A Realm in Flames.
I had had sufficient of witches for the evening, so much so that I remounted as soon as I could do so with the though of returning the way I came. I felt an 'itch', however; one that spoke of that being 'the expected thing', and I doubled back upon hearing something that I wondered greatly about. The soft foot-padding I then heard made for a desire to hunt up a watercourse, and I found myself back in the green area with my boots in my hand.
I was wading in the stream, and the chill water moving around my lower legs was making for a chilled mind; and my feet were finding the places where Jaak could follow most readily.
It was important, I knew that much, and when a faint high-pitched yipping noise came once more to my ears, I started. It was some distance to my rear.
“That's a dog,” I thought. “Did they put dogs on my trail?”
“They did, and no ordinary examples,” said the soft voice. “Recall that talk of scent-hounds in the fifth kingdom house?”
I did, and kept silent. This was 'important'.
“There are 'common' scent-hounds,” said the soft voice, “which were those you heard then. What you are hearing now are some much rarer dogs which have much better noses.” A pause, “or so their purchasers fondly believe, at any rate.”
“Will walking as I am help, then?” I asked.
“It will, provided you do so for at least another two hundred yards,” said the soft voice. “These dogs aren't pure-bred animals, which is why they aren't much better than the usual fifth kingdom variety.”
“And if they were pure-bred?” I asked.
“Be glad they weren't able to secure those,” said the soft voice. “Not only are they able to track the faintest of odors, but they don't need a conventional trail to follow.”
“T-trail?” I asked.
“Recall just how you could 'smell' perfume back to its source before you came here?” asked the soft voice. “Imagine a creature with a similar capacity, only amplified drastically.”
“Did I, uh, step in something?” I asked. For some reason, I thought of 'red herrings'.
“No, but those dogs can follow 'odor of horse' for upwards of a mile,” said the soft voice. “These dogs, on the other hand, are but slightly better than you are that way.”
I sniffed, then shook my head slightly. I could barely smell Jaak. I then saw that the green stuff surrounding the river had become denser, and I wanted a place where I could get out and not leave noticeable tracks.
“That will happen regardless,” said the soft voice. “The chief issue is the patience of the witches when their dogs lose the scent.”
“My boots?” I asked.
“Those they can track by lantern-light,” said the soft voice. “Full hobnail sets, especially as large as yours, are not common.” A pause, then, “horses, on the other hand, leave much greater olfactory trails.”
“Mules,” I muttered, upon hearing the comment about horse-smell. “Let the dogs smell mules.”
A deafening shriek-howl-scream chorus shattered the silence, and I stopped to turn in my tracks as a gunshot rang out somewhere to my rear. There was a pause, then several more gunshots; and finally, a pair of thundering booms. This third eruption had me localize the source as being just east and north of the Vendor's encampment.
“How did they...”
“The witches run patrols thrice nightly,” said the soft voice, “and the second patrol found your tracks.” A brief pause, then, “you can get out more or less anywhere now, as the witches have shot their dogs.”
“What?” I gasped.
“The dogs smelled mules,” said the soft voice, “and that in great measure.” Another pause, then, “and the witches panicked when their dogs suddenly 'became insane'.”
“Panicked?” I asked, as I began moving toward the nearest bank. I wanted an 'out' on the north side, as there were no bridges within a reasonable distance other than the one behind me, and I did not wish to go back that way.
“Another aspect of that type of dog is a matter of rumor, save among those familiar with them,” said the soft voice, “and the appearance of the dogs themselves does not help with belief on the part of those otherwise.” A pause, then, “one does not normally associate that level of killing prowess with a dog that resembles a Dachshund for shape and size.”
“What?” I asked.
“The witches bought the salesman's tales nonetheless,” said the soft voice. “That type of scent-hound is rumored to be an especially efficient killer.”
“What?” I asked.
“Most people find it hard to believe,” said the soft voice, “at least until they see the performance of the pure-bred dogs.”
“I still find... A Dachshund?” I asked.
“With the teeth of a full-grown wolf and the stamina to outlast any animal short of an Iron Pig,” said the soft voice. “Only those white red-eared hounds have greater ferocity – and no animal on this planet, not even an Iron Pig, is as stealthy.”
“What?” I asked.
“Be glad such dogs do not exist where you come from,” said the soft voice. “They would be at the very top of the land-based food chain shortly after their arrival, and their depredations would be legion within a generation's time – especially as they are inclined to form sizable packs given sufficient numbers.”
I found my 'out' near the edge of a sizable 'pond' some further distance downstream. I walked barefoot until I was once more on dry grass, and as I sat while putting my stockings and boots on, Jaak rolled twice upon the grass. I suspected he needed a thorough rubdown, and I did so before replacing the blanket.
Again, I stayed clear of roads as I headed 'due north', and I remained in or near cover as much as I could. It proved wise, for the roads had no little traffic, most of it being mule-drawn freighting wagons. Coaches made up the balance, or so I thought until I found an overturned buggy laying on its side near a deserted-seeming road-crossing. The horses were gone, and the splintered wood spoke of torrential gunfire – while the smell spoke loudly of death, and the bloodstains I saw on wood and ground confirmed my nose's verdict.
“No bodies,” I thought, as I passed within twenty feet of the bloodstained wreck. “Did the witches...”
“They did, and both men were sacrificed at the Swartsburg less than an hour ago,” said the soft voice. “Koenraad knows well of the efficacy of sacrifice, as do his followers, and they capture alive for the altars as many as they dare.”
“Altars?” I asked.
“The old Swartsburg hid those it had fairly well,” said the soft voice, “while the new version, at least at this time, has several times as many, and all of them out in plain sight.”
“The nerve of that wretch,” I thought. “Kills people as if he's Brimstone's chief thug.”
“Which is what he believes himself to be,” said the soft voice. “He may be a 'stripling' as high-ranking witches go, but he is fully as serious as Cardosso was, and his abilities, at least in those areas of his especial capacity, are not much less.” A brief pause, then, “Cardosso-level witches, at least currently, only turn up about once every century or so – and Koenraad is not one of those people.”
“Are there any such people currently alive?” I asked.
“Fully as capable as Cardosso, no,” said the soft voice. “The one person capable of becoming that powerful has already been killed.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Jodocus,” said the soft voice. “Had he survived much longer, he would have 'broken through', and become a witch to truly reckon with. As it was, the chief of that combine was plotting to murder him, and those of several other combines had similar desires.”
I passed around another woodlot, then a second after passing through a narrow field. I could feel several towns to my front, and while I did not wish to come near them, I could tell there were farmer's fields directly in front of me.
And also, the Westwaag. I would need to cross it, and there was no cover for some distance on either side of the road. I would need to watch carefully.
“And ask that your tracks be hidden,” said the soft voice. “The Westwaag is receiving enough witch-traffic currently that tracks heading crosswise would be noticed within a very few minutes, and they would be followed.”
I nearly spat an oath upon hearing this, and I muttered, “stinking witches act like they own the place.”
“Precisely what they believe,” said the soft voice. “Nonetheless, be of good cheer.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I could 'feel' the beginnings of farmers' fields on the other side of the nearest woodlot.
“The witches plan a 'celebration' tomorrow evening,” said the soft voice, “which means the Swartsburg will be most full of witches and supplicants.”
“And when it all goes, they go with it?”
“A good percentage of them, anyway,” said the soft voice. “The mobs will kill more of them during the days that follow.”
“Uh, mobs?” I asked.
“The witches, in thinking they have the full property when they have little beyond its shadow, have been most careless,” said the soft voice, “and when the kingdom house awakens, it will react to the signs they've left.”
“And Miura..?” I asked.
“Will be instrumental in pointing many of them out,” said the soft voice. “Most people in the area know about black-cloth's effects upon cattle and will make the appropriate associations readily.”
The woodlot reached, I found what might have been a trail running through it, and as I looked about in the gathering gloom – the moon was hiding itself entirely, or so it seemed – I noted not merely a near-complete absence of sticks, but also the all-too-present tracks of other animals. Some were quite small, so much so that I wondered as to what kind of animal would make such a track, and when I came out of the woodlot, the darkness above was such that I was glad I could see as well as I could.
“The witches won't see me,” I thought, even as I gazed out ahead to see a unbroken string of glowing blobs moving slowly in both directions.
“Yes, if you time matters properly,” said the soft voice. “Not all vehicles on the Westwaag are running lights, and there is enough traffic that you'll need to cross at an opportune time.”
I set out then. I was having to guide Jaak with pictures, as he could barely see ten feet in the murk, and when I came to the actual edges of the nearest fields, I found one of the rock-barred pathways that ran between them. The rocks varied greatly in size, and the boundary itself tended toward the height of my knees were I walking. A brief glance to right and left showed what looked like furrows.
“They've been plowing as much as they can, given their drastically shortened days,” said the soft voice. “Be glad the Swartsburg is going up in smoke tomorrow night.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“The 'lack of effort' and the resulting food and goods shortage would have helped the cause of the witches to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “Most if not all of the towns the witches are cursing at this time would have become 'above-ground witch-holes' within a year's time.”
“There are some towns in the area which are not cursed?” I asked.
“Chiefly those locations the witches already control,” said the soft voice. “The very few exceptions are either especially well-hidden or desperately poor.”
“P-poor?” I asked.
“That town where you took ax to that bull was then both controlled by witches and desperately poor,” said the soft voice. “'Routing out' the witches with that map cured the first problem immediately. The second issue is steadily improving, now that the witches aren't stealing everything that isn't nailed down.”
“Are the witches in this area engaged in theft?”
“They are, and that in great measure,” said the soft voice. “The day after the Swartsburg's burning will indeed be a day of reckoning.”
I was about to endure my own 'day of reckoning', for but a hundred yards distant lay the Westwaag, and the amount of traffic I was seeing upon that road was enough to frighten me. Long lines of freighting wagons, all of them mule-drawn, were heading east at a steady rumbling pace, while heading west were groups of three and four coaches mingled with solitary buggies. Many of the latter either had no lights, or dim lighting, while the coaches' lights pulsated steadily; and each freighting wagon had its own light, this commonly a flickering candle hung in a square brass lantern on a tall iron post above and to the side of the driver's head. The reek of strong drink and of mules combined into a noxious fume of mind-bending intensity, and with each further step, this odor but grew stronger.
I dared not wait too long, for I was beginning to feel ill; and I could feel not merely my own rapidly-growing illness, but also Jaak's unease at the sight ahead. He'd been abused by people like those I was seeing, and that at length.
An opening showed some distance to my left, and I began slowly moving forward, all the while watching. It would be indeed close, so much so...
My tracks, please. They need to not show. Oh, and that lantern there – yes, that one. A distraction would be most wise right now.
The lantern I had thought of suddenly blazed with incandescent whiteness, much as if it had taken lessons from a magnesium flare. The sudden glaring light caused the freighter who 'possessed' it to 'climb on the brakes' with a screech amid the jostling and 'roars' of his mules – and as he brought his wagon to a halt and turned to look upward, the lantern went out abruptly with a muffled 'poof' sound. Shouts and yells rang in the darkness as the freighters behind the 'leader' began to pull up, while the teams of mules hitched to the nearest wagons bucked and 'roared'.
My chance was now, even if there was oncoming coach and buggy traffic in the other lane; and while I thought that traffic sufficient to keep both flows in their current channel, that thought was not shared by one of the further-back stopped freighters.
He pulled out with a hoarse yell but a short distance in front of a coach pulled by a team of eight mules, and while his yells went silent abruptly, I could plainly sense...
No, it wasn't what I had expected to feel. What I was sensing was rage of such lunatic intensity that I expected to hear gunfire within seconds, and that in quantity. When I 'heard' a gun going to full-cock, however, it was all I could not do to 'fly' across the road; and when Jaak reached the nearest-to-me roadside ditch, I heard another such echoing clicking noise in the otherwise dead silence.
Jaak stepped out onto the road itself.
“No footprints, please,” I thought, “and let that powder be especially strong and sensitive...”
I then had a most-strong impression that something would 'happen' that I had not looked for, and this was such that I was glancing to the west repeatedly during the seconds Jaak was actually in the roadway. When I glanced to the east, I saw a buggy, this coming slowly with no lights at perhaps a hundred and fifty yards.
Jaak left the northern roadside ditch behind. He wanted to 'run', and I could feel the eruption to the west building fast along with my own terrified thoughts.
Now. Leave the area before...
Another ten feet, then perhaps twenty. The trees were some distance away, and farmer's fields, these plowed and waiting for seed, were still to the front. I could hear the echoes of the explosion...
A sudden flash of light, massive as the sun risen hours early, glowed red-white to my rear as the roaring blast of a hurricane sent glaring flames all around and overhead. Light blazed lurid from behind, and a quick glance over my shoulder showed a huge and grimacing ball of red-tinged yellow fire climbing slow and majestic as it roiled its way skyward amid a flaming holocaust wrought with the screams of men and horses.
“Horses?” I thought, as Jaak moved out at his best quiet speed down between two fields. The light of the flames was casting long and threatening shadows, even at our distance. I asked to be hidden as well as our tracks be erased, at least until we reached the safety of darkness or the shadows of a woodlot. One of the latter lay some distance beyond the ends of the fields.
Gunfire erupted to our rear, and I turned to see a raging gunfight breaking out on the road behind us. Traffic had not merely backed up, but had gone into the fields to there become mired; and from each such mired vehicle, I could see red-white flashes as the gunfight spread steadily wider in both sound and fury.
“That should keep them busy,” I thought, as I turned once more to the trail ahead, and as we reached the far ends of the fields, another huge flash blasted skyward. As its rumbling roar shook the ground underfoot and the acrid-smelling wind ruffled my clothing, I thought, “they must have imported a feud or two from the fifth kingdom house.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “The Swartsburg has had its own feuds for years.”
I did not waste time in my traveling, for I suspected that my presence would be discovered soon enough; and I continued to ask for our tracks to be erased until Jaak went into the woodlot. There, I thought to rest and perhaps watch from 'safety'.
“Not now,” said the soft voice.
I needed no further urging, nor did Jaak, and I began to 'find' a path through a pitch-black forest. The sole thought that consoled me was the likely nature of our pursuers being drunk and ill-equipped.
“Especially given that all they have left are candles for light,” said the soft voice.
“Our tracks?” I asked.
“Were not seen,” said the soft voice, “nor was your presence detected.” A brief pause, then, “your reputation, however, has grown to the point that the witches suspect you to be in the immediate area, and they will begin looking once they sort matters out.”
Another eruption of thunderous noise to the rear seemed to indicate continuing troubles. However, I seemed to hear talk, this being uncommonly profane as well as in Underworld German; and its gist was 'it must be him, as only he could cause such trouble'.
I found the matter all but laughable, which helped while trying to thread our way through the pitch-black darkness of the woodlot; and once on its other side, I paused to learn 'where' I was. The house proper wasn't that far away.
“Over there,” I thought. “More east than north.”
This led around two more woodlots and into a third example, and when I came out the other side, I heard faintly the deep-pitched blaring tones of a Weidmansheil horn. They seemed to be coming from somewhere to my right and rear, and as I crossed the field to the west of the house proper, I wondered briefly if the witches would come to the house itself.
“They're just getting matters straightened out now,” said the soft voice, “and while most of the still-living witches want to follow your trail, the backed-up traffic won't permit much beyond cleaning up the mess to a degree and resuming their former routes.”
“And the explosions?” I asked.
“Damaged the road badly in several places,” said the soft voice. “Traffic will move much slower on that road until it's fixed late tomorrow afternoon.”
“So quickly?” I asked.
“No plowing will happen in the house tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “The witches will coerce every farmer and workman they encounter so as to quickly repair that road, and that at gunpoint.”
“That's...” I was perhaps two hundred yards west of the house's main gate, and about to cross a close-cropped field. The road leading to the gate curved around to my front.
“Normally impossible in this area,” said the soft voice. “Those curses have an effect that way also.”
“Then why weren't they done in the past?” I asked.
“They weren't thought to be needed,” said the soft voice. “Of course, the lack of a sufficient number of 'strong enough' witches in the first kingdom had much to do with that assessment.”
I was about to ask another question, but I saw stirring in the guardhouse ahead, and I softly called out. The answer – yawn-bracketed, sleepy-voiced, and otherwise astonished – was that of one of my classmates, and as I rode up, he glanced at me and wobbled back toward the lantern-lit hut. As he did, I noted war-cut dress and a belt laden with a dagger on one side and a holstered pirate-special pistol on the other, and once he'd gone inside, I heard snoring almost immediately.
“Why did I see him then?” I asked.
“That horn woke him,” said the soft voice, “and his seeing you present told him he was 'safe'.” A brief pause, then, “and those 'strong-enough' imported witches will cause enough trouble in the weeks ahead.”
“How?” I asked. The wall to my right and hedge to my left were especially comforting.
“The local witches envy them greatly,” said the soft voice, “and envy their money also – hence feuds are brewing; and the eruption of the Swartsburg will trigger those feuds.”
“And burn-piles,” I murmured sleepily. “And vast numbers of dead witches, and those witches that remain alive most-cautious in their dealings.”
“For a time, yes,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom's reserves won't be truly 'depleted' until just before the actual day of retribution.”
I gave Jaak a thorough rubdown after ensuring his stall was well-stocked with grain and hay, and as I wobbled my weary way toward the doors of the house, I longed for a bath. I itched, and that greatly, and as I walked silently along the east wall of the main corridor of the house, I noted numbers of places that looked like alcoves, even as I suppressed yawn after yawn. Only once I'd gotten into the bathroom and was starting the water to boil did I recall the bag with its clothing.
“Was this why I packed and brought it?” I thought, as I shook out the mottled green trousers and shirt. “I hope they won't need the kind of cleaning...”
“While mule-dung is currently fairly common in the streets of the town,” said the soft voice, “it has not had the time to accumulate like it has done in the Swartsburg, nor have those who are aware of it been slack in its removal – again, unlike the Swartsburg.”
“Aware of it?” I asked.
“More people are noticing both the messes and the smell with each day,” said the soft voice, “and they have been accumulating the needed supplies.” A pause, then, “more than a few people in the house have been using their lunch-hours to clean their guns as well as eat.”
“Poor cleaning?” I asked.
“Is more common in the house compared to most places in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “The example of witchdom tends to be more-closely followed when guns are seldom used.”
There seemed to be but few cooks present in the refectory, and when one finally showed, he did not seem at all surprised at my presence. I refilled my water-bottle, and took charge of a jug and loaf.
“You don't sleep here much,” said he. “What gives with that mess in town?”
“Mess?” I asked.
“Witches everywhere,” he spat, “and they're driving mules, and making stink, and...”
“Oh, that,” I said. “It's related to the Swartsburg's being rebuilt.” A brief pause, then, “have you secured any distillate?”
“Two jugs,” he said. I was surprised he didn't 'catch on' immediately upon my mentioning distillate. “I've hid 'em here, as those thugs would steal the stuff if I had it at home.”
“And powder and lead?” I asked.
“That's been most scarce,” he said. His mind was finally catching my 'drift'. “I might have enough.” He paused, then, “you going to do that place again?”
I said nothing, only smiled; then, a few seconds later, “keep the matter of my presence close to your lips, and mind who hears you speak.” A brief pause, “and that goes double for anyone questionable, especially the Teacher.”
“Aye,” he muttered. “Tomorrow evening, eh?”
Again, I only smiled, then said “I'm not certain as to room service, but I am certain I don't want to show myself much in the house proper before it's dark outside.”
“I'll be keeping that in mind,” he said, as he looked at the jug. “You'll be wanting cheese and jam with that bread, also.”
The cook proved correct once I'd stowed my things in a room, for only then did I notice their lack; and when I turned to fetch them, he showed with a cloth-covered wicker basket.
“Cheese-spread, jam, a small fire-cheese, dried meat, and a small jug of unfermented wine,” he said. “It seems tales of what you can eat without griping are becoming well-known.”
“She was talking that way,” he said, “and no one was believing of her much, least ways until you-all got back.” He paused, then said, “we know better now.”
When I looked inside the basket, I wondered for a moment at the inclusion of a fire-cheese until I saw the candle-lantern and its flaring stick of tallow. A thin tendril of smoke seemed to impart a noxious attitude to my mind.
“No, bad taste,” I thought.
“He's looking for a heating lamp,” said the soft voice. “Failing that, Andreas will bring by one of his spare jeweler's lamps by late morning.”
I ate a quick snack, then fell asleep to awaken to a faint tapping noise upon the door. Checking showed no one outside, and on the way back to bed – it was still 'early', well before the current 'starting time' – I wondered why I had awakened. Once back in bed, my eyes closed anew in slumber, and with jolting abruptness, I now truly awoke.
“What is that smell?” I thought, as I looked around to see dark and ghostly-seeming buildings at once unsettling and familiar. I then saw the too-familiar red-hazed sign of Grussmaan's Chemicals in the distance ahead; and as I looked closer at this now-obvious signification of potent fetishes, I heard curses in Underworld German coming from hidden lips as the witches within that building compounded their wares for the morrow's trade.
The back-door business of Grussmaan's had grown tenfold since the beginning of Koenraad the second's reign, and it was still growing like a thrice-fertilized weed planted in the leavings of chickens.
“They treat everything as if it's a fetish,” I thought, as I slow-stepped out of the shadows I stood in, and turned once more toward the red-hazed sign. It was a beacon, and upon seeing it, I knew my directions. I resumed the shadows, and moved with rat-like speed and cunning between railings and watering troughs. The Oestwaag was but a short distance away, and the streets in all directions were gray-green and lumpy with the fast-growing accretions of mules.
The smell left by those animals was intense enough to cause faint colors to erupt behind my eyes, and only the worst curses – there were some witches strong enough at Grussmaan's to chant strings of runes, I now realized – competed for color and intensity upon the screen within my head.
The relative quiet of my current haunt was growing less with each foot closer to the boundaries of the Swartsburg. There had been talk of a 'celebration', and the hell-spawned racket coming from seemingly all points of the compass spoke loudly of its rapid commencement. I came to the junction of Maasstraat and the Oestwaag, and paused to look around while still hidden in the shadows.
The corner formed by the intersection of the Oestwaag and Grussmaan's seemed to be fogged with a thick and clinging black haze of smoke, and this murky fume was billowing thickly onto the Oestwaag. It obscured no small amount of buggy and wagon traffic, and as I left my refuge to cross Maasstraat, I kept an eye out for both cover and the witches.
“Every one of these thugs is dressed in black-cloth,” I thought, as I walked into the shadows of a Maasstraat shop-awning. “Not a miser to be seen.”
“Those people are either 'dressing up' or are already inside the walls of the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice.
There was no moon above, or so I thought until I glanced upwards at an unusually wide crack in the overhanging stoop, and saw the brilliant light shining down like a molten ray of iron. The dark region was trying hard to spread, but it had reached its highest tide in this world. It would, as it needed to, go to the next one; and it dared not be late for its last and never-ending meal.
Dining was most important in witchdom, and food – that being for both body and soul – was critical, both as to its content and its preparation; and witchdom had labored mightily so as to bring the first kingdom under due subjection. But one portion remained to make it rotten in its permanence.
Hence tonight and its 'actions'.
The Swartsburg's northwest entry had Grussmaan's as its eastern boundary, and that corner grew steadily 'brighter' in my mind, if not my vision. The dark-fronted shops across from me were silent and still as to their 'common' faces, while I could both feel and smell the torrential activity in the regions nearest their back doors. It brought to mind an ancient scrap of song, one that spoke of a 'back door man' and what he did – and how 'the little girls understood'.
There were no little girls anywhere nearby; save, perhaps, as food for the altars of sacrifice.
As I reached 'even' with the stoop of the entrance itself, I saw more and more visual darkness from across the Oestwaag. Every few seconds, a buggy – drawn by a team of four, with mules the usual beasts – or mule-drawn coach rounded the corner with a spark-slinging sliding of its wheels and a multitude of scrambling hooves, and the darkness within seemed to swallow them up bodily to leave no trace of passage. I looked to the west, and there, I saw a gap in the traffic.
It would be a smallish gap, and I hoped it would be sufficient for my crossing.
The fore-coach bracketing this gap slid and groaned as it shot into the dusty black cloud, and I left the shadows on the north side of the Oestwaag at a run. The moonlight from above seemed to shed my shadow large and dark upon the filthily slick cobbles, and the buggy to the west seemed to come at an impossible speed, so much so that with each step I expected to hear and feel a torrent of gunfire come from the west. This feeling only ceased when I reached the darkness between boardwalk and watering trough on the other side of the Oestwaag – and seconds later, each of them loud and chiming, the lead pair of mules of the buggy's team leaned far over and then into the turn, their scrambling hooves flinging a shower of sparks along the cobbles as the witch plied his whip over the sweat-stained backs of his team.
The second pair of mules did likewise, and here, I stood stunned as the witch continuing snapping his whip over his team's backs – for the buggy slid sideways nearly three feet in a series of shrieking jerks as the stiff-sprung wheels bounced and jolted over the cobbles. The witch seemed utterly unfazed by what had happened.
“D-dynamite,” I gasped, as the witch shot away from the turn with a further spark-shower. “T-two wh-whole b-boxes.” Then, a question, and that important:
“What have these people been bringing with them, and why?”
There was no answer to either portion of my question, and I came to the edge of the building as a freighting wagon rumbled past. This example had crates and barrels roped down in messy profusion, and its eight thrashing mules grunted and 'roared' as they came around the turn slinging sparks from their hooves. The two men were the first that evening that I had not seen wearing black-cloth.
“Clothing might make the witch, but those people could pass for witches just the same,” I muttered. “Both of them drunk, both marked up with tattoos, and both as ready to kill as Koenraad himself.”
The darkness I had seen before crossing the Oestwaag was now 'gone', and every flat space about me seemed to show faint grinning faces etched deeply into the walls with reddish fire. All of them had open mouths lined with coarse and jutting fangs, and when I came to the southern edge of the first building, I found myself in a near-barren yard of sorts, with small patches of diseased-looking grass, sickly-looking twisted trees bereft of life and leaves, a narrow and rutted road meandering west, and...
And shops, all of them showing deep black doors rimmed with blazing vermilion borders, each shop its own especial portion of hell, and each such door a portal into the realms of witchdom – realms of power, and of violence, where the weak died for the pleasure of the strong and that because those witches who thought themselves strong wished to be amused by the suffering of others.
Sacrifice was always amusing to the witch, for it was the chief glory and spectacle of witchdom; and it would be done in vast measure and with immense pleasure tonight, for the smoke of death was massing its myriad and sundry armies – and it awaited, its breath short and gasping, for the fires of damnation and immolation.
“Molech,” I spat silently, as I came to a red-painted pump that looked about ready to fall over of its own heft. “That thing's held together with paint.”
“And curses, according to the beliefs of witchdom,” said the soft voice. “That name is mentioned in the black book.”
“Molech?” I asked.
“All of those names are,” said the soft voice. “It was easy to copy them.” A brief pause, then, “the fact that all of those names worked as per the witches' desire cemented them and their uses as fact.”
I wanted to mouth the word 'Duh' but refrained, for the second rank of 'facade-shops' lay ahead – and to their rear, a tall stone wall stood, gruff, rough-shouldered, brutal and inhumanly strong.
I moved to the left of the shop in front of me, all the time staying in its moon-gripped shadow; and with each step, I seemed to see nothing ahead of me but the wall and its stone blocks. Easily fifteen feet beyond my height, the tops of the wall showed a complete lack of witches, and when I came to the base of the wall itself, I had an idea as to why.
Each mortar-rimmed stone had an incised rune, dark-painted, lying patient as a snake; and when I glanced at the rune itself, the incised portion flared redly for an instant.
“They don't need to guard this part,” I thought, as I moved to the right so as to find the 'edge' of the entrance. “These blocks...”
“Were scavenged over a period of many years,” said the soft voice, “and were used as much as possible to build the outer walls.” A brief pause, then, “there weren't near enough of them remaining near the surface in the first kingdom, which is why the other three walls, at least in most places, have parapets and 'guards'.”
The edge of the wall seemed 'elusive' at one level, yet at the one where I currently was, it was blatant, obvious, and hard-edged, with dark shadows pouring down upon my head and splashing silently around me. I turned the corner, and found darkness enough to walk in cautiously. Two steps, and I noticed a drastic change. A glance to the wall showed plain-looking stone blocks without runes – and a look upward showed a wall that ended perhaps two feet higher than my head.
“Another facade,” I thought, as I paced off the thickness of the surrounding wall. “Eight, nine, ten, eleven... Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen...”
I paused in mid-sentence, for I had reached the end of the wall at the stroke of 'nineteen'. “Fifty-seven feet?”
“It's more than that,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom's preferred dimensions have thirteen as a factor whenever possible, which is why the walls are sixty-five feet 'from line to line'.”
“And perhaps a foot or more thick at the base,” I thought. “That's no small cattle pen.”
“It's overly crowded, also,” said the soft voice. “Look to your right before crossing the road.”
I came around the corner while still in the wall's shadow, and paused to look behind me once I had managed a few steps. The witch-traffic had abated for a time, seemingly; and now it looked to resume its former strength and volume. I turned around once more, and nearly fainted at what I saw.
For what seemed thousands of yards, I saw mounded still-smoldering ruins being picked over by a swarming army of raggedly-dressed men, while to my left and ahead, I saw a lumpy-looking narrow street being belabored by another ragged army equipped with shovels. A short distance away, a large team of mules was 'dragging' a thick and rusty-looking metal roller with rumbling and scraping noises that drowned out their interminable braying and 'roars', while further yet distant...
“What are they doing?” I thought. “Are they laying cobbles?”
There was no answer beyond what I was seeing. Everywhere labor proceeded, there were gun-toting witches, these with black clothing and shiny black-greased faces; each hand upon a weapon, each gun cocked, each curse chanted, and each whip fondled. I then noted the sound of the place.
Soft, moaning, like a desert wind winding its way through a ruined building; a growling undertone that rumbled unceasingly; and finally, a sharp-sounding overlay of an intermittent whip-snap-crackle, with faint giddy-sounding screams as punctuation. A gunshot then rang out, followed by two more – and the former 'orchestra' resumed its 'Nocturne for the Damned'. I then swept my gaze southward.
Across the too-narrow street I saw more massive swarms of ragged men, these toiling by a near-solid 'sheet' of glare-blazing lantern-light; each shop and house seemed to rise bodily before my eyes as blocks of stone plopped wetly onto beds of mortar with stunning frequency, such that the sound of mortar splatting out from these blocks of stone was a steady 'squishing' noise.
There was no speech there, none save that of the witches cursing and shouting at the laborers; the sound – it was different from that of the scavengers, whose noises were now absent – was that of rasping steel upon stone, the steady ringing of hammers, the coarse scrabbling noises of dull saws – and over all, the hoarse drunken shouts and guttural curses of the witches; such that by those actions of themselves – and those witch-authored actions alone – the houses and shops rose from the smoking ruins unto yet-anew homage to Brimstone and his dread agents.
I wondered for a moment as to where the building supplies themselves might be hidden, but as I turned, I glanced directly in front of where I stood, and there saw the vast 'fields' of dressed stone blocks; the barrels of dry-mixed mortar; the timbers piled – too-neatly – in long 'drifts' to finish their air-drying; the tall-stacked buckets of nails; and finally, the ground itself – for it was white with the dust of chiseled stone, and gone powdery with the laborers' restless feet.
“Where I can see the ground, anyway,” I thought, as I moved among the stacks of supplies. “There's enough of this stuff, even if it isn't...”
I paused in mid-thought, for I was beginning to recognize the area, if not the supplies themselves. I had taken up my shooting-rest from somewhere close by when I had made ready to shoot Koenraad's lantern, and with each further step toward the wide 'thoroughfare' ahead, I continued to recall details. Another two steps, I came to the end of the stacked building supplies, and I stepped out of the head-high reaching shadows to nearly trip over a final low stack of stone blocks.
“I l-laid out on these blocks here,” I thought, as I moved around it, “and that wretch was up this way...”
I looked to the south to see a sight at once amazing and yet impossible-seeming: for while construction was still very much in progress, the whole of what I saw seemed fresh-built and utterly renewed. On each side of the road, shops and houses fought one another for space, while bright pulsating lights glaring out still-barren windows spoke of frantic-seeming labor by dint of hammering and yelling – and down the center of the road, a steady stream of wagons and buggies traveled, all of them fully-laden; and the road itself seemed lined with them. I looked further south.
“T-there,” I thought, at the sight of a peculiar jog in the road which then jogged my memory. “His coach was there, and he was personally supervising the construction of his new residence...”
Yet he was not there. I wondered what I was seeing.
“You're about an hour before the cattle 'get loose',” said the soft voice. “That witch rarely stays in one place very long.”
I moved between a pair of coaches, both of them long, ungainly, and occupied by snoring thugs, and waited to cross. A gap showed in the traffic, and I ran across it into the shadows formed by another pair of coaches, where I waited to see what would happen.
“What?” I gasped. “They did not see me?”
“They saw 'something' move,” said the soft voice. “Between poor night vision, the effects of strong drink, your being hidden, and their anticipating what is scheduled to happen later tonight, it was dismissed as a spiritual artifact.”
“I thought that strong drink caused poor night vision,” I thought.
“It does,” said the soft voice. “The usual activities of witchdom do not help the poor diet.” A pause, then, “recall how every black-dressed thug is wearing face-grease?”
“T-to the limits of drink and d-d-datramonium?”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Datramonium commonly causes blurred vision, and that effect is at its worst during low-light conditions.”
“M-meaning n-no one can see straight?” I asked.
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Drugged construction workers do very poor work, and worse yet if they are exhausted – and if they are not used to compensating for the effects of datramonium...”
“Oh, my,” I thought. “Those buildings might look 'decent'...”
“They are not decent for appearance,” said the soft voice, “and the witches know this. What they do not know is that many of these buildings are so poorly constructed that a strong wind would collapse them.” A pause, then, “they are intended to 'hold the ground for a season' while 'proper construction' is done inside and outside the Swartsburg.”
“Temporary buildings,” I thought, as I turned to glance to my rear. “More construction supplies are coming, and more buildings being worked on – and more gangs of half-blind exhausted slaves.”
“That are also substantially impaired,” said the soft voice.
I moved from my snore-bounded refuge seconds later into the further shadows of the construction supplies across the main 'highway', and here, I noticed a chief difference: not only were the witches very scarce around the 'supplies', but such areas tended to have the poorest lighting and the most places to hide. I crossed a fresh-built road, one perhaps twelve feet wide, then went back into the shadows made by stacked stone blocks and barrels of 'sand'. There were no foundations here, or so I thought until I found a cryptic-looking sign at the meeting of two near-buried walls. I suspected it corresponded to a 'grading stake'.
“These supplies are for rebuilding this area,” I thought, as I glanced around. “It's about the only one left to work on.”
“It will be the first area built 'properly',” said the soft voice. “Construction upon it is planned once that portion you first visited is completely dealt with.”
“Area?” I asked.
“Not every new building is entirely jerry-built,” said the soft voice. “Some are built better than others, while some structures have been built correctly out of necessity.”
“Where Koenraad lives?” I asked.
“His is one of the better-built locations,” said the soft voice. “Thus far, certain warehouses, animal pens, and manufactories have been built with the goal of enduring, at least in this portion of the Swartsburg.” A brief pause, then, “that area formerly known as the 'dark side of town' is already being 'rebuilt'.”
“Like it was?” I asked. “Or like a bad section of the fifth kingdom house?”
“Both of those, and then some,” said the soft voice. “The 'back lots' are currently being worked on.”
“Those stinky buildings with r-red lights?” I wanted to spew with the recollection.
“Those were among the first locations rebuilt,” said the soft voice, “and they are being rebuilt, also.” A brief pause, then, “one of them is ahead and some distance to your right.”
I crossed another narrow road. To my left was a circular stone-paved 'plaza' lined with coaches, and as I stepped back into the shadows among the supplies, I heard the beginnings of an argument coming from a coach. The drunken voices grew louder with each passing second, then one suddenly increased in volume while the other began screaming. Seconds later, silence once more reigned.
“Must have used a knife,” I muttered. “Stinking witches...”
And as if to answer me, I heard first one shrill-sounding bellow, then another, then several more amid a restive seeming. This was some distance ahead and to my left.
“Miura has an excellent nose for blood,” said the soft voice, “and he tends to get worked up upon smelling it.”
“Fear?” I asked.
“Rage,” said the soft voice. “The combination of drink in those cattle and the smell of blood in the air will make them well beyond 'mean' – and psychosis will but worsen their disposition.”
“Why do they even bother with those things?” I asked.
“Recall the flavor of that steak when you first ate at the Public House?” asked the soft voice. “How tender and juicy it was?”
“Y-yes?” I thought.
“Contrast that with the meat you had in the third kingdom, then that of the average deer or elk,” said the soft voice. “Note when I said 'average', I did not mean those that were cared for by those you live with.”
“Uh, bad meat?” I asked. I could see another wide thoroughfare ahead, and it too looked to be crowded with traffic.
“The preponderance of soup, pies, and other relatively well-cooked yet spicy foods?” asked the soft voice. “There's a definite reason for the usual meals here.”
“Uh, the meat isn't that good?” I asked.
“It usually is thought 'decent', said the soft voice, “while that which a few people, Hans among them, bring in is commonly spoken of as being 'prime' – hence the higher rates for it in trade.”
“And those cattle produce better-tasting...”
“Most people find the difference in taste and texture to be much greater than you do,” said the soft voice, “which is why Miura and his evil temperament are endured with few and small misgivings.”
I crossed the road in the same manner as I had the previous example, and when I moved among the shadows here, I noted a profound difference in the 'feel' of the area. Unlike the area to the west of Grussmaan's, this region had seen relatively few shortcuts; and while I could feel labor continuing in the area, there were fewer people involved, and those people, as a rule, possessed more skill. More importantly, few people lived in this region, and the buildings – tall and long things with overhanging second stories – reminded me more than a little of the fifth kingdom's Alleys.
“That is because they are similar in function, if not naming,” said the soft voice, “and like the fifth kingdom's Alleys, they are used enough to not wish substandard construction.”
“Those things were awful,” I thought. “Bad bricks, sloppy mortar...”
“That was the facade,” said the soft voice. “Brick construction, as practiced in the fifth kingdom, tends to be fairly durable.” A brief pause, then, “while stone lasts longer, its cost is vastly higher in the regions to the south of the second kingdom's midpoint.” Another brief pause, “while here, that situation is reversed.”
“Bricks last longer?” I asked. I could not keep the incredulity out of my voice.
“Bricks are expensive,” said the soft voice, “and stone is both cheap and plentiful.”
“Plentiful?” I asked, as I passed in front of another 'Alley'. The resemblance to my recollection was growing stronger by the second.
“You haven't been to any quarries,” said the soft voice. “There's a large one about a mile north and two east of where you live.”
“I-I never s-saw it,” I said.
“You never looked for it, you mean,” said the soft voice. “It's far from the only one near Roos.”
“Quarries are usually located on the outskirts of towns,” said the soft voice. “If you come to a town with no farms, ask at that town's Public House about the quarry or quarries.”
“I've n-never been to one...”
“Hans seldom goes to quarry towns,” said the soft voice, “and Anna avoids them unless she has business to transact.”
“Bad places?” I asked. I could smell the barnyard reek of cattle ahead.
“While not all quarry towns are particularly unpleasant,” said the soft voice, “they tend to receive frequent visits from people like that one chief stonemason.”
“Duh, need to get building materials,” I thought. “Are those people all alike?”
“No, but that one man is thought especially competent by the others in his trade,” said the soft voice, “and that with justification. Hence, his practices are emulated.”
I kept silent, for not merely could I smell Miura – he had a profound 'spicy' odor atop the usual 'cattle' smell – but also a great deal of strong drink. I looked ahead to see a tall and thickly constructed stone wall, one that almost screamed 'herds of mean black cattle inside'; and when I came to the area between the corner of this wall and another 'Alley', I looked around.
“That place has got to be...”
“A liquor 'warehouse' is on the other side of the cattle pen,” said the soft voice. “The cattle-pen's gate is up ahead.”
I continued walking in the shadows. The lack of witches in the area seemed something of a marvel, at least until I came to a square-edged projection jutting out from the wall of the cattle pen. I flattened myself against the wall when I heard the rumbling snores coming from an obvious yet unlit guard post.
“The watcher,” I thought, as I bent over so as to sneak by his window. I looked down, this with an odd sensation, as the ground seemed to open a huge, hungry, and silent mouth, and...
“What am I doing on the floor?” I thought, as I awoke to hear the insistent tapping at the door. “I'm coming. Please be patient.”
I staggered to my feet, then crossed the pitch-dark room to open the door. A yawning 'cook' passed in first a heating lamp, then a small cloth bag, and finally, a small copper 'pot' with a brass wire bail. I wondered if the pot was one I had done in the recent past. It did look familiar, as such pots had been common orders in the past and looked to be increasing in numbers, if I went by my sampling of the orders I had done thus far.
“Uh, the pot?” I asked.
“Is for boiling water, should you be so inclined,” he said between attempts to not yawn. “The bag has two goat-sausages, dried vegetables, and some other things that were put up for you before I got here.”
“The time?” I asked.
“A bit before the first hour,” he said. “I've but seen two people so far, and the usual this time of day is closer to two twenties.”
“Two score?” I asked.
“What?” he asked. “Oh, that's right, you can talk like they do to the south.”
I was now more confused than my visitor, and once I'd put what I had received on the table, I felt 'crowded'. I then thought to look in the bag.
“No, no goat-sausages,” I thought, as I retrieved two wax candles. “The shape is similar...”
“He'll bring that bag by later,” said the soft voice. “Maria put that bag up.”
“Lighting?” I asked.
“A smaller student's lantern is under the table,” said the soft voice. “Andreas finished a pair of them while you were traveling.”
“F-finished?” I asked.
“He usually has a small batch of those lanterns in process,” said the soft voice, “and shrinking them like he did without making them hard to use or less effective for lighting is not easy.” A pause, then, “it took multiple attempts on his part to learn all of their secrets, and several more attempts to achieve a similar level of performance while shrinking the package noticeably.”
“A-all of their secrets?” I asked.
“The most efficient student lanterns are made by one firm in the forth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and while they aren't particularly secretive, their work looks to be entirely otherwise.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Jeweler-level precision with those lanterns usually means 'it looks good, but it works badly',” said the soft voice. “There are a number of critical dimensions and shapes, some of which need truly precise machining – and those are not initially apparent to those unfamiliar with those lanterns.”
I drew out the lantern from its 'hiding place', and as I loaded it with a candle, I marveled at not merely the neatness of execution, but also its dimensions. It seemed about as small as it could be and still accommodate a full-sized wax candle, and when I looked at its interior carefully, I wondered aloud, “the critical dimensions?”
“Are difficult to discern by eye,” said the soft voice. “More, many of those details are hidden by the construction of those lanterns.”
“Meaning I would need to dismantle one...”
“With great care,” said the soft voice. “The most critical dimensions are those of the double walled portions and the venturi.”
“Venturi?” I asked. “Hot-blast?”
“Partly, and also burning the wax fumes,” said the soft voice. “That species of wax sublimes to a degree when warm. Then, the proportions of fuel and air are critical for maximum lighting efficiency, hence the venturi and its surrounding structures must be machined to within two thousandths' of an inch of design-nominal to work properly.”
“Not by hand tools,” I thought. “At least, not readily.”
“Which is why that one firm has a near-monopoly on student's lanterns,” said the soft voice. “They use well-maintained machine tools to make nearly all of their parts, and most others do not.”
With decent light and another snack, I brought out that one map of town that I had received, and as I began to look for a pencil, I thought to 'find' the places with my finger like I had done months prior. The first touch of my right finger to the paper caused colors to bloom under it, and as I traced the eastern boundaries of the house, new red-orange-green-blue marks appeared.
“Will more or less fill in that map,” said the soft voice. “I'd concentrate on resting as much as I could between now and then.”
Accordingly, I did so. Two more cooks visited, the first some hours later with another cloth bag, and the second tapped at the door shortly after I had returned from the nearest 'safe' privy. I counted myself fortunate that I had most likely remained unseen, at least until he mentioned 'the cooks' privy' and how it was easy to get to.
“Did you see me..?”
“No, but I heard that privy being used,” he said, “and since you're about the only one sleeping in here right now, I thought it was likely to be you.” A brief pause, then, “I'll be fetching a plate of pie for you, if you're inclined.”
“Pie?” I asked.
“Granted, dried meat pie, but still, it's pie,” he said. “I helped do it up, so I know it's decent.”
I had never knowingly had 'dried meat pie', but when the stuff showed I flung 'caution' to the wind and began devouring it. The taste, surprisingly, was all but identical to the previous examples of 'pepper pie' I had had in the past.
“Pepper pie is commonly done with dried meat,” said the soft voice. “That pie's dried meat was left over from the trip.”
“Use it up before it goes bad?” I asked.
“That, and some in the house proper have had dreams,” said the soft voice. “More than one cook has dreamed of 'beef steak' in recent days.”
“And they know about those cattle,” I muttered. “Did anyone speak of, uh, 'psycho-cattle'?”
“Sarah has kept silent about what she knows, and so has Anna, at Sarah's urging,” said the soft voice, “while Hans has gone further yet in his attempts to avoid answering questions.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“He's been staying very close to home since you returned,” said the soft voice, “and has been pleading a need to both look after you and build up his supplies for the coming swine-season.” A pause, then, “and the second portion of his excuse is nothing short of the truth.”
“The first portion?” I asked.
“He spoke of shot, and showed the first questioners some of what was removed,” said the soft voice, “and since when questioned he has spoken of 'shot-sickness' and you needing to rest.”
“Shot-sickness?” I asked.
“Is a common term for lead-poisoning,” said the soft voice. “The fact that most are altogether ignorant of such matters has made it easy for him to speak of you as being desperately ill and needing regular attention.”
I visited the 'cook's privy' after eating, and while it was easier to get to, using it also exposed me to those working in the kitchens. The full crew was present, and laboring with much apparent sweat; yet in my furtive-seeming glances, I noted a marked difference in what was actually being done compared to what I recalled of the past.
“They've lost a good portion of their intelligence,” I thought. “It's almost like they're laboring to the limits of drink and datramonium while mired in oblivion.”
“Most of them live in town, also,” said the soft voice. “The people who have visited you live elsewhere.”
Another nap came and went, and another visit to the privy. This time, the 'kitchen crew' was much less apparent, and once back in my room, I sat and thought for a moment.
“Had I contemplated this even a few months ago, I would have imagined myself quite the lunatic,” I thought. “Now it seems almost commonplace.”
“Wait until tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “I'd clean up and rest before leaving for home.”
“First light,” I thought, as I drew out my most recent ledger and began to form letters. “L-u-n-a-t-i-c apostrophe s, space... Now, the next line – M-a-n-u-a-l...”
I'd written perhaps a page of notes when my eyes began to shudder involuntarily, and I fell asleep once I'd put the ledger away. When I awoke, I knew.
“Tis time,” I thought. I then recalled the other portions of the scene, and nearly laughed. “Round about the...” A pause. “Do those people use Cauldrons?”
There was no answer, and my emerging from my room showed a house close enough to 'dead' that I marveled, at least until I brought my dishes into the kitchen and retrieved more food. I wondered for a moment if I could have my clothing cleaned upon my return.
“Easy enough,” said the woman between yawns. I'd seen her and two others since awakening. “I've got a hot stove and a spare pot, and there's always some soap handy.”
“C-clothing?” I gasped.
“We do our own,” she said. “I recall the talk of you coming back from the Swartsburg the last time you did that place, and how you needed to clean up.” A brief pause, “and I'd best have the tub waiting tonight.”
This last was spoken of with more than a trace of a question, and I nodded faintly as I refilled my water bottle and bagged small amounts of 'gnawing-food'. I then recalled I needed to check upon Jaak before leaving, and purposed to do so as I gathered my things in the small room.
“And leave the disk on the door's peg,” I thought, as I carefully held the brass circlet between thumb and forefinger. The number was '67'. I suspected I would forget the disk otherwise, and I made 'certain' to put it on the door when I actually left.
“They called this way of living an illness,” I thought, as I began to walk down the deserted-seeming main corridor. “I wished I could have told them, 'but I have to do things that way if I want to make certain they actually get done'.”
“You did not know the true extent of your tunnel-vision then,” said the soft voice, “and had you spoken of the situation truthfully at that time, you would have not been believed.”
The stables, while lit well enough with candles, were otherwise bare of people; and after checking Jaak and rubbing him down, I left the stables by the main door. Walking through the trees to the northeast corner of the property, I listened carefully. The house proper was as 'dead' as anywhere I had been in the last two days.
“It will wake up presently,” said the soft voice.
I was glad for such encouragement, as I had begun to wonder if things would ever change back to the way they were before we had gone on the trip south; and when I opened the rear door, I marveled at its quiet.
“No roer-toting witches to the north,” I thought, as I came out of the 'passage' and quickly moved to my right. I was inclined toward imitating rats again, and my furtive scurrying showed it, even when I turned the corner of the property and began to hustle south while in the dark shadows of the hedge. There wasn't much of a moon, and what moon there was seemed well-hid by low-lying clouds of monstrous thickness.
At the southeast corner of the hedge, I bade safety goodbye, and set out across the wide field. I soon found a trail, which I took at a rapid walk; for this area was beyond 'dead', and it felt like a still-open grave waiting to receive its due.
“And I might be that which it thinks its due,” I thought, as I passed into the shadow of a sizable copse, then out of it to lend my faint shadow to those made by the soft winds upon the knee-high grasses.
Trees grew more and more common to my front, and after perhaps a quarter mile, I saw that my current path would take the house somewhere near the 'middle' of town rather than closer to its eastern border.
“About a hundred yards south of that one stinky Public House,” I thought, “and then jog east once I've passed it so as to avoid that big nasty place on Gnadellaan.”
Giving the chief realms of witchdom the widest practicable berth while crossing town made a lot of sense to me, as not every witch would actually be 'in' the Swartsburg. Some would be traveling, while others – the just-initiated and senior supplicants – would be watching the roads still.
“Those people are not common,” said the soft voice.
“That dedicated?” I asked.
“Both that and present at their posts while remaining alert,” said the soft voice. “You might find one watch-post in ten manned – and most of those people will be drunk or asleep.” A brief pause, then, “that 'celebration' has every witch glued to the Swartsburg that knows of it.”
“And wanting to go there,” I thought, as I passed another copse.
“If they are not there currently or en-route,” said the soft voice.
The trees became almost dense enough to be named a woodlot, then began to become fewer and further apart after perhaps two minutes travel. The trail remained as before, save for winding slightly so as to miss the trees, and once out in the 'meadow' again, I saw the beginnings of farmer's fields but a short distance to my front – and beyond those, a single row of trees and then the cobbles of a street.
As I walked between the fields, I thought them ready to plant, and at the tree-line, I paused. I could 'feel' witches in the area, and I could smell strong drink.
A moment's watching showed no signs of life amid an utterly dead region, and I crossed the road to then take refuge in the shadows. I continued moving quickly, however, with my silent steps near-running between the edges of the stoops and watering troughs; and when a cross-street showed, I turned left and continued in my near-frantic 'trot' – until perhaps ten seconds later, I felt the worst of the danger to have passed.
It was replaced by an odor of unfamiliar nature and mind-sundering intensity, and I kept moving quickly, this time in hopes of getting clear of the stinky region before I felt compelled to stop and spew at length. I glanced at a sign as I went past it and nearly gasped.
“Soap-boilers,” I thought. “Anna said that stuff stank, and I guess it, uh, urgh...”
I caught my gorge just in time, for the rattle of harness and the groans of dying bearings spoke of a witch's vehicle somewhere ahead, and I knelt down next to a watering trough amid dark shadows. I turned to then see a coach come from an impossibly-narrow region between two shops, and the four animals – horses – began 'galloping' while the coachman threshed the air over their backs with his whip.
“Where did that thing come from?” I asked, as the coach headed south. Its destination was obvious.
“One of the house's 'hidden' coaches,” said the soft voice. “Turn left again at the next street, and then turn right on the second cross-street you come to.”
I continued on, still moving quickly. There was something about rapid movement that made matters unusually difficult for those witches and supplicants that remained vigilant outside the Swartsburg, and when I came to the first corner mentioned, I turned it at a near-trot – which proved wise, as a gunshot banged close behind me amid the sounds of breaking glass across the road.
“A witch?” I asked, as I once more slowed to a quick walk.
“Someone similar to your neighbors,” said the soft voice. “While the witches didn't 'plant' those people like they do in some towns, they did make certain a fair number of 'most-vulnerable' individuals were present in most areas of the house.”
“How do they know about such vulnerabilities?” I asked. “Observation?”
“That, and special cursing,” said the soft voice. “Some church-spies are strong-enough witches to do both things.”
“The hall?” I asked.
“Is a small compound just west of the Swartsburg's west wall,” said the soft voice. “Some of the southern woods still remain, and the hall borders hard by the remnants.”
“Is that deliberate, or..?”
“The hall has more than one secret underground passage,” said the soft voice, “and while most of those passages cross over into the Swartsburg, one of them exits among those trees, which is why no imported witch dares to cut them down.”
“Duh,” I thought. “Ruin your own escape route...”
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “The hall is also one of the places in the first kingdom where the witches' 'quick mail' stops, and that passage also leads to its access point.”
“Underground..?” I thought. “That sounds like...” A brief pause, then, “did that old-time prewar mess have railroads?”
“Above and below-ground,” said the soft voice, “and while the above-ground tracks are long-gone for scrap-metal, many of the others yet remain.”
“Usable?” I asked.
“Especially so,” said the soft voice. “Most of the vehicles used are manually operated, while a few are motorized.”
“What?” I thought. “Steam? Electricity?”
While there was no answer to the precise means used, it did explain the relative speed of witch-communications; and between a 'faster than the post' means of traveling, telegraph wires...
“It isn't merely the higher speed,” said the soft voice. “Its facilities are below ground, and few non-witches know of its existence.” A brief pause, then, “and of those people, but a very small proportion have any idea as to its capacity.”
I wanted to add 'Duh', but refrained, for I had passed the first street and the second was showing but a hundred yards ahead. More, in this instance, I would need to cross the street – and again, I could 'feel' witches in the area. I paused at the end of a watering trough, and crouched down in the shadows.
A coach rumbled past on the street I was to turn onto, and its abrupt showing made for marveling. I had neither heard the noises of mules, nor bad bearings, and the growing mule-dung had muffled the clang of the wheels upon the cobbles.
“Some coaches have sleeves,” said the soft voice, “and not all witches neglect their vehicles.”
“But I didn't even hear that wretch,” I murmured silently.
“You felt his presence, and acted,” said the soft voice. “Wait another minute or so, then cross the street from where you are.”
I did as instructed, and once moving again in the shadows, I noted their seeming density. I was better hid than earlier in the evening, even as I turned the corner, and while I moved in silence, I still felt afraid and wary for some reason – until I actually saw the seated shopkeeper with a musket laid sideways upon his lap, his eyes closed, soft snoring speaking of slumber, his waxen face and limp limbs indicating a state of profound spiritual 'control'.
“Just like Hans was that last time,” I thought, as I moved faster so as to get out of range. He'd loaded up with small pistol balls, and his weapon, while not close to the bore of a roer, was larger than a 'large musket'. I suspected it was either very old or from another part of the continent.
“Both of those things,” said the soft voice, “and it has claimed more than one 'thief' in his hands.”
I noted the emphasis on the word 'thief', and asked, “were those people real thieves?”
“About a third of those who die as 'thieves' in the first kingdom are victims of the common beliefs about witches and darkness,” said the soft voice, “and while some of those killed are witches, most are not.” A brief pause, then, “in the case of that man, though – none of them were thieves.”
“Is he, uh, really susceptible to curses?” I asked.
“No more so than most supplicants,” said the soft voice. “He won't go further toward becoming a witch, thankfully.”
The deadness of the town slowly increased with each further minute's travel closer to the Swartsburg, and when I came to a 'dead end' – Grussmaan's was 'directly' ahead; I could feel it clearly amid the less-than-usual background clutter – I knew I had to choose west or east. West seemed likely enough, and I turned right to then freeze in the depths of the shadows. I crouched down slowly as a doorway across from where I was hiding opened with a faint creaking noise to then 'flap' slowly in an unseen breeze.
My mind raced: was this 'happenstance'? Was a witch about to come out? Was it...
A cat leaped out as if frantic, then shot down the walkway as if its tail was ablaze. The door remained open, still wavering, even as the cat 'vanished' three shops to the east.
“An 'omen' of sorts?” I thought, as I remained crouched.
Listening further spoke of a 'dead' town, and I slowly stood a moment later, then resumed my rat-like scurrying. I was still wary for the slightest indication of noise, even as I came to that one southbound street I recognized from the dream.
“Now to cross onto Maasstraat,” I thought, as I looked left and right. I left the shadows seconds later at a frantic run, then resumed walking rapidly in the 'groove' between the railings and watering troughs.
I could hear a rumbling noise faintly in the southern distance. It pounded like wild surf upon an alien shore, with a crisp hissing overtone and ringing crystalline echoes. Maasstraat passed by another 'large' witch-run Public House to the west, though the place was easily a hundred yards away and nearly empty at this time.
“Of its usual clientèle, yes,” said the soft voice. “There are a number of freighters 'topping up' for the night.”
“Are they heading out tonight?” I asked.
“They will be heading back toward the Swartsburg in due time,” said the soft voice, “and then heading south with new-caught bagged slaves.”
“Slaves?” I asked. “How..?”
“Not everyone who 'disappears' is sacrificed,” said the soft voice. “Lambrecht may have killed the members of his family in a witch-hole, but since then, he has sold many captives as slaves.”
“Slaves?” I gasped.
“One of the chief means by which he has become much wealthier,” said the soft voice. “Those were his scent-hounds you heard.”
The noxious building passed behind me as the slow-ticking minutes clanged and rattled in my mind, and in every direction, I felt a slow-brewing sense of anticipation amidst the grating deadness of the area around me. There were witches nearby; and those beings yearned for not merely 'release', such that they could do their evil unfettered, but also an increase in their evil, such that the entire planet was hidden in a vast and darksome crowd of ever-night. Then, and only then, could Brimstone walk free of every encumbrance.
“And then devour every witch he sees,” I thought, as I 'felt' Grussmaan's ahead and to my left. “That place is busy enough.” A brief pause, then, “will it remain?” I asked.
“It will,” said the soft voice. “It will also lose over half of its current employees and the bulk of its current business.” A brief pause, then, “those that are 'wise' will take that for a sign and 'sell out' while they can.”
“While they can?” I asked.
“Grussmaan's numbers its days also,” said the soft voice.
“As the fingers?” I asked.
“If you relate fingers to days, no,” said the soft voice. “They will remain longer than a ten-day.” A brief pause, then, “Grussmaan's will not long outlive the witches of Norden.”
I could now see the Oestwaag clearly. It had somehow been hidden prior, and now...
The noise of labor mingled with the chanted curses of Grussmaan's workmen seemed to ring in my ears. The stench grew apace in both my nose and in my mind, and out in the middle of the street, I saw – just as I had seen in my most-recent dream – the lumpy and growing accretions of mules. I moved, still in the manner of a rat, now certain of what I was doing and where I was going, at least until I came to the corner of Maasstraat and the Oestwaag.
The traffic was at least as bad as it had been in the dream, if not worse; and ahead, I could smell...
No, I could see the rising fumes of billowing darkness. Tall soot clouds, these each massing above hundreds of flaming 'funeral pyres', spoke of a growing darkness wrought by massive sacrifices; and the smell – at once utterly familiar, and yet somehow different – reminded me of a burn-pile so massive that it would need sizable forests to fuel it for the space of an hour's time.
And over all of this, there was noise: mules braying, wheels groaning, the screams and yells of a vast multitude...
“This is worse than in my dream,” I thought, as I made ready to cross Maasstraat; and when I saw my opening, I ran. I slowed but slightly once I reached the darkened shadows, and paused not for the ray of moonlight overhead. I had seen this all before, my questions already had their answers; I needed but to do that which I came for. The smoke, save as a means of concealment, I could ignore, as well as its fervent and intense efforts to spread and cover all of the area.
It was having little luck extending its spread further, just like in the dream. I noted this with a peculiar sense of deep-seated satisfaction as I continued moving. I had perhaps another fifty yards to go before I could cross the Oestwaag itself, and with each step closer, I could feel something in 'the air'. I could not identify what it was beyond 'I've never felt it before'.
“I hope it does not come after me,” I thought, as I came to a most-familiar watering trough. I looked to my right to see Grussmaan's sign red-tinged in the sooty darkness. The traffic was precisely as it had been in the dream: dense, fast moving, and...
I shot into the darkness with such astonishing speed that a hole seemed to appear before me to show my next hiding place, and upon reaching it, I knew I had not been seen. I turned, much as if I were once more treading the dream-lands, and I saw the lead pair of mules heel over into the turn with the snaking lash flashing over their backs as the witch cursed at them in Underworld German, and when the fountaining sparks of the sliding buggy-tires lit up the sooty darkness, I gasped at the realization.
“This is too much!” I thought.
“Your questions were mostly answered during the dream,” said the soft voice, “and knowing what to expect and where to expect it helps to no small degree – even when the witches are inexperienced and overconfident.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I turned to resume traveling. “Sheer numbers?”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “For every guard the Swartsburg had before, Koenraad has posted three.”
The freight wagon of my dream passed with the noises I recalled, and in its wake, I felt a headache quickly brewing. I shook my head slowly – and in my peripheral vision, I saw that I was 'inside the darkness'.
The 'soot' was gone, and as I resumed moving, I saw once again those accursed grinning red-etched faces of the dream.
I ignored the yard's sickly grass and withered trees, save when a mule's discharge loomed directly in front of me, and the same for the water-pump. It would go to pieces soon enough, and I had no time to waste in waiting. I then came to the wall, and pointedly ignored the runes chiseled into the blocks as I moved steadily in the shadows toward the entrance.
And here, my dream had foretold accurately, for I found the edge readily in spite of its attempts to hide – and as I walked, I concentrated upon concealment. My questions were answered, or so I thought when I came to the end of the wall and looked to the right.
A tall and billowing pyre burned hot and bright as a signal light, and in the ruddy glow of the flames I saw hordes of ragged individuals, all of them tramping the true-step as they labored 'unto the limits of drink and datramonium' while hoards of gun-toting witches watched over them.
The pyre I saw first was not the only example: there were several more such blazes, each of these sending thick and sooty clouds aloft to further choke the sky. At the base of each such blazing holocaust, I saw a small group of ragged persons chained hand and foot in readiness for the embracing of the flames. A witch came out of a group, his face solid black with face-grease and stiff-frozen in a drunken leer, and he grabbed the nearest of the waiting sacrifices...
The deep guttural chants rang out amid a chorus of chilling screams and a volley of skyward-sent red-flaming gunshots.
“Louder, you fools!” roared the arch-witch as he sank his 'claws' into his victim. “Louder!”
The screams became louder as the witch marched his first victim closer to the flames. Both witch and witch-meal marched the true-step.
“Hail Brimstone, and welcome, Sieve!” The chant rang loudly in my mind amid blazing nightmare colors washing over each letter and word in chilling frozen-in-time waves.
The ringing chants raised the flames and smoke higher amid muffled thudding noises that took me seeming minutes to recognize as drums. A strange rhythm pounded steadily, two dull thudding beats followed immediately by two much shorter and abrupt gunshot-like cracks, then again and again while with feet raised high, the sacrifice walked unaided into the fire...
And the flames erupted in red and yellow torrents as the echoing screams raised them twice their former height to echo in the darkness and billow thick and lively clouds of soot for a slow count of ten.
“No more,” I thought, as I turned away from the flames and labor of witchdom as the burn-pile stench became steadily thicker in my nose and in my mind. I walked into the stacks of supplies laying to the west of 'the great road', and machine-like, my mind gone numb, I moved my shadowed form among them and into their greater shadows.
The witches were everywhere, save in my general region; and amid the clangor and other noises imported from hell, my soft steps between the mounds of stone and piles of other supplies were neither seen nor heard. I knew this with a surety and conviction that surprised me, and when I came to the 'platform' of my dream, I looked upon it with an instant's practiced eye and then glanced south.
Neither Koenraad nor his coach were present yet, and I moved slowly into the gap between a pair of long dark coaches occupied by snoring witches.
“These thugs stink worse than in that dream,” I thought, “and the headache...” I then checked my gorge. “I'd best get clear of these stinkers before I spew!”
I ran across at the first gap in the traffic that I saw, and paused but for a second in the line of coaches before I continued on into the supplies.
I wasted no time in moving among them. My questions, what few I had remaining, were being answered quickly; and furtive glances around showed a near-complete lack of witches and little labor in my immediate surroundings.
The smell was not getting better, however. I felt as if chained up inside of a burn-pile fueled by strong drink in lieu of distillate, and a glance upward spoke of a thick and sooty fume that shut out light and air in the manner of an impenetrable wall of darkness – and amid this darkness, I felt, for the first time ever, a chill sense of 'doom' mingled with an aspect of ritually-enforced false-fronted 'gaiety'.
The shrill bellows of Miura jolted me out of my funk seconds later, and when I came to the edge of the supplies, I noted not merely the increased aspect of 'barnyard' and 'spicy' smells attempting to climb up my nose and into my mind, but also...
Someone had painted the walls of every building with long lines of fiery red long-tendril letters, and with shuddering finality, I understood first one such slogan, then another.
“Death to all Useless Feeders,” I mouthed silently, as I read one such sign in passing. “We demand the Final Solution to the Disgraced Problem.”
This last – in dripping red paint that resembled part-clotted blood – was in yard-high letters on the side of an Alley next to the cattle pen, and I crept into those darker shadows with wary caution. I still moved quickly, for while the witches were 'glued' to the vast spectacle of an entire region being used as an altar of sacrifice, I could tell there were a vast number of watchers; and even though they were greatly preoccupied, they still might see me...
“Like an egg,” I thought. “Like an egg gone rotten...”
Snores rang out ahead, and I came to the projection housing the cattle-pen's 'guard'. For some reason, I looked down into the dirt, and faintly, I saw an unusually large boot-track, one that showed a vast number of small squared dints, those made by hobnails like mine.
My mind squelched the question. It could wait, unlike Miura. He was thirsty, and I had a rope in my possible bag. I moved silently in front of the guardhouse while bent over below its open and glaring window, then came to the gate itself.
Tall, thick timbers, liberally bolted with square-headed fasteners; wide strap hinges of darkest iron blackened by lengthy forging; a huge cross-bar, this laying in staples on both wall and gate-leaves. I went to its eastern end, then found a small eye-bolt. I wondered if I should tie the rope now.
“I'd best do that,” I thought. “When Miura gets liquored up, he isn't going to be...” A pause, then, “but won't the witches see it?”
Again, that awesome surety: the witches were glued to their altars, with gloating eyes and malice in their hearts, and with mouths open in homage to Brimstone – and most importantly, no witch or supplicant dare do ought else in this time and place if they wished to live.
“Many of those sacrifices came from the ranks of the witches,” said the soft voice. “Selling out is thought rank treason in witchdom, and the same for speaking ill of witchdom's goals and means.”
“And those people were caught,” I murmured, as I tied the rope and began paying it out along the dark-shadowed base of the wall.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice as I came to the end of the rope. “You'll want to oil the hinges of the liquor warehouse before going inside.”
With the rope lying down at the base of the wall, I found it hard to see once I had gone ten feet distant from its end. I turned in my tracks, then walked rapidly with the wall almost brushing my left shoulder. The pen continued for what seemed a distance I found hard to believe, so much so that only when I looked at the wall itself for more than the briefest period did I notice a 'difference' in the stones.
“Not all of that 'pen' is a cattle pen,” said the soft voice. “About half of it is a 'packing plant'.”
There was no thought of an answer in my mind, for now I could think of but a handful of matters, chief among them a liquor 'warehouse' and how to get inside it.
“And find the upstairs window,” I thought. “I can...”
I nearly jolted at the thought of what I purposed to do, and when I came to the end of the 'wall', I paused to peer around it to the left.
All I saw was what looked to be another guardhouse, complete with a snoring witch; and across the dung-encrusted way lay another building.
“The place with the booze,” I thought, as I broke from cover at a silent near-run which stopped abruptly upon reaching the refuge of the building's shadows.
The 'crudity' of construction I now saw reminded me of the facade of a fifth kingdom Alley, and a touch upon the cold bricks and grainy mortar spoke of its complete solidity. It was not going to fall down in a high wind, even if it wasn't up to the former standards enforced in the Swartsburg. I moved swiftly around the building's periphery, all the while drawing closer to the snoring guard; and when I passed under his window's pulsating light, I saw the door of the building itself atop a trio of wide shallow steps but a short distance further. I cleared them at a single bound and my hand reached into my possible bag.
My best oil was none too good here, and my hand found the vial within seconds.
The door had five hinges, each of them sizable and surprisingly well-made, and I used an awl to drop oil into the uppermost portion. Two doses each suffused the cracks of the hinges with a glistening seeming, and I put my hand upon the door's sizable – and filthy – knob.
“Yuck,” I thought, as I reached for the button on its underside. “I'll need to clean...”
With a surety borne of practice, I found the button, and whispering the word 'open', I pressed it. The mechanism – dirty with ages of neglect – responded with a silent alacrity, and I slowly drew the door open, then pulled it closed once I had gone inside until it was bottomed in its socket.
“Now close,” I thought. The lock softly clicked.
Amid intense and nauseating smells, I looked to the right, then the left. Stairs showed themselves faintly in the distant darkness, while soft shuddering snores echoed in my mind.
“They're upstairs,” I thought, as I moved swiftly down the center of a vast array of stacked barrels. All of them were filled with strong drink, and Miura would...
“The place will be awash with the stuff,” I thought, “and every black bull is going to become utterly and completely trashed.”
There was no answer, even as I reached the stairs, and my silent progress up them was as if I were but a soft gauzy cloud. I could hear more snoring, and for some odd reason, I thought to kill both witches silently, then dip the uncorked jugs in their blood.
“What am I thinking?” I thought. “That's w-wrong...”
And yet, somehow, it wasn't. If I didn't kill them, Miura certainly would; and more, they would try to trouble me in the commission of my duty.
“Done,” I thought. I'd made my choice; I wanted the Swartsburg to be as trashed as possible, and if I needed to slice two witches so as to baptize my weapons in blood and thereby increase their efficiency, I would do so. This was, in truth, war – and the witches were the enemy.
I silenced all thoughts of rationalization, leaving no thought beyond how to find and kill the witches. I would be some minutes gathering the jugs I wanted, and I wanted no thoughts of interruption to be lurking in my mind due to misplaced 'mercy'.
Besides, witchdom only had one real rule in its dealings, that being 'woe to the vanquished'.
“And mercy is thought weakness,” I thought, as I came to the top of the stairs and crouched down upon seeing the flickering of an obvious candle flame somewhere to my right. “They're over there.”
Step by step I walked slow and noiselessly toward the snoring. To each side of the aisle in which I walked, tall wooden shelves showed vast numbers of jugs, all of which were either filled with deworming medicine or forty-chain. The stink was bad and growing steadily worse, and I dared not waste time, even as the candle-flames ahead flickered in time to my noiseless feet. The shelves ended abruptly, and in the northeast corner of the remaining area, two witches lay face-down upon a narrow table – a table stolen from a nearby Public House.
“Stolen is right,” I thought, as I drew my knife.
With a surety that astonished me, I grabbed the greasy hair of the first witch and yanked his head back with a jerk. His relaxed aspect 'froze' when I plunged the knife into the side of his throat, then he 'relaxed' once more when I sliced him open from ear to ear. The blood sprayed downward as I let loose of his head and leaped to the side of his companion – who 'jerked' suddenly when I grabbed his hair.
I wasted no time – I stabbed him in the side of the throat, and the thick spray of blood spoke of my hitting a major artery when I drew out the knife. He then tried to yell.
I was too quick for him, for I sliced his throat to the bone in the next instant, and then threw him at the table, which collapsed with a crash as he joined his partner's slow and tormented thrashing with his own. I turned about quicker than thought as my knife found first a rag and then its scabbard.
“There's the window,” I murmured, as I saw it framed with flickering light coming from the cracks in its shutters some distance away.
I passed back through the shelves, then across the top of the stairs. The shelves resumed once more, then after a short distance, they abruptly ceased amid a strobe-flashing stench too intense for mere words. I looked around with fast-growing nausea, and could not believe my eyes.
The remainder of the upstairs portion of this sizable building was composed of wall-to-wall waist-high mash-tubs, while against the far wall to the west, no less than five sizable 'Idol' distilleries stood, each massive construction standing some feet apart from one another. Each such edifice – ceiling-tall brick firebox, oval-shaped stoke-hole lined with white-painted teeth, bulging crude tin-splashed 'sculpture' covered with lumpy-headed fifteen-line brass rivets, tall thumb-thick coiled copper 'worm' – seemed the very definition of evil, and the shuttered window acquired a grinning face as I moved slowly along one of the narrow aisles left between the rows of mash-tubs. I was holding my gut with both hands while trying my hardest not to spew.
I came to the window, and slowly moved aside the shutter while standing hidden in the shadows to its side. The red and flickering glare of a vast number of pyres blasted motes of light and shadow into the otherwise near-sepulchral darkness, and I looked outside carefully.
I could see the far end of the cattle pen, and the animals were absolutely packed therein.
“Not just there, either,” I thought. “Now how to...”
I did not wait to think; I turned and sprang at a rapid walk down the aisles of mash-tubs and into the shelves. I knew what I needed to do now, and when I passed from the far end of the shelves, I grabbed one witch by his heels and ran back with his corpse bumping behind me until I had him lying in a crumpled mound next to the window. I did the same with his fellow witch, then on the third trip, I began grabbing jugs.
I found I could but carry two of them at a time as I stood for an instant thinking, or so I thought until I looked back at the window and the thick clouds of soot that were trying to come inside .
“It's worth a try,” I thought, as I uncorked a jug with my teeth and spat the foul-tasting thing away. “Dip yourself in the witches' blood, and then into the cattle pen, please.”
The jug all-but leaped from my hand and shot away toward the window. I uncorked the other jug with my hand, then grasped another jug from the nearest shelf, followed by another light-blue jug of El Serpente – until my hands learned their rhythm, and I was uncorking jugs as fast as I could amid a feeling of slow-growing 'impatience' that minutes later began to pound noisily upon my ears.
I turned and paused briefly with a final jug. The shrill bellows of cattle were only now becoming 'audible'. A last jug – it shot away from my hand as if a comet – and I sprang for the stairs.
I nearly fell down the stairs in my haste, and I hit the ground floor at a dead run. The air seemed to shake insanely with the shrill bellows of Miura, and when I came to the door, I paused to sniff before opening it.
“Wow,” I thought. “Those things really smell now.” I then opened the door.
Fire seemed to light up the whole of the night sky under the night-soot of the pyres, and the aura of expectation I had but slightly noticed beforehand was now much greater. I left the door ajar, then turned to my right and ran like a hare for the gate amid the sounds of insane cattle banging their heads upon the walls and each other. Some were beginning to ram the gate itself, and each such thudding blow rang in the darkness like the stroke of doom.
“The rope,” I thought, as I reached the nearest wall of the place at a dead run. “There it is.”
Time seemed to abruptly slow. Each long-ticking second – I seemed to be hearing a huge brass alarm-clock clacking its way to oblivion, and this next to my right ear – seemed an eternity; and my wide and wayward steps seemed impossibly slow. There was movement to my left, which I ignored; and shouting from somewhere nearby, which I also ignored. I came to the end of my rope...
I stopped in my tracks, with sure hands and mind vacant of all save the one thing I needed to do.
I grabbed at the rope. It lifted clear of the ground as if a long-lost serpentine lover.
With a sudden backwards leap, the rope grew taut in my frenzied hands...
And the bar launched from the staples of the gate like a rocket, and as I watched dumb-struck and staring, it struck the back of the guard-witch as he ran toward me gun in hand. The witch did an abrupt header, and his gun fired when he landed.
He screamed loud and long as the doors of the gate banged open, and a dense and irate swarm of dark-as-night cattle flowed out. They seemed to have but one mind; and as if 'hypnotized', they seemed to pause for the briefest mote of time as they swarmed past the still-thrashing witch to 'hook' him with their horns, then they continued on with renewed speed to shoot past me as I remained next to the wall in a crouch. The 'odor of cattle' I smelled was now well beyond 'spicy', and as if to speak of the irritability of the still-rushing animals, I glanced anew at the blood-reeking remains of the witch.
He'd been gored into a red-sopping mound of still-hot meat, and as I watched, three more of the nearest charging cattle hooked his corpse anew with their horns without breaking a single stride. The blood in the air only made them madder, and when I turned to look the other way while still kneeling against the wall, I was yet more astonished – for the cattle knew precisely where to go.
“Every one of those things is going into that warehouse,” I thought, as the sounds of wood being splintered into toothpicks seemed to echo in my mind. “How are they all going to..?”
Another thundering crash, then two more such rapid-crashing echoes rang in my ears – and a reeking and nauseous wave of glistening liquid poured out of the door. The nearest cattle stopped in their charge, then began to lap up the still-spreading liquid as if crazed beyond measure. I turned around once more to face the gate, and still, the cattle poured out of the bat-winged doors as if there were no end to their numbers.
I then noticed their tails.
Every such animal had a tail waving around up in the air, much as if I were seeing cats and not cattle, while some of the animals – these being those of greater apparent ire – had tails of greater stiffness. Another turn in my tracks to face once more the warehouse, and there, I saw cattle – their numbers still few, even if those few would soon be a vast multitude – galloping off stiff-legged, their tails ramrod straight and waving like the masts of a ship in a hurricane as they charged blindly off into the main regions of the Swartsburg, their bellows now shrill, continuous, and bloodthirsty-sounding.
“I'd best leave as soon as I can,” I thought, as the cattle continued to swarm past me in a dense galloping cloud. These animals were now smelling as I had recalled, and I suspected they were not particularly drunk.
“Not yet they are,” said the soft voice. “Wait another minute, then begin moving into the supplies. The witches are coming to investigate.”
“And then what?” I asked silently. “Miura gets his horns bloody?”
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “He also will learn who has the liquor.”
“Several jugs per coach,” I thought with a small measure of satisfaction. “He'll like that.”
The first of the witches showed but seconds later, his fowling piece raised and his mouth open in hoarse yelling. A bull saw him coming, then turned to then leap up and sideways as the witch tried to stop his faltering steps in time. Miura had the range, and as the witch's feet betrayed him, a hind-hoof caught the witch with a vicious uppercut to the nose that sent his limp-sprawling body flying end-over-end to land in a crumpled heap some ten feet downrange from where Miura had 'launched' his spring.
That bull, however, was now conscious of but one thing; and as it hooked its horns in the body of the motionless witch, a coach came up. Two more bulls shot past the mad-and-growing-madder animal as it got its blood-lust revved up, then it jolted and bellowed out a shrill-sounding bellow that galvanized the other two charging animals. Their tails went stiffer instantly.
“More than just what they heard,” said the soft voice. “Those other two animals smell what's in that coach.”
“Liquor?” I asked. I had perhaps another half-minute of waiting.
There was no answer, save the door of the coach opening just as the first bull of the pair smashed into the vehicle with a rending crash amid shrill bellowing. The mules bucked, then the traces snapped as the second bull gored one of the mules. Then the first of the trio of bulls arrived.
The first bull of that first pair was now inside the coach, his tail growing ramrod straight amid hoarse shrieks and deafening yells, and when the second bull joined him from the other side of the vehicle, two witches attempted to escape from the rear of the vehicle.
Bull number three was expectantly waiting for them, and he hooked one of the witches in the gut while the second witch ran back to where he'd come from – then he turned and headed south while trying to stay clear of the three bulls.
“Another fifteen seconds,” I thought.
Bull number three flung the now-dead witch some eight feet in the air, then lowered his head while turning and charged after the still-fleeing witch – and in his wake, two more irate animals came fast and accelerating to 'fly' past the beginning-to-burn coach as if it were not present. A scream came the south but seconds later, then a massive soft eruption of flame billowed high and smoky into the sky from the other side of the area's supplies.
“What?” I asked.
“The witch ran into a still-house which was making a run of brandy,” said the soft voice, “and the still exploded when he knocked it off of its firebox.”
“And Miura?” I asked.
“Is now guzzling the ready-to-run brandy mash,” said the soft voice. “More than a few cattle are in the upstairs of that liquor warehouse now, and are learning of the intoxicating flavor of mash.”
The cattle coming from the pen showed no signs of abating in their outward rush, even if more and more of them were heading into the Swartsburg's main area without first tasting the contents of the liquor warehouse. I could smell vast amounts of drink everywhere, for some reason, and when more shrill bellows resounded some distance away to my left, I thought, “another liquor-dump?”
“A smaller one,” said the soft voice. “The witches are pouring out libations, also.”
“Of strong drink?” I asked.
There was no answer; my minute of waiting was up. The cattle's outpouring was steadily lessening, and when I stood from my crouch to move away from the wall...
The last animals shot out of the doorway and fled south at a headlong gallop to vanish into the night.
I took this as a sign and ran for the shelter of the nearest building supplies, and before I had gone twenty steps past the gate I heard another subsonic-quality rumble from behind and to my right. The shrill bellows I now heard spoke of a resurgence of Miura's activity, and when I reached the first chest-high stack of bricks, I hid in its shadows to watch more of the cattle come out.
“How many of those things are there?” I thought, as another troupe of witches came rushing out of the southward shadows headlong and drunken to be trampled underfoot by the swarming cattle.
“About a third of them are out of the pen,” said the soft voice. “Those at the far ends of that pen are just starting to get the idea that they can escape.”
“And they're coming at a dead gallop,” I thought, as I turned to once more move deeper into the shadows laid by the tall-stacked building supplies.
I took my time moving away from my refuge, for I wanted to ensure I was not seen by either witch nor bull; and more, I wanted the Swartsburg to be in an entire uproar before I did much more. Miura and his relatives were now heading in every conceivable direction once he'd left his pen behind, and the reek of strong drink was of such potency that I quietly spewed in between two tall and sloppy mounds of stone.
“Enjoy it,” I muttered, as I wiped my mouth with a bit of rag. “The stink of that stuff makes me sick.”
I was answered seconds later by a long and loud bellow-chorus, then gunfire began booming for several seconds to end in a dire-sounding scream. Shadows flitted overhead, and I looked up to see a trio of light-blossoming 'comets' fly out over the wall of the Swartsburg in loopy-seeming wavering arcs.
“Rockets,” I thought. “Now I hope they land...”
“Boom!” echoed the silence to my right and behind. “Boom! Boom!”
Another fusillade erupted some distance to my rear and left, then a muffled roar echoed in my mind. I turned to look to my right and saw a massive fireball raise slowly from the ground – and I ducked just in time as the hot wind of the rumbling blast sent dust and dirt overhead.
“Miura chased a witch into the nearest brothel,” said the soft voice.
“And?” I asked, as I resumed moving west and a bit south. The shadows were long and dancing, and a tall column of fire still burned somewhere to my left.
“The witch was carrying a large jug of light distillate,” said the soft voice, “and he stumbled on the steps.”
“And?” I asked.
“The jug flew from his hands and through an open window,” said the soft voice, “and it burst upon the floor inside.”
“And someone had a lantern going nearby, doubtlessly...”
Another huge billow of fire from the south caused me to duck behind a mound of building stones, and the noise following it nearly picked me up and carried me some feet downrange. My ears were already beginning to ring steadily from the explosions.
“The brothel is now well-involved,” said the soft voice.
“No dynamite in that place's basement – or is there?” I asked.
“But a few boxes,” said the soft voice.
“It won't help much, will it?” I asked. I had perhaps another hundred feet of hiding before I needed to cross the first of the two roads between where I was and where I was to shoot.
“The dynamite isn't the chief thing with those buildings,” said the soft voice. “The Swartsburg's brothels use a great many distillate-fueled lanterns, and hence their basements are filled accordingly.”
“Wonderful,” I thought. “Cap-sensitive petroleum products – and each jug is worth...” A pause, thoughtful yet silent. “How much dynamite does that work out to?”
“Enough that you need to move at least two hundred yards west within the next two minutes,” said the soft voice, “and then take cover.”
I ran like a frightened rat, with fear a close companion following in my wake. The aspect of 'celebration' was beginning to peter out in the general area, while to my left, panic...
“No, not panic,” I thought. “That might be the case in that brothel, and maybe those witches close by it are getting worried, but most of those stinkers are still glued to their altars.”
This thinking passed in what seemed like an eyeblink of time, during which period I managed perhaps four strides in a bent-over hunching run. I came to the edge of the supplies, and shot across the road but feet in front of an oncoming freight wagon. A gunshot roared overhead as I leaped between two coaches, then as I sought the further expanses of supplies beyond them at a dead run, the area to my rear erupted in a massive flash that sent me flying through the air to land but feet short of my objective.
There was no time to waste, and I no longer bothered with concealment. That 'two minute' figure was more than a little optimistic, and that figure of two hundred yards presumed I had a handy below-ground reinforced concrete bomb-shelter to hide in. There was no such thing present in this area, and when I came to where the second road showed, again, I did not hesitate.
I shot across that road without looking to either side, and when I made the shelter of the coaches on the road's west margin, I heard and felt what sounded like an earthquake stirring below.
“No time for it,” I thought, as I came hotfoot to the 'platform'. I glanced to the east and slightly south, and a tall billowing red-orange-yellow pyre shot smoke and flames hundreds of feet in the air.
Those engaged in sacrifice paid it no heed. Another explosion, this one thundering steadily for what seemed seconds, echoed against the wall some hundred yards to my rear. I knelt down, much as if to hide behind the knee-high mound of stone blocks, then laid upon it amid lurid flame-launched shadows circling about me as if I were primed and ready for the meals of witchdom. I glanced south.
“Th-the coach,” I murmured, as I unthinking came to my knees again to unsling my rifle. “He's there!”
Once more I laid down, now waiting. Long lines of coaches and buggies lined the street, while the distance, at first, was a matter of conjecture.
“Easily three hundred yards,” I thought, as I settled in amid a rumbling and booming racket that echoed ceaselessly. The ground shook under me softly as if to supply a warning – once, then twice more. I nestled into the prone position, putting the post of the front sight upon the coach itself. The rear of the thing was facing me, I now saw.
“It was broadside,” I muttered. “I need to take cover...”
And yet, I knew better. I needed to wait.
And as if in a dream, the coach hitched, then 'jerked' abruptly to the side as six mules seemed to launch in all directions.
“What..?” I gasped.
There was no coachman, nor much else that I expected to see, and the glaring light from within the long ungainly vehicle spoke of an obvious 'Infernal' lantern. The door shuddered open as the mules plunged once more to the beat of a snaking whip tearing the air apart over their heads.
“Where's the coachman?” I thought.
There was no time for the question's answer, for as I watched, first one mule broke free, then another; then with another sudden lurch, the coach bounded out into the middle of the street as the mules broke entirely free from from harness and ran away, a body laying behind them rolling and thrashing on the dung-slicked cobbles as the mules headed south.
The door banged open, and brilliant light silhouetted an emerging figure. I saw a faint and golden glow near its rough middle, and as I centered the sight upon that central golden sheen, I felt the ground shake once more underfoot.
My thumb cocked the hammer fully.
The rear sight's 'ring' surrounded the front post, which itself laid directly upon the golden orb.
A breath, full; let part out. Hold it.
A gentle squeeze of my right index finger.
The sudden roaring of my rifle seemed to pick me up from my prone position and set me back upon my posterior, and amid my screaming, the entire sky to the south seemed to turn a brilliant white in the blink of an eye. I staggered to my feet as a marching tree-tall wall of fire began advancing toward me.
“Refuge,” I thought, as my feet found mobile air underfoot as I turned. I was running, with a wall of light and sound coming behind me fast and moving faster.
Left, right, left, right. A feeling beyond the word 'noise' began to pound upon my ears and in my mind. Left, right, left, right. Another half-second.
From behind, another huge wayward sun erupted in brilliant red-tinged white. Again, my feet knew air for their footing, at least for an instant, and I raced the confluence of the hot winds...
“And the hot winds blow...” This scrap of thought had a most-peculiar meaning.
I dived like a submarine for the nearest mound of stone. Perhaps it would shelter me in its fire-lit shadows.
Dive, dive, dive. Soft warmth picks me up and moves me, first to the side, then ahead. I put out my arms to keep from slamming into the rough-squared stone blocks, then as I fall to the ground, I turn my head to the side so as to keep the dirt out of my eyes.
With a thud I landed in the passage between two mounds of stone, then as I slid along the ground with my face sideways, the night fled away entirely.
One. I could hear a huge and ticking alarm clock nestled next to my ears.
I slid to a stop with outstretched hands fetching up against a barrel of nails. I scrambled up to my knees amid soft and growing clouds of dust.
I kept my head down, for the hot winds were now blowing mightily. Brilliant lights still flashed and sparkled overhead in all directions. I hugged the stone stack, then dodged first one massive stone block, then another as they toppled from their overhead perches and fell to the ground.
The lights overhead slowly flickered out, then as the darkness once more reigned amid glaring and mobile shadows, I picked my head up from its face-down prostration.
“No, no looking back,” I thought. “I need to get out of here.”
I ran bent over amid a searing holocaust of fire as I moved through the supplies. Ahead lay vast still-flaming ruins, and behind, the same; while in my mind ,I heard a vast guttural rumbling that spoke of the world's ruin at the end of time.
My hearing seemed muted and distant, and in my peripheral vision, I saw vague ashes flying as if a massive fiery hailstorm had taken up residence in the area. I stopped for an instant as an eruption of light some distance to the east sundered the ground and the smoke-infused darkness, and then saw vague thrashing shadows...
Black holes amid blackness, their arms waving as they sailed higher and higher without wings; at apogee, they flipped end over end, limp and lifeless; they fell, faster and faster, like molten lead raining down; and upon impact, the red-flaming ground heaved itself up once more to embrace their smoldering corpses amid further blossoms of deep-red fire.
The ground shook underfoot again. I came to the northern end of the supplies, and glanced behind me to see a huge and flaming region blasting light and sound without cease or limit under a night gone white with pulsating flashes and brilliant red-white flames. I paused to look up at the sky.
Blackness came down like rain to seemingly caress my soot-darkened face, and I turned once more toward the earth. Ahead seemed to be a region of minimal flaming, and I left my refuge as another jolting shock came from underfoot to toss me some inches into the air as I ran.
Two steps, and I reached the road. To each side, the ruins of coaches flamed high and bright amid thick and choking smoky black billows that dropped soot instead of rain, and the bodies of horses and mules lay mingled with the corpses of witches – and underfoot, and all around, the smell of death and blood lay thick and growing thicker amid an oncoming army of varied and nauseating stenches.
And the shadows themselves were mobile; many of the cattle had survived, surprisingly, and I joined the long and growing herd as the animals formed up into a stiff-tailed and red-eyed column. Their destination lay outside the walls, and as I walked hurriedly toward the gate whence I had entered, the animated and bellowing red-tongued shadows shot by me on both sides.
“I am not your target,” I thought solemnly, as I moved with stiff-jointed aching vigor past the last street prior to the northwest entrance. “There are many witches outside, and...”
I stopped and turned, then saw just what was happening.
Miura was holding me in a pocket of protection, his head held high and proud and his straightened tail waving like a flag of conquest; and in his raving psychosis, I was just another lunatic – just another poor wretch threatened by the keepers of the Bin; and by that labeled fact, Miura understood completely.