The fifth kingdom's mess, part d.

I had to carry half of the traps, and the woman carried the other four as we went single file into the entrance. I was amazed at the seeming transformation of the place, for it was currently well-lit, if somewhat dirty and smelly still, and when I passed that one passage, I noted two men standing 'guard' with fowling pieces. Behind me, I heard soft speech.

“No, it's been quiet since those Shoeten showed like they did,” said an unfamiliar voice. “The witches are either all dead, or they've left.”

“Left?” I asked quietly.

“People have suspected this place to have secret passages for a very long time,” said the voice of the woman from behind and to my right, “and now they know of several.”

There were more men with fowling pieces ahead of us, though none of them were particularly close to the corner. I thought to ask one of them if any signs of life had been seen, but the woman beat me to it. The answer was astonishing.

“Not a sound,” he said, “and I went up the passage thirty paces so as to look.”

“Any of them shamming?” she asked.

“I don't think so,” he said. His emphasis on the word 'think' gave me a measure of hope.

At the corner, I paused to peer around it, again while kneeling. For the first time, perhaps ever, I now noticed the smell.

“What is that stink?” I gasped, as I turned back to face the others.

“I suspect that is some very bad strong drink,” said the woman. “Like as not, we will find some jugs of it in those offices.”

“Empty jugs,” muttered Lukas. “I've smelled forty-chain before, and what I'm smelling now is worse.”

I turned the corner, and began to cautiously step among the bodies. The blood had dried to a marked degree, so much so that it no longer seemed to cling to the soles of my boots. I went perhaps twenty yards before pausing at the doorway to where that one thug had charged out.

“My, what a mess,” I whispered. The doorway was rimmed with soot, and the blackened interior of what looked to be a 'suite' of rooms spoke of a huge 'flash-fire'. Lukas came to the edge of the doorway and peered within – then looked at me shaking his head.

“I'll trap it on the way out,” I whispered, as I led off again.

The feeling of 'quiet' that I had first felt upon entering the building had vanished, and I went to the side to there set down my 'traps'. I could feel trouble ahead, though what kind was a mystery, and when the woman followed my lead, she silently asked me with open mouth. I went to her, exhaled, then said, “there's at least one thug up ahead, and he's waiting for us.”

She drew out a revolver from a 'hidden' pocket, then drew out an ink-globe from another. This last had a short fuse and a bundle of matches 'glued' to its side. She'd set down her sack next to mine somehow. I noted the matter in silent admiration, then turned back toward the 'thug-nest'.

Yet still, as I walked, I had the distinct impression that the true number of functional thugs was currently in the single-digit range, and we might well clear them out this time. As I came to a closed door on the same wall some twenty feet further in, I wondered briefly as to why the need for trapping the place.

“There are other secret passages to the outside, no doubt,” I thought, “even if the big one is now, uh, plugged.”

While there was no answer regarding secret passages, quick drunken steps spoke of an oncoming thug. I went to the wall at a run, knelt down next to it, and drew my revolver as the steps segued to a frantic run.

“Why isn't he cursing?” I thought, as the doorway ahead of me seemed to shake crazily. I suspected the thug I had heard would supply an answer when he showed.

The door continued to 'rattle', then with a sudden bang, it flew open. Out rushed a filthy man in ragged-looking dark-brown miser's dress, and as he looked around wild-eyed and trembling, I smelled the profound odor of strong drink. I began aiming my revolver.

I then saw that he hadn't really ceased with his running, and I began 'leading' him with the muzzle, even as my finger tightened on the trigger. Only the sudden and echoing roar of a fowling piece from within his former hiding place broke my concentration upon the task – and the man ceased running to then pitch bonelessly into the opposite wall with a muffled thud. There, he slid slowly down, leaving a blackened grease-stain where his face had struck the stone.

My answer was thus: those witches who still lived were those possessing the greatest cunning; yet for some peculiar reason, I felt uncommonly hopeful still. There weren't that many of them left.

Yet from my rear, someone had other ideas. A hand, large and rapid-moving, suddenly appeared above my head, and the darkened smoking stick that showed moved rapidly to the right to then vanish inside the doorway. I then knew to back up, and I did so rapidly when I found the region to my rear absent of life – and I continued doing so, until a rectangular black hole showed abrupt and mysterious to my immediate right. I turned and leaped bodily inside to there wait for the explosion.

I silently counted in the darkness as I low-crawled across the sooty floor to then touch the wall. Five seconds, six, and no explosion; eight, nine, ten...

I turned around in place and began slow-crawling toward the doorway. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen; the doorway but another three feet; sixteen...

Faint movement noised without, and I came to the doorway silent as if new-emerged from the grave. My eyes slowly crept from hiding to see some thirty feet away a trio of black-dressed thugs on hands and knees, bags in their filthy hands as they busily rifled the corpses of the fallen, while a fourth thug stood like a grimy sentinel with a fowling piece cradled in one hand – and in the hand showing nearest me, an obvious stick of dynamite with a faintly smoking stub of fuse.

“I wonder if I can shoot that,” I thought, as I silently brought up my revolver. I only then noticed it had become cocked in some fashion as I took careful aim.

The reddish muzzle flame was instantly blotted out by a massive eruption of brilliant white that flung me to the opposite side of the doorway and pitched me to the floor, and the former dimness of the passage was now yet darker with billowing soot – and perchance, the drifting pieces of a disintegrated thug. I picked myself up from the floor to peer out once more upon the scene; and there, I found myself completely and utterly 'stunned'.

It wasn't merely the dynamite exploding, I realized seconds later.

The three thugs lay immobile upon the floor where they had fallen, while the fourth witch had lost both his fowling piece and a sizable portion of his anatomy. His ragged remains lay crumpled against the nearest wall some twenty feet from where he'd last stood.

Again, I felt the howling 'silence' descending like unto a grim and darksome shade upon this below-ground mausoleum. It was my home, and...

“What am I thinking?” I muttered, as I wrested myself up off of the floor. My revolver lay uncocked upon the floor, or so I thought until I looked carefully with the sooty vision of both unfocused eyes upon the contents of my right hand.

“How I hung onto this thing is, uh, a mystery,” I muttered, as soft voices penetrated the ringing cathedrals within my mind. I then crept out silently upon the killing floor amid the gloating and echoing silence, and my 'thralls' came quickly in my wake.

I turned to see Karl. His mouth was moving, and with a conscious wrench – and several blinks of my eyes – sound returned. I then heard him 'speak'.

“Why didn't those traps go off?” he asked. I pointed at their final resting place, expecting to see a massive hole in the wall, and though I did not see such a hole, Karl was nonplussed. He dutifully followed my arm to where it pointed, and he shook in what might have been horror.

“They are gone,” he spluttered.

“Not quite,” said the voice of the woman, as she emerged from the sooty mouth of our 'hide'. She – and the bags – were thickly coated with soot, as were I and Karl. She didn't look as if she enjoyed being as dirty as she'd become. “I suspect we can put these things out in the hallway after we look over these dead witches.”

As we spread out among the dead, I could clearly 'feel' at least one office that needed trapping. I laid down my grime-smeared sack of bombs near the wall after extracting one, and as I unwrapped its 'head', I heard surprising speech.

“I know where all that money went, now,” muttered Lukas. “These stinkers took it all.”

“Stinkers is right,” spat Karl. “There is another one of those small pistols.”

“Careful with that thing,” said Gilbertus. “This one has a big sack of crude-gold.”

With unwrapped bomb in hand, I bent my aching thoughts back toward the 'office' in question, and upon coming to its door, I knelt down while still cradling the bomb. I wondered if kicking the door open would work here like it did at home.

I did not contemplate the matter long, however; I kicked the door hard and flung back my leg out of the way.

The door banged like an ancient gunshot, then slowly opened with faint creaks and a soft groan that spoke of dry hinges. Again, I listened with great care; and all I heard were the soft whispers of those out in the hall, and within the 'office', a grave and deadly silence. I came out from darkened shadows, and crept unto the darker shadows within with stealth-masked feet.

Within a second's time, I knew beyond reason that the disheveled scene that played out before my eyes was nothing more than camouflage, and the two overturned desks I saw meant trouble. I paused at their juncture, for I knew a thug was hiding between the two of them. I then realized I was holding a bomb.

After setting the bomb down carefully atop a folded rag near the doorway, I returned to the two desks. There, I spoke.

“Now, Mr. Thug,” I muttered. I was sounding more than a little peeved. “You can show yourself.”

“Not here he won't,” said the soft voice. “He's in a coma.”

And from without my mind, a penetrating odor crept unto the door of my gorge, and leaped headlong within, and my nose wrinkled instantly. The stench was of such potency I instantly doubled up with the dry heaves, and wobbled toward the door while gasping and making choking noises. Once outside, I nearly collided with Karl.

“What is in there?” he asked.

“S-stink,” I gasped. “B-bad...”

Gilbertus – he was as filthy as the rest of us – set down a sizable black-blotched tan bag upon the chest of a dead witch, then walked slowly and hesitantly to the door from whence I had emerged. He paused at the doorway to grip his nose with two fingers, and went inside. Feeble noises rang out like gunshots, chief among them the scrabbling sounds of broken crockery; and when he returned, his freight – a sizable jug of peculiar color and stranger-yet markings – made for a flashback of horrifying intensity.

“Th-that s-stuff,” I gasped. I was seeing the sign and symbol of a nightmare, and its tangibility was exceeded only by its stench.

“E-el S-s-er...” Gilbertus spat, then said, “the valley's words, and I can't say them.”

“That is the worst type of forty-chain,” said the woman. “It comes from that valley to the north, supposedly.”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard tales o' this stuff...”

I did not remain nearby to hear them, for something – or someone – was looking at my bomb. I returned to the still-smelly black hole I had left, and as I reached for the bomb and its rags, I froze.

A faint scrabbling noise was coming from the other end of the 'office'. I knelt down where I stood and turned toward it.

The scrabbling noise stopped abruptly, and I thought to stand – and just as abruptly, it resumed. Mingled with the noise, however, was another: a softly muffled grunt.

“Is that a pig?” I thought, as I began paying out string off of a thin whittled stick, and I listened closely. I had a suspicion about a well-hid secret passage coming into this particular office, and as I first tied the bomb's 'tail' to the string, then the string itself to another desk, I realized why I needed to trap this office. After finishing the bomb and its strings – I used three separate trip-lines rayed out in a fan-shaped pattern – I carefully walked outside as if on tip-toe to then quietly close the door.

“We'd best, uh, not waste time,” I muttered, as I went to fetch another bomb. “There are still some pigs in here.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sepp. “One of these witches was sheltering one, and I had to stab it with my knife.”

“S-sheltering?” I asked.

“It was a smaller Shoet,” said Sepp, “and he was trying to hide it.”

“Was he alive?” I asked.

“Not after I cut his throat,” said Sepp. “He did not bleed much, so I doubt he was shamming well.”

“M-much?” I asked, as I withdrew the bomb I was after and began removing the rag covering its head.

“I suspect he'd just died,” said Lukas. “I've poked more than one witch since we began cleaning 'em out.”

“Poked?” I asked.

“With an awl,” said Gilbertus. “I wish I had one near as good as his, as I'd clean each of these stinker's ears with it afore I touched 'em.”

“Clean their ears?” I asked. “H-how?”

“You take the awl like this,” said Lukas. He demonstrated with his bloodied awl, pointing to the ear canal of a corpse. “And you put the point in the ear-hole, and push hard until it goes in up to the handle.” He paused, sank the awl in up to its handle, then withdrew an obvious dragoon revolver from a witch's clothing. The size of the pistol was a dead giveaway, and the resistance of the awl to removal, another. “Dead ones won't move when you do that.”

“And if they twitch, they are dead soon enough,” said Karl. “My uncle spoke of awls and people who use them that way in the mining towns.”

I shuddered slightly as I went some thirty yards down the hall near a large 'clump' of bodies. For some reason, I had a brief suspicion about many of these people, and when I came to a trio of corpses with raggedly knife-slashed clothing, I said, “they were robbing their own.”

“Aye, that's true,” said the voice of Lukas. He'd followed me at a distance. “I'd be careful rigging that part back there.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I can smell pigs,” he said, “and these pigs ain't dead.”

“Uh, there aren't many of them?” I asked, as I looked around idly.

“Enough to cause us trouble if they try for us,” he said. “Best rig the part of this place we can clear of valuables now, and then work on it more in the morning once we make more traps.”

As I went back to the 'closer' region nearer the corner, however, I realized there was more to the 'method' than first met the eye, and I asked, “checking the area outside?”

“That, and finding the best place to change crude-gold, and building up that wall,” he said. “I'm no mason, but it seems one 'o the people here was apprenticed to one at one time.”

“And...”

“They are having trouble with the mortar,” said the woman. “I might have to advise them further on its mixing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I set my bomb between a doorway and a waist-high thug-mound about half-way between that one office down the hall and where we'd begun 'pillaging' the witches.

The wheelbarrow filled up once, then returned while we continued our searching. The amount of money – both coins and crude-gold – that had thus-far accumulated was staggering, as was the number of pistols and knives. Fetishes – unless one could name the weapons that – were surprising by their near-total absence, and those that did show were discerned as such by their surface gloss and part-hidden crudity otherwise.

“Why is it you call these things fetishes?” asked Karl, as he withdrew a gray-metal disk from the pocket of a witch. “This thing looks like a piece of cheap rubbish.”

“Witches name those things otherwise in this area,” said the woman, “and they pay accordingly for them.” A pause, then, “what does it show?”

Karl seemed to look, then said, “it is hard to make out what it says.”

She rose and walked over to where he half-knelt, then looked carefully at the disk once Karl had turned it over – and as he did so, I noted a marked change in his countenance.

“Do you feel different?” I asked.

Karl shook his head, then yawned slightly while shaking his head to indicate 'no'. The woman looked at him, then said, “if you find more of those, I would leave them out and then walk away from them.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “Those things might look to be cheap rubbish, but I suspect they can ride people just the same.”

“As he was,” she said. “I seem to be somewhat immune, at least to this particular type of witch-tool.” She paused, then said, “I'm glad this one is a copy.”

“Copy?” I asked.

“They look like this,” she said, “but their markings are clear and sharp. More, they're very old and surprisingly heavy.” A brief pause, then, “they also tend to glow slightly, which warns me off of them.”

“Heavy?” I asked. “How is it you know?”

“Mostly by observation,” she said. “I've seen those things being bought and sold, and the behavior of their purchasers spoke of their weight.”

I placed two more bombs among the dead in the hallway proper, which emptied my bag; and as the others finished up with their pillaging, I took the second bag of bombs. The sooty suite received two bombs, another such begrimed suite next to it a third, and the fourth bomb I thought to place some distance inside that one particular 'secret passage'. I had just passed the threshold of its entrance when I felt – strongly – that I needed to wait on trapping it. After returning sounded likely.

“I might need to run in it,” I thought, as I retraced my steps to rejoin the others.

And yet why I might need to do so seemed an impenetrable mystery.

The sense of mystery continued, even as I carefully checked over revolvers and rifle, and when I came to the 'boiling area' to wait for the dark-haired woman, I wondered briefly if it was my place to ask her about medical matters. I did not have the needed 'presence' to do so, or so I thought when she suddenly 'showed' clad in a loose coarse-woven floor-length cloak with the hood drawn tight around her face. The dark gray color reminded me of 'facial camouflage', for some reason.

“Charcoal?” I thought, as she seemed to look around me at random.

“You'll want a cloak,” she said. “It makes it easier to hide should it be needful.”

While I rummaged around in my clothing bags – my clothing was about 'done', and needed 'doing' within a day's time at the most – I wondered again if it were my place to ask her about medical matters. The question remained foremost in my mind, even as I rejoined her and received two modest-sized leather pouches of a hefty nature. She looked at me with a decidedly expectant air as I put both of them in my possible bag.

“Now?” I thought. There was no answer.

Yet that aspect of expectancy remained as she led out of the ramp and onto the grass of the inner yard, and from there into the ragged smoke-stained hole that now passed for a stable entry. The bustle in the place was indeed palpable, with faint 'goat-sounds' coming from the stables to our right and what might have been 'labor' noises from the 'workshop'.

“The, uh, workshop?” I asked. Faint flickering light came from that direction, and it cast long dancing shadows upon the floor in front of us.

“Is being outfitted for working,” she said. “Those two older men have had some ideas as to what was needed.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“They spoke of asking you,” she said, “but you have had your hands beyond full.”

“As if I knew everything?” I asked.

She nodded slowly, then murmured, “I'm glad I know better, and I'm glad Eduwart does also.”

I was about to add my assent to the matter when I heard soft voices again, then turned to my right. Long gray-and-yellow candles guttered thickly in rusted 'sconces' while a small group of men and women rubbed energetically upon sundry tools. Two corked jugs in one of the far corners spoke of the rust-loosening nature of distillate. Its smell seemed faintly present.

“Where is that, uh..?” I asked.

“If you speak of distillate,” said one of the men, “then it is outside, and well clear of flames.”

“It loosens the rust,” said his neighbor, an emaciated woman clad in patched-together rags. “This does also, though slower.”

I turned to the dark-haired woman, then asked softly as she left the alcove, “do any of them know how..?”

“Most in the house have worked in or near shops for at least a short period,” she said, “and while none of those people...”

She stopped in mid-sentence, then murmured, “I am not longer certain about anyone's lacking ability, not if they have changed.”

“As in they might well have become more knowledgeable?” I asked.

“And more skilled,” said a voice from somewhere ahead and to my right. I turned toward the source of the speech to see an older man framed in one of the 'stable' hallways. He was working a crude-looking hoe back-and-forth in a small two-handled 'mortar-trough', with two ancient-looking brass lanterns shedding flickering flames upon the seat of his attention. An old bucket faintly steamed next to it.

“Yes, Johan?” she asked. “Has it come good?”

“That last batch was a waster,” he muttered, “but this one might be usable. I'll try it on the inner house wall first.”

“I-inner?” I asked.

“Where we came into the stable,” she said. “We need a regular doorway there, and that will serve for practice for building up the outer wall.”

The darkness in the southern portion of the stable seemed uncommonly mobile, and as we drew closer, I noted details that had previously been hidden. To the right and left of the hole lay close-stacked chest-high bulwarks of building stones, and the shadows moving near them spoke of the house's people waiting in readiness behind them. Faintly, the glimmer of a well-shielded candle lit up one portion for a few seconds until someone again hid it from sight.

“Waiting for an attack?” I asked.

The woman nodded, then said, “shifts of an hour's time, two loaded weapons per person at the least, and readied dynamite as well.”

“Readied?” I asked.

“Done much as I did with several of my bombs,” she said. “There were a few old files in that scrap-heap, and we broke them up to use as match-strikers.”

“Th-the workshop?” I asked.

“Three new ones today,” she said. “Talk has it some tools were hidden in the inner house, and based on what I had hidden myself, I find such talk both likely and heartening.”

I paused in the darkened shadow of the threshold to look out into the road itself for a moment while my eyes became more 'accustomed' to the darkness outside. For a moment's time, I wondered why I suddenly needed to do so – until I saw the woman herself 'glaring' out into the darkness with a hand shielding her eyes.

“The dark?” I asked softly.

“One does want to see as well as possible when out on the streets after dark,” she said quietly. “More than a few witches act like these huge swine that are said to be common far to the north.”

“Those p-pigs...”

“I have never actually seen them,” she said, “but I recall seeing what they were said to do.” She then walked slowly out from where she had 'hid', and I followed a second later.

The seeming of desertion I saw to both east and west on the street I knew to be but the seeming, and when she went next to the house's outer wall, I went with her. But little light shed itself upon us, for none of the local shops showed themselves to be 'open', even if faint yellow gleams commonly showed from cracks in nearly every shutter and doorway. The aspect of 'quiet' in the immediate area was profound.

“They are not entirely shut,” she whispered. “Now is when they make ready for the next day.”

“Deliveries?” I asked.

“Those, cleaning, stocking, and counting,” she said. “Very few shops make things on this street.”

I then noted the 'chorus' of odors. While 'mule' predominated, and 'strong drink and rotten food' followed close behind it, I could smell clearly the nauseating 'fatty' smell of roasting pigs. Locally, it was a distinct if faint undertone – I suspected that particular stink was much stronger elsewhere – and the stinks of chemicals and 'labor' mostly buried it.

We came to a cross-street. To the left, the house proper showed its darkened seamless wall on the nearest side, and more shops on the other; while on the right, shops showed on both sides for what seemed half a mile, to then be devoured by a slow-moving thick mist replete with mobile lights and the sounds of hard and heavy labor.

“In that direction?” I asked.

“The harbor,” she said. “At least that portion seems to be as it usually is.”

“Is this portion?” I asked.

“It looks to be,” she said, “but that is but the appearance it chooses to show.” A brief pause. “We shall have a better idea about a third of a Laeng to the east and half that distance to the north.”

The row of shops that had characterized the south side of 'House Street' – I had seen a sign naming it thusly – seemed to continue on seamlessly once we'd crossed 'Great-Lane', and while none of them showed lights to their front, I could still hear and feel the ceaseless striving common to the area. More, the fatty reek of 'roast pork' seemed to be steadily increasing – as was the state of my nausea.

“Do the witches have a special p-pl..?”

I ceased speaking in mid-word, for a narrow alley led between two shops. The deep rutted path coated with gray-green muck spoke of heavy use, and the ringing brays of a multitude of mules spoke loudly of their likely keepers.

“That road leads to one of those places they keep,” she said. “It was said to be much as certain large Public Houses to the north, especially some near the second kingdom's northern border.”

“Th-they were roasting a pig, and the thing went up in smoke,” I spluttered. “I-I...”

She looked at me, then whispered, “good that you spoke then.” A brief pause, then, “I can smell those within doing likewise.”

“Do they do so often?” I asked faintly. I was working hard not to vomit.

“At least three times in the week,” she said, “though the odor is usually much weaker.” Another brief pause. “I would bet every grille in that place is bearing a greased Shoet.”

“Greased s-Shoet?” I asked.

“Shoeten need to be well-greased, or so I have heard witches say within the house proper,” she said, “lest they be too dry to the palate.”

I now wanted to spew, and only by great effort did I not sink to my knees in a pool of my own vomit. We hurried eastward, and at the corner of another street – the sign was unreadable, for it had done recent close business with a fowling piece – she turned away and 'shivered' for several seconds before turning back to me and wiping her mouth with a small rag.

“I'm glad I did not spew closer to that place,” she said. “I've heard that to do so draws witches like manure draws flies.”

My gorge again tried escaping, and some further minutes eastward, I went to the juncture of two weathered watering troughs. There, it would not be denied, and in the sheltering darkness I spewed until nothing further would come up. I resumed standing with a shaking stagger and walked in a wobbly fashion to where I suspected the woman had hidden herself. I was about to reach out toward the mud-caked wheel of a decrepit buggy when she arose from darkness into the lesser murk of the street.

“I've never had anyone find me so readily,” she whispered. “I'm glad you were so discrete.”

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and the two of us continued east.

The shops to each side of the rutted road – no cobbles here, for some reason – seemed to have faintly changed in some fashion, for the aspect of 'quiet' was much less than it had been prior to passing the 'realm of roasting pork'. The sense of disquiet continued gaining steadily, so much so that I looked around for places to hide as I walked closer to the left margin of the street. A glance to that area showed more shadowy places to hide than the right side, and I continued moving toward their safety.

I was beginning to feel as if we wanted to stay among the shadows as much as possible, for some reason – and more, it was most unwise to walk upon the board walkways, even if we wished to remain close upon their outward margins. There lay the deepest darkness.

The woman caught my 'drifting' and went to my left, while I continued to scan those areas ahead and to my right. There was something 'hiding' in that direction, and as we came to another street-corner, I turned to her and whispered, “it's up that street, and it's about to come out...”

A brilliant white flash interrupted my speech, and as I flinched, the roar of obvious dynamite washed over my head and set my ears to ringing. I did not wait; I took her hand in mine, and ran across the street to dart back among the shadows that there lay waiting for us.

But seconds after doing so, I turned to see a massive fire billowing thick flames and a toxic-looking silver-lined cloud of black smoke, while the flames danced high and crazily amid sprays of brilliant 'icy' colors. I suspected I was watching a chemical warehouse 'burn'.

“I would not remain long watching,” said the soft voice, “and I would give this region a wide berth upon your return.”

“Uh, poisons?” I asked.

“Those, more fires, and more explosions,” said the soft voice. “The house proper will have its east side cleared as well as its western region currently is.”

With such information urging us on, the two of us hurried east at a rapid walk. Lights began flaring into action in that region we left behind, while closer to our current position, doors opened softly and noisy steps trod upon the worn and weathered boards that formed the 'sidewalks'.

“One must avoid the walks when out at night,” she said after another muffled explosion, “as they tend toward undue noise.”

“Like that?” I asked, as a door opened opposite to us and someone lazily clattered westward toward the bright lights and deep crimson flames of the fire. The noise from that quarter was growing.

“This area is less noisy than some that way,” she said, “and that for the house. The mining towns to the east and north are much the worse for such racket.”

Another two streets east, and the heavily built-up aspect of the town began fading fast. Open lots now showed between past-their-prime buildings, and the prevailing smell spoke less of 'mule' and more of labor and warm metal. I thought to take a 'short cut' cross lots, and looked at the woman.

“Roads only?” I asked.

“I would cross those lots,” she said, “save I have no idea where I would come out. More, I'm afraid I might fall in a hole of some sort.”

“Hole?” I asked. A muffled explosion answered my soft voice, and the misty realm ahead looked uncommonly inviting.

“It isn't commonly known,” she said, glancing at the nearest 'shop', “but there are holes in this area which collect a type of distillate-slime.”

“T-tar pits?” I gasped. I kept my voice down as low as possible, as I could 'feel' the presence of people nearby. I doubted they were shopkeepers, for some reason.

“That remains in the distilling pot once the other portions have boiled off,” she said, as she glanced toward the north.

It seemed my 'cue', and I led off across the wide-open space between two long and shuttered rock-walled shops into a realm of migrant mists, low broad hills, low copses and spreading 'sagebrush'.

While I watched carefully for the pools the woman had spoken of, I also watched for signs of mules as I walked between clumps of brush. The dirt crunched faintly underfoot, save when my boots found rocks clustered upon the ground, and I kept near and in the shadows of what copses showed themselves to my front.

The smell of 'mule' became steadily stronger, until the knee-high clumps of brush abruptly vanished to be replaced by a wide irregular circle beaten some few inches into the ground. I noted the wide 'V' of mule shoes upon its margin as I moved to the left so as to go around it, and the tendrils of dust slithering over its bowl-like surface seemed to spell out a dire warning.

“That was the other reason,” she said, as we came to a gentle brush-crusted rise in the shadow of a head-high copse. “Open areas in the kingdom house often have had mules in them recently.”

“Did those things eat the brush, or did they...”

My speech was interrupted abruptly by the boom-chorus of massed fowling pieces and the bangs of pistols, and both of us turned toward the south and back whence we came – to there see a pair of coaches rumble out of building-shadow where we had left the road. The faint groans and braying of mules seemed to warn of destruction, and the slow-growing smoke-bloom to the east...

“Good that we left that road,” she said. “They would have shot at us as well.”

The previously undulating terrain now became more so, and the hollows gathered both silence and mists unto themselves. This was so much the case that I quietly felt for my compass and transferred it to an easier-to-reach place in my possible bag.

“It might be wise for these bigger dips,” I thought, as we came to a brushy rise between two such 'sinks'.

A silent street marked the boundary of town some three hundred yards distant, and beyond that, the built-up aspect of the city more than resumed. I suspected our destination to be in that region, and seconds later, the woman confirmed it.

“There,” she said, pointing at the place I was looking at. “I've changed money there before.”

The dip we descended into was deep enough to keep us hidden between the mists and plentiful copses, and when I came to its outer ridge, I was astonished to find the usual knee-high brush clumps were closer to waist-high. More importantly, there was a definite 'path' cut through them, and as I walked along this path, I noted not merely the tracks of obvious animals – goats seemed likely, for some reason – but also knife and ax marks upon the thicker examples of bushes. I then turned around.

We were coming off of a slight but definite rise into another 'dip' – or rather, a shallow valley; a valley all-but bursting with life...

A faint distant booming was followed by another, and faint upon the wind, I heard with straining ears the screams of the damned as they slipped unmourned into the abyss. I led off once more.

The juncture of field and street showed a long row of spindly cross-topped poles heading north and into the darkness, and as we came to the street's edge, I noted the complete lack of marking. I also noted a juncture between the north-south run of the telegraph's wires with another such run heading east into the 'town'.

A glance to the left: nothing, and the same to the right. I put my right foot into the street, and the left followed as we moved from darkened shadow into the street's faint gloaming. Underfoot, I felt partly-buried cobbles, and nearby and upon the wind, I smelled mules. Yet still, there was another odor, one that spoke of regular and routine passage; and when I looked down, the trace of darkened 'hair' gave added credence to the likelihood of goats.

“G-goat herds?” I asked.

“I have seen both goat-herds and those herding them many times to the north and east of this portion of the house,” she whispered; a second's pause, then, “we will wish to be most circumspect in our speech in this place.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I again saw the telegraph's wire-run, and jolted.

“That is but a portion,” she said. Another brief pause, then, “I have heard it said of Kossum's that should they be short of their usual meat, they are not picky if an order awaits and they have ready tins.”

“Kossum's tinned meat?” I asked. My voice had dwindled to a whisper. She nodded.

As prior, the path I sought lay among the darkest shadows I could find, and while I moved carefully within, I listened with greatest care; for the previous 'silence' had vanished entirely, and the muted background noise was uncommonly lively as to its tone. Moreover, it had acquired a distinct brutish aspect – one composed of strong drink, curses, gunpowder, and blood; and when I came to the 'first' of a long row of 'shops', I hesitated.

Faint and part-buried by a softly moaning wind, I heard chanting mingled with the slithering rasp of steel being honed, and as my mind sifted and mingled the sounds to form meanings, I barely managed to strangle a gasp.

“Some wretch is declaring himself to be an arch-witch,” I thought, as I heard the shouted challenge of 'Pee! Pee! Pee!', while hot on its heels came a curse I had never before heard. Its strobing colors conjured a sense of horror mingled with migraine, and I jolted upon deciphering it – or rather, I would have, had I not seen the sign staring me in the face from the nearest wall's darkest shadow.

“K-Kossum's Tinned Meat,” I gasped. My voice barely made sound.

The upside-down trapezoid showed a pair of horns near the upper corners, while centered on the bottom was a lolling red-painted tongue. The letters – black, eerily red-rimmed, carved deeply, and fashioned vaguely like runes – ran three lines, top to bottom, while the grimy background for the sign seemed white-painted sheet metal hidden deeply under multiple layers of soot and grime. Finally, there were several small holes near the lower right corner.

“A f-fowling piece,” I muttered, as the effect of the whole only now dawned upon me...

Shaggy. I could almost hear the butcher's rune-riddled song as he honed his knives for the sacrifice.

Hairy. Again, the rune-curse strobed wildly in my mind.

Redolent of High Meats – the favored viands of witchdom.

And finally, somewhere buried deep, as appropriate for meals marked for death, the putrid stench of the graveyard.

The smell I now noticed was more mental than physical, and my half-glazed eyes were swept with shifting faint shadows. I then looked down, toward the juncture of walk-boards and dirt but a foot from my nearest boot, and there saw a trio of rusting can-shaped objects clustered with sluggishly moving white worms tipped with black heads. The curse rang out again, and its colors flashed brightly before my eyes. Here was the evidence standing before me in the dust of centuries.

“D-Desmonds...” I whispered. “S-sacrifice.”

A soft warm hand took ahold of mine, and led my shattered mind away into a realm of brighter light and lessened insanity; and when I shook my head so as to clear it, my eyes blinked and...

“What was that?” I asked softly. The swirling colors surrounding the runes still blared crisply in my mind.

“Kossum's tinned meats,” said the woman. “You were speaking of witches, and I myself have wondered long about those people.”

“Do they s-sell that stuff t-there?” I squeaked. My head was still muddled by that infernal curse, so much so that I hoped I was not being 'controlled' by it.

“I think that is one of the places where they make it,” she said. “It smells evilly of mules.”

I wondered as to what smelled of mules – the packing plant, or the products made there – as I followed her once more into the darkened shadows of evening. To my left, I again saw the posts and wires that spoke of telegraphy, and when I heard the telltale clicks of a 'key', I froze for an instant.

“He's s-sending something,” I muttered, as I walked faster to catch up with the woman. The clicking noises grew steadily louder between glances across the street and at the wires, until suddenly the wires 'vanished' amid silence. I then looked to my right at the nearest 'shop'.

A dimmed and darkened grease-smeared window suddenly became clear and bright to show the interior of a dark-paneled room faintly tinged with smoke. Therein lay the telegrapher, stretched out drunkenly upon his table, his starch-stiffened black clothing the sign and seal of witchdom; his palsied drunken hand moved of its own, in spite of his seeming unconsciousness, for it clumsily battered away at the mirror-shined key – which I knew to be a fetish the instant I saw it.

My attention seemed to be fastened upon this tableau, for every instant of such vision piled detail upon detail into my brain: the many jugs of strong drink upon the drape-hidden shelves, each with bright lettering proclaiming the potency of 'El Serpente'; the row of crude-looking crocks filled with lead and brimming with acid fumes at the base of the nearest wall; the mirror-polished surfaces of the equipment, and its underlying crudity; the sturdy underlying aspect of the fetish-wrought and fully-loaded fowling piece under the table; the...

A hand again clasped my chilled fingers, and I obediently followed along. The tableau vanished abruptly from the 'wall' of the shop, even as my mind continued to swim against the nature of what I had seen and heard. More importantly, the taste in my mouth...

I paused, then softly spat the burning sensation that had accumulated under my nose, and the evil-tasting blob lit against a weathered wooden post at the juncture of post and soil. There, it smoldered, much as if it dared me to repeat the task of elimination.

“But a short distance further,” said the soft voice at my side. “I know this is important.”

I then came to myself, and asked in a soft whisper, “how is it you know?”

“You were not the only one to see that painted-over window become clear,” she said. “I saw the man laying upon the table with his hand still beating the sender.”

“Drunk?” I asked.

“He was well beyond what most speak of as being drunk,” she said. “It is likely he was dead to the world.”

“His sending?” I asked.

“It's likely to be ignored,” she said. “I've yet to see a sender not act like what I saw.”

Yet amid the many potent stinks that I now noticed further, I seemed to 'feel' the existence of another 'medieval' region in the area. I thought to speak of it as the woman paused at the juncture of two uncommonly narrow and – if I trusted my nose – offal-strewn streets. Their stench was beyond 'appalling', and I had no words to describe it.

“Is there a bad section around here?” I asked. My voice sounded as if I were holding my nose.

“There is,” she said, pointing across the way. “Some few hundred paces over that way.”

“And here?” I asked.

“I've been in this part before,” she said. “You may wish to keep it in mind.”

With that, she turned right – and the street seemed to compress down at once. Thick shuddery bushes stole more and more of the narrow lane's width, until by the time we had managed perhaps twenty steps the passage was narrow enough for me to spread my arms and touch leaves upon both sides. I did so once, and the slick waxy feeling was uncanny.

“Thank God that smell isn't as bad here,” I thought.

Yet the bushes to each side did not make a solid wall, for after perhaps another thirty steps, the bushes fell away to the left to show a small shaving-strewn yard piled haphazardly with wormy-looking lumber. But feet beyond the lumber, however, lay a small close-shuttered low-ceilinged 'hut' – and from that hut's myriad cracks and seams, brilliant rays of light sprang out as if hungry for darkness, and the noise of labor coming from the hut but added to the light's effect upon my mind.

Another such 'hut' showed to the right but a few paces further, then a third example upon the left; and but a minute's further travel showed such buildings to be almost as crowded as the shops on the main thoroughfares. We then passed a small 'yard' pockmarked with smoldering braziers and flickering candle-lanterns, with two men standing within a small 'shanty' made of ancient nail-pocked boards, while short thick barrels did duty as tables.

Every single example thereof had at least three men seated about it, and all of these men were eating as if starving.

“F-food?” I asked.

“The workers,” she said. “I've eaten at such places before.”

“And..?” I asked.

“Such food is decent, both for price and flavor,” she said. “It also tends to cause long stays in the privy unless one is accustomed to eating it.”

“Is it, uh, High?” I asked.

She looked at me, paused, then nodded ever-so-slightly as she hurried on out of earshot of the patrons.

I wondered as to my asking questions, both as to their number and nature; and also at her response, at least until we had put a minute's quick steps between us and the 'vendors'. She then paused to reply.

“The food of the fifth kingdom's commons has very little in common with that of their betters,” she said, “but that portion is by far the worst.” I could hear a distinct grimace in her voice.

“That isn't deliberate, is it?” I asked.

Again, she shook her head, then continued in a low voice. “Food spoils faster here than anywhere, save, perhaps, in that valley to the north and east.”

“And, it's brought in by market hunters who care for it p-poorly...”

“When it is not offered up to every witch in the city first,” she said. “The safest meat is either dried fish from the south and east, or other meat brought from the fourth kingdom, or that which is fresh-killed just prior to cooking – and that by those trained at length in doing so.” A brief pause, then “the first of the money-changers is up this way.”

I had but little trouble remaining silent as we passed between two tall and tottering rows of wooden vats set upon heavy timbered trestles, nor in the darkened stone-paved yard crowded with decrepit wooden 'frames'. She paused not for explanation there, nor did she speak when we crossed another narrow bush-bordered path.

This last had a strangely narrow leafy arch that needed walking in a head-hunched posture with tucked-in arms due to its small size – at least for her. I had all I could do to keep up while not sounding like a wounded elk in thick brush, and I was glad for the shortness of the passage.

I was even more glad when it ended and we turned right past a tall rock-walled circular pen. The wall initially came to the height of my chin, and a brief glance therein showed a number of dark and 'fluffy' immobile objects. They smelled like damp 'wool', and I guessed them to be goats.

The 'goat pen' came to its too-soon end – it had one circular portion joined to a long wall that climbed to near head-height – and she turned left when that wall came to its end. This led past a taller-yet wall, and I saw the secret to such an enclosure's functioning with goats.

The herder or herders were sleeping on the premises, if I went by the faint candle-glow showing in the seams of the fabric 'blind' as we went past silently. I noted the near-total lack of sound then most of all.

The tallest end of the 'goat pen' went perhaps fifty feet 'east', whereupon it turned into the taller-yet wall of an obvious shop. The area opposite the goat pen had been piled with lumber; it too became a shop as the passage we walked in narrowed from ten feet in width to perhaps four and a half. The walls themselves, however, were easily twenty feet in height – and ahead lay what might be a 'conventional' street.

I guessed wrongly, for the 'passage' ended in the rear of another such 'shop', and we turned right into a narrow region that glowed faintly some short distance ahead. I looked up, and saw darkness thickening steadily. It was no longer merely 'night', but something more – more solid, more dense, and most of all, entirely too real to ignore what had changed.

“But a short distance further,” she whispered.

Cobbles faintly scrabbled underfoot by the time we came to the first of the lanterns, and the faint distillate odor I smelled then spoke of a tall gray-mottled yellow candle's burning. The second such lantern – a few paces further – was on the left side of an obvious passage, and I glanced upward once more to see obvious stones forming a crudely arched passage. I looked ahead again, and but ten feet away, another lantern showed to the right as the floor precipitously dropped away.

“Stairs,” she whispered, as we came to the 'dropping off' point.

The stairs – of old stone-and-mortar construction – were nearly silent. I had expected them to be of wood, and as we slowly stepped downward, I was glad for the lack of creaking. The faint gritty feel of sand underfoot gave a likely reason as to why she was so careful, and I...

I followed her lead, thinking, “I've never been here before, and she has.”

The candles became more numerous, and their light, brighter. Each alternating niche now had a faintly grime-streaked glass pane, and the thin trickle of smoke each candle lofted made me wonder about ventilation, as did the increasing reek of 'distillate'. The stairs were nearing their end, and at their bottom, a small landing lay; and opposite the stairs, an iron-bound door of thick varnished planks waited patiently.

The door became more obvious when we stood in front of it atop a floor of packed sand. But few tracks joined ours, for some reason, and the marks of an obvious rake showed fresh in the flickering light. The whole suggested intense secrecy, and a still greater paranoia, and I shuddered briefly at the faint chill that I only now noticed – along with the door itself.

It was thicker and better constructed than I had first thought, and the air's 'chill' again intruded. The woman went to the right side of the door itself, and her head but partly hid a close-meshed iron grill hiding an obvious 'vision port'.

“They wish no wind to trouble their scales,” she said as she reached for a thin cord I had not seen earlier.

“It's cooler in here,” I murmured. I had just heard the faint tinkling noise of a small bell.

“I suspect they live here,” she said, “and their hours are strange, like most money-changers in the house.”

As she said this, however, I had a most strong impression: this 'shop' was almost certain to be two-doored. More...

The vision port hissed open, then closed just as swiftly with a ringing clack. The door opened with a faint yet 'oily' groan to show a stout man clad in nondescript clothing – with one hand upon the inside handle of the door, and the other upon the butt of what looked to be a double-barreled pistol of uncommonly large bore. His face showed a deep-etched scowl as he looked both of us over with eyes well beyond 'jaundiced' status.

“What do you have?” he gruffly spat.

With a brief but well-hid 'struggle' – it wasn't hidden at all, I realized an eyeblink later; she had done so with the idea of impressing the guard – the woman produced one of the bags. Her 'straining' lightened the doorman's scowl markedly.

His scowl vanished completely when I palmed a five guilder piece and placed it in his hand.

“I thought this place might operate by Baksheesh,” I thought, as I followed after the woman, “and it seems it does.”

The doorman was in the lead, and she was but a pace behind him as I followed the two down a narrow dark-paneled hallway ablaze with the light of fifth-kingdom candles. Each of these smoking monsters – they were larger and thicker than any such candles I had yet seen – lay hidden behind a gilded framework holding together a quartet of frosted glass panes.

The doorman dodged sideways to the right past an abrupt turn, then as I reached the turn itself – I fit easier than he did, thankfully – I saw him dodge left. The woman handled this with surprising aplomb, or so I thought, and when I reached this second 'jog', I noted a small hollowed place in the wall opposite. It seemed perfect for defending the passage against attack, much as the arrangement near Hendrik's door.

Three long steps further past this second place stood the twin of the first door, and the doorman knocked three times. His staccato rapping echoed in my mind like gunshots.

Furtive steps in a hurry on the other side. I could feel the tension as they walked up to greet the summons gun in hand, and...

The vision-port hissed aside like an angry snake, then clacked as it closed. The door itself opened an instant later.

I had expected a darkened 'den of thieves', complete with wall-to-wall black-dressed thugs, and what showed was nearly the precise opposite – barring, of course, the darkened wood of the paneling that lined the small close-seeming room that I followed the other two into. The door thumped closed behind me as my eyes adjusted to the brilliance of an obvious – and turned-up – pressure lantern. I wanted to knuckle my eyes.

And dared not to. I could tell that much.

Across the room behind a darkly-varnished planked counter stood a 'shopkeeper' of sorts, while to his left on that counter, I saw a sumptuous brass and iron 'edifice' perched atop a darkened wood 'plaque'. I wondered if it was my place to come forward, or hang back, so much so that I did not object when the woman fingered my hand to indicate I was to come closer. The shopkeeper looked 'bored'...

That was merely an act.

She handed him the bag, and I looked at the now-obvious balance closely – and within seconds, I saw not merely the red-painted gray-metal casting showing an obvious rune – the rune that resembled a lightning bolt, no less – but also vast numbers of well-hidden crudities in the balance. For some reason, my eyes gravitated to the lifted-clear pivot point and its 'chiseled' stone bearing.

Faintly, a film of grease seemed to shimmer with a reddish haze, and only the cold metallic rattle of crude-gold granules as they cascaded into a tin 'saucer' on the counter broke my strange 'state'.

“Lard-greased, and lard-polished, and the whole treated much as if a...”

My vision abruptly 'cleared' and I jerked back to see a second individual in the corner of the room. I only relaxed when I recognized the doorman. The third man – the one who had opened the door for us – had somehow left the room, and lay in wait behind a dark cloth 'backdrop' that showed both 'shopkeeper' and balance in stark hard detail.

Again, the scale had my attention, only this time, the 'veil' had fallen. The glossy brush-streaked gray-black of the paint was gone, here to show castings of surprising quality done in iron, and the reddish film of lard was 'backgrounded' to show grinding marks upon both pivot and bearing. A third layer then showed, this being obvious close-tolerance 'hand work' done at a tertiary level, and finally, the reddish haze 'vanished' as abruptly as it showed.

To show a thin and even coating of that strange reddish paste upon the bearing surfaces.

“Why did I see those four 'layers' to this thing?” I thought, as the 'shop-keeper' picked up a flimsy-looking 'tin' saucer mounded with gold granules. “I thought that thing was a fetish from the first.”

“It originally was,” said the soft voice, “and it was purchased by these people – who then 'manifested' its power by means thought 'devious' and 'tricky' in the fifth kingdom.”

“Grinding?” I asked.

“There are a handful of relatively precise workshops in the fifth kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “All of them are secretive, very busy, and owned by witches smart enough to enjoy the profits.”

“Enjoy?” I thought.

“They do not meddle overmuch otherwise,” said the soft voice, “and hence their profits continue.” A brief pause, “then, the important portions of that balance were sent north to be 'worked over' by hand in the fourth kingdom.”

“Is that common?” I asked silently.

“To that degree, no,” said the soft voice. “Most money-changers substitute chants and curses for work of that status. More, none of them, other than these people, think to use that particular lubricant.”

“And hence..?”

There was no answer save the obvious one before me, and the shopkeeper's care was now obvious. I had the sense of either an uncommon level of trickery for witchdom, or something yet more worrisome, for the swings of the balance reminded me of something far in my past. I had used milligram-level balances in chemistry classes, and this example reminded me of those times.

“That thing makes the one at home look sloppy,” I thought, as the swings continued unabated.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Hans acquired an older Heinrich scale 'by accident'.”

“By accident?” I asked. My mental voice rose an octave.

“That grade of scale is commonly 'reserved',” said the soft voice, “and one must commonly 'demonstrate' prior to receiving such equipment. He did not.” A brief pause, “then again, neither did you.”

The scale now slowly wavered, with its pointer showing 'low' on the 'weights' side. The weigh-man used a small spoon to add more of the golden 'granules', and as I watched, the pointer slowly rose to a vertical position – and then, it went 'high'.

The weigh-man began muttering. Faintly, I heard the phrase 'these weights have gone short' – and, as if that were a dread curse, steps came from behind the curtain. The third man then showed.

He seemed the twin of the first 'shopkeeper', and he looked carefully at the balance. He then touched the 'gold' pan, and the balance bobbed up and down slowly as he began muttering as well. Finally, he spoke.

“That gold looks heavy,” he said with a mostly-suppressed trace of an oath. “Only thing I know is heavier is glass-blower's metal, and it's worth thrice what gold is.”

“Then you are getting an especially good deal, aren't you?” said the woman. “I know separating the two is fairly easy if the right acids are handy and mixed in proper proportion.”

A near-feral species of craft flashed for an eyeblink's time across the face of the first shopkeeper, and he looked at the other man's face. He nodded, then as the first 'shopkeeper' dumped the gold granules into a new-looking leather pouch, the second man left for the rear. I heard a straining grunt, then heavy steps prior to his reemergence with a brass-bound wooden box.

The woman looked at me, and I glanced back at the second shopkeeper as he opened the 'cash-box'.

While he counted out silver slugs, the woman watched him closely; and while his confederate weighed the rest of the gold, I idly glanced at him – until he resumed muttering about 'heavy' gold. I looked at the 'tare' adjustment, and saw faintly a reddish mark upon it.

“He adjusted it to allow for the extra weight,” I thought, “so that stuff is even... What?”

I had sufficient sense to not speak, even as the shopkeeper counting money 'hitched', then wrote down a figure on a greasy scrap of paper with a well-gnawed stub of a pencil before checking the balance again. I listened intently, as if wishing to hear dread curses – and for some reason, heard nothing. Only the second man's oath broke my seeming revery.

“What gives with this gold?” he muttered. “It gained weight before my eyes.”

The woman looked at me, and I hunched my shoulders. I had no idea as to what to do, or as to what was happening.

Both men were now looking worried, though they attempted to hide matters behind a wall of blank and expressionless faces. I could hear grumbling faintly in the background, as well as more oaths, even as the gold was fully weighed out and the tare adjusted twice more in a 'surreptitious' manner.

No matter. The gold still weighed a good fifth more than it should, according to the weigh-man, and for some reason...

...An Agreement of sorts – perchance, Honor among Thieves...

They needed to 'Stand and Deliver', for no witch could ignore such an obvious command upon the part of his master and expect to remain alive. Both men knew this implicitly, even as they recalled the massive fees they had paid to secure entrance into their 'domain', and the further fees they regularly delivered up so as to 'own' it.

We received three weighty bags of silver. I put two of these in my possible bag, while the woman 'hid' the third somewhere in her clothing. She made the merest trace of what might have been a curtsy, and turned quietly so as to go, while I did as she did. The doorman opened the door ahead of us, and as he walked quietly up the passage, I could smell clearly the odor of 'defeat' – and more, slow-brewing anger.

I hoped the doorman would not think to 'manifest' the desires of his betters, until with sudden strange conviction, I knew the further truth of that matter:

He dared not act apart from their express order. Not in this instance, at the least. It would mean the deaths of all three men.

As we continued out of the passage, I remained silent, and only when the woman had progressed into 'unknown' territory did I think to speak. As I opened my mouth, she suddenly slowed, then turned – and before I could speak, she did so.

“I have never had that happen before,” she whispered, as she again turned to walk. Her hurry was obvious, even as I wondered little as to its possible need. We were again heading east between and around shops of some kind.

“What happened?” I asked. “Heavy g-gold?”

“That place's scales have never been generous,” she said. “I went there first as they seem to be the overseers for this district.” A brief pause, then, “if that continues, we will have half again as much silver as I had hoped to receive.”

“And..?” I asked. My voice had dropped in volume, for I could feel someone in the general area. Who that someone was seemed a complete mystery beyond 'he's more than a little drunk' and 'he's really full of himself'.

“It is likely I will not need to make another trip like this for some time,” she said, “which is good, as those men are not likely to receive us again.”

The shops ended abruptly at the edge of a deserted dirt road filled with ruts and the reek of 'mule'. The other side of the road, once we had crossed it in dread silence, had but two 'rows' of shops prior to the resumption of the green brushy regions where the city's true work reigned. We were traveling in a northern direction down a narrow corridor more or less bereft of obvious shops. That one individual was still very much in the area, however; I could feel his presence.

“Meaning we need to, uh, unload all of what we have...”

My voice stopped entirely, even as I realized I had not actually spoken. That 'someone' had stirred in his hide, and he was moving rapidly toward us. I shifted my possible bag slightly, such that I could touch my weapons, and as the woman made to enter a darker shadow upon the path where it led between two bushes, she suddenly stopped.

As if by intent, a grim dark phantasm showed itself in front of her, and her rearward steps spoke of fear and unsteadiness. She reached my side, and the phantasm...

“S-standest thou up,” said a drunken rasp from the shadows to our front, “and deliverest thou up all that is thine.”

I stood frozen upon the spot as rapid unsteady steps came from that greater darkness ahead. The woman turned silent in the darkness about us to look at me. I was not sure as to why she did so.

I was but little more certain as to what to do, even as the steps of the 'footpad' came closer. He tripped over something, then with a sudden flourish, he abruptly showed himself.

Stiff-starched black-cloth; face greased solidly black so as to outshine the dark drawn closely around himself; sword long and brilliant-polished in one hand, the other reaching out palm up to demand as per his inclination of the moment. Tall stiff knee-length black boots, eyes...

His entire face was a haze of red, with the thickest and reddest portion clustering about his eyes, and the hands of the now-obvious witch seemed to move apart from all volition.

I could feel something akin to fear; but it was but barely present and fading fast, while something else was rushing hard and coming faster. The witch drew closer, his sword waving side to side as if the nose of a hound scenting blood.

Two steps, three. He was well beyond 'drunk'. I waited.

Another step closer.

My hand closed upon the hilt of my sword as the possible bag began falling to the ground of its own intent. The witch had not seen it; his all-pupil eyes...

My cloak parted.

The witch's hand was out. He was claiming his just reward.

A blaze of sheet-lightning came from near my waist.

The sudden dawning of the truth began to hint itself in the eyes of the witch, even as he...

The steel-blue electric blur struck his arm, and paused there but the merest eyeblink of time. It continued up at a steep climbing angle, then turned abruptly with a hissing shriek. Faint red mist billowed up from below, and it became mirrored in my eyes and mind. The darkness was swiftly fading to show red-etched twilight sundered with billows of reddish 'fire'.

The witch's eyes registered 'something', even as the lightning accelerated back toward him.

It desired his head – and, it would not be denied.

The red mist was now etching the entire bright-lit realm in front of me as I stepped forward and put all I had into the cut. My target bobbed up and down, then a searing red line streaked across it as I finished what I had started.

The light of recognition went out in the witch's eyes as his head bobbed atop his neck's fountaining blood, and I leaped back as the landscape returned to its former darkness as his blood began to sheet the ground around his falling corpse.

The woman but barely suppressed a shriek as I knelt down by her side to retrieve my possible bag, and as I carefully felt for the oily rag I had tucked in there, she made a faint gasping noise. When I found the rag – or, rather, a rag – and began wiping down my sword, I heard faint noises in the bushes. They had been absent before.

“What did you do?” she whispered, as I put away the sword with a final and feral hiss.

“I think I sliced on that, uh, thug,” I murmured.

She peered into the darkness from where she knelt, then as I stood, she moved slightly to the side to walk around the fallen. I did likewise, being careful to avoid the blood that was still pooling, and once the corpse was behind, I was astonished to see the woman all but break into a run.

I was glad she didn't attempt to 'lose' me, but once she'd returned to her former rapid walk, I asked, “uh, why did we...”

“No time for it,” she whispered. “That wasn't an ordinary witch you killed.”

“Uh, who?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if he's the son of a combine-head, or his nephew,” she said, “but I recognized which combine he belongs to.”

“And..?” I asked.

“They're about the worst in the house,” she muttered. “I don't want to be anywhere near that body when it gets found.”

I retained silence for the space of two more brief dashes along the brushy track while still heading roughly north, then followed the woman as she turned east in the midst of a clutching thicket. The path she chose was of uncommon difficulty, and when it dipped down a rocky 'hillside', I wondered just where she was going.

“There's water here,” she said. “We'll need to walk up it for a short distance at the least.”

“Dogs?” I asked.

As if to answer, I heard a faint baying noise.

“Was that..?”

“You have perhaps ten minutes,” said the soft voice. “Jodocus slipped his keepers, and they are looking for him.”

“Will they set dogs on our t-trail?” I asked.

“While securing scent-hounds is not easy in the fifth kingdom house, there are people who have them,” said the soft voice, “and more, those people are in the area with their dogs.”

“Slavers,” said the woman. “They might not be named Blomfels, but I'm not sure if I prefer their company.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “I would stay in the water until you are out of this district.”

The water – a faint moistness among rocks, with periodic shallow pools – made for a decided cool moistness. The dry nature of the fifth kingdom house became more and more obvious with each minute that we walked.

“Will the dogs...?” My voice was barely audible.

“The slavers know of this river,” she said, “and seldom bother to look in it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The stones do not show tracks,” she said, “nor do they hold scent particularly well.” A brief pause, then “most slaves do well to find the house's rivers.”

“And you?” I asked.

“I've used them for travel when they've showed,” she said. “I've had the dogs after me before.”