I need to record what I can of that thing...”

“Evidence,” I muttered, as I walked to where I had left my cot. My possible bag lay there, along with my current ledger.

With a small fire burning brightly near the mouth of the stable – the former firestorm had died down to a smoking realm of ashes, burnt sod, and crumbling half-powdered bones – I went over the handful of sentences and the drawing I had managed. There was but little information beyond the obvious visuals and my impressions, as 'touching' the thing – save with a long stick that went upon the fire as fuel to hasten the bullet's destruction after my using it as a poker – had seemed exceedingly unwise. I went over my information a final time, added my impressions about touching the bullet, and again the impression regarding evidence struck me.

“Too late,” I murmured, as I choked back a yawn. “That thing's gone up in smoke, and anything that nasty needed a hot fire...”

“Especially given what she had prepared,” said the soft voice. “Lukas would have died before morning had he not been promptly treated.”

“What..?” I gasped.

“That bullet was old enough that its 'culture' had gone mostly dormant,” said the soft voice. “Had it been fresh, the symptoms would have showed within moments in his case.”

His case?” I asked.

“He would have been but the first of many to die,” said the soft voice, “as that organism is not only quickly lethal when active, but also exceedingly contagious.”

How contagious?” I asked.

“Enough to pass for the common cold where you come from,” said the soft voice, “and lethal enough without appropriate treatment to pull off a passable imitation of Ebola.”

“B-b-biological w-warfare...” My voice spluttered to a halt as I came to the full realization of what I had heard.

“It once was,” said the soft voice. “Madame Curoue revived the bulk of its former lethality in a surprisingly advanced laboratory.”

“She d-did?” I asked. “Where was it..?”

“Near her home in the second kingdom,” said the soft voice.

“Wonderful,” I muttered mournfully. “That stuff gets loose, and...”

“That laboratory was not merely very old,” said the soft voice, “but was built with security in mind. Hence it self-destructed when its containment seals were breached.”

“And Madame..?” I asked.

“Was vaporized,” said the soft voice, “along with the laboratory and its contents.”

“And the remaining bullets..?”

“Burned when the witch owning them did,” said the soft voice, “and the one that showed in that 'puddle' was the last one.” A brief pause, then, “I would check the rest of the 'mess' before you resume sleeping.”

“And then..?”

My thoughts rang in my head for but a second while I listened for an answer. I was not surprised when one did not come, even if the impression of 'this is important' was impossible to ignore. After a quick 'once-over' – Lukas was the only person who was actually 'shot', while every Geneva jug in the stable had its cluster of rag-bearing supplicants – I went to the 'door' at the end of the stable.

I was glad for the wobbly shield of feed-bags that now part-hid the wall, and I listened briefly to what was happening inside the now-crowded stable. Some were resuming slumber, while the majority were nursing 'wounds' of one kind or another. I hoped a watch would be kept.

“One was,” said the soft voice. “Future watches will have greater numbers and heightened vigilance on the part of those watching.”

I turned to the door and softly spoke to it, and with a shuddering creak, it opened.

The initial odor upon entering the stable was the combined reeks of fire, distillate, powder, blood, and 'dirt'. I moved cautiously past the coach while my eyes adjusted to the darkness – and when I accidentally kicked aside the severed and bloody head of a witch, I nearly shrieked.

I stopped where I stood with closed eyes, and tried hard to listen.

“There it is again,” I thought. “That has to be a wagon, and it's coming closer.”

I had no desire to be involved with 'act two' of the witch-onslaught, so much so that I turned to leave. My first step froze in mid-air when 'something' caused me to ignore both the stink of the place and the sea of blood that was steadily encroaching upon the small 'island' where I currently stood.

Again, I closed my eyes as I put my foot down. I needed to listen carefully.

The reeking and cloudy gloom of the place seemed to gather me unto its grimy bosom, and when I opened my eyes once more, I moved backwards. Faint noises came from underfoot, and when my outstretched hand behind me touched the wall's filth, I froze.

I knew what was happening now.

“Scavengers?” I thought, as I turned first left and then right. “Is that what's happening?”

The blood upon the floor and the smoky air but amplified the sense of stillness as I moved slowly among the mounded corpses that lay huddled next to the wall, and as my eyes swept the darkness to my right, I noted larger and taller corpse-mounds usurping nearly the whole of the stable's open area. I could but guess at the number of dead in the rest of the stable, for those in my pathway...

I had trouble finding places to put my feet, save upon the piled corpses of witches.

I came to the opening that signified the realm of the smithy, and when I turned left I saw that the coke lay untouched, save for a small place near the front of the mound. The forge and anvil lay much as they had before, and the same for the workbenches and tools.

I could not say that for the remainder of the floor: it was carpeted thickly with the bodies of witches, vast numbers of sizable cloth bags – some with bloodstains, others merely dirty – and here and there, splintered fragments of wood.

“They used those sacks for, uh, bandages,” I thought, as I came to a wadded and bloodstained mess of cloth. “I wonder why...”

I stopped thinking when I came to a thug lying face-up in a pool of blood with a thickly-wrapped right leg. I knelt down and began to unwrap his leg, and as I peeled off bag after bag, I noted steadily increasing amounts of blood. Finally, I came to bags that were near-solid with clotted blood, and I stood up after spitting upon and then wiping my hands.

The remaining bags seemed to vanish before my eyes, and I looked down to see a near-shapeless limb that had been turned into bloody chopped meat.

“What happened?” I asked silently.

“Both barrels from a stiffly-loaded fifty-line fowling piece at close range,” said the soft voice. “He died within minutes of shock and blood loss.”

I retraced my steps to the mouth of the 'smithy'. There, the darkness of the wall ahead and to my left seemed to stand out faintly in some strange fashion, as did the corpses mounded upon the floor, while far to my right I saw the inner door of the place ajar amid mounded corpses. When I came to the location that had once housed the two coaches, I was surprised – and gladdened – to see both of them gone.

I was not surprised in the slightest to see the whole of the alcove piled thickly with blood-reeking black-dressed bodies laying mounded amid slow-drifting clouds of foul-smelling smoke.

Again I heard the furtive rumble of wheels, and I crouched down near the back of the alcove so as to 'hide'. The mounds of bodies seemed to make it easier to do so, for some reason, even as I heard the part-muffled bray of a mule followed by the scratching sounds of people alighting upon filthy cobbles from the bed of a wagon.

“Uh, a coach?” I thought, as I huddled down further. The stench of blood was strong and growing stronger by the minute.

The first of the black-dressed thugs showed but seconds later, and as he stood in the ruins of the shattered doorway to look around furtively, I saw how he was a 'copy' of those who lay heaped in front of me.

There was more than the superficially obvious, however. How I knew this, and with such awful certainty, was a mystery – at least, until another thug showed, followed by a third example a second later.

For some reason, I now saw differences. The three thugs moved slowly among the first piles of the dead, and as I watched them, I saw a 'patchwork' aspect to their 'darkness', almost as if it were but an outer covering with no foundation beneath it for support, and the rasping noises made by their boots spoke loudly of age and wear.

These impressions were bolstered when the three thugs brought forth dirty cloth bags from their clothing and began rifling the piled bodies as a team of sorts. Their voices spoke in low tones that somehow seemed hidden from my ears, and...

“And they desire to hide themselves from proper thugs, until they be as they should,” I thought. “These people are as fragmented as...”

The innumerable sects and sub-beliefs common to 'belief' in the world I left behind intruded for an instant, while the first three thugs were joined by several more. The thugs worked in groups of twos and threes, with soft clinking noises speaking of pocketed money and other valuables. Their likely goals became yet more obvious to me, even as I saw a long triangular fetish-dagger discarded. I suspected it to be an inferior piece.

“Money, or its lack, separates witch from witch,” I thought.

“That is more true in the fifth kingdom than elsewhere,” said the soft voice, “even if that statement is generally true.”

I began slowly moving toward the mouth of the alcove, even as more witches began to 'infiltrate' themselves into the stable. Their soft murmured speech, their slight clumsiness, and above all, their intent aspects upon plunder, seemed to create a 'fog' in which I might hide myself, and as I moved slowly amid the gathering darkness that seemed to enfold me with each new group of witches, I noted more and more their furtive aspects.

They were lacking more than money, I knew. There was another thing that 'made' witches, and it wasn't owning a sack of bones – at least, that made little difference in this area.

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “A private graveyard is one of the approved substitutes.”

“They d-don't...” I thought.

“A private graveyard is but one means of being 'made' in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “There are others.”

“To own a s-salon” – I nearly said 'saloon – “and s-s-sell w-whiskey...” History spoke loudly; saloon-keepers were venerated on the frontier.

“More money, and far less risk,” said the soft voice, “which is one of the reasons why there are so many drink-houses in the area.”

“And those need m-money to start,” I thought.

While there was no answer, the thought seemed plausible indeed, and as I slid slowly around the corner into the realm of the ancient coach, I wondered if the witches would make further noise – and more if they would remove the actual bodies of their compatriots.

Again, there was no answer, even as smoke softly drifted out through the slot left by the part-open inner stable door.

I left the witches to their own and slid back inside prior to closing the door behind me. The odor of Geneva present in the stable was sufficiently potent that I nearly spewed while drawing another bath prior to returning to sleep.