The fifth kingdom's mess, part c.


“We'll need to have people ready to deal with the witches and pigs we flush, then,” I said, as I began walking toward the door itself. “Oh, also some traps...”

As I said this, however, I had the intimation that the traps would be best set after our incursion, as to set them during it...

“Would be far too hazardous,” said the soft voice. “First shoot all the witches and swine you can and remove their bodies from within using armed parties, and then set your traps after you've had a decent nap.”

“Nap?” I asked. I barely managed to stifle a yawn as it was.

“I heard that,” said Sepp, “and you're not the only one who's short of sleep.”

The doorway seemed to have acquired the aspect of a darkened threshold, for no light burned within. I took my first cautious step, then another; then with my third step, I heard muttering.

“Hist,” said Lukas softly. “Move slow, and be quiet.”

“The witches will have lights, anyway,” I said, as I paused for a moment. “If we have them, then...”

“We'll be the ones shot,” muttered Gilbertus.

I continued my slow stepping, even as the dark seemed to draw down and cover all that I did, and I learned first hand of the true powers of darkness; for here, I had an edge of such awesome power that it nearly went to my head.

“No thank you,” I thought. “Those witches like this stuff, or at least they think they do...”

“Think is right,” said the soft voice. “Strong drink does not help with night vision.”

And as if to buttress the matter, in the distance I saw the soft gleam of a candle raise up past head-height, then the single flame split to become two distinct sources of light. I carefully knelt where I stood, and the soft movements behind me spoke of my actions being copied. I turned, breathed out softly, then spoke in Lukas' ear.

“Let him come closer...” A brief pause. “There.” I pointed soundlessly at a tall and narrow 'black hole' that had just showed in the wall. “We can hide in that opening.”

I softly stood, then walked slow and noiselessly to the part-open 'secret passage' nearest the stable door as the number of lights in the distance increased by one more. The lighting at our end was still near pitch-black as to darkness, so much so that when the others had secured places to my rear in the passage I thought to come out and 'ambush' the lamplighter. I waited a moment while listening carefully, and then poked my head out the door.

The lamplighter was still present, and was igniting more lights. The first of the new-lit lights had begun to fluctuate in intensity to a modest degree, while in the dancing shadows it threw I saw what looked to be a sizable number of black-dressed thugs forming up 'in column'. I ducked back in.

“More thugs coming to storm the outside,” I said softly, “and that lighter-person is still lighting lamps.”

“How many so far?” asked Karl. I was glad he was keeping his voice down

“Thugs or lights?” I asked.

Karl was about to reply when a snarled command from up the hallway segued into the slurred syllables of the hiding-curse, and as I closed my eyes, the strobing swirling colors surrounding each rune as it was pronounced seemed to all-but take over my mind. I blinked my eyes twice, and the colors blossomed eerily in the darkness to then fade slowly within a count of ten as the thugs marched in trampling time to the shouted rune-curse.

“What was that?” whispered Karl. “Such strange colors, and then those...”

“Hist,” whispered Lukas. “I'll speak of it after we get these witches.”

“Ready squibs,” I said, as I reached into my possible bag.

The tramping sounds of the true-step mingled with the screech-dragging noises of at least two swords, and as these noises came closer to where we lay in wait, the loudly-chanted hiding-curse continued to flash brilliant strobe-like colors in a portion of my mind. It was a huge distraction, so much so that I silently prayed – and within seconds, the squib in my hand began shaking and twitching to such a degree that I turned loose of the thing in a state of panic.

It did not abide my presence; it shot out of the door while leaving a thin and growing trail of smoke.

Karl looked at me while shaking his head, much as if my impatience had ruined our 'hide'. He seemed ripe for the issuing of a dire reproach, so much so that his mouth opened silently as he turned to me – and as he spoke, his voice was drowned out by an explosion of such frightful magnitude that I gasped amid ringing ears.

I also had to dodge him, for he dived for the floor of the passage and nearly landed in my lap, and when he got up, he whispered, “what..?”

“No time for it,” said Lukas, as he readied a match. “That thing sounds like it...”

I crawled without speech to the edge of the door, and peered out to see a smoke-shrouded dim-lit passage filled with slow-crawling darkened forms coming steadily closer. Their number was such that I could not truly count them readily – and when I crawled out into the passage and went prone with my rifle in my hands, I had watchers from the side. I glanced to see Sepp with another squib in his hands.

“Here,” he whispered as he slid the thing across the floor.

I picked up the squib, and as I laid down the rifle, the squib's fuse spontaneously lit in my hands. I scrambled to my feet and tossed the thing as hard as I could before leaping back down toward the refuge of the floor.

The thugs took no notice of the bomb as it flew overhead, then it hooked left and went around the corner. The lamplighter had vanished, even as the flickering flames lit up the oncoming crowd of slow-crawling witches, and when I was about to name the bomb a dud, I dropped my face to the floor involuntarily and closed my eyes...

And another huge explosion erupted down the hall.

Unlike the previous one, this one sent enough flame and hot gases my way that I hugged the floor for dear life, and when I again looked down the hall, the dancing shadows at the end of the passage had changed markedly. I listened carefully for perhaps a second as an irregular treading of soft-shoed feet seemed to come from around the corner ahead.

Again, I took up my rifle, and waited. That 'marching' was getting louder, and among the steady – and stealthy – tread, I heard what might have been high-pitched cries of 'fear and rage' among the ringing echoes in my ears. I strained to hear what it was, until with a sudden jolt, the 'rags' seemed to fly out of both of my ears...

And the high-pitched 'screams of rage' resolved into the squeals of a herd of pigs!

The witches continued their steady crawling as the shadows moved frantically behind them, then with a sudden tormented shriek-chorus, the pigs erupted from behind the corner and charged frantically shoulder-to-shoulder down the hall. The witches went to the floor under the trotters of the oncoming swine, and amid yells and screams the pigs continued their mad charge for freedom. I aimed at the front-most pig and fired, then rolled sideways to the door of the passage as a half-dozen pigs leaped over their fallen leader and came on heedless of all hazard.

I barely made the door before first one smoky object whizzed overhead, then another, then two more, and as I frantically began trying to reload my rifle, the explosions started. The roars merged one into another, then amid frantic shrieks and squeals Lukas darted out, fired his weapon, and leaped back inside as our doorway became 'walled off' by a multitude of charging pigs.

I dived out of the way as Karl and Sepp began emptying their revolvers into the pig-herd, then Gilbertus fired a musket. The powder-smoke grew thick and choking as more gunfire echoed in the narrow passage, until with a sudden flash and roar, the pig-herd 'ended' in a blast of brilliant sunlight showing to the left.

“Down,” I yelled, as a tremendous fusillade erupted on the other side of the threshold and I dove for the floor.

The hallway buzzed crazily with bullets as the gunfire outside continued to grow in volume and intensity amid screams, shrieks, and squeals. I felt reminded of my last minutes in the Swartsburg, then as the gunfire continued to grow, I tried speaking. My ears still rang.

“How many guns do they have out there?”

As if to answer, first one pig flew screeching past our doorway on a reverse course, then another; then two more – and abruptly the herd resumed its crazy onrush to wall us off again.

“At least those witches are going to be sore enough from those things stepping on them,” I muttered.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those witches caught out in the hall by that pig-herd are far beyond any definition of 'sore' at this time.”

“What?” asked Sepp amid the screaming onrush of pigs. I hoped fervently none of the others would dive for my lap as Karl had.

“Those thugs,” I spluttered. “I doubt they will be up to much after two turns of the pigs.”

“They're most likely dead,” yelled Lukas. “Those pigs are red from the shoulders down.”

“The thugs, or the pigs' blood?” I asked. There was no answer.

The pork-wall continued for another ten slow-moving seconds, and then finished with a handful of limping pigs. Lukas fired at the last animal, which shrieked and bounded forward as if startled. I was glad it did not turn and come after us.

“I'll go and look,” I whispered, as I moved closer to the doorway.

I paused for an instant's time to get 'lower' on the floor when I reached the 'threshold', then cautiously poked my head out into the hallway. There, I saw a passage so clogged with smoke that I could not at first discern much of anything.

“What is out there?” asked the voice of Karl from behind me.

“I-I'm not certain,” I whispered, as the smoke slowly moved as if to suggest it was alive. “I can't hear much with all this ringing in my ears, and all I can smell is burned powder, distillate, dirt, and, uh, pigs.”

“Can you see anything?” asked Lukas.

“N-not really,” I said, as I returned to where the others sat. “We'll need to crawl with knives handy, unless you want to wait until the smoke clears some.”

I was expecting both answers to have their proponents, for some reason. I knew what I wanted to do: go outside, check on the 'outside' mess, let the hallway air out, and reload both revolvers and rifle while out in the daylight.

“We'd best go outside for a breather,” whispered Gilbertus.

“Aye,” said Lukas. “That one was bad enough to make me wonder about packing a dragoon.”

I was about to ask a question as to which dragoon was desired when a sudden hacking cough segued into a hoarse mumbling just outside the doorway. I turned in shocked surprise to see an apparition at once horrifying and nauseating.

Shredded black-cloth hung down from a tall yet withered near-skeletal frame, and the dribbling nature of blood dripping steadily upon the floor spoke of injuries beyond calculation, while the shaking hand of the witch – there was but one remaining; the other had been removed recently, if I went by the bleeding ragged stump – held a pistol.

Too fast to think I drew my revolver and fired as time abruptly slowed. The witch now billowed ethereal red flames as if standing in the teeth of a fiery hurricane, while a red-glowing spot bloomed abruptly dead-center in his chest. Another flash and roar from my pistol, and another blood-bloom erupted but an inch higher and slightly to the right of the first one.

The witch gave no notice to either of the two bullet wounds, and with mechanical precision, he raised up his pistol. Slow as molasses I heard the echoing clicks as he cocked the thing, then as his fingers began to work upon the trigger, a third flash and roar came from my pistol.

The black-hole eyes of the witch suddenly acquired a black-edged third hole between them, and his former reddened eyesockets suddenly went completely white as his eyes turned up and his pupils vanished. His fingers went nerveless, his single remaining hand loosened its grip upon life, and the pistol he held slowly drifted to the floor with his boneless corpse racing it downward in death.

I turned and splayed out my hands as the pistol struck the floor, then as I sprawled upon the stones a huge reddish flame and dynamite-blast blew a billowing hot wind but inches from my face. I heard a screaming shriek but seconds later – and I then came to myself with ragged panting breath. I then noticed my soot-covered pistol.

“W-what was that?” I gasped. My ears were again ringing like chimes.

“A witch,” said Sepp. He sounded vaguely as if he had attempted to douse his sorrows with Geneva, for some reason. “He had a pistol, and you shot him before he could shoot.”

I was too tongue-tied and dry-mouthed to speak, so much so that when Karl went to the corpse and began prying the witch's hand open, I was unable to forbid him. He returned a moment later, then lay the half-cocked weapon in my lap. The powder-stained 'dragoon' had but one thimble of the six remaining. The other five had been 'busted'.

“That's...”

“Best go outside,” said Lukas. “I need half a jugful before I try this place again.”

Faint echoes that sounded like the cry of demented seagulls seemed to answer, and as I stepped over the corpse of the witch, I paused to again listen.

Would I hear the sounds of silence?

Or would another deathless witch show?

“That was another combine-head,” said the soft voice. “Be glad witches like him are rare.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, amid ringing ears and a brain that felt as if compounded of rewarmed oatmeal.

“He had learned the same curses as that one witch in the second kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and he was strong enough to speak them and not die.”

“Hence his, uh, being so hard to s-stop?” I asked. The hallway now 'felt' silent.

That was my sole answer, or so it seemed as I looked out into the hallway to see even thicker smoke amid impenetrable darkness. The outer door had been closed, or so I thought when I turned toward it to see it blanketed in hazy gray smoke that slowly drifted outward. I turned to the others, nodded, then walked slowly down the hallway.

The clouds of foul-smelling smoke seemed to part their ways gracefully for my passage, and when I came to the last remaining 'wall', it abruptly opened and showed light but feet away. My slowed feet wobbled and shuffled half-heartedly out into the sunshine of late morning, where my legs gave way and I collapsed half-spinning to there black out upon the grass.

I came to myself some time later with a mug of beer in my hands. I was drinking from the thing as if dehydrated badly, while around me I heard faint shuffling noises. I paused to look up, and jolted when I saw the fuzzy head and yellow eyes of an obvious goat but inches from my face.

“Y-yes?” I spluttered. “Where did y-you come from?”

Steps came from my rear, then as I thought to turn, words followed from a voice that I did not at first recognize amid the turgid thoughts turning within my scrambled head.

“We have several goats now,” said Gabriel, “and I'm sorry I acted as I did recently.”

“What?” I spluttered, even as I vaguely recalled what had happened earlier in the day.

“I went into a shop to ask for directions in the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “It took more than a year to find out which shops in that place were likely to give such aid.”

“No place is as confusing for directions,” I muttered, “and most people are...”

“Are not very helpful,” said Gabriel, “and that presumes their directions are possible to understand.”

“Hence such shops...”

“I learned that portion when I went after chemicals my first year at Maagensonst,” said Gabriel. “Most chemists would only sell to their own kind, or so I gathered then. I only recently learned otherwise.”

“Uh, at the west school...”

“Or to those they know can use them safely,” said Gabriel. “The west school does many things differently, not merely chemistry.” A brief pause, then, “and I asked for a map in that shop.”

“Did they draw one, or..?”

“I think this thing was printed,” said Gabriel. “I've seen such maps before.”

“Greasy-feeling paper?” I asked.

Gabriel nodded, then said, “it wasn't common at Maagensonst.”

“Where did you see this, uh, paper?” I asked.

“Some of the lecturers used it for their lecture notes,” said Gabriel. “Why, I do not know. Perhaps it held ink better than common paper does.”

“It does not,” said the emphatic voice of Kees from behind me. “You went to sleep when you received that map, didn't you?”

“I'm not sure,” said Gabriel. “I was awake, or I thought I was, but much of the last few days now seems like an especially bad dream.”

“You were being ridden,” said Kees flatly, “and with each day further south, it became worse.”

“Until we came into a place that could pass for a witch-hole,” I muttered. “That m-map had r-rune-curses on it, didn't it?”

Gabriel was about to shake his head to signify 'no', while for some reason, I waited for an answer. I thought to look in my possible bag – I would need to clean my weapons again shortly – and when I touched a chilled crackly piece of 'something', I jolted.

“What is it?” asked Kees.

“It feels a bit like that, uh, map,” I said, as my hand closed upon a now-obvious scrap of paper. “I wonder what it...”

My hand came out of its own accord with a faintly grimy folded piece of stiff-seeming paper, and when I began unfolding it, I startled involuntarily.

The outermost 'layer' was that of a badly-drawn map with illegible scribbles at the margins, while beneath this superficial chalk-white 'gloss' lay lists of names. As I perused the rightmost list, I recognized first one name, then another – and then, the following name:

“Ugh, Koenraad,” I grunted, even as the name-lists began fading to show the third layer of hidden meanings.

Beneath the now-vanished map and the slowly disappearing lists of names, I began to see faint reddish-brown scratchings. With each further second, these scratchings became more and more recognizable, until finally, I saw first one obvious rune of familiar form, then another, then...

“This thing...”

As if to answer me, the paper briefly smoldered with light blue haze. I then noted a further development in the well-hid 'trap', that being inestimable 'age'.

“They did not do this thing recently,” I thought, even as the various 'layers' now began to show their former details without obscuring that of the 'curse-layer'. I then noticed shadows clustering near my seated form.

“Look,” said Gabriel, as he pointed to the top of the paper's corner. “The map I was given did not have that mark.”

“M-mark?” I spluttered. My eyes had been focused upon the hidden details of the map, and I had seen nothing answering to what Gabriel spoke of. His finger, however, showed the small dark 'insect-like' blot clearly, and I reached for my magnifier.

The magnifier gleamed eerily in my hands as I moved it close to the paper, and as I looked closer at the pinhead-sized mark, I noted a strangely mobile nature by the stationary presence of the 'ladder' within the magnifier. I then looked closer yet, and as my eyes gritted aside what felt like grease and dirt, the marking slowly unraveled itself to form the familiar runes of the hiding curse.

A shocked breath behind and to my right, then the voice of Kees: “I've seen that marking before. It was quite common in the Swartsburg.”

And from my left, an oath. I but partly recognized the voice of Gabriel, and I thought to ask his meaning. He beat my questioning, however.

“I have seen that before also,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“In this area, for one place,” said Gabriel. “I might also have seen markings like those at Maagensonst, in fact.”

The lack of 'oblivion' I heard in Gabriel's voice was a marvel, so much so that only when the runes rejoined themselves into a slowly vibrating marking upon the paper did I recall the mug and its contents. I finished it off in a few seconds of frenzied gulping.

“This p-paper...”

“Is a copy of the map Gabriel received,” said the soft voice, “and he was 'blinded' to the presence of that mark and the underlying layers that you saw.”

“Blinded?” I asked. “How?”

There was no answer, at least from that source. As I began idly looking around for a refill on my mug – I was thirsty beyond rhyme or reason, even allowing for the heat of the 'compound' – I noticed a modest flock of goats.

“Several?” I spluttered. “Twelve, thirteen, fourteen...”

“We must have received more of them,” muttered Gabriel. “Now I hope I can do something useful.”

“Like fetch him some more beer,” said the voice of Lukas from somewhere nearby.

“Do we..?” I croaked. I was more dehydrated than I realized, I now knew. My thirst made sense.

“Aye, we have our jugs refilled,” said Lukas. “That one woman knew of a place what makes beer down here, and she got some jugs going.”

“H-how?” I asked, as the paper went back in my possible bag. I needed to retain it for later – and closer – perusal. “B-beer?”

“It isn't the best beer,” said Kees between slurping noises, “but it is much better than the alternatives.”

“Aye, and making better 'twill be easy,” said Lukas. “I suspect she knows where to get pots...”

“And a still,” I said. “This place, has, uh, a lot of stuff in its water...”

“Those little creatures, aye,” said Lukas. “It's as bad as anywhere for 'em.”

“Not just those,” I said. “This water's, uh, really hard.”

My comment went unquestioned, so much so that I wondered as to the understanding of the others while I drank two more mugs of beer and visited the cloth-shrouded 'privy' someone had dug upon the grounds. The reek of the thing spoke loudly of our need to 'clear' entirely the inner building.

“That place has a privy inside, doesn't it?” I thought – and again, there was no answer.

Or so I thought until I reflected upon the underground aspect of the bulk of the place. I'd only seen above-ground privies elsewhere...

“No, not in the kingdom house proper at home,” I thought. “I have found privies on the lower levels...”

“Which are very seldom used,” said the soft voice, “as they tend to smell horribly.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Poor plumbing materials and practices,” said the soft voice. “At least the fifth kingdom's materials are decent.”

“D-decent?” I asked. “How?”

For some reason, the recollection of the recent talk regarding tools returned to me, and I wondered if other things were the same as I began cleaning and reloading my weapons. I had barely finished that task when Sepp came up with a steaming tin plate in his hands. I smelled food.

“I'd get some food while it's hot,” he said.

“F-food?” I asked. “W-why?” I was not particularly hungry now, or so I thought. Still, I had a third question that needed asking: “how?”

“I think those freighters have been bringing food by as well as the other things,” he said. “That, or those people that live here have some food hidden.”

I followed Sepp back to the 'cooking area', and there received a small bowl of 'broth'. I mechanically drank the stuff down, knowing as I did so that we had but little edible outside of the region we needed to yet clear – and once I had finished, I returned to the inner portion of the 'visitors' stables. There, I followed the wafting steam to the realm of the three braziers to then dump my bowl and spoon into a slow-simmering 'vat' perched atop a brazier. It, and two others like it, were tended by a harried-looking woman.

“Have those, uh, freighters been bringing food?” I asked.

“They have, though not much,” said the woman who was tending the braziers. Each supported a steaming pot of some kind. “Most of what we just cooked came from what we had brought out with us.”

“I thought so,” I muttered.

I then turned to go, and was nearly bowled over by that one dark-haired woman leading a 'train' of perhaps a dozen people. Each of them had a medium-sized sack of some kind, and after a few soft words with the 'pot-boiler', she led off into the nearest stalls. When I next looked at the 'pot-boiler', her face had brightened markedly.

“It seems I was wrong about how much food those people have been leaving,” she said. “I thought they weren't bring much.”

“Those shoeten,” said the dark-haired woman as she came back to where the two of us stood. “It seems they bring more than merely good prices.”

“Did..?” I asked.

“Those pigs that came out this last time left over a dozen dead outside,” she said, “and that might have been a fifth of that group of them.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect there to be yet more of those things within.”

“And each is worth twenty...”

“More than that, if sizable and fresh-killed,” said the dark-haired woman, “and that is just for the money they bring.”

“Uh, bonuses?” I asked. I'd almost said blessings, but that word did not seem appropriate when used regarding swine.

“Those that have changed hereabouts are most glad of their deaths,” said the dark-haired woman, “and those otherwise are glutting themselves.”

“And a glutted witch...”

“Does little,” said the dark-haired woman. “It's become much quieter outside since we started sending out those stinky dead things.” A brief pause, then, “it might be wise to reconnoiter the area later tonight.”

“Uh, sleep?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if fainting like you did counts as sleep,” she said. “Those others with you might have managed short naps.”

The five of us formed up again some few minutes later, and this time, I was surprised indeed at the added ordnance carried. Lukas had borrowed one of the dragoons, while Gilbertus had slung a fowling piece by a piece of rope in addition to his musket; Sepp had acquired another short musket – one for each shoulder – and Karl had a sizable bag slung in front as well as another revolver.

“The bag?” I asked.

“Squibs,” said Karl. “I found the rest of those things.”

“I hope we have enough,” I muttered, as I began walking toward the door. “Will there be people...”

I stopped in mid-sentence upon seeing the mounded bags ranged in serried rows to first my right, then when I turned to the left, I was again astonished to see no less than five men waiting behind more such piled bags. Each of them was armed with either a musket or fowling piece.

“That isn't all those people have,” whispered Sepp. “Some of them have dynamite.”

“Capped?” I asked. Sepp nodded, then pointed toward the still-smoking doorway.

The darkness within seemed to bring back all that I had felt during my last few seconds amid the smoke and blood, and the stickiness of the floor was now enough to conjure nightmares on its own. But two or three feeble and flickering flames remained of those the 'lamplighter' had lit, while ahead and crowding the floor lay a vast and tormenting sea of bodies. We passed that one passage without comment, and as I carefully put my 'best foot' forward as if wary for traps, I could feel a question brewing.

“I'm being careful for traps,” I whispered. “That, and I'm still wondering about that one last witch.”

“He is dead,” said Karl. “They dragged him out while you were asleep.”

“That wasn't normal sleep, Karl,” muttered Sepp.

“Hist, you two,” said Lukas. “I can smell pigs.”

I wanted to ask if Lukas meant 'pigs that still lived' or 'dead pigs', when I heard a faint squeal followed by a gunshot. It came from some distance ahead, so much so that when I trod upon the hand of a dead witch I squeaked.

“Best drag these witches out before we do much else,” said Gilbertus. “They...”

The squeal rang again in my mind, so much so that I went to the right wall and knelt down next to a dead witch with my rifle cradled in my hands. Again, I heard the stealthy sound of oncoming pigs.

“El Porko comes,” I whispered, as I raised my rifle and cocked the hammer.

The pig-swarm turned the corner in the far-away-seeming darkness in a vast and filthy 'cloud', and as the swine bounded over the mounded bodies, I fired my rifle. A pig jerked in mid-bound, tumbled, then hit the floor between two witches to slide as its fellows leaped over and around it. As I slung my rifle, someone on my left fired, then on my right – and as I began firing my revolver, the gunfire from behind and to my side grew in intensity.

The flashes and roars echoed in my mind, and the brilliant red-tinted flames lit up the oncoming pigs such that they looked like imps imported from hell. The pigs seemed to ignore gunfire, or so I thought until first one of them faltered, then another – and as someone touched off both barrels of an overloaded fowling piece, the pigs that still could screeched as one and turned tail.

They had been less than twenty feet from our group when they had done so.

I checked my revolver and noted all of its thimbles had been 'busted', and as I began flicking them off with my fingernail I heard soft muttering from my right. I turned to see Lukas massaging his right hand.

“It's gone numb,” he softly spoke.

“Did you..?”

“Aye, three shots and three shoeten,” he said.

“Dragoons,” muttered Gilbertus. “Dangerous at both ends.”

Karl and Sepp were silent, for some odd reason, and when I turned to see Karl, his mouth was clenched tight in a grimace of pain. I wondered why, for some reason, at least until he began rubbing his shoulder.

“Both muskets,” said Sepp. “I could use some liniment.”

“Those pigs, though?” I asked. For some reason, 'retreat' didn't sound wise at the time.

“We'd best reload outside,” said Lukas.

I turned to one of the head-high niches let into the wall, and reached for the glass so as to remove it. As if the light was waiting for my 'command', a faint glow manifested above a grimy yellow-streaked lumpy gray 'rod'. This glow grew in both size and intensity as my hand drew closer, and when I touched the glass so as to remove it, the glow vanished to be replaced by flame.

“What?” I squeaked.

“It lit, just like with those stinky lanterns,” said Sepp. “Do that again, and we can reload in here.”

I walked slowly down and across the hall while dodging a dead pig, then touched the grimy glass of another 'light'. I did so three more times, each time dodging either pigs or thugs, and when I turned to come back toward the others, I could hear talk coming from outside. I then saw Gilbertus had left.

“Uh, where did he..?”

“These pigs need dragging out,” said Sepp, “and we need to watch so they...”

“Or them witches,” said Lukas. “Some of 'em's likely to be shamming.”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus as he returned. “Once we're ready, they'll be coming in to drag out these stinkers.”

While the pigs smelled evilly, the thugs smelled bad enough to make me wonder as to which party Gilbertus was speaking of. I finished loading both rifle and pistol, then stood to peer deeper into the still-smoking darkness ahead. The sense of stillness I saw and heard wasn't matched in the slightest by what I felt, and I spoke of the latter but a moment later.

“Those pigs are waiting for us,” I muttered. “They'll come charging when...”

“Those pigs which are up to charging,” said the soft voice. “Many of them are sufficiently injured that they are hunting up hiding places.”

“Meaning they'll need finding and dislodging,” I muttered.

“Dead pigs rot quick in this heat,” said Lukas. “I expect that to be what's meant.”

“Uh, injuries?” I asked.

“Most pigs can't ignore hot lead for long,” said Lukas. “It gets to them sooner or later.”

“And I hope those things are gotten to sooner,” said Karl. I could hear him end his statement with a faintly muttered imprecation regarding pigs, their owners, where pigs came from, and where they needed to go.

The first of the 'work party' came in but minutes later, and while two men roped the carcass of a pig, two other individuals watched carefully with loaded weapons. A steady trickle of work-parties began worming their way past us to secure the animals, and as those left the floor, the witches were left laying where they had fallen. For an instant, I wondered why.

“They d-don't want to be, uh, ridden?” I asked.

“They don't want to get blown up,” said Lukas, “and I don't much care for it either.”

“Hence I need to check them over,” I said softly.

I came to the first dead witch, and began carefully 'looking'. For some reason, I was loath to touch either his clothing or his skin, and when I brushed against the former, I nearly screamed.

“B-black-cloth, and the p-p-pure q-quill,” I squeaked.

“Is he trapped?” asked the voice of Sepp.

“N-no,” I gasped. “He feels awful just the same.”

Soft words spoke of rope, and when I was handed a pre-tied loop, I looped it around the witch's body using rags to 'handle' him. I was about to turn when faint creaking noises spoke of a wheelbarrow. I turned to see Gabriel walking next to Kees.

“The wheelbarrow?” I asked, when I saw what Kees was trundling.

“It might help get these witches cleared faster,” said Kees. “Those pigs are going as fast as we can drag them outside.”

“Uh, remember to search...”

“She's ready in the stable,” said Gabriel. “I'm glad I have gloves.”

The two men hefted the dead witch onto the wheelbarrow, and as his corpse settled, I heard a faint but definite clinking noise. I pointed to the place with my finger.

“There,” I said. “That pocket.”

Kees reached toward the pocket in question, and slowly wormed his hand in. The thong-tied leather pouch he brought forth was a marvel, both for its size and heft.

“Those are of the house-funds,” said Gabriel, “and this man stole them.”

Kees said nothing, and lay down the pouch on top of the corpse prior to 'shouldering his load' and wheeling out the dead witch.

With each further witch I 'cleared' in the hallway, I noted an increase in both 'odor' and 'wealth', with the first witches having fewer 'money-bags' and guns than those I encountered later – until with the eighth witch, I used a rag to reach into his pocket to remove what he had hidden therein.

The chilled aspect of what I was grasping grew steadily stronger, until a hint of tarnished brass showed a golf-ball-sized brass sphere, followed by greasy gray-toned wood and corrosion-darkened iron screws. The strange shape of what I was removing – I seriously wondered why it wasn't glowing red, for it felt like a fetish – only grew as its shape became more plain.

“Is this a pistol?” I thought, as the oddly-shaped hammer spur became visible. “It looks really, uh, strange.”

“That's one of those pistols I was speaking of,” said Lukas quietly as more of the odd brass-mounted 'object' showed. “They're slow to load, weak when they shoot, and they only manage three shots.”

I then saw the streaky blued 'square' cylinder, the 'retaining screw' – there was nothing remotely resembling the usual loading lever – and finally, the short and stubby barrel tipped with a sizable – and lopsided – brass 'cube' in lieu of a front sight.

“What is this brass lump on the end?” I asked, as I pointed to the deeply-furrowed 'cube'.

“I suspect that helps with aiming,” said Lukas, “though with those things, I'm not sure if it's worth bothering with.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. The chill cold sensation of the 'four shooter' was that of an obvious fetish, and the near-comical shape of the thing didn't help. It looked like something a 'court jester' would carry.

“That's the other reason you need to be close enough to spit,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard those have minds of their own when it comes to hitting things.”

“Uh, like some pistols I've seen at home?” I asked. I was thinking of 'pirate-special' pistols.

“No, those can be aimed,” muttered Lukas. “Those like that there, though – I've heard tales of.”

“As in they hit something other than what they're aimed at?” I asked.

Lukas nodded, then said, “I saw one being used once, and it missed the bottle and drilled the drink-seller.”

“How close was he?” asked Karl. He was admiring my new-found 'toy'.

“The bottle had soot on it,” said Lukas, “and the drink-seller was three feet to its left.”

“Did he live?” asked Karl.

“The ball drilled up his nose,” said Lukas, “and he dropped like a hot brick.” Lukas paused, then said, “I'd watch for more of those things, as they were said to be chancy about holding their cocks.”

I bagged the 'pistol', then reapplied myself to 'searching' the witch. He proved to have no less than two 'hidden pockets', one of which had a sizable sack of crude-gold and the other a type of folding knife.

The balky nature of the thing – the blade was disinclined to open, and when it did open, it showed itself to be roughly as hard as a full-polish wrench – made for a desire to relegate it to the nearest 'scrap pile'. I held it up with thumb and forefinger as if regarding an irate hair-triggered skunk, and mouthed the question 'anyone want this?' silently.

Sepp quietly pocketed it, and I resumed going through the witch's clothing.

By the instance of the tenth witch, a system had developed: I went to the witch first and verified he wasn't trapped. That done, the remainder of our party removed the witch's valuables, and finally, the 'carrying parties' removed the witches and pigs once they had been cleared. Between pigs and thugs, I touched those 'lights' that used candles, and now and then, I listened carefully.

“Those pigs are really quiet now,” I thought. “Still, though, I can tell they're waiting for us.”

I had counted no less than three blown-out 'Infernal' lanterns by the time the first corner was in sight in the flickering dimness, while the dead pigs had petered out more or less entirely. Their presence had been replaced by dead witches, and here, I not only needed to move slowly – I could feel some kind of trick nearby, even if I had but little idea as to the nature or number of tricks – but also, I needed to mind the pooling blood that made the corpses of the witches mere Islands in a thick and sticky sea of red.

With loaded guns and a feeling of wariness far too great for words, I checked another witch. Again, I felt the aspect of 'trick', only this time, I could tell not merely was the instigator close at hand – within spitting distance, in fact – but he was also 'playing dead'. The fact that he was badly injured and had but recently returned to consciousness had much to do with his thus-far success.

As I 'looked' closer at the witch in front of me, I could almost 'feel' the resolve of the trickster, so much so that without warning I leaped backwards from my crouched position to land upon those behind me – and amid the sounds of thunder, I saw and felt a red mist wash over me like a hurricane.

“What was that?” I squeaked.

“Get off of me, and I can find out,” said Sepp.

I slowly rolled to my side to find a sticky mess of a floor, and as I sat up, I noted a massive cloud of smoke that seemed to blot out all light. Everywhere I looked, I saw darkness; and when a hand clenched my shoulder, I could do little beyond yield to its forthright dragging nature. I was sliding backwards, sliding slow and steady into the abyss; and as the hell-spawned fiends claimed my body and soul for the plate of Brimstone...

“Now what is it you were speaking of?” asked a semi-familiar voice. It was still dark, and my sticky hands seemed mired in fierce and unyielding glue. Someone was shaking me, and would not take my refusal for an answer.

A faint yawning noise seemed to grow exponentially, then with a sudden eruption of blazing light, my eyes opened to see the brilliant and burning light of the fifth kingdom's afternoon. I had been laid in the shade, my clothing doused with water; and someone was sponging me off. I turned left to see that one dark-haired woman.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It seems one of those witches in there had dynamite and blew himself up,” she said, “and you drove the others back just before he did so.”

“And mashed us good,” said Sepp. He was to my right, and he was sponging himself off with Geneva.

“How?” I asked.

“You were looking at this one witch,” said Sepp between changing places with his 'rag-hunk', “and this witch not four feet away from him suddenly gets off of the floor. I think you must have seen him, as you jumped backwards and were in the air when he blew himself up.”

“Aye,” said a sore-sounding voice from around the corner. I sat up slightly more – and gritted my teeth so as to not scream.

Sore wasn't half of what I felt. Lukas then came from around the corner of the stall where I was laying. I could feel well-trampled hay under myself.

“I'm surprised you weren't as scattered as those witches,” he muttered, as he rubbed his arms with another 'rag-hunk'. “They've about cleared that first stretch of hallway.”

“They?” I asked. Again, I needed to work so as to not scream due to the pain.

“Those that were dragging out the bodies,” said the woman. “After that explosion, two of your group dragged you three out, and I went in to look.” She paused, shook her head, wrung out her 'rag', then resumed wiping my head.

Only then did I notice where I was actually being rubbed on. I had not been entirely awake.

Being rubbed on the head, however, seemed an uncommonly potent recipe for slumber, for I abruptly fell asleep to then awaken to an earsplitting din of screams, shrieks, squeals, and gunfire. I tumbled off of my cot in a panic to reach for my rifle – and at first, I could not find it.

Someone had leaned my weapons against the nearest stack of 'mule feed'. They were otherwise untouched.

Or so I thought until I noted the cap on my rifle. I didn't recall having the chance to reload since I had last fired it.

“Did I?” I thought hazily, as the gunfire lulled and the trampling sound of a vast herd of pigs seemed all about me. “Or didn't I?”

I could not make up my mind, and wondered for an instant if anyone knew of the loading 'recipe'. I continued wondering, even as I put on my boots, then slung rifle and possible bag – and nearly keeled over in shock at what else had been left for my use.

“What?” I gasped. “A fowling piece?”

“You might wish to have it handy,” said the soft voice. “Those witches that are still able are using the swine-charge to assay escaping.”

“How many witches are there?” I gasped, as I picked up the heavy weapon. It weighed nearly as much as my rifle.

“This is their last foray in real numbers,” said the soft voice. “That one combine-head's piggery is now empty of swine.”

“How many of those things did he have?” I asked.

While I received no answer, I saw a black-dressed thug running clumsily and noisily by my stall, and I stepped out into the aisle and back-shot him with my revolver. He pitched forward and slid into a mound of stacked sacks of 'mule feed'.

I holstered the pistol, then went toward the sounds of the resumed fusillade. I felt reminded once more of the last few minutes I had spent in the Swartsburg, then as I turned a corner, three witches came running with clubbed muskets in their hands. I knelt down, shouldered the fowling piece, cocked the hammers, and began 'feeling' for a trigger.

I had never fired a 'double-barreled shotgun' before, and by the time I'd found what might have been a trigger, the witches were 'upon me'. I jerked the smooth cold metallic 'thing' hard.

The explosion to my front was of such a frightening nature that I nearly fainted, and as the clouds of smoke slowly began to spread out, I asked, “what was that?”

“Good that you found it,” said the strained voice of Gabriel from somewhere nearby. He sounded as if uncommonly sore. “That was one of the 'royal' fowling pieces.”

“R-royal?” I asked.

“Supposedly it was made in the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “I've only seen a few like it.”

I then noted my aching shoulder, and asked, “what was it loaded with?”

“That was a great mystery...”

“No, no mystery,” said the mysterious-sounding voice of Lukas. He was very close by. “A stiff fowling piece with stiff loads... Oh, this is bad.”

“What?” I asked. The smoke was clearing but slowly, for some reason. The gunfire had again died down, and faintly, I heard a multitude speaking of soreness.

“That gun must have had small pistol balls in it,” said Lukas. “This 'un here has both of his eyes dotted, and that one...”

“That wretch is dead,” spat Karl's infuriated voice. “He has two of my pistol's balls in him, and I was about to drill him again when he ran off.”

“Uh, there were three of those people...”

A sudden yell came from what seemed everywhere at once to be cut short by an evil-sounding 'swish'. I'd heard noises like it some time in the past, though where I'd heard that particular noise was currently a mystery of the greatest magnitude imaginable.

“I think you need a bath, and a lot of vinegar for the bathwater,” deadpanned Blackbeard.

“What happened?” I asked.

A faint and shuddery voice – Hendrik's – said, “I will never touch an ax again. No, not ever.”

“Ax?” I gasped. “D-did y-you...”

“I think you'd best clean yourself up,” said the soft voice of the dark-haired woman. “He isn't doing at all well.”

I then noticed I'd somehow fired both barrels – and I was sitting – no, half-laying – sprawled upon the floor.

“What... How did I get here?”

“Where are you?” asked the voice of Kees.

“I-in this, uh, aisle,” I said. Again, I noticed the soreness. It was bad and growing worse in a hurry.

Kees came out of the smoke amid choking coughs and helped me to my wobbly knees. His eyes grew large at the sight of the 'shotgun'.

“Th-that is...”

“It's dangerous at both ends,” I muttered. “Only that time I shot that one pig was worse.”

Kees took up the fowling piece with a grunt, then wobbled off with myself in tow behind him. I was glad he didn't seem to be in a hurry, as the stables were sufficiently smoky that one needed to be familiar with their layout to not become lost – and Kees wasn't that familiar with the stables.

I had to call him back more than once before I managed to get where Hendrik had 'holed up'.

As the two of us drew closer – Hendrik had repaired to the 'washing area', that being where the pump and basin was – I could smell an unnaturally sharp vinegar odor mingled with a faint scent of 'flowers'. I recalled having brought one of the small pink bars of that special soap with me, and for an instant, I wondered if it had been used. Then the two of us came out of the smoke – and I turned my back while closing my eyes.

“He's getting his bath,” said Gilbertus, “and after he's done, I'm about due.”

“Uh, how did he...” I paused, then said, “do I have a big shiny ax to c-clean..?”

“It might be passable for size,” said Lukas, “but it's seen too much use recently to be much for shining. I think those witches were using it for cutting up firewood.”

“S-sacrifices,” muttered Kees. “It n-needs b-burning.”

“Uh, where is it?” I asked.

“That one alcove,” said Blackbeard. “All of that needs disposal, same as that old coach does.”

“Uh, do you know whose coach..?” I asked.

“It was said to have belonged to Cardosso at one time,” said Blackbeard, “but I might be wrong.” A pause. “I am certain it is a most-potent witch-tool, which means it will need to go before you-all do.”

I lay the fowling piece down in a corner, and parked myself next to it. After uncorking my vial of liniment, I began rubbing every sore place I could reach. It wasn't just my shoulder, I now realized; and as I tried to rub my back, I heard someone speaking of a distillery.

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“Someone found some copper things,” said a woman's soft and somewhat cracked voice. She was cleaning her 'spare' change of clothing, or so I gathered. “I heard they were parts to a still.”

“Does it, uh, look really strange?” I asked.

“It looks like a badly-made pot, if that's what you mean,” she said. “It smells terribly.”

After I'd done my rubbing – I didn't need long, as many of the sorer places were beyond my reach – I idly looked at the barrels of the fowling piece. Hendrik was still bathing – and between dousing his outsides with warm water, he was dousing his insides with beer. I wondered if he was inclined to the widow's tincture, and wondered more if he'd already been dosed.

“Oh, my,” I spluttered, as the tip of my thumb entered the still-warm left barrel. “What is this thing, a double-barreled roer?”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “though firing both barrels like you did imitated the effects of one quite well.”

“Uh, the effects upon the witches, or upon me?” I asked.

“I'd say it did both of those things,” said Lukas. I turned to see him rubbing himself with the contents of a small and reeking bowl. The stink of Geneva was growing steadily more potent.

“I was about to shoot one o' those witches when you fired,” he said, “and you went back about two paces before you sat down.” A brief pause as he gulped beer, “and I've seen enough roers to know what they do.”

“Did you..?”

“Once, on a dare in my younger days,” he said. “I didn't wake up until that evening.” Another brief pause, then, “and I'm glad I was able to find your tinctures.”

“Did you..?” I asked.

“I didn't,” he said, “but that one woman did – and if anyone is ripe for doctor's work, she is.”

It was but two hours prior to dusk before anyone was truly 'ready' to accompany me back into the smoking 'mess' of the 'inner house', and as I came to the inner threshold for the third time that day, I noted a well-lit hall cleared of both witches and pigs. A minute's careful treading inside the place with the others in tow had me pass that first 'secret passage', and I noted not merely the iron-strapped keg in the doorway, but also the neatly-lettered tin sign speaking of danger.

“Good that they put it there,” I thought. “It will need trapping tonight.”

As I came closer to the first corner, I smelled not merely the 'obstinant' reek of pigs, but also a vast conglomeration of smells. Chief among the ingredients was the stink I knew of as 'death', though 'blood and gore' competed most strongly with it. The mess on the floor still remained in large part, even if efforts had been made to clean the flags. I went to the left side of the passage, and at the turn itself, knelt down before it. I turned where I was to see Lukas indicating to Karl and Sepp to do as I had done, while Gilbertus was guarding our rear.

“Good,” I thought, as I turned back to look around the corner. “I'm covered.”

The darkness I saw to my front seemed the very soul of a mine, and the bodies of men and swine that carpeted the passage were enough for present and future nightmares. Only the certain knowledge that there were thugs and pigs yet hiding behind the iron-bound doors made for hope.

“What?” I thought. “Why is this, uh, reversed?”

The matter became clear as a bright sunny day but a second later: the bodies I was seeing visually were the majority. Those that hid were a clear minority, and of them, but a portion was still able to cause trouble.

“Perhaps one for every ten I s-see,” I thought.

“Do not give the pigs and witches unwarranted credit,” said the soft voice. “Your estimate is high.”

I instantly wondered 'how much' – and just as quickly, the matter was abruptly squelched in my mind. There was something about that 'last stand' we had just endured...

“A desperation measure,” I muttered, as I carefully stepped out from behind my refuge. “There aren't many thugs in here who are able to cause trouble.”

I received no answer at first, at least until I came to the cold and contorted corpse of a black-dressed thug. His face-grease, potent odor – mostly strong drink – and 'tormented' expression was something of a mystery until I saw the soot-stained grimy 'court jester' pistol clenched tightly in one hand. I then saw the red-tinted gray stuff oozing out of his 'off' ear.

“Uh, did this...”

“He cleaned his own ears with that thing,” whispered Lukas.

By the time I had reached the first of the thick and heavy iron-bound doors, the same issue had played itself out twice more, with the chief differences being the weapons used having larger calibers and the mess being much worse.

The first door was partly open, and I used my rifle barrel to push it open somewhat more. Its faint groaning made for a skipped heartbeat as the door swung wider. I then noticed that I had crouched down and was hiding behind the solidity of the stone walls of the passage.

“Why..?”

My question was answered by a sudden shouted rune-curse – “Pee! Pee! Pee!” – followed by a thundering boom. A bullet smacked the opposite wall amid further curses, then shambling steps came rapidly and clumsily closer.

I'd drawn back my rifle, and was reaching for my revolver when a flung 'hatchet' whirled out of the doorway, followed by the hissing of an obvious sword being drawn. From behind, amid the yells and noise of an obvious charging witch, I heard two stealthy clicks, then a third.

The witch had taken no notice of any of this, and as one of his black boots showed chest-high – I was still kneeling – I aimed my revolver and waited. His moving was of such a slow-seeming nature that I had 'all the time in the world' to aim, and when an obvious 'ear' showed amid disheveled greasy hair, I fired.

The echoes I heard were stupendous, and the witch's abrupt pitching forward to collide with the opposite wall more so. His face-grease left a massive smeared blotch that reflected the feeble light of the lanterns behind us.

“What?” squeaked someone from behind. My ears were ringing.

“Hist,” said another voice. “There might be more of 'em.”

Lukas proved prescient, for more noises stirred within the chamber, and amid those trampling noises, I heard other witches stirring nearby – almost as if they had observed us at length and had made effectual plans for our entrapment.

The sizzle of a fuse seemed to stun me as a smoking hand wiggled overhead to toss a long cylinder clumsily into the doorway, followed a second later by two smoking green globes. I was about to turn to ask about the globes when a brilliant flash erupted ahead and to my right and a massive fireball billowed out into the room amid vast clouds of turgid black smoke.

There were screams, shrieks, and squeals, and I dove for the floor as an eruption of thunder ranged overhead to ping and whine crazily to my rear. I could see for some distance as I looked up from the chill of the floor, and as door after door slammed open, I saw thick clouds of smoke pour out of first one door, then another, then two more – and then, a 'river' of fire vomited out of a hallway some distance ahead.

This river of fire seemed to have a date with me, and I scrambled to my feet to flee. My first step nearly made for a collision with another person with similar ideas, and I bounded to the side and dove for the floor as another smoking 'thunderbolt' shot overhead.

The thundering gunfire was now continuous, and the smoking wasteland to my rear seemed the pure and unadulterated realm of witches and swine. A corner's refuge beckoned, and I crawled quickly, then jumped behind it...

And collided with the others.

“What?” I gasped, as Lukas went to the corner and fired blind into the smoking mess.

“I tossed that dynamite and ran,” said Karl, “and you seemed to just be waiting for it to explode there.” He was shouting, I now realized. I had barely heard him over the roars of gunfire.

“Toss some more of that stuff,” yelled Gilbertus, “and you will get us all killed.”

Karl looked askance at the two of us, even as Sepp took the place of Lukas and squibbed off two shots from his revolver. He jumped back just in time, as a splattering sound to his right spoke of a heavy load of shot hitting the wall.

I stood back up, turned around, then knelt down at the very corner. Someone was coming, someone 'big', and he wasn't going to be easy to 'stop'...

Muffled footsteps... The picture indeed of stealth... Cunning of a wild animal...

The snout of a huge pig showed, and as the animal's ear became visible amidst the darkness, I fired into it at powder-burn range. The report of the rifle drowned out everything else as its crashing dynamite-like roar seemed to echo crazily amid the sudden and growing silence.

My shoulder ached badly, and the pig lay silent, its bloodied bulk but three feet away. Shouts, yells, and occasional screams came from around the corner amid the shrieks of more pigs.

“Don't tell me,” I muttered, as I slung my rifle. There was no time to clean it amid the 'warfare' I was currently facing. “That one thug's piggery wasn't the only one.”

“No, it was,” said the soft voice. “You just shot the 'leader-pig'.”

“Leader-Pig?” I gasped. “As in..?”

“The remaining pigs that are able to cause trouble are mostly young examples,” said the soft voice. “Succulent, tender, and not very bright.”

“Uh, these pigs..?” I wondered about the last phrase.

“'Genius' pigs currently live exclusively at Norden,” said the soft voice. “'Domestic' pigs are a good deal less intelligent.”

“Suck-succulent?” I asked.

“Premium prices among those witches able to afford them,” said the soft voice.

“D-do those things inter..?” I hoped not.

“Norden-swine are quite choosy that way, and domestic swine tend to fear them greatly,” said the soft voice, “hence interbreeding is not readily achieved.”

“That sounds like it doesn't happen, though,” I spluttered. The smoke and noise was getting worse again.

“It hasn't been done in quite some time,” said the soft voice, “even if it was done in the past.”

As if to buttress the matter, the screams and shrieks of 'pigdom' now reached an earsplitting crescendo amid further yells and screams. The gunfire continued roaring, and it sent swarms of bullets and shot past us to strike the wall opposite us. I thought to turn.

I didn't have just four people behind me now; there were well over a dozen, all of them hugging the wall as I did with weapons at the ready. I could feel the questions coming, especially given the massive bulk of the huge pig but feet away from me.

And as if to avenge the fallen 'big grunter', a 'wall' of piglets came winging over its dead body.

I emptied my revolver in what seemed two blinks of an eye, while the gunfire from behind me roared among the oncoming swine. They seemed crazed beyond any semblance of reason, so much so that when the gunfire finally died away down our way, the passage to the exit seemed paved with the dead and dying bodies of dozens of yard-long swine.

“Enough shoeten for a hundred witches,” muttered Karl.

“That's the end of those things, like enough,” said Gilbertus between hacking coughs.

As the smoke slowly evened out in both hallways, I noted the quiet around us. I could 'feel' quiet now; it had been absent to a marked degree prior, so much so that I wondered why I had not noticed it much before. I caught myself yawning, then my eyes closed involuntarily to abruptly shudder open.

“I think you'd best be getting sleep,” said Lukas. I wasn't sure if he was speaking to me or not, so much so that when someone took my hand to file past a vast number of people reloading weapons and dragging out pigs, I knew not what to make of the matter. Only when I found myself yawning on my cot did I pause to think.

“How did I get here?” I asked.

“You fell asleep while being led,” said the soft voice.

“The inner house?” I asked. I needed to sleep badly, so much so that I knew I could no longer put the matter off.

“Is being cleared of that latest swine-crop,” said the soft voice. “I would get your nap now, then put a few traps among those dead witches that remain inside before reconnoitering the outer area.”

My mind did not pause to think upon the matter; it went blank at once, and I collapsed upon my cot in a dead faint.

Awakening was slow when it finally began happening, and the sluggish sensation in my mind seemed to cry out for more sleep. Through partly-closed eyelids I saw what seemed a world rotating about me as if I were the very center of attention, and when I turned to face the wall of stacked bags that my things lay leaned against, my eyes nearly closed themselves again. Only great effort was sufficient to keep them open, and I wondered about whittled wooden props as I stood and staggered to my knees.

The ringing and echoing in my head was mirrored by that in my mind, and I began choking. A sudden commotion sprung up in my throat, and as I coughed, gray-black messes flew from my mouth to land with flat spattering sounds upon the floor. I kept coughing, until something went wrong and I swallowed one.

And woke up completely.

My desire was intense, and it was focused upon a place to vomit. Heedless of all else, I ran for the ramp, leaped up its incline with a trio of bounds, tripped over a stray goat, and slid upon the crisped and dried grass until I found myself near a hole surrounded by earth. I crawled quickly – and just as quickly spewed.

I finished vomiting, and as my eyes opened – the effort of emptying my stomach had caused them to close in sheer pain and fright – I noted a faint steaming coming from the vile mess I'd deposited. It looked like pig-dung dumped by a coal-eating pig, and as I turned to go, I felt a sneeze rapidly building. I closed my eyes, and then sneezed.

The first of these sneezes was but the start, for by the time I had ceased with them, I had coughed up several more nasty blobs and sneezed until the inside of my nose was raw. I then looked at the hole, and was truly frightened.

“That looks about ready to catch fire,” I thought, as I began backing away from the gray-tinged iridescent mess. “That black stuff was just camouflage for what was really bothering me.”

I continued coughing intermittently until I returned to my cot, where I noticed not merely my 'usual' things, but also that one fowling piece. I shook my head at recalling its 'evil' recoil, then thought to look at the contents of the small leather pouch tied to its long and ornate-looking trigger guard.

Untying the thongs needed concentrated effort and a few pokes with an awl, and during the whole time, I noted the weapon's construction. While it was more ornate than I liked, its workmanship was far better than any weapon of its type I'd seen close up. I then opened the pouch, and gasped.

“This is, uh, that shot Lukas bought,” I muttered.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “That shot was made locally in a small shop.”

“But it's, uh, good sh-shot,” I said.

“The Heinrich works produces many of its products 'by the numbers',” said the soft voice, “and those moulds are not merely one of the more common products, but also one of the oldest.”

“Older?” I asked.

“That firm has been operating for nearly twelve generations,” said the soft voice. “Gang moulds were among its first products, and that local shop acquired a third-hand one some years back.” A brief pause, then, “lead and tin are easily had locally, as is that 'hardening' metal, and there's a ready market for good shot in the fifth kingdom.”

After two more shuddering yawns, I noted the jug near the foot of my cot. I uncorked it, smelled beer, and dragged out my small copper cup. The first taste was faintly metallic in nature, so much so that I promptly spat it out.

“Does that stuff have arsenic in it?” I asked.

“Recall your speech of hard water?” said the soft voice. “That beer used water that had been boiled, but not distilled.”

“Is it safe to drink?” I asked.

“Its chief trouble is its flavor,” said the soft voice. “Using distilled water will improve that portion greatly.”

I wondered as to why I had not noted the 'off' flavor previously, even as I drank down three cupfuls. I then wondered about traps, what time it was, and if I could get help.

As if she'd been listening in to my thoughts, that one dark-haired woman abruptly showed with a sizable satchel and a wry expression. The latter's cause soon became obvious, for I noticed the distinctive smell of dynamite but seconds before the headache struck me.

“D-dynamite?” I asked, as I reached for the fever-bark powder.

“I hoped you had something for headache,” she said. “I heard talk of traps for the inner house.”

After dosing her and myself – the headache in my case was barely affected – I wondered about what kind of traps would work well. As I began thinking, steps came closer, and I looked up to see Sepp. He was holding a bag in both hands – and when he sat down, his face abruptly twisted into a grimace of pain.

“I hope this helps you more than it does me,” I muttered, as I used the tip of my knife to measure out what looked like the 'right' amount of fever-bark powder. “It's barely touching my headache.”

“Only not handling dynamite makes it go away entirely,” said the woman. “If he wants to learn, I suspect we can teach him.”

“You?” asked Sepp.

“I have handled dynamite before,” she said, “and while I am not expert in its use, I have not had mishaps with it, either.”

“That isn't much due to luck, is it?” asked Sepp.

She nodded 'no', then said, “one must think about all that one is doing, watch carefully, and be entirely sober while handling it.” A brief pause, then, “if one does that, and chooses the right types of dynamite, one can stay clear of most of its trouble.” She rubbed her head briefly.

“Right types?” I asked.

“Some dynamite has more oil and less care used in its manufacture,” she said, “and I stay well clear of that kind.”

I brought out my ledger, turned to a blank page, and with pencil-stub in hand, I wracked my headache-tormented mind. At first, nothing seemed to come beyond the 'rigging' I had done in the recent past, but after roughly a moment, I asked, “matches?”

“We still have many,” said Sepp.

“Do those ignite readily on the floors here?” I asked.

While Sepp did not speak, he stood quickly and left. I resumed my drawing, thinking for some reason that 'matches' here would act in a workable fashion. I'd worked out some of the details by the time Sepp returned with a match-tin.

“They do,” he said. “I lit two of them in where they're doing the washing.”

“Good that you did not try them here,” said the dark-haired woman. She then turned to look at me. “Are you thinking of using matches in your traps?”

I was busy drawing, so much so that the question took several seconds to penetrate into my understanding enough to register. I then nodded and showed my drawing for a moment.

“That looks likely,” said Sepp. “I can get some of those things.”

“And I the rest,” said the woman. “We'll need a number of those things, and not just for inside the house proper.”

I'd refined and labeled my drawing by the time the two of them had returned, each with another sack. They'd also brought Lukas.

“Now that...” He'd gotten a look at my drawing.

“Hide it between witches or pigs with trip-lines,” I said, “and when someone disturbs either, it will, uh...”

“Scatter the witch or pig,” said Sepp. “I've seen what that stuff does.”

I indicated how the matches needed tying and then poking into the rags Sepp had found, and while Sepp and the woman prepared the 'trigger' portion, I began capping the dynamite. Lukas was cutting lengths of string with his knife.

“I can do this part,” he said. “What you're doing is the touchiest portion.”

“Uh, putting the things together?” I asked.

“I can help with that,” said the woman. “I've heard of your knots.”

“And then laying them?” I asked.

“We'd all best go in there,” said Lukas. “You might set the traps” – here, he indicated me with his eyes – “but that means you won't have much time for shooting.”

“And retrieving what those thugs have,” I murmured. “We'll want to, uh, check them for what they have before rigging the area.”

Sepp looked at me with an expression I could only describe as 'knowing', even as he tied two more matches into a 'wheel'.

When it came time to tying the rag portions with string, however, I was in a great quandary, for not merely were my knots holding worse than usual, I found I needed more than two hands. I finally had to hold the rag-wrapped 'trigger' in a choke-hold while the woman tied the string tightly around both rag and stick of dynamite.

“The tail's next,” I thought, as I carefully set the bomb down on a carefully mounded pile of rags. “These things have no safety other than careful handling.”

“That, and the rags padding them,” I muttered.

“We're close to out of those things,” said Lukas, as he trimmed another piece of string with his knife. He'd scrounged up a wooden 'backer' for his cutting.

“How many..?”

“Here are more rags,” said the voice of Karl. I was waiting for his 'other' response.

He laid down the rags next to me. I could feel his 'fear' – and more, admiration – for what we were doing, as well as some other emotions which I could barely understand for some reason.

“No, not some reason,” I thought. “I don't have that many emotions beyond fear, anger, and perhaps anxiety – oh, and affection, also. I do have that.” An instant's reflection, then, “and I truly wonder if they have much in common with how others feel.”

Karl then left in a hurry while treading warily. I concluded his 'fear' had overmastered him.

“I told him what we were like to be doing,” said Lukas, “and Gilbertus took charge of him so's to keep him out of trouble.”

“The witches outside?” I asked.

“Are about gone,” said Lukas. “There was a big line o' freighters wanting to buy those shoeten, and we were dumping bodies on each wagon as it passed.”

“How did you s-sleep?” I asked.

“That was easy,” said Lukas. “I got a decent nap the last two times you fainted, and then another when I brought you to your cot.”

The woman looked at Lukas, then said, “fainting is not proper sleep.”

I yawned in response, then set aside the third bomb on its own pile of rags.

After tying up eight bombs – first attaching the head, and then finishing up with the 'tail' – I wrapped the 'heads' in rags and put them carefully in cloth bags. Each bomb received its own bag, and as I finished with the last, Gilbertus and Karl came up. The latter was trundling a wheelbarrow.

“Uh, what's that for?” I asked.

“Carry in some of those traps,” said Gilbertus. He then paused, and seemed to think for a moment. I wondered why until I saw the expression of the woman. She was shaking her head to indicate 'no'.

“They that touchy?” he asked. Karl was now looking quite worried.

She nodded, then said, “we'll need to carry them as if they were damp with blasting oil, unless I am far wrong.”

Karl looked about ready to run.

“No, not quite,” I said softly. “As long as we don't drop them, we should be all right.”

The woman turned to me, then said in an even softer voice, “that was exactly what I meant.”