Ain't no place like a hole in the ground... (continued)

I continued gnawing stick after stick of meat, and as I did, I again wondered how much Anna had put in the bag. It only now seemed less full than before, and after eating the sixth stick, I thought, “no, this isn't corn meal, or oil, or fish, or bread. I bet it means I'll get out of this in one piece.”

After eating another few pieces, I felt sleepy, then put the sack away and leaned back against the rock. I fell asleep almost instantly.

I awoke 'some time' later, and noted the 'overhead lighting' was nearly gone, while the red-tinted torchlight of the opposite promontory still blazed. I thought to look at the 'meal-watching' platform, and as I crept to the edge of my 'hide', I was astonished: the platform actually sloped down enough for me to clearly see a sizable group of people waiting expectantly with uplifted eyes and muskets in their hands. Their patience seemed inhuman as they sat in near-silence, and faintly, I heard scraps of speech that were like that shortly after my arrival.

Unlike that unconnected gabble, however, this 'chant' seemed to have both rhythm and purpose, and when I heard the words themselves, I wondered again – both as the purpose, and as to the exact meaning of what I heard:

“Yoh-Ki-Hogh... Yah-Gogh-Nagh... Yoh-Ki-Hogh... Yah-Gogh-Nagh...”

After hearing this endless refrain spoken for what seemed ten minutes or more as the overhead lighting faded, I saw the watchers begin standing. Several of them began gathering the torches, and one by one, the torches were waved out and then doused in a tall 'vat'. The smoke of extinguishing steadily wafted up into the growing overhead darkness, until with but a handful of torches remaining, the watchers began leaving their platform.

I slowly raised up to my feet with my boots in my right hand. Again, I felt somewhat stiff, and as I left the safety of my crevice, and began crawling with my bootlaces in my mouth toward the 'edge' of the promontory. I stopped just shy of the edge, removed my boots and put them to my side next to the rock wall, and slowly peered around. I waited for the return of the hunters.

Within minutes, I saw a reddish glow, then when the red fire of a torch showed, I watched as if hypnotized. I wanted to 'count' the deer, as 'meal time' seemed a good time to move. A thought then occurred to me.

“I wonder if these people have sentries near that entrance?” I knew I would have them there.

I drew back into the shadow of the edge a few minutes later, after counting five hanging deer. I wondered for a moment how they managed to get that many deer so consistently, until I recalled our wooding trips. More often then not, we saw or heard deer, elk, or marmots; we'd shot at least one of each animal; the longest shot was just over a hundred yards, with many shots less than fifty; we weren't trying to be especially quiet; and finally, we were concentrating on firewood, not meat.

“And we spent more time on the road than getting wood,” I thought. “I suspect they give 'meat' their undivided attention when they're outside.”

I thought to carefully look at the group when they passed the other promontory, as the distance would be the least then. I gnawed more dried meat while waiting, then when I saw the first torch-bearer, I noted that he was carrying more than his torch; he was also carrying a sizable 'bag' of some kind – and as I watched, I noticed that if someone wasn't carrying one end of a 'meat-pole', that person was carrying something else.

“So they get more than meat when they go out,” I thought. “At least half of these people are carrying bundles of firewood or those bags.” I thought for a moment, then added, “is that why they use those 'ovens' for cooking? So as to minimize firewood consumption?”

The last of the hunters vanished around the promontory, and as the sound level increased – I could hear more chanting, as well as yelling and screaming – I left my shelter, and began walking carefully. I kept my eyes open to the front and to my left, and tried to walk as close to the rock wall as I could at the quietest speed I could manage.

Within a few minutes, however, I saw that I had overestimated the depth of the 'bay', for the distance wasn't a mile, at least in a straight line. More importantly, there was a definite slope upwards, such that each twenty steps forward seemed to gain a step in that direction. Even so, I knew it wouldn't take me long.

The shadows and darkness hid me well, and as I moved, I looked around further. I made certain my pockets were buttoned, and as I came to a small jog in the path, I felt inclined to look to my right. There, I saw what looked like a wall-carving, and I drew closer. It seemed to have words instead of symbols, and as I stopped in front of it, I read:

“Nür Treuhecken sind...”

“What?” I thought, as I traced out the ancient and faded letters. “That word doesn't have 'umlaut-u', but a regular 'u', and 'hecken'? What does that mean? Did they mean 'hex' instead of 'heck'? As in 'die Hexe' and they got it wrong somehow?”

My unspoken speech about 'the witch' was unsettling enough to give shivers, and as I left the old inscription behind, I remained in the shadows still – until the 'bay' began to both narrow and steepen. The 'hole' was now a darker shadow than the rocks, but as I came within a hundred feet of the end of the water proper, I saw what looked like an old and crumbling masonry pier with a pair of smaller 'canoes' tied up with ancient-looking 'furry' ropes – and off to the side, what looked like the wreckage of another boat.

The sieve-like construction, as well as the angular lines that all but dripped rust, spoke of an ancient metal structure, and as I paused to look carefully at the ruins, I felt drawn to something else closer to my destination. I left off looking at the boat, and slowly walked closer to the darkest shadow of all. There, above the tombstone-shaped doorway proper, I saw another inscription. I hid behind a rock within twenty feet of the hole so as to study it at length.

These 'figures' resembled those I had seen on the side of the bull, and their straight lines and angles proclaimed them well-suited for hard-surface markings. There were seven marks all total, and reading left-to-right, I saw the following:

The first figure was composed of a 'J' attached to a diamond, while the second figure was a truncated triangle missing its bottom segment convolved with a topless 'J'. The third had another such triangle, only this one had two lines, one horizontal, and the other vertical, and the ends of both lines met within the center of the area of the triangle.

The fourth figure was a short diagonal, with the left end lower than the right. It seemed to serve as both a joiner and separator, and to its right, more figures showed.

The fifth figure was another damaged triangle, with a 'J' joined to the vertical-running line that showed where the triangle had been truncated. The sixth character seemed the vertical transposition of the third, while the last showed an inverted 'V' with a line joining the left 'arm' and running parallel to the right one. It looked vaguely like a stylized mountain.

As I ran through the inscription a second time, from my left and rear I heard faintly the words to a chant, and as the words “Yoh-Ki-Hogh! Yah-Gogh-Nagh!” buzzed and thrummed in my ears, the inscription seemed to faintly pulse with reddish glowing, with each figure pulsing left to right in time to the words of the chant. The appearance of the figures was as follows:

“Is that what that thing means?” I thought. “As in those symbols are pronounced that way? What is that thing, a curse of some kind?”

The abrupt vanishing of the reddish glow when I thought the word 'curse' was unnerving, and as I came out from my hiding place and crept toward the door, the chant from behind and to the left was buried in the other nonsensical babble common to hungry cannibals, and as I came to its entrance, I turned to look behind me. Faintly I saw a small fire turning the corner of the promontory to the right, and I ducked inside the entrance itself and began walking.

The width of the entrance – easily ten feet – and its smooth floor spoke volumes. A lesser darkness was some hundred feet ahead, and as I came closer, I heard faint snoring sounds that grew steadily louder. I had the impression of but a few uncommonly sleepy guards.

After fifteen steps, I realized my judgment of distance might well be off, for I passed thirty steps and there was more tunnel remaining ahead of me. The snoring I heard now became two distinct snores with different rhythms, and as I came near the mouth of the tunnel, the sawmill-like rumbling spoke of deep slumber. I looked at the ground, and noticed it was nearly free of debris. I took a step nearer the threshold, put my bootlaces in my mouth, and walked out into a wide clearing.

A wooded area lay but fifty yards away, and I could 'feel' starlight attempting to pierce the dense and growing cloud cover overhead. The whole region felt dark, gloomy, and profoundly frightening, and as I walked toward the trees, I wondered if I would make a mistake. I looked at the ground carefully, even as I entered the trees, and continued walking.

I had gone perhaps fifty feet into the trees when I heard a snort from behind me, and I froze in mid-stride. A tree was to my right, and I moved slowly such that it was behind me so as to form a shield of sorts. The rhythm of snoring resumed, even as I waited. I knew I dare not wait too long, and as I resumed my slow and silent stepping, I kept an eye out for twigs. I had gone roughly two hundred yards into the trees when I heard a hoarse yell, then the booms of muskets to my rear. I didn't wait to find out what had happened; I ran for all I was worth.

The crackling sounds that flew overhead and showered branches in my wake urged me on to greater speed, and as I dodged the trees, I wondered for a moment as to where I was exactly. If Hans was right as to where north was, then I was headed roughly west.

Another gunshot roared to my rear amid frantic-sounding yells and howled 'curses', and I continued running. I wanted to 'throw my pursuers off the scent', and had an idea.

I ran straight at a tree, then leaped from about fifteen feet away and landed such that my feet were about four feet off the ground. The tree bent, then flung me back the way I came and to the side, and I jumped as it began to 'unbend'. I landed about twenty feet back and ten feet to the side of the tree, where I ran at an angle for about fifty feet, then jumped again. This time, the tree shot me in the direction I had been running before, and I resumed running.

The yelling and screaming behind me became steadily louder and more frantic, even as the distance steadily increased, and when I paused to catch my breath and get my bearings, I realized such 'gymnastics' weren't going to help much. These people were used to following game, and commonly 'chased' wounded deer and elk for long distances. Hans' speech regarding 'three hours chase' might have been tough going for him, but for these people – that was a warm-up exercise. I resumed running.

Yet still, I had in mind to try more 'flying', as it didn't cost me more than seconds, and I suspected it cost my pursuers more than it did me – and a few minutes, especially when I reached open country, might well make a useful difference.

After several such 'change-ups', I was near the end of the forested area, and I stopped to catch my breath. I could 'feel' home – a few miles away – and I could hear the cannibals. The whole group had now been roused, and the recollection of the dream spoke of a huge number of people chasing me. The wild cries and frightening screams I heard but a few hundred yards to my rear seemed the soundtrack to my nightmare, and when I resumed running I broke out of the trees but seconds later.

My dream had become reality, and I now recognized it for the prophetic foretelling that it was.

As I fled across the field, my sense of where home was grew stronger. It was to the right and ahead, yet for some reason, I thought to head straight and then turn right. I wondered why for a moment, until I crossed a familiar-looking trail. I slowed, cut onto it, then began running down it at a redoubled speed.

Seconds later, I heard gunfire, and the whizzing sounds overhead and to the sides spoke of good eyesight and poor accuracy. I could see cornfields in the distance, and I headed for those, now leaping out of the track of the trail and running across country. Again, I wondered why – until I came to the shelter of a copse and turned to look behind.

A vast number of torches were moving steadily toward me, and as they cut the trail, their speed increased markedly.

“So that's why,” I thought. “They're a lot faster on hard surfaces, and the soft stuff slows them down a lot. I hope those cornfields are soft.”

I resumed running, this time at a steady but rapid trot. Again, the booms of musketry came from the rear now and then, and the buzzing noises of musket balls in the general region again spoke of the cannibals' ability regarding eyesight and their lack of ability regarding accurate gunfire. Still, they were getting their bullets close enough to be worrisome, even at distances of several hundred yards.

The cornfields drew steadily closer, and as the grassy fields began thinning, I noted the softness of the dirt underfoot growing steadily greater. The cornfields weren't merely soft, I suspected, and when I actually reached the first rows, I almost yelled with joy.

The dirt was a dry powdery dust atop deep sandy loam.

I had never traveled among crops before, and as I ran down the rows at a steady trot, I could hear more gunfire and shouts behind me. The bullets were now uncommonly wide, so much so that when I heard one rip into the cornfield, it was easily thirty feet away.

The length of the cornfield seemed almost beyond belief, and as I continued running down its rows, I heard the yells of the cannibals becoming steadily fainter. Still, I knew they were not giving up, and when a ball whizzed over my head, I knew I'd been seen. I ran faster, until I heard a faint tinkling crash in the distance ahead, then seconds later, a howling noise.

“The dog,” I thought. “One of those wretches shot out a window, and the owner turned out his dog.”

The dog seemed to have a very good idea where the 'trouble' came from, and as he shot into the cornfield, I somehow did an abrupt right-angle turn to the right, then went crosswise through the dry and rattling husks. The dog was not merely faster than the cannibals, but also 'smarter', for it came after me as if crazed. It howled and bayed, and all the while, it seemed to be gaining, while shouts came far to my left, followed by billows of bright yellowish light.

I continued running crosswise through the corn, then suddenly cut another trail. I nearly flew into the cornfield on the other side before I made the turn, and as I accelerated, I heard a door slam ahead and to my right. Ahead in the distance – perhaps two hundred yards – the road passed between two dark, tall, and uncommonly large houses to join another wider road. I began accelerating

To my right, another brilliant yellowish light flared, and as I passed the source of light, I saw someone dressed all in black with a gun in one hand and a lantern in the other. I accelerated hard, even as I saw him level down with his gun, and the thundering roar of a gunshot melded with the scream of an injured dog behind me.

I had no idea I could run so rapidly. Time seemed to slow, then nearly stop as I cut the juncture of the two roads, and as I turned right, I nearly slid across the road into the 'yard' of another huge house. I gradually straightened out, and once in the center of the road, I accelerated again.

I now noted a faint whistling noise in my ears as my stride seemed to lengthen, and with each second, the volume of noise increased until twenty strides later I heard a steady roaring howl. I came to the end of the horribly blurred houses which then turned into shaking solid black walls that crackled like lunacy. I suspected they were trees.

The road was a shining thing that seemed simultaneously blurred, solid, and tremulously alive, and within what seemed like seconds, I felt myself able to begin slowing. The howling roar became less noticeable, even as it segued to a whistle, then a soft moan, and finally, silence, save for my labored breathing as I slowed to a walk. I turned around, touched my bootlaces, took them from my mouth, and looked.

An impenetrable fog-bank of dust shrouded the world behind me, and seemed to wall off myself from the rest of being with thick and penetrating silence – save for what might have been coughing and wheezing far to my rear. I turned and began walking down the road, and within minutes, I came to another road that seemed uncommonly familiar. I turned right, and within seconds, I recognized it.

“The Public House should be just a little bit ahead,” I thought, “and the night's still fairly young. It can't be more than an hour or so after sundown.”

I was greatly surprised when the road came around a gentle bend between familiar trees that merged 'seamlessly' with cornfields, and when the Public House itself showed, I was astonished to see its two lanterns burning with faint yellow flickering flames. The town seemed dead to the world. I was glad I would not be seen.

As I walked along the stone path by the side of the road, I listened carefully, both for the sounds of people in town and the cannibals behind me. I knew now that I was safe, as the cannibals didn't routinely chase people into towns.

“Then how do they get those vegetables?” I thought. “If they steal them, then where do they go?”

The sole intimation that I felt amid growing fatigue was that the cannibals planned such raids 'carefully'. They didn't usually do their work this early in the evening, they picked their targets in advance, and they sought isolated homes and fields when and where they could – and if they did go into towns, they were careful as to where they went. For some reason, Roos wasn't a good town to plunder cannibal-style.

I came to the end of town, then turned right to walk down a narrow dusty path next to the house. I was surprised at how much room there was between the field to my left and the edge of the property, and as I passed the buggy-way, I noted the piled stones of the wall. I turned the corner, and here, the field encroached to a much greater degree.

My growing fatigue was such that finding the fold and then navigating it took care and propped-open eyelids, and when I came to the woodpile, I ducked inside under the cloth. I was surprised to find not merely my tub present, but also a bar of soap and the dipper. I wondered what it was doing here while I moved it aside to then black out with no warning.

Sometime later, I awoke, and the nausea, shivers, and slow thinking were such that I staggered to my feet. I noted normal-looking hands holding a pair of strangely mobile footwear, and I stumbled stiff and wooden to the rear door of the house. I opened it in silence to find a candle-lit kitchen, and took a long and trembling step. I then looked at the wavering candles as they morphed into flame-spewing smokestacks, and the thick and billowing black smoke was that of a crematorium. I turned to the right, and written by a huge six-fingered hand was the following inscription in wiggly blood-dripping script letters:

Arbeit macht Frei.”

Upon seeing my current location – the death-camp in the south, where the worthless went to die – I fell face-forward in a dead faint.

I awoke to see a pale shining face, a face wreathed in cascading straw and bound by mist. Somewhere in the background, a rumbling growl seemed to shake the air and my body. I assayed speech, and found it impossible, for something was in my mouth. I could discern nothing about this thing beyond its flavor. It tasted terrible.

“Am I a quoll to be stuffed with turnips?” I thought. For some reason, this explanation sounded quite plausible.

This thought was followed by a strange and unpleasant sensation – a sensation of pain and nausea – that seemed to come from my guts. A long black rope, stiff with tarred death, was being pulled from my stomach and out of my mouth.

“Is someone evicting evil spirits?” I thought. It seemed likely, for some reason. I hoped it was otherwise, as I had helped remove them from others long years prior, and supposedly had them removed myself once. That was another experience I was loath to talk about here, as...

“No!” I thought. “This feels more like that first endoscopy, and I would rather have spirits removed!”

The pale shining face above my head had acquired enough features for me to recognize Anna, and I gasped, then said, “what was that black rope?”

“Rest and lie quiet,” said a horribly distorted speech-modulated buzzing noise. “You are very ill.” I fell asleep as if 'turned off' but seconds later.

The thin shafts of light that seemed to float overhead in the parlor seemed thick, solid, and reassuring as my eyes opened, and I felt soft leather beneath me and a patchwork quilt on top. Someone was sitting by my side, and as I turned, Hans said:

“You were gone somewhere, and I doubt it was the king's house that you went to. Now where did you go?”

“Th-the mountain,” I said, “and th-that place has c-cannibals in it. I fell down inside.”

“Where is this mountain?” asked Hans. I then felt my pockets, and noticed their emptiness.

“East and a bit south,” I gasped. “I found some things there, and they shot at me. I caught one of the spent balls.”

“I wondered some about that thing,” said Hans, “as that was from the larger size of musket, and the person who shot it did not clean their gun much.”

“Th-the rock?” I gasped.

“That one is trouble,” said Hans, “as it is the type used for black stone knives. Where did you find it?”

“On that m-mountain,” I said. “Someone was using iron tools to break it loose from an outcrop, and they weren't w-wearing shoes.” I gulped, then said, “and those cannibals don't wear shoes.”

“Talk has it those wretches make those things,” said Hans, “and I saw the rust stains on that rock you brought back. I think that talk has something to it now.”

Hans paused, then said, “witches are bad enough, but those people are worse.”

“Uh, they are witches,” I said. “They cook and eat people, they uh, chant, they steal things and hurt and kill people doing it, and I s-s-saw someone burned in an idol.”

“Yes, that does not surprise me,” said Hans. “They put some powder and lead into you, as there is a place on your leg where you were shot, and some more places where you were nicked. The strangest thing is there are no bloodstains.”

“I w-was shot?” I gasped. “H-how?”

“I am not sure,” said Hans, “but when we looked you over, they were all healed up as good as anything the two of us have ever seen. They did not get infected.”

Here, Hans paused, then said, “now I am certain about it. You should not go anywhere unless you are armed. Those cannibals are as bad as those northern people, and both of them are as persistent as bad sicknesses.”

Bath, breakfast, and clean clothing did wonders for my mood, but church was especially troubling; Maarten spoke of witches and their attitudes. Given my frame of mind, he could have picked a better subject for his discourse. Once home and behind closed doors, I thought to ask a question of Anna. We were finishing up lunch.

“Anna, what was that black rope? It reminded me of an endoscopy.”

“What did it remind you of?” she said. “An en-end... I cannot say that word.”

“A diagnostic procedure I had done several times,” I said. Given her response, I was not about to mention CT scans or having my sinuses examined, or some of the strange ones.

“That is a long flexible tube I found years ago in the fourth kingdom's markets,” said Anna, “and I've used it many times. It gets boiled before and after each use.”

“What do you use it for?” I asked.

“To feed sick people,” said Anna, “just like I fed you.”

“Fed?” I asked.

“Water, sugar-tree sap, and a little beer,” she said. “I'm glad it worked, as you were very ill. I've seen that type of sickness before, and without food, it can kill. You were sweaty, pale, and about to have a fit when I found you.”

Here, Anna paused, then said, “I know you were eating when and where you could, as that bag has most of its meat gone. How did you lose so much weight? I doubt you went drinking, or where they sell services, as you do not seem inclined toward either.”

“I think he went where he said he would go,” said Hans, “and that explains all of that stuff I found in his pockets. Those cannibals are real, and they shot at him some.”

I wanted to speak to Hans about his use of the word 'some', for I had the impression his idea of 'some' and the amount of gunfire I had had directed at me were two very different things.

I was glad Anna was sitting down, for she dropped her head on the table. Hans touched her shoulder, then gently shook her. She did not respond until Hans rubbed her hand for nearly a minute.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I think she thought those people were an old tale,” said Hans, “and hearing they are real is like hearing your neighbors screaming three houses down when the pigs have showed.”

“S-screaming?” I asked.

“Those pigs tear up towns and kill people,” said Hans, “but most people know about swine and what they do. They do not know much about witches, and they know less yet about those cannibals.”

Anna then woke up, and grabbed her mug, then drained it. Only after she had downed two more mugs after it did she seem able to hear anything. Hans fetched her the 'billet', then showed her the bullet – and as she looked at them both, I could almost feel her shaking in terror.

“Where did you get these?” she asked.

“The piece of rock was on the outside of that mountain,” I said, “and whoever was getting the stuff wasn't wearing shoes. Someone else was, and not common shoes, but pointed-toed boots.”

Hans' expression turned pale with such abruptness that I wondered what I had said now.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked. “That person was riding a horse, only it had strange shoes. I've seen horseshoes before, but not like this.”

“What were they like?” asked Anna. Hans was working on emptying his mug.

“A broad 'V' shape, with a rounded tip,” I said. “The tracks were really old. Then, there was this grayish mess the horse... Horses don't spew that stuff, do they? Do they mark their territory?”

“That was not a horse,” said Hans. “That was a mule. Now where is it you saw these tracks?”

“The path I took heading up that mountain,” I said. “Are pointed-toed boots common?”

“Yes, among people who dress all in black,” said Hans. “Most shoemakers will not make those things, as they are bad for the feet.”

“Uncomfortable?” I said.

“That is at first,” said Hans. “If one wears them for a while, one's toes become rotten and fall off, and I have seen this with some of those black-dressed people. The older ones often have strange-looking feet.”

“Strange-l-looking feet?” I gasped.

“No toes,” said Anna, “and feet that are badly scarred, with the fronts shaped like their boots.”

Anna paused, sipped from her mug, then said, “at least your clothing is easy to mend. You need to be armed all the time, and traveling alone isn't wise.”

I was speechless, so much so that Anna took that for a invitation.

“Every witch in the place is after you,” she said, “and until recently, I've wondered why, even with the rumors that have been going around.”

“Rumors?” I asked.

“That is how people learn things,” said Hans. “This is not the fourth kingdom, where they print all that happens and post it in the Public House. Paper is costly up here, and that is when it can be bought.”

“I've only found it on rare occasions up here,” said Anna, “and that in places where I don't commonly go.”

Anna again paused, sipped from her mug, and spoke.

“First, there was the wagon,” said Anna. “Paul and Willem spoke of something that happened, where you became covered with hair like is on your head, and the stuff became very shiny, almost like polished metal, and then you did things that are beyond understanding.”

Again, I was speechless. I had been 'found out'.

“That wagon normally takes ten grown men to lift it like you did,” said Anna.

“That is not true,” said Hans. “I have helped Willem with that thing, and it took four of us, though it was hard going, and we had to rest for an hour after getting it up on the stands. He normally uses a big turn-stand for greasing the wheels.”

“Hans, he did it alone,” said Anna, “and he didn't need an hour's rest. Then, he saw in the dark as if it was daylight, and repaired that wheel as if he'd been doing wheels for years – and not here, but in the fourth kingdom.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “I have seen that job, and it is as good as anything I've seen, no matter where I have seen it. Willem has put some drying oil on those spokes since, so they stay good longer.”

“Then, you were exhausted, and needed to rest in the hay,” said Anna. At some level, she seemed 'distraught', and at another, deeper level, she seemed oblivious in some fashion. “That was the first time. That rivet was the second time, and that was worse.”

“H-how?” I gasped.

“First, that boy trips and that rivet lands on your neck,” said Anna. As she spoke, however, I noticed Hans' expression changed. He then said, “that was not a normal accident, Anna. Boys don't trip that easy, nor do rivets fly across the shop like that.”

“Still, the talk that has been going around,” said Anna. “Burns aren't that rare in smith's shops.”

Anna paused, then said, “what happened after that rivet landed on you scares me.”

“I don't remember anything,” I said. “What happened?'

“It landed on your neck,” said Anna, “and you became covered with hair instantly. Then, you ran for the door, nearly knocked it loose, then jumped higher than Georg's roof clearing that rock wall. They all went out back after you left the shop like that.”

Hans looked at Anna and shook his head slightly, then said, “it wasn't quite that fast, Anna. How could Georg get his watch out if it happened like that, and how could he speak that way of how long it took?”

Anna was speechless, so much so that I thought to ask about the uncommonly bright light sources I had seen.

“I saw some really bright lights,” I said. “They were a lot brighter than those candles Anna got.”

“Now where is this you saw these things?” asked Hans.

“There were several of them inside the mountain,” I said, “and some more that I found in this one really strange, uh, town on the way home – that, and...”

“Yes, you saw something else in this really strange town,” said Hans. “What was this something else, and where was this town?”

“They had more lanterns there,” I said, “and either Black-Cap lives there, or someone else that knows him and dresses the same way. That wretch had one of those lanterns in one hand, and a gun of some kind... Are there double-barreled guns, with two barrels side-by-side?”

“Yes, there are,” said Hans. “That sounds like a fowling piece. Now what did this wretch do?”

“He shot at me and hit the dog that was chasing me,” I said.

“Why..? Where was this?” asked Anna.

“South and east of here,” I said. “I was running from the cannibals, and went into these huge cornfields. The cannibals were still shooting at me, and one of them missed and broke a window, if I go by the sound I heard. That person most likely turned out his dog.”

“I think you went through Waldhuis,” said Hans. “I have never heard of black-dressed people being there, though, at least until now.”

“I didn't know Georg had a watch,” I said.

“He does,” said Anna, “and he said that you ran nearly two miles in under a minute after that rivet hit you.”

“But that's impossible,” I squeaked.

“There are tales that speak of many things that seem impossible,” said Anna, “especially the oldest ones, but few of them speak of people having such things happen to them. Those are the oldest ones there are.”

Anna paused, then said, “at least, everyone says they are the oldest ones there are.”

Hans' face was now unreadable, and only when he spoke had I some idea as to what he was thinking.

“Those tales are so old that they are not much good, save to scare children into the privy,” said Hans with a tone that implied he didn't approve of the 'common usage' of such stories. “That one about the Black Fiend put me in that place for days when my grandfather spoke of it.”

“B-Black Fiend?” I gasped. “What was it?”

“This body that changed shape,” said Hans. “Some witches turned a dead person into a monster, and sent it out to cause trouble. It needed to be burned to ashes before it was stopped.”

“I wasn't thinking of that one, Hans,” said Anna. “There are tales of people who did things like those rumors speak of, and all of them were named evil, even if they were not, even if there was much proof to the contrary. They were called the disgraced in those tales, and all of them were ended as witches, even if they lived lives according to the book itself.”

Anna paused briefly, then said in a lower tone of voice, “those are well-known tales, and to be found to be so might mean death regardless of behavior. It did long ago, when such people were hunted like rats, and killed when and where found.”

“Those tales are so old they are good for little beyond scaring children into the privy,” said Hans. “Anna, remember what Maarten spoke on the week before last, about that one divine messenger that showed up before those cities burned to salt and ashes?”

Anna nodded, her eyes large and wide-open. I could almost begin to see tears starting, and I wondered where a clean rag was. I wanted to ask her as to why she was so fearful. Did 'harboring' a fugitive unwittingly bring down evil upon those doing so?

“Those people were evil, and they tried to abuse him,” said Hans, “but those can look as they wish or are instructed. That is not an old tale, but straight from the book. If a person does good, they are good, and evil does as evil is.”

Hans paused, then sipped from his mug.

“Besides, those tales that speak of those called the disgraced had them doing good almost without exception, and I have wondered about them changing shape.”

“Ch-changing shape?” I gasped. I wanted to scream, then cry “but I d-don't ch-change shape. That is a myth, and one I don't much care for.”

“I think what those tales were speaking of was how marked people are when they hide,” said Hans. “Those killers in those tales were as evil as any witch ever born.”

“W-what do these tales speak of?” I squeaked. “I have no idea what happens, nor can I control it. I haven't hurt anyone, have I?”

“No, you haven't,” said Hans. “There are a lot of things that people speak of, especially how you act a lot of the time, and that is spoken of in those tales.”

Hans paused again, and drained his mug.

“Those witches are after you a lot,” said Hans, “and that says they do not like you. Even Maarten doesn't have witches after him like you do, and that says you might be strange, but you are no witch. Witches hate what is in the book, they want those that speak of it dead...”

Anna looked at Hans. Her eyes were still huge, and I could now see tears showing. I felt rooted to my seat, then felt in my pockets. I wanted a rag for Anna to wipe her eyes.

“No witch would understand the book like you,” said Hans. “Then, witches don't help everyone they can, nor do they do the right thing as good as anyone I've seen, especially that often, and that well.”

Hans again paused. His oblivion toward Anna was enough to make me scream.

“Then, there is this thing I found in your clothing recently,” said Hans, “and it is strange.”

“Strange?” I squeaked, as I nearly fell to the floor. Anna's tears were impossible for me to ignore, and I scrambled to my workbench. I found a clean rag, then came to Anna's side. She looked at me, and as I held the rag to wipe her eyes, she broke out in heartbreaking sobs.

I gently wiped her eyes, then as she slowly stopped crying, she said, “th-that's what I was afraid of. You cannot hide what you are like, or w-who you are, and every witch will want to k-kill you once the rumors travel further.”

“Do witches just kill the person, or do they kill everyone close to that person as well?” I asked.

Anna's abrupt 'change' was startling, so much so that I squeaked, “did I say something wrong?”

“No, you didn't,” said Hans. “I think you spoke the truth. Now this thing I found is a card, and it has your names on it, all three of them. I would like to know the print shop that did it, as it is easy to read, and those are not common up here.”

“Print shops?” I asked.

“There are some around here, but their work is seldom good,” said Hans. “It is often smeared bad, and hard to read for the letters and words.”

I wanted to speak of whoever Black-Cap had used, as while the language itself was difficult to follow, and the 'calligraphy' inscrutable, the letters and words were clear and sharp, and the spacing uniform. There were no ink smudges anywhere on that document.

“N-names?” I asked. This place seemed to think one name per individual was ample.

“Yes, this card has three of those,” said Hans. “That is not common.”

“To have three names?” I asked.

“That isn't usual up here,” said Hans. “Most people have their given name, and then people know their parents, so that tells them apart from others with the same name.”

Hans paused, then said, “though I have heard of children being given two names, if they were thought to need a lot of help. Both of these first two are from the book, which means you must have needed all the help you could get.”

“That isn't that rare,” said Anna, “especially recently. I've heard of a number of children being given two names.”

“Not these two,” said Hans. “That first one isn't at all common, especially that way of spelling, as it is copied from that one part in the book that speaks of actions. Then, that second one is Brimstone's worst enemy, and that third one...”

Hans wiped his face with his hand, as if a huge insect had just tried to roost in his nose.

“That third one is smudged some,” said Hans.

“Smudged?” I asked.

“It is hard to read,” said Anna. “It seems to have trouble making up its mind as to what it says, and it moves its letters a little. Still, if it says what I think it says, we will need to be quiet. That worries me more than any rumors.”

“W-why?” I asked. “I was given those names at birth.”

“I have heard of hidden names,” said Anna, “and in every instance I've heard of, that person was marked, only it wasn't like what is on that card. I nearly fainted when Hans showed it to me, and since then, I've wondered.”

“About what?” I asked.

“I wonder if it has to do with the curse,” said Anna.

Hans reached into his pocket, and removed a small cloth bag. After untying the knots – again, I envied him, for not merely was his knotting tight, but he could untie the thing without his fingers becoming tangled – and then withdrew a small white rectangle. He then passed it to me, saying, “this was in one of your pockets a few days ago.”

I picked it up, and nearly dropped it on the table in shock. Not only had Hans found my driver's license, but the last name – clear, sharp, and precise – had changed. It was the name I was born with, not the name of adoption I had more or less assumed in an attempt to escape harassment. The term 'sleight-of-hand' intruded, and I could not banish it, any more than I could escape what had been revealed.

“Are there people who juggle, or do card-tricks?” I asked.

“Yes, there are,” said Hans, “though cards are not common up here.”

“Uh, are they thought to be w-wrong?” I asked. I recalled how playing cards was thought to be 'sinful' in some circles.

“I am not sure if they are or not,” said Hans. “I am sure they are more common to the south than they are here.”

Hans paused to sip at his beer, then said, “that last name reminds me of this group of traveling minstrels who put on this show called Pump and Tilly, and they are called much as that name there.”

“The sleight-hands?” asked Anna. “Is that what they call those people?”

Hans nodded solemnly, then said, “they use these jointed doll things that have strings so as to move, and then they do a lot else that is special.”

“Puppets?” I asked. “They use puppets?”

“I am glad you knew the word for those,” said Hans, “as I had forgotten what their name was.”

“Pump and Tilly?” I asked.

“You should see them when they show,” said Hans. “Those shows they do are really funny. Still, this is important, as I have heard tell that a lot of marked people use those shows to hide.”

The use of the word 'hide' brought forth a vast cloud of troubling recollections, chief among them the need to 'hide myself from the outside hateful world' so as to not be targeted by the majority of society. Life had seemed to be principally a matter of performing the socially-demanded 'rites of inclusion', and those failures who showed themselves unwilling to do so were the non-human enemy.

The word 'Satan' had been translated as 'accuser', but that was merely a confabulation composed of words written upon paper. At least, society so believed and therefore acted.

The true meaning of the word 'Satan', that 'ultimate expression of manifested evil', was 'that interloper who is not as we are, who is not part of us'.

The penultimate 'them'.

The 'other'.

That 'it'.

Thus spake the majority, and therefore, it was true, even as all deviance from the 'master plan' was a willful choice made knowingly and motivated by the darkest malice.

“Do they cause trouble?” I asked. For some reason, the previous thoughts had squelched my voice, and I could barely speak.

“They cause trouble for witches,” said Hans, “and every witch knows that, which is why they go after marked people more than everyone else put together. So, I wonder.”

Hans paused for a minute, so as to let his 'question' bring itself to an ugly-seeming head, then he resumed, saying, “I can see something about one of your hands” – here, Hans pointed at my left hand with his knife – “and one of your ears. They are both a little smudged, just like that name is.”

“I'm glad it's hard to see those things, Hans,” said Anna.

The terror I felt was such that I looked around for a place to hide, even as both of them now 'seemed' oblivious to my terror. Was my perception inaccurate? Did what I feel even equate to the sensations that the 'normative' population supposedly had? Were they 'numb', such that the oblivion I saw writ thickly upon their faces mirrored accurately what they felt and were thinking?

“Most people do not do medicine,” said Hans, “and so, they are not used to looking closely at such things. I only noticed those when we checked you over last night.”

“Do those old tales speak of that?” I asked. I wanted to ask about 'Hansel and Gretel' before I forgot.

“Yes, and such things are a sign of those marked people,” said Hans. “That one person with your name had extra toes.”

I recalled Paul speaking of toes, and as I silently thought about the matter, Hans resumed speaking.

“There are but a few tales that speak of things like I see here,” he said.

Hans' speech stopped abruptly, and as I watched, a 'worried' expression came over his face. How I knew he was 'worried' was difficult to put into words, for the conventional means of such assessment was beyond my capacity – and the means by which I knew such things was not the usual for 'normal' people.

No, not two of those things together,” he said. His tone of voice supplied a measure of confirmation. “The Black Fiend was destroyed at the end by a person having but one such marking. He did not have two of them. There is but one tale that speaks of two such marks, and that one speaks of that curse.”

“W-was there a d-deformed witch involved?” It seemed likely, especially given that 'deformities' and the devil were thought to be linked hand-in-hand in story and fable where I came from.

“No,” said Hans. “The one who is to break that thing will have multiple marks and a special name.”

The abrupt crashing of blackness ended with an intense pain in my head as I lay upon the floor. Someone was gently rubbing my head, and I tried to moan. Nothing came out, however, and when I finally opened my eyes, Anna startled.

“What happened to you?” she said.

“No!” I shrieked. “I don't want to be a witch!”

As I staggered up to resume my seat, Anna muttered, then said, “I've wondered why you say that, and now, I might have an answer.”

“Answer?” I squeaked. I longed for another head-rubbing.

“I saw that witch again,” said Anna, “and she birthed a child. She saw that it was opposite to her, and then cursed it, even to the point of trying to kill it prior to birth, for she hated it so, and knew it would not be her mirror. Then, when it came, she wished to name it with the most evil of Brimstone's names.”

“N-names?” I gasped. “Which name?”

“The death name,” said Anna. “It is in the last part of the book, and I cannot speak it.”

“W-why?” I asked. I wanted to ask “would it be thought a curse?”

“Most people have trouble saying words they did not grow up speaking,” said Hans, “and even people like Maarten have trouble saying some of what is in the book.” Hans turned to Anna, then said, “is this that name that begins with an 'A', and ends with an 'N'?”

Anna nodded, then said, “there are two of them, and the worse of the two, which is what she spoke, has a 'P' in it.”

Worse?” I asked.

“I could hear that witch speak of her choice,” said Anna, “and she must have spoken a dozen names before she found that one.”

Apollyon?” I asked. “Is that it?”

Anna nodded soberly, then said, “that witch's mother, who was not as she was, took the child from her for a time. She named it otherwise, and then held it until she died.”

Anna paused, much as if the last portion of her discourse was of such import it needed especial care and determination to bring forth. Finally, she spoke.

“That witch was ambition with legs and a mouth.”

That witch sounds like the one with the curse,” said Hans. “Talk has it that witch wore blue face-paint when it suited her, and she washed it off otherwise. Did this witch you saw suck on weeds?”

The mental picture I had upon hearing Hans speak of this strange terminology was of a grotesquely fat woman wound with rags like an unkempt mummy, with both hands holding a nasty-looking mass of foliage and thorns. The root of the plant was in her mouth, and she gnawed and sucked on the thing as if it were an uncommonly chewy piece of candy. Her eyes were closed with an expression of serene bliss. What Anna then said disabused me of this fatuous picture.

“Yes, she did,” said Anna, “and the stench was as bad... No, it was worse. This stuff wasn't Veldter weed.”

“That witch sounds like the one with the curse,” said Hans, “or one as bad.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. I could hear a trace of pique in her voice. “The witch I saw made the one with the curse look kind and stupid. She was as evil as any witch that ever lived, even those from before the drowning, and she was drunk every minute of every day. She could have loosed wind and blown up the whole country doing it.”

“Loosed wind?” I thought. “What, is this place one huge privy filled with lit candles?”

“I knew it,” said Hans. “You did have a lot of witches after you, and that one sounds as bad as any that ever lived here, even those of the first days.”

I shook my head, then asked, “what is Veldter weed?”

“Those people in that valley place have that stuff,” said Hans, “and it is terrible for smell. They take old rags and the dried leaves, and tie them up with string, then set fire to them and breathe the smoke.”

“They suck on it?” I asked.

“Yes, they put those weed bundle things in their mouths once they are on fire,” said Hans.

“And sugar-tree sap?” I asked.

“That, and honey, are the only things that taste sweet up here,” said Hans. “There are other things in the fourth kingdom, but they are not common, and they do not travel well.”

After cleaning up the 'mess' of dinner, I wondered where I could keep my driver's license, and as I looked for it, Hans said, “I put that thing away and hid it good, along with the other things.”

“Other things?” I asked.

“That piece of rock, that bullet, and that rivet that hit you that one time,” said Hans. “They wanted to keep that rivet, and I almost had to fight them for it.”

“Why, were they a rivet short?” I asked.

“That was strange,” said Hans. “It was almost like Willem might be about one of his guns if he had one kill three pigs with three loads, which is one of the reasons why I doubt being burned like that was normal, and why I spoke of watching those people close. The witches do not need their help.”

Here, Hans paused, then said, “next wooding, we will need to make a trip out to where Paul is, so you can see those things.”

“Are people picky about what distilleries look like?” I asked. “As in they believe only c-certain shapes work?”

“While that is not true,” said Hans, “I suspect you are right about what some believe, and to do them such that they look too different from the common may be unwise.”

“What is not true?” I asked.

“The cooker's shape does not affect how those things work,” said Hans, “as I have three shapes of those glass bottles down there, and I have used all of them to distill mash. They all made the same amount of alcohol.”

“Are some shapes easier to clean than others?” I asked.

“That might be an area you want to work on, as that is the trouble with the usual shape,” said Hans. “Distilleries need a lot of cleaning, and they are messy.”