The fifth kingdom's mess, part i.


Liza and the cooks plied me with more than merely beer once I'd staggered to the kitchen. I was all-but force-fed broth and greens, so much so that I needed to visit the privy twice between stints of eating and drinking. As I came from the second instance of using the facilities – I had heard again that steady thrumming noise, and the lack of stench in the small room was refreshing to my nose – I saw Liza speaking with three people. They left but seconds later.

“They've started looking that portion over,” she said, “and already, they've found more than a dozen lanterns.”

“Marked with..?” I asked.

“They are of three types,” she said. “Those marked as witches prefer are the least common thus far.”

“The others?” I asked.

“Most seem to have no visible markings,” she said, “while at least three have plates written upon in the Valley's language.”

“Uh, those are...”

“Are being cleaned with aquavit,” she said. “The others are being taken to the 'sale-room' in the stables.”

“Sale-room?” I asked.

“It used to have a pair of coaches in it,” she said. “It works well for sales.” She paused, then said, “and then, there is grain.”

“What were the witches doing with grain?” I asked.

“I suspect they were using the sacks to hide themselves,” she said. “There were several other witches in there, or rather, what was left of them.”

“Left?” I asked. “Did they go up in s-smoke..?”

“There was no soot,” she said, “unlike with that last witch. I suspect they rotted.”

“Is this when they, uh, go to dust in hours..?”

“I'm not certain how long it took for them to rot,” she said. “If I go by what I saw, I would say they rotted a good deal quicker than is usual for the fifth kingdom's dead.” A brief pause, then, “I was wrong about that meeting.”

“What?” I asked. “It's starting now?”

“It has been running all day,” she said. “I was wrong about our portions, and mine in particular.”

“How?” I squeaked.

“Firstly, I knew but little about my portion, and that when I last saw you,” she said. “When I came to present what I had, I was told to wait until you were ready.” She paused, then said, “and I then told them you had your hands beyond full at the current time.”

“And..?” I asked.

“Of those there, only Eduwart and Hendrik understood,” she said. “The other two wanted to roust you...” She paused, then said, “rather, I think one of them was truly interested in doing so. The other was following his lead, or so I suspect.” Another pause, then, “I then knew I needed to look more and come back later.”

“Look more?” I asked. “In what way?”

“The two men I spoke of by name know they are groping,” she said, “while the other two...” She stopped in mid-sentence, then whispered, “I think the chief matter is that no one, myself included, has that good of an idea as to what needs to be done outside of that which is familiar and obvious.”

“Then what they are d-doing...”

“I suspect they think to do as they are able,” she said. “None of those men are more than passable at what has needed to be done in the house today.”

“As in little or no shooting, no 'grunt-labor'...”

“There is ample of the latter,” she said, “and while all of those men are willing enough to do that work, they are not accustomed to it.” Again, she paused, “and I know for a fact that Eduwart borders on worthless when it comes to cleaning.”

“And the other three aren't much better,” I muttered. “I might be worthless at cleaning, but...”

“Most people are even more worthless when it comes to assembling unfamiliar yet needed tools,” she said, “and while Maarten is a good deal better than the common that way, I had to help him multiple times in recent days when he needed to deal with things he understood poorly.”

“Y-you?” I asked.

“He spoke earlier of you waving one of your tools in front of his face so as to wake him up,” she said, “and he spoke of you thinking there was a witch-tool nearby.”

“But both of them were acting as if they were, uh, being ridden...”

“It isn't just witch-tools that cause riding,” she said. “Certain beliefs, if held closely and with sufficient stubbornness, act much the same.” A brief pause, “and I would not be surprised much if that was what happened to both of those men.”

I loosed a yawn with great suddenness, and I recalled the top matter upon my list being sleep as much as possible – and to my surprise, Liza behaved as if she was privy to that list's order and content. I was all but bundled down the hall and into the stable where my cot was, whereupon I collapsed from a standing position onto the overwhelmed assembly of cloth and wood to wake up to what 'felt' like silence.

A glance at the opening to the outside spoke of 'late' afternoon, and as I gathered my things, I wondered as to my 'shortened' list. I felt as if but partly caught up on my sleep, but knew I dared not...

“No, you will have time for another nap,” said the soft voice. “Speak to that one room, then go into the room where you first saw Eduwart. The meeting is starting now.”

“And what I was told?” I asked.

“She spoke in accordance with what she knew at that time,” said the soft voice. “Their previous labors were not nearly as fruitless as she thought them to be.”

“As in?” I asked.

“What you say will mostly tie matters together,” said the soft voice. “Between providing the larger picture and solving a number of especially vexing problems, your portion might need an hour's time – which will give you at least three hours napping prior to dusk.”

“I take that thing out at dusk?” I asked.

“I would start working on it then,” said the soft voice. “That isn't a short trip.”

“And we need all the hours of darkness we can get our hands on for getting out of here,” I muttered, as I began walking toward the juncture of stable and hallway.

I heard soft voices and the faint noises of tools when I came to that one 'secret passage', and I paused to listen further. I recognized one of the voices as being Maarten's, while two others – I had heard them before, but could not pair them with faces – spoke added words of labor. To hear them speak of the doorway gave a sense of buoyancy to my senses, and walking along a dim yet otherwise clean and near-odorless corridor helped as well.

Each doorway and hall that opened onto the main passage seemed to echo with labor, and the odors I smelled – aquavit, soap, faint traces of 'lye', and perhaps a smattering of distillate – seemed to speak of substantial labor performed, with yet greater labors remaining. The 'mess' had been cleaned up; now what remained was replacing the realm of witchcraft with another way, one of labor and of thinking – and that, I realized, was much of what I needed to talk about at the meeting. I was so much lost in what I would need to shortly speak that I came to the doorway of the 'cloth room' with but little warning.

The stench woke me up with a suddenness too potent for mere words, and I came as close to the mouth of the oven-heated realm of foulness as I thought prudent. I recalled needing to 'speak' to the room, but as I stood there, I wondered as to how I might do so.

“What can I say?” I thought, as I backed away from the growing stink. “Stink, go chase the witches who love you?”

While 'nothing' happened physically, I could feel a subtle moving sensation coming from somewhere nearby, and I came closer to the hallway leading into the 'mess' while still remaining as close as I could to the wall. I paused at the juncture, then said, my voice soft, “stench, leave...”

A faint wind seemed to come from both my front and rear as I continued speaking. My voice remained soft: “and take those witches...”

The 'wind' picked up. Somewhere nearby, a hurricane was quickly brewing; and the boiling red-hot lava of its power gathered exponentially with each further second. It wanted to be loosed in the worst way imaginable – and more, I not merely heard all that was happening, but also felt the wind and its growing ways as I spoke the last portion.

“and pigs with you.”

My voice had rose with the last four words, such that the word 'you' echoed thunderously; and mingled with that thunder, the force of a mighty wind roared into the vacuum that lay prepared before it. My eyes seemed peeled back and dried to dusty powder as I turned to face the now-blazing torrent of sound and fury, and when I closed my eyes tight-shut, the wind seemed to redouble itself in power. The roar became a shriek, and from there, a sound beyond the norm of hearing conjured grim whitened shades that flew bodily into the deep and growing vacuum beyond the threshold where I stood.

The floor shook beneath my feet, and sand – as well as a couple bits of dried mortar and a chip of stone or two – flowed down upon my head. I gently shook my hair with my hands, then knelt down as the floor continued to shudder, roar and vibrate.

With eyes tight-shut, I listened to the multiplied sounds and senses of the wind, until with a muffled thump, it stopped abruptly – and I opened my eyes to see but inches distant the grainy surface of the floor near the middle of the hallway. I looked up from where I lay, thinking to see the doorway in question but scant feet to my left...

And all I saw was a barren wall. I then turned to look down the hallway to my front.

The thick gray smoke shrouding the ceiling some hundred feet away was spreading rapidly, and the faint thrumming noise of the background now became slightly louder. A hissing rush of wind mingled with it, and as I watched, the smoke and soot slowly cleared from the hallway. I then regained my feet, and as I walked, I noted my wobbly aspect.

And when I touched my clothing, I felt more than anything a thin and even coating of sooty powder. I thought to ask a question, and as I staggered past an open doorway, a thin-sounding and frightened voice squeaked, “what was that?”

“What was what, dear?” I asked, in response to the voice of an obvious woman.

“That explosion,” she said. “Something exploded like one of those bad lanterns.”

“B-bad lantern?” I thought, as I came closer to the entrance. “I hope this place isn't too big of a mess...”

And then, I inhaled.

“What?” I asked in complete surprise. “What happened to the stink?”

I then came to the entrance, and noted not merely an absence of stench, but bleached-white floor-flags faintly dusted with gritty-feeling soot. A glance at the nearest wall: the same. I entered the hall, and began walking.

The aspect of dessication, and more, sterility, grew with each footfall and passing second, while the darkness was such that I marveled – until my foot struck something, and I looked down to see faintly gleaming a dull brass lantern of familiar form. I bent down, picked up, and nearly burst out laughing.

“A 'Sun' lantern,” I murmured appreciatively. “Now how did this get here?”

A faint movement showed the sloshing sound of a part-full tank, and the nose-burning smell upon removing the fuel-cap spoke of aquavit. I put a few pump-strokes into the tank, then reached into my possible bag. I vaguely recalled putting some matches in there recently – and when I drew out a small round tin stamped 'matches', I marveled yet more.

“How did this get in here?” I thought, as I untwisted the tin with the lantern on the floor. “I didn't have this many...”

I lit the lantern where I stood, and as the wire mesh 'cleaned itself', I watched the glow become steadily brighter – until the red-orange glow became brilliant and white, and I needed to turn the lantern down with closed eyes. I opened them a minute later, and gasped loudly once I had stood up straight with the lantern in my upraised hand.

The entire room was bare to the walls save for smoking mounds of 'dirt' and drifts of ashes, while the breakthrough looked to be crudely plugged with rough-cut stone and sloppy piles of mortar.

“H-how did that..?”

“The witches themselves sealed up the passage once those still-living witches of sufficient means had escaped by it,” said the soft voice, “and they left the lesser witches to their fate, as is the usual for witchdom.”

“But those c-combine heads...”

“Were already dead at that point,” said the soft voice, “and that room had had everything remaining of value removed by the 'heirs' of the combine-head who owned both passage and piggery.” A brief pause, then, “only rotting bodies, worthless rags, and refuse remained in this room when they began walling up the breech.”

“And all that went up in smoke?” I asked.

“Here, yes,” said the soft voice. “That cannot be said for the witches that mess descended upon.”

“They...”

“Are currently enjoying what remained in that room,” said the soft voice. “They are not doing well.”

I began dusting the soot off of my clothing as I walked to the 'throne room', and in the hallway, I heard voices. While I expected to hear certain people, I heard more than merely them; I heard Gilbertus, Lukas, and several others on top of the five I had expected to hear. The subject matter made for marveling, and I stumbled on in while continuing to dust the soot from my clothing. The group of them were seated about a crude table of sorts ringed with candle-lanterns on rust-tinged stands.

“Did you find chemicals?” asked Eduwart innocently. “I heard an explosion...”

“Uh, no,” I said. “That one room is both cleared and walled up...”

My answer made for a rejoining of the former topic, which was the matter of the house's privies and their noteworthy lack of odor. I sat listening for a moment, until I heard the precise number of those privies – there were but two of them functioning prior to our arrival – and also, the arrangements preferred by black-dressed thugs.

“Those who named themselves 'betters' used special pots,” said Liza, “and...

“They were stolen, and no loss,” said Eduwart. “I suspect some combine-head is now enjoying their stink and worms.”

“Worms?” I gasped.

“The beginnings of flies,” said Gabriel. “They resemble new-made Desmonds, supposedly.”

I began gagging, and Liza spoke of our finding the remains of some Kossum's tinned meat in front of one of their packing plants. Gabriel was writing furiously in his ledger. Once my gagging ceased – it needed beer, and patience – the subject changed from sanitation to slavery.

“Only witches wish slaves,” I blurted.

“And why is that?” asked Kees. He seemed to be baiting me, almost as if he'd returned to his green-blooded scaly snake-form.

“The s-suffering,” I spluttered. “The witches l-like to s-see their chattels s-suffer...” My voice ceased, then gathered strength from somewhere before resuming. “The suffering implicit in slavery is beloved of witches, and their power multiplies with each new slave brought under their yoke.” A pause, then, “hence, a decree giving freedom to all, slave or free, needs to be, uh...”

My fear of censure had abruptly returned, or so I thought. I then saw Hendrik's ledger, as well as his writing.

“That was easily the work of an hour on our parts,” he said. “Now what else?”

“S-sealed ovens for coal,” I said. “Most of the fumes are due to, uh... What?”

“It is said... Oof!” Gabriel was squelched in mid-comment by Lukas' elbow.

“The witches like the fumes,” I said, “for the stink and smoke remind them of their beloved master – or so they believe.”

“Belief is the governance of witches,” said Kees. “Nothing else matters to them.”

Again, more furious writing. Every ledger of the four laid out was gathering gray-toned scribbling at an increased rate.

I paused to sip more beer. My mouth had gone dry. I looked next to me and saw a jug, and then, I recalled what was in my hand. I raised the lantern up and put it on the makeshift table.

Those need to go,” muttered Gabriel. “Before this trip, I had...”

Gabriel ceased speaking, this time because I had turned the lantern around to show the name-plate. My right index finger pointed to the uppermost line.

“That means 'Sun',” I said, “and this line here, 'Lamp operated by pressure'. The two below it speak of alcohol-based fuel – these run nicely on aquavit – and not using distillate due to, uh, extreme danger.”

“And those can be had readily,” said Liza. “Their rarity in Eisernije was due to exceeding poverty, not a lack of availability.”

“And donkeys,” I said. “I saw donkeys there...” I paused, sipped more beer. “And, there were mule-thieves, long-haired, uh, Veldters, and...”

“Be glad you were not seen then,” said Hendrik ominously. “I've learned more today about those people than I did during the previous ten-year.”

“Veldters?” I asked.

“Them especially,” said Hendrik. “I had no idea they actually came to the northern reaches of the house, nor did I know of tinkers who went into the valley.”

“Uh, you will need at least a buggy, though,” I said. “People in Eisernije don't have much for transporting weight, and you really don't want to trust freighters for hauling your food...”

“I suspected that,” said Eduwart. “Unless horses can be brought down into this region, and maintained in satisfactory condition...” He paused, drank deeply of what was in his cup, then resumed. “We will need to retain at least two pair of those stinky...”

“N-no,” I muttered abruptly at what some in the room thought of as 'sacrilege'. “It is not merely the cost of horses in this area, nor is it their food-bill. There's more... Oh! Mules are immune to the worst of the horse-sicknesses.”

Both kings looked at me with eyes agog, and both men had jaws that seemed ripe for dropping full-open. Liza turned to me, nodded sagely, and then began writing. I then saw her ledger – smaller, and no doubt easier to hide – an important fact, given its likely age and use. I could hear faint murmured female speech.

“Y-yes?” I asked. “I was, uh...”

Again, Liza looked at me. She seemed ripe for erupting.

“Correct as to quality, and seriously deficient as to the number of those ailments,” she said. “If a horse endures two months in the fifth kingdom house, it is either an animal native to the region or it has been treated at length in that valley to the north.” She paused, then said, “I am not precisely certain what they do to the animals there.”

“Immunize them?” I asked.

“That, and much more,” she said. “It isn't just sicknesses spread by unseen creatures that they treat.”

“Chemicals?” I asked.

“They have blood-treatments for those,” she said, “though that means is commonly reserved for people. Most of what they do for animals involves special feeding that accomplishes a similar end.”

For what seemed an age, talk circulated, and my comments mingled plentifully with it until my mouth began to yawn involuntarily. Hendrik closed his ledger, then looked at me.

“I suspect you need to spend the rest of the sun's showing napping,” he said. “There's enough here to finish up matters by then.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “They've found enough of those lanterns like that to do decent in the house.”

“And not enough local candles,” I murmured. “The chief trouble is lanterns like this do not run on forty-chain, and that stuff...”

“Plugs distilleries should attempts be made to distill it further,” said Eduwart. “Not even a distillery of the type you make would function long if given a steady diet of strong drink.”

“Which means aquavit...”

“And grain,” said Hendrik. “Grain isn't cheap down here.”

“Unless one gets 'feed-grain' from the eastern coast,” I murmured. “One can sprout that stuff readily...”

“I thought grain to be distilled needed to be of the best quality,” said Eduwart. “Now you speak...”

“Perhaps if you wished to drink the result,” I said. “Lanterns care more about the alcohol content of their fuel, yawn, and less about the flavor or lack thereof.”

With that I left both room and lantern behind me, and stumble-staggered back to my cot – and, on the way there, I seemed to fall asleep to then dream.

In this dream, I was walking slowly through a miasmal fog and through a time-etched doorway; and from that place into the realm of a living leather-bound creature. It endured my presence, unlike former times; for I was taking it from its current prison and delivering it up unto its favored prey for the purpose of its predation. Hence, it helped me greatly, hiding me in its widespread darkened cloud as I walked the dusty and deserted streets of a noisome realm, at least until I had set it upon its wonted pedestal.

But the creature was the soul of treachery, and the body of deceit; and it promptly dropped all such pretenses once I'd finished my portion of its liberation. It left me exposed, and that utterly, and I needed to...

I awoke with such abruptness that my mind boggled and my body bent like a bow to then land hard upon the cold stone flags of the floor. I looked up, and saw fine-woven 'canvas' of impossible depth – or so it seemed as my eyes closed themselves again to sleep 'normally'.

Awakening was a slow process, one that resembled coming up from below within the bowels of an impossibly deep mine by slow-moving whim and hoist; there were stops to let miners on, and unload other men not yet miners, and now and then, pauses to toss dynamite bundles illuminated by spark-spitting smoky fuses... And yet...

“Oh!” I squeaked, as the remaining thousand miles of cable vanished and I returned to the present location and time with a shuddering rush of grinding gears. “Where am I?”

There was no answer, save the obvious: I needed to devote myself to prayer, as was appropriate for those about to endure the damning torments of penance. Accordingly, I spilled off of my cot and took my place upon my knees, there to give tongue to august sentiments amid age-long repeated prayers...

I woke up entirely then, and my consternation was boundless: “what am I doing on my knees..?”

“I suspect you were praying,” said the faint voice of Lukas, “and I think we had all best do our own work that way. The sun's about gone for the day, we have to finish packing – and we'll need to leave tonight, and that as early as we can.”

“Is it Night?” I asked, as I staggered to my feet.

“That should be, 'Be it Night?',” said Kees. He was doing something in the stall next to me, if I went by the closeness of his voice. “I would drink all you can hold before dealing with that coach and those who wish its presence.”

The dreams returned to me, and I spluttered, “they want that thing? Not in my dreams.”

“All witches think themselves stronger than they are,” said Kees, “and all witches desire fetishes. That coach is an especially potent fetish, and those in that particular district are witches, which means they desire it; and because they think themselves powerful, they think they can but add its potency to their own without it crushing them like insects.” A pause, then, “that is how it goes, isn't it?”

I had no answer for Kees, and prayers formed unbidden in my mouth as I gathered up my things. They seemed uncommonly bulky, for some reason, and once I had donned bag, belt, holster, and rifle, I thought to check what was in my bag. I did this for some minutes, praying silently that I would have sufficient for a long and arduous trip through a hostile realm; and as I finished doing so, I noted the jug and cup next to it.

I drained two cups of beer, and as I started upon the third example, I noted both the taste of the beer and the feeling of where I was. In the distance, there was a seeming of relative normalcy for the area itself; it was yet licking its wounds, and though these wounds were deep and numerous, it hid them most carefully from those who might take advantage of injuries.

“It must be tonight,” I murmured. “They gather strength by the hour, and do repairs by the day, and but another day...”

“Would make escape a most chancy business,” said the soft voice, “while tonight, it can be done most readily.”

“And that coach?” I asked silently.

“Your last time through that one doorway,” said the soft voice. “Your recent dreams will give you both insight and strength.”

“And worry,” I thought, as I recalled what happened in those dreams when I had abandoned my weary load.

And yet, for some reason, I felt strangely buoyed. I finished the cup of beer, checked my water-bottle one last time, wiped out the small cup, tucked it in my bag – it was my cup, after all; I had brought it from home for 'sleeping-draughts' – and I walked out of the stall.

With each second's movement, I heard unhurried labor. It was obvious the group was now truly packing up for the trip; beforehand had been but exercise and busywork, or so it seemed. I then recalled the 'door' being closed, and had a question. I wanted to ask 'why' I needed to go in that doorway.

Instead, what came out was “what will happen to that doorway?”

“It will revert to its old self,” said the soft voice. “With its covering gone, only the coach's presence causes it to remain as it is.”

“And its old self?” I asked.

While there was no answer, I could feel the coach ahead – and more, the dream had but hinted at its lust for death and its sentience in achieving that goal. I came to the door proper, and time ceased its moving with shattering abruptness.

“Open,” I whispered.

The door grated down dust mingled with rust, and with a faint hissing noise, the crack widened slowly. The door itself knew its days were numbered few and short, and balked accordingly.

“No balking, please,” I said. The door moved a trifle faster – until it stopped at a part-open status. I hoped it would be wide enough to pass my bulk.

The doorway did so readily, and I passed from light and life unto a region of dust, death, destruction, and darkness. This last was astonishing, for I could plainly smell the odor of a fair number of burning candles.

I was amazed, however, at the near-complete lack of unpleasant sensations that I but vaguely recalled, at least until I came within a foot of the coach itself. I then noticed them, and that in full measure:

Rapacious hunger. Its centuries of starvation were at an end, and it would eat and drink deeply tonight – and that eating and drinking would continue for some time.

A rapt and growing sentience, complete with senses, emotions, and will. This last was of a sort too alien for me to describe beyond 'It knows what it wants, and It knows how to achieve that goal – and that is all that matters. It cares for nothing beyond its inclination of the moment'.

An awareness of its desirable nature; it would be fought over, and that at length, with great and growing wrath and bloodshed on the part of its many supplicants.

And finally, a seething rage, one that until now had been hidden; and this rage it would express unto the utmost while it was yet able to do so.

I kept silent in both mind and mouth, for the creature – it was named, and that aptly, and 'great beast' was thought both misnomer and inadequate – would hear me otherwise; and I slowly squeezed past the thing with my back brushing the still-filthy wall. I would become dirty in the process of delivering it up, I now knew, and as I came past the coach itself into the outer darkness of the stable, I recalled the usual pole or poles common to buggies and wagons.

“They hitch the animals to those, uh, things,” I thought. “They have special, uh, names...”

And with slow and majestic grace, first one pole descended, then another to both come to rest with cushioned thumps to each side of where I stood. I brought forth a rag, folded it – and using the rag as a pad, grasped the end of one of the poles.

The electric feeling that jolted me passed with such abruptness I marveled – or so I thought until I actually pulled on what I had grasped.

The coach came easily, much as if it weighed nothing, and the noiseless free movement of the massive vehicle seemed to block out all thought to the contrary. I turned the pole as I continued walking, and the coach followed, much as if it were a balloon tethered by a string.

Yet unlike such a balloon, I was able to back it up once I had achieved the width of the stable's main area, and I stopped with the nearest door but feet from the mound of trash. I left the rag in place upon the pole, which remained down, and I walked slowly around the other pole and then back to the door.

With each step, I knew clearer what I was to do next, and as if in a nightmarish revery, I paused at the hinges of the thing. Their evil glaring seemed to shine redly out into the darkness, and on the other side of the door I saw the latch-handle shining redly as if new-dipped in the blood of sacrifices. I continued on, another two steps, then turned about.

My hand knew its business, and it waved side-to-side as if conducting a dread symphony. The door opened without sound; and with another such movement of my hand, I heard a faint click as the door locked open.

“And now, to move the trash into...”

I glanced to my left, and saw yet another nightmare; for the previously dead mound of garbage had acquired a new and loathsome life. Again, my hands knew their business; and as there was no time to waste upon niceties, they waved of their own in long and sinuous movings.

And the trash gathered itself, forming a long line, one stretching from where I stood unto the shores of eternity that now lay in darkness; and from this line, it began its measured yet rapid movements.

It also leaped from the ground in a low and moaning arc to then land silently in the capacious maw of the coach, and I wondered: was I hearing the moaning noise audibly?

“Or is it something spiritual, and I am hearing it strangely?” I thought. “No matter. It's moving a lot faster than I could if I were handling the stuff.”

With each languid wave of my too-knowing hands, the stuff flowed from the floor and into the coach, and soon, I saw a definite pattern. There were bones and scraps of bones, followed by rusted remnants of red-glowing metal; then scraps of cloth, this usually being black or brown; old knives, most of them rusted into uninteresting lumps fit for a furnace in lieu of iron ore; sundry objects, most of which I could not identify; other types of bones, these being the bones of animals of one kind or another; and finally, more bones and scraps of bones as the cycle repeated. I then knew the names of these last bones.

“Sacrifices start and end matters in witchdom,” I murmured, “and all that is between the beginnings and endings of witches is blanketed with the blood and bones of those sacrificed.”

There was no answer to this revery beyond an increase in the rate at which the 'junk' leaped into the coach, with my knowing hands urging the stuff on to greater exertion.

It complied with astonishing rapidity, and my hands moved yet more vigorously.

The front of the junkpile had vanished, and I needed to move further inside the 'grotto'. One step, more waving of my hands as the junk flew in a steady and red-flaming stream; another step forward, the same happened. I wondered if all of the 'junk' would somehow fit in the coach, at least for an instant.

This thought vanished with such abruptness I was stunned, and I mouthed the dread sentiment itself: “of course it will all fit in the coach. It was planned this way.”

And yet, that seemed too good to be true. My ears then caught of faint talk, this seeming to boil upon the hot winds of a desert; and I glanced back at the coach. There was a great deal of remaining room in the thing, seemingly.

As I looked, however, the contents of the coach seemed to morph into everything a fifth kingdom witch might want: black-cloth, both in bolts and already made into starch-stiffened clothing; similar cloth and clothing, this of a deep and somber brown tint; tins of 'expensive' starch; long fetish-daggers; other fetishes, each proclaiming loudly the superiority of its bearer over all other beings; long pointed boots, each tip especially sharpened so as to partake of the fire-hardened sharpness of Hell itself...

“Is that why those things are so popular?” I asked. “As in, uh, evil spirits wearing such boots?”

There was no answer to either question, and I returned both mind and body to my previous task with a warmed heart and renewed resolve.

The trash now glowed with a sullen red-violet tint, and I suspected strongly that the most-recent materials had had less potency than those now showing. I was now come to older and stronger refuse, and I urged it to take on both speed in transport and desirability to its recipients. It did both of these things, such that the stream of refuse seemed both unending and unbroken.

The previous tint grew yet stronger with each further 'layer' of refuse, and periodic glancing back at the coach showed yet room remaining and an obvious gain in both reddish flaming and spiritual power. After several such turns, all the while waving my hands in seemingly aimless fashion, I could discern the end of the refuse-pile, and I spoke to it soft words of encouragement.

“Yes, the rest of it, please,” I murmured, and the dregs of the trash-mound – truly ancient bones, all of them billowing deep red-violet flames, rusted tools, scraps of black-cloth – flowed into the coach with a faint windless rushing noise; and as the very last scraps of rubbish leaped from the floor to fly into the coach, I felt a soft wind coming. It blew about me, then with a swift yet silent motion, the coach's door closed and locked with a click.

“Now to move it,” I thought, with a mind at once at rest and waiting for trouble while my legs moved back toward the still-ready poles. I grasped the one, noted a fixed rag, and pulled.

The coach still moved as if it weighed nothing.

I needed both poles for best maneuvering, I now knew, and I padded the other. I could now tow the thing as if it were a gossamer-weighted wheelbarrow, and I walked slowly toward the south end of the stable.

With each step, I noticed more the darkness enfolding me, as well as my vision; I seemed to see everything around me as if I were again marching around the inside of the volcano with cannibals on my trail, while ahead of me lay the gate...

“It's unbarred,” I murmured thoughtfully. I was glad for small favors, and as I drew nearer the two doors, I faintly heard what might have been a clicking noise.

“No, I need to ask those doors to open,” I thought.

I now heard a much louder click as I drew nearer, and with slow and silent majesty, the doors opened to a faintly yellowed dimness. I emerged into a darkened street, and looked to my right to see the last rays of the plummeting sun vanish in the fumes and flames of witchdom's ceaseless labor.

“Tis time,” I murmured.

Indeed.

As I turned to the right in the street, I refrained from the rest of what the three 'Weird Sisters' had spoken. I did not wish to speak of 'Cauldrons' and 'poisoned entrails' while maneuvering a dire coach-shaped fetish of massive import in what passed for an above-ground witch-hole.

“And no fenny-snakes, either,” I murmured. “Are there such things here?”

“Not at this time,” said the soft voice. “There were such reptiles in the past.”

“Snakes?” I asked. For some reason, I was thinking of 'water moccasins'. “Fenny snakes?”

“Their pale-shadowed descendants currently 'suck on rats' in corncribs,” said the soft voice. “Be glad the originals are not handy.”

“Were they like those I was thinking of?”

“Yes, except where they were worse,” said the soft voice. “They were a dreaded plague prior to that war long ago.”

The corner arrived what seemed far too soon, and the near complete darkness – I saw no light, not even that of mostly-hidden lanterns showing from cracks; the only light came from the lurid flames and smoke of the region – was a marvel to me. I led the coach around the corner, and the dread silence and lack of effort seemed at once a matter of amazement and a thing of dread import.

“And miles to go before I leave it to the witches,” I thought. “I think I should walk faster.”

And with each further stride came an infinitesimal increase in both speed and length, while the shops to each side of the road grew darker and more 'dead'. I knew that was but the seeming, even as I passed from the realm of shops and businesses into the more-open realms that stank of 'mule'.

The darkness became as a crushing fist about me, such that now, there seemed no light of conventional nature visible. All was in the sepia-tones common to infrared, and while my vision was affected mightily by this change, the same could not be said for my nose and gorge.

“Urgh,” I thought. “I might not be able to see much, but I surely can, uh, navigate by the smell.”

“You are not the only one who cannot see much,” said the soft voice. “All the witches can see is a cloud of impenetrable darkness.”

“Oh, my,” I mumbled. My mouth remained shut, thankfully, as I suspected noise, like smell, was but barely affected.

“True, it isn't affected much,” said the soft voice. “There aren't many witches close enough to hear speech – and of them, perhaps one in ten is up to doing anything.”

“The other nine?” I asked.

“Dead, comatose, deathly ill, or exceedingly intoxicated,” said the soft voice. “Those otherwise are concerned with finding the quickest way out of the region, and are acting with the greatest diligence upon their concerns.”

“Uh, is this like the bogeyman?” I asked.

“They wish it was,” said the soft voice. “Those witches of greater ignorance think that cloud to be a nastier-than-usual airborne plague, while those most frightened think the matter to be spiritual.” A brief pause, then, “the fact that the darkness is of spiritual origin is completely lost on those people.”

Another stench intruded, this being the reek of coal-ovens – and while it resembled the stench spoken of on the way into the city, it had evolved itself into something yet worse. This new reek was of a profound sulfurous nature, with hints of 'oil' and 'carbon' intermingled with the sulfur-stink – and over all of these horrible smells, the sounds of a multitude of pounding engines clattered, roared, and hummed.

My ears strained to hear the cracks of gunfire, even as the smells gave way and the noises surrounding the wall of darkness changed from the engine noises to the sounds of ceaseless industry, and the smells mutated into an amalgam of foundry-stink and chemicals. I glanced to the right and left, and the darkness remained as it had before, while far and vaguely showing in the distance ahead, I could see a near-formless red-tinted chasm.

Somehow, I knew that to be the coach's destination, and with each rapid-moving minute, the aura of 'Medieval' grew stronger. I prayed silently as I was able, and that seemed to add wings to my feet and yet greater lightness to my 'load'.

Ahead, that 'chasm' grew steadily clearer and more distinct. I could now see vague shadows and tall tilting forms to each side of the narrow rift ahead, while the odors... Those now included 'rottenness' and 'swine', and over all, death itself reared up its mighty bulging posterior to discharge its foul emissions unto the surface of the realm it owned.

The shadows ahead acquired weight, bulk, height, and depth, and with the passing seconds, further details. One minute, they resembled craggy and crumbling rock formations; another, tall ruined haphazard buildings; and yet a third, fortresses similar to tall and narrow castles that lay under perpetual siege. This last aspect seemed the dominant one, and as the further minutes passed under the rolling dark-cloud, it became stronger, more distinct – and smellier.

Much smellier, in fact. I had not noticed the stench fully until this very moment, and if I went strictly by the stench, I was wading through one of the house's more-noisome open sewers.

“I hope I can bathe when I return,” I murmured softly. “I probably stink like a Genuine Plug.”

And as if to answer me, a crimson sign flared briefly to the left, and there, I saw the grim word 'Mekhicho'. It brought forth recollections of that one mule-stampede.

“That district is known for its mules,” said the soft voice.

“M-mules were supposed to be s-s-slow,” I muttered. “Those things looked to keep up with Jaak.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Deodorization supposedly reduces a mule's odor.”

Supposedly?” I asked.

“More often than not it has but little effect upon the smell,” said the soft voice.

“Why is it done, then?” I asked. “Does it affect the animal's temperament?”

“That commonly becomes worse,” said the soft voice. “That procedure is poorly understood by the majority.”

“What is it intended to do, then?” I asked.

There was no answer, at least to that question. What I had heard, however, answered a great deal as to the nature of mules, and why the stinkier version seemed to be endemic in the fifth kingdom. The smell of 'mule' was steadily increasing amid the other foul reeking stenches.

“Does deodorization make mules slower?” I asked.

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “Among those fond of mules, deodorization is thought to be injurious to the animal. That view is entirely justified.”

“F-fond?” I gasped. “How...”

“The Veldters do not abuse their animals,” said the soft voice, “and hence they have much less trouble with them.”

Ahead, I now saw clearly an obvious red-tinted region, one rimmed about by tall and tilting fortresses of Medieval nature, and the commingled reeks of death and destruction were only exceeded by the dead-seeming nature to each side of where I now was. The manufacturing district – I was in the place's precise middle – was pounding and thrashing out its varied and sundry wares, and that region ahead lay but half a mile away.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It might be that far from where you currently are to where I would leave the coach.”

“And when I do that?” I asked.

“I would not waste time in heading south,” said the soft voice. “Your take on needing all of the available time for travel is correct, if slightly pessimistic.”

“Good,” I muttered. “I should have time for a bath, and, uh, packing...”

“Liza has taken matters well into hand,” said the soft voice. “I would expect to leave the house proper within an hour of your return.”

“When does she sleep?” I asked. The 'border' was fast approaching.

“When and where she can,” said the soft voice. “She's glad things have settled down so quickly.”

At the 'border', the red-tinted walls of the fortresses to each side flamed dully, and when I looked to left and right, the blackened realms were outlined faintly in flaming red-violet. They seemed to go on forever, so much so that the now-ghastly stench caught me completely unaware, and I held my gorge in check by will alone amongst a region at once both Mechanical and Medieval.

Most importantly, however, the whole place seemed completely and totally dead, and my steps were completely without sound. I passed a hundred yards, then two hundred more – and in the midst of the fourth stretch, a widened place in the road formed by two wide and intersecting roads beckoned loudly to me. I wanted to park the coach there, I now knew.

In the intersection proper, I halted, and began to slowly back and fill amid gathering clouds of darkness now so intense that it seemed like living in a soot-laden cloud. I had the 'horns' of the thing pointing due south, finally, and I turned loose of first the right hand, and then the left.

The rags began smoldering within seconds, and first one – the right rag – fell fluttering to the cobbles, followed by the left. I stood transfixed, even as the 'dead' aspect began to 'shake' and 'quiver' around me – and the smoldering rags held the key to the whole.

“You had best hurry,” said the soft voice. “This area is waking up.”

The spell then broke like fractured glass, and I dropped all pretense as I ran for the shadows like a frightened rat. Light began to show to the sides, first from cracks in the wall of darkness; then, as the darkness began to resume that normal to the fifth kingdom's evenings, from the cracks of still-closed doorways. I kept moving, for I knew beyond all reason that panic would result in my death, and that quicker than anything else. I but barely recalled how I had been 'hidden' in the Swartsburg, and that confidence I had had then...

It was now gone, and that entirely, and the first of many doors opened abruptly to show in bright-lit pulsating silhouette a carbon-toned copy of Sam Brumm. His odor – and that of the surrounding region – grew steadily stronger and more rank, so much so that I now knew the bulk of the place's stink had been hidden from my nostrils along with much else. I continued with my frightened running, now wishing I was indeed a rat as to size and shape.

Another door opened, this one on the left side of the street. The coach was easily a hundred yards behind me, if not more; yet it seemed still attached to me, much as if it were a ball tethered by a chain to my leg-iron-encased ankle. I could feel the pull of that dire vehicle, for in its insatiable hunger – I had underestimated its appetite, and that greatly – it desired me for a meal as well as the witches – until with the sudden booming roar of an obvious roer, the hold of the entire mesmerism experiment shattered like glass and every door crashed open as one to pour out a screaming mob of black-dressed thugs mingled with misers.

Their frantic onrush was of such maddening and infuriated nature that I at first froze stiff in my tracks; then, as spaces showed where I might run without meeting witches, I moved. Not a single man of this crazed multitude seemed aware of my presence as I 'froze-dodged-ran-froze' my path through the yet-swelling and thoroughly maddened crowd; and behind me, and to all sides save my direct front, the screams of conquest and howls of triumph shattering the slow-brewing night behind me seemed lifted from hell itself. Another gunshot cracked, then a third, followed by a deafening death-shriek; and still I headed south.

Ahead in the distance still, I could see and hear the end of this realm of the damned, and with each step and each foot closer, it grew easier to move toward my desired goal. I needed to dodge witches still, though I needed to do so less and less often; the screaming, howling, and yelling endemic to the realms behind and to each side was now joined by the frantic braying of a herd of ill-humored mules; I seemed utterly invisible to the witches; and when a thundering roar back-lit my fleeing legs and arms with a brilliant white-tinged redness, I paid it no mind. I was a man, and I had my mission; and I had thought the portion I had just finished to be the most difficult business of the entire night – and I now wondered greatly if my assessment had been wrong.

“Was delivering up the coach the most difficult?” I thought. “Or is escaping the lunatic frenzy of a million acquisitive witches smitten with the idea of owning a most-potent fetish-collection?” A pause, then, “or is the worst yet to come?”

I could not tell, and I did not worry myself overmuch as I dodged witch after witch. I was able to run almost steadily without pausing to dodge witches at this point, and the 'border' beckoned as it came closer and closer. I crossed it, slowing as I did so to a rapid walk; and upon doing so, I noted a yet-more-profound difference compared to the Swartsburg-copy I had just left:

My current location was not in the throws of a nightmare made real and tangible, with all of life staked upon the random turns of chance. Instead, it was more or less as it was commonly at this hour, and the 'boardwalks' thronged with people, while mules stood 'parked' row upon row, their 'main guns' run out full-loaded and ready to kick me to rags if they became suspicious to any degree.

And still, the mules seemed unaware of my presence as I darted in and out of the shop-cast shadows while moving steadily southward along the near-middle of the street, and when the shops gave way to the 'businesses', the shadows grew darker, longer, thicker and more stable, with fewer people present to give pause.

Those that were present, however, were black-dressed thugs driving farm-wagons, and their six and eight-mule teams seemed fractious in the extreme as they rattled and galloped up and down the now-wider street. Accordingly, I kept to the side with the most shadows, and my rapid walk ate space and left little behind me beyond the growing noises of witchdom in full 'cry'.

“Weidmansheil?” I thought.

As if to answer my questioning, the noise from behind redoubled in both tone and volume, and the region 'around me' bathed in shadow grew darker and denser. The added darkness helped more than a little with concealment, as I was beginning to feel winded to a degree.

Once the 'estates' showed, I noted the growing 'fog' coming up the road, and the tall and lurid smelter-flames billowing hellish high into the sky amid their thick and putrid-smelling clouds of sooty smoke. The reeks of coal-ovens, mules, foundries, and manufacturing all melded into an eye-watering gorge-clutching fume, and when I found cover behind a long sloppy-brick watering trough, I began coughing and spewing.

For what seemed minutes, I coughed up mess after mess, and I spewed twice when I choked and nearly swallowed something. Finally, the coughing ceased, and I left the still-smoking mess behind me at a once-more rapid walk to the irregular beat of what seemed hundreds of pounding 'piano-sized' engines. I crossed to the left side of the street after a short distance, for the shadows were deeper there, and upon reaching the huge mule-reeking 'corrals', I marveled at both their stench and their contents.

“Did they recover that mule-herd?” I asked.

“For the most part, yes,” said the soft voice. “All save two of those witches died that night.”

“Good,” I thought. “Supposedly horse-theft was a capital offense...”

“There is nothing of 'supposedly' about the matter among the Veldters,” said the soft voice. “The other two thieves died the next day when they tried to sell those mules they still had.”

“Were the Veldters down here to sell mules?” I asked. The answer seemed obvious, given the massive size of the mule herd I had seen.

“Yes, they were,” said the soft voice, “and more, they had already sold a sizable number. The thieves stole those mules also, which is why the Veldters found a number of dead witches during their search.”

“And someone stole those mules,” I murmured. I was in 'the home stretch' now, with perhaps another mile of walking remaining – and I was most glad, for I felt filthy and smelled worse yet.

“To return them to the Veldters,” said the soft voice. “Those people received their due rewards.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. I half-suspected the worst.

“They received five guilders for each returned animal,” said the soft voice. “While that is not much by fifth kingdom standards, it was not trivial for those giving out the rewards.” A pause, then, “and having the good will of the Mule Totem is no small thing in the fifth kingdom.”

“Mule Totem?” I asked.

“Liza spoke of 'tribes', said the soft voice, “and she spoke mostly in ignorance, even if she knows a good deal more about those people than most you are likely to meet.” Another brief pause, “the proper word for the Valley's groups is translated as 'Totem' in their language, and it has a number of interconnected meanings, some of which are spiritual in nature.”

“Some?” I asked.

“Not every bilingual individual among the Valley's people is a witch, or is interested that way,” said the soft voice, “even if a good percentage of such people are.”

With the corrals behind me, the shop-region that surrounded the house proper became noticeable, and to each side, business carried on as it usually did during the evening. The sun had gone fully down, and now was the time for business of a serious nature.

“Yes, it's just starting now,” said the soft voice. “Business truly starts at the third hour of darkness in this region.”

“And, uh, the witches...”

“Will be inside discussing what is to be done about you and the group while you are leaving,” said the soft voice. “Head south along this road from the house until you reach the High Way, turn left at the juncture, then leave it on a northwest heading when the first more-open region shows to the north.”

The streets passed, one by one, and I watched carefully for 'clues'. What I indeed did see was a progressive and greater absence of black-dressed thugs and misers, with those remaining outside seeming to be on errands of pressing urgency. Even the handful of 'scavengers' I saw seemed to be more and more inclined toward hiding in the shadows with each passing minute, and I could easily see the idea of 'near-deserted' streets happening within an hour or so.

From somewhere below, my spirits resumed their buoyant nature, and with that lightened load, my steps grew longer and quicker. The house proper hove into view, and at the corner, I turned left. I would go back in the iron-shod doors, there to take a bath and then...

I paused at the sight of a faint glowing crack on the left, and with slowed steps, I moved close to the outer wall and its darker shadow. The shops across the road were still 'welcoming' people, though the number of individuals upon the rattling boards were growing fewer by the second.

The non-flickering nature of the glow ahead grew more manifest, and for some region, I seemed to hear the faint scraps of an opera.

“Oh Sole Mio?” I thought. “I don't understand Italian...”

The phrase repeated again.

“Sole?” I asked. “Is this like, uh...”

The picture – lifted straight from a 'Sun' lantern's placard, only garnished with yellow glowing spots – then showed itself in my mind, and I noted my substantial and growing fatigue. I suspected I'd just missed what could be thought of as a joke.

“Duh,” I thought. “Not 'Sole-AY', but... How is that pronounced?”

“Much as you just thought,” said the soft voice, “and that line wasn't from an opera.” A pause, then, “besides, they never did opera here.”

I came to the glowing crack – it was the gap between the outer doors – and tapped. To my complete surprise, one of the doors opened immediately to show Sepp holding a fowling piece. I ducked inside, and the door closed behind me with a plainly-audible click – and what showed ahead of me was astonishing beyond measure.

The two buggies were being packed under Liza's direction, and when she saw me, she pointed toward where the coach had been while holding her nose with her other hand.

“I know, I know,” I muttered. “I stink horribly...”

“It isn't just that,” she said with nasal voice. “Your clothing is going to need drowning and quick-washing, and that before you go.”

“I hope a bath is, uh ready,” I murmured. I was now feeling sore.

“It is,” she said, “and another tub is waiting next to it with lye and soap.”

Liza was not exaggerating, for the whole time I was bathing, I could hear words nearby speaking of filth and stink, and the odor of lye seemed to encompass all of life in its smell. I had another coughing and spewing spell while bathing, and the smoldering mess I spat into the bucket was loathsome beyond words.

I also learned of another aspect of such messes while I was packing my things, for a woman ran past my stall trailing smoke and what might have been flames. She returned a moment later.

“What did you do to that bucket?” she asked.

“Uh, I got sick,” I said dryly. “What happened?”

“It caught fire,” she said, “and I had to toss it out into the yard before it set the stable alight.”

“No, Maria,” said the voice of another woman from some distance away. “I just doused it, and the bucket looks to be undamaged.”

Maria wiped her head with a damp hand, then returned whence she had came.

It took me two trips to bring my things into the main stable, and with the second trip, the lack of the former door dawned upon me.

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“That door was a bad 'un,” said Lukas. “It went to dust and powder when that coach left.”

“And we woke up then,” said Gilbertus. “You might want to check this packing to see if it's decent.”

My tub had already been stowed, and as I put my things in and around it, I noted the same pattern I had seen developing on the trip down. Every piece of gear had acquired its 'place', and all seemed stowed.

And something smelled, also. I asked about the strange smell as I put my tool pouches away.

“That's three bags of salted fish,” said Lukas. “I expect we can leave soon.”

“You need this,” said Liza from behind me. I turned to see her carrying that one lantern that had showed when I had spoken to that last room. “I don't know much beyond that, but I do know you need this one.”

As I tucked it away next to my tub, I wondered why I needed a pressure lantern, until I recalled what most likely awaited me at home.

“I'll be able to use it at the shop,” I thought.

“If you are very careful as to when and how,” said the soft voice. “What Lukas said about that steam engine is nothing less than the truth.” A brief pause, then, “that is especially true in the area where you live.”

“Mobs?” I thought. “Burn-piles?” There was no answer. Then, “and that small steam engine?”

Again, there was no answer, and in my mind, I could not place one that seemed to work. I could, however, deal with the immediate matter of our leaving, and while I checked matters one final time, all eyes seemed upon me. Finally, I looked to the inner court.

“I think we can go now,” I murmured, as I went out to find Jaak.