“In Circled Fire...Part two.”
I continued grinding and 'sifting' for perhaps half an hour, during which time Hans and Sarah continued to arrange the 'equipment' in a definite orderly fashion, such that the 'steps' of the process were becoming obvious to me and the 'product' would move in a line from start to finish, while each step would use its singularly dedicated tools. My 'ground glass' – I was surprised at the small amount actually needed; Hans said I did enough for a year's worth of thimbles – went in a bandage tin tied with dark brown string so as to identify it, and as I went upstairs to gather my things for the afternoon's ride, I noticed I needed to hurry.
Jaak seemed to catch the same sense, for he left the road but a short distance south of Roos. I could feel Waldhuis ahead and to my left at first, but for some reason, I thought to parallel the road and go by the place's front rather than its rear.
“They spend most of their time looking out over their fields,” I thought.
“When they are not actually out in them,” said the soft voice. “Between the damage to the property and loss of life in Waldhuis, every person able to plant is currently in those fields.”
“And those not able to do so are too sick or injured to move,” I murmured.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “They can move enough to crawl a short distance to the privy when they have need.” A brief pause, then, “they won't be watching their 'front' at this time.”
“Meaning once it gets dark, they do, er, will,” I said.
“And in the daytime when there's enough people to spare to have watchers there,” said the soft voice. “Just the same, I would stay as close to the margins of that frontal woodlot as I dared and move as quickly as possible while keeping the noise made to a minimum.”
“It will save time, won't it?” I thought, as I 'felt' the 'front' of the place but a mile away to the south.
“Enough to make it worthwhile for this one instance,” said the soft voice. “Chances like this are sufficiently seldom that I would make certain to leave earlier in the future.”
The woodlots to the front of Waldhuis seemed all but conjoined to one another while being separated by narrow places of unusually close-cropped grass – so much so that I wondered about the use of the singular form spoken of – and through one of these places, I spied the road that went through the middle of the town. I continued on, now moving such that if I reached out with my right arm I could now and then touch the trunks or branches of the trees, and Jaak broke into a slow trot without urging upon my part as I followed the boundary of first one woodlot, then 'another' that was but fifty feet distant from the end of the first.
And during this 'crossing', I was 'hearing' gunfire in vast measure.
As I came back into the slow-lengthening shadows of afternoon upon the trees, I asked, “what was that?”
“You were feeling the desires of those few witches who 'saw' you,” said the soft voice, “and while they were desirous of shooting, they were indisposed.”
“Drunk?” I asked. “Sick?”
“Severe burns in one case,” said the soft voice, “and in the other two cases, badly broken bones.”
“B-badly?” I asked.
“None of those witches is likely to live more than another week,” said the soft voice. “Seventy-percent second and third degree burns is a death-sentence in witchdom, and the same for compound fractures with protruding stumps of bones.”
“N-nothing done f-for them, either,” I murmured. “They're witches, and supposedly able to heal themselves by chants and curses.”
“Precisely as per the latter portion of that black book,” said the soft voice, “and 'supposedly' is right.”
“Uh, not even Koenraad the first could do so,” I murmured, “nor that one witch that tried to rob us...”
“Jodocus could have eventually done so, had he 'broken through' and remained alive for perhaps another year,” said the soft voice. “He would have become very hard to kill by that time, more so even than Cardosso himself – who died when Brimstone called him, and not before.” A brief pause, then, “those witches before the war, though...”
Another brief pause, during which time Jaak trotted across another gap. We were out of range of all save the most capable of Waldhuis' weapons, and I relaxed slightly – yet still, I listened for the sounds of gunfire.
“Those witches then most commonly died at the hands of those marked,” said the soft voice.
“What?” I squeaked. I but barely managed to suppress my outburst.
“The upper crust of that era's witchdom hunted on a semi-nightly basis,” said the soft voice, “and in hunting those marked, they commonly found themselves the hunted rather than the hunters.”
“Were they armed?” I asked. I meant the witches.
“Quite well, and well-skilled in what they used,” said the soft voice. “It availed them but little just the same.”
“Swords..?” I murmured, at the recollection of Gabriel's speech regarding one individual.
“He killed the first witch he encountered with her own weapon,” said the soft voice, “and then hunted down the rest of that party and killed them all before he began heading south.” A brief pause, then, “and while he used that sword utterly and completely 'up' in his travels, he did not limit himself to swords.” Another brief pause, then, “he used everything of a lethal nature he could get his hands on during that trip, and he left a sizable trail of bodies behind him until he was well past the southern border of that country.”
“That whole section was but one 'woodlot', correct?” I asked, as I continued to move more or less directly south.
“Waldhuis 'cultivates' its surrounding forest-patches as well as its fields,” said the soft voice, “and those close-cropped regions between those slowly growing areas of trees are where they graze their animals.”
“Swine?” I asked.
“Those are grazed much closer to their houses in small numbers,” said the soft voice, “and they are the property of visitors, not those who live there.” Another pause, then, “the dwellers of Waldhuis have a great deal to hide, and hence desire to appear as 'normal' as they possibly can – which is why there are no 'personal' swine-herds in that town.”
With the passing minutes, I could feel the ire of Waldhuis' witches receding back into the numbed alcoholic haze that wrapped their slumberous figures, and one by one, I felt them once more fall asleep where they lay in their stupors. Those out in the fields were 'glued' to their seeds and furrows, much as those lying injured had been glued to the Swartsburg's altars; and as the sun dropped lower into the east and the shadows grew longer, I brought out my compass so as to check my course.
“South-southeast,” I thought, as Jaak passed by a woodlot at a rapid 'amble'. “Good. I hope I make it in time.”
My hope was answered with but minutes to spare, and as the trio of guards – one older man that I had seen in the refectory but twice before, and two younger guards, both of which seemed curiously eager and horribly naive about swine and cannons – left the bench, I wondered who would sit out the hours with me.
“No one, most likely,” I thought.
“For the first two-thirds of your posting, yes,” said the soft voice. “Sarah is on her way, and Andreas is taking a nap right now so as to rest up.”
“Sarah?” I asked incredulously.
“Lukas is on the east side of the Main,” said the soft voice, “as there was word of a particular witch that has been wanted for several years being about fifty miles north and east of the house, while Gilbertus is sleeping at home in his bed for a change.”
“Not much chance with greens, is there?” I murmured.
“That, and both men are still getting over what happened to the Swartsburg and the immediate aftermath,” said the soft voice. “Sarah, on the other hand, is available – and she's less affected by curses than either of those men.”
“Is she marked?” I asked.
“No, but a great many people in her lineage were,” said the soft voice, “including some who were once quite famous but are not well known at this time.”
“Charles?” I asked.
“She wonders if she's related to him,” said the soft voice, “even if she does not wonder about some of those who came after him.”
“Came after as in descendants, or followers, or..?”
“After the curse fell,” said the soft voice. “There was a rather lengthy period in which those groups of people who were led by those marked survived for the most part, and those otherwise died – and they died unmissed and unmourned, with the usually-justified label of 'traitor and witch' applied to their rotting bodies.” A brief pause, then, “then, there were those who brought down Cardosso and his coterie during the first attempted witch-recovery since the curse's falling, and finally those of the last few hundred years.”
The quiet of the fifth posting was but slightly exceeded by that of the sixth, for I found it easy to write small 'chapters' in my ledger between the infrequent hints at activity I detected in the house. Usually, these were faint bursts of speech coming from General's Row, while on occasion, they were fainter-yet squeaks.
“That mother rat has given birth to her babies,” said the soft voice, “and she is sore and getting sorer from their near-continual nursing.”
“A large litter?” I asked.
“Yes, for here,” said the soft voice. “The usual litter is but three or four. She had five.”
“Why so few?” I asked.
“Unlike the small pink things you recall,” said the soft voice, “rats here are born with short fur, open eyes and ears, and sizable appetites.” A brief pause, then, “and a tendency to wander, which means momma must keep them in the nest by subterfuge until they learn to stay put.”
“How often do those things breed?” I murmured.
“Every spring, as a rule,” said the soft voice, “save in environments that are routinely warm, dry, and with plentiful and ready provender.”
“Like here,” I murmured.
“And in the houses of farmers, and in regions to the south,” said the soft voice. “With greater access to food and routine warmer weather, rats tend to become larger, which is why Sarah is so knowledgeable about 'large rats'.”
I returned to my writing, now and then pausing to 'listen' when I went to the nearest privy. The house, while 'slumberous', had a handful of people working late hours. One of them was Kees; he was inking some papers.
“And using the wing-feathers of that buzzard I shot,” I mumbled, as I slowly returned to the bench. “I'm going to want a pad for my rear at this rate, given how busy I am lately.”
“That will change shortly,” said the soft voice, “as there as been talk of what is to be done where you work and how it needs your presence.”
“Can't work like a black-dressed witch, can I?” I asked.
“Your productive hours are greater than all save a very few of those people, and your 'awake' hours approach many of theirs,” said the soft voice. “Still, you cannot run the forges at this time of night.”
“I'd be so tired I'd most likely think that long one to be a bed,” I murmured while stifling a yawn.
“Precisely,” said the soft voice, “and your yawning tendencies are being noted by others – and while Hendrik himself does not see them, those that do see them see him often – and those people are not shy about speaking of your current status.”
“So what is more important?” I asked. Again, I almost yawned. “Training new guards, or...”
I quit speaking at the sudden realization: neither job could be shirked, as both were absolutely critical. Things were happening in the area, and more things were about to happen that made having an adequate force at the house a requisite...
“About another month and a half or so, and we'll have sword-dragging curse-yelling drunken Generals again, and that in numbers, which means well-trained Guards; and then, there's the workload at the shop...”
“And clearing the Abbey, and especially building that new equipment,” said the soft voice. “You're going to need all of those things to be going before you leave on that trip; and while Georg is not after orders much right now...”
“No one in the Public Houses he visits in nearby towns inclined to speak of purchases...” I softly muttered.
“That's because they're too busy drinking beer or eating to speak to him,” said the voice of Sarah from my left, “and I've got my own things to keep me in a state fit for hopping.” A brief pause, then, “and I encountered Karl on the way here, also.”
“He's still up?” I gasped.
“He was some hours ago,” said Sarah as she sat beside me with a bulging full satchel, “and he was wondering about a new sword.”
“Uh, what happened?” I asked. “The one I worked on broke?”
“No, it did not,” said Sarah, “and I wished the west school had had ones as good as what he used.” A brief pause, during which she somehow produced a jug and began looking in my possible bag. “Where is your cup?”
“You wish to drink from it?” I asked incredulously. I doubted Sarah wished the company of my germs.
“You look like you need some beer,” she said. “I managed to find a smaller cup recently in my travels.”
When I'd drained my cup, I both ceased with my yawning and 'woke up fully', and I murmured, “you were right, dear.”
“I know,” said Sarah. “Karl is much in the market for a notch-stick now, as he encountered a witch while I was walking down Houtlaan in the house here.”
“At night?” I asked.
“This was close to sundown, so the shops were closed or closing,” said Sarah, “and I was headed here, as was he.” A brief pause to drink, followed by a demure belch. “He was talking about a buggy, as he was sore in his feet.”
“Needs new shoes, like you do,” I said. “I'll need to take you to the shoemaker's as soon as I get the chance.”
“He needs to see that man also,” said Sarah, “as his heels are very thin, and the nails are showing.” Another pause, then, “and as he crossed Houtlaan so as to make for that path that goes through the south-field, a pig showed.”
“Which means a witch was probably about to show,” I said.
“One did show,” said Sarah, “and with full darkness upon him, from his face to his toes.”
“Y-yuck,” I spat. “Face-grease.”
“He was most definitely hunting,” said Sarah, “and while I went for the nearest watering trough because I had no weapon handy, Karl was less quick.”
“And the witch tried for him?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, “and either Karl needs shooting lessons, or that witch was a most-strong one, as he took all five of Karl's balls and was still coming at him.”
“While Karl could use shooting lessons,” said the soft voice, “that particular witch was not merely 'strong', he was also 'imported' from regions south – and he also knew of those 'hardening' curses. Hence Karl had to remove his head to 'stop' him.”
“And Karl was in great need of beer afterward,” said Sarah with finality. “He was speaking of whitened eyes staring into the distance as I walked him back to the house.”
“The two-mile stare?” I asked.
“He might not know the words for it,” said Sarah, “but killing that witch was close enough for him to learn of those words.”
“Uh, did you see where Karl hit that witch?” I asked.
“I saw all five bullets raise dust,” said Sarah, “and at least two of them did so upon that witch's chest.”
“Meaning a lesser witch would have ceased and desisted,” I muttered. “I ran into a thug like that at the kingdom house down in the fifth kingdom...” Sarah's eyes grew wide, and I then muttered, “wretch had a dragoon pistol, and he was about to use it on us. I centered two balls in his chest.”
Sarah's mouth was now open wide.
“And I had to put a third one between his eyes before he quit,” I muttered. My voice's volume was just above a whisper with the last sentence.
“That tends to put a stop to any witch of lesser grade than those found in old tales,” said a voice from down the hall to our left. I turned, expecting to see thin air – and instead, saw Andreas but a dozen feet away. He was dressed in old clothing, for some reason, and his leather-reinforced cloth 'satchel' was nearly as large as Sarah's.
“You're dressed for dodging rats,” said Sarah. “Does that place have many of them?”
“I suspect so,” said Andreas. “I brought my rat-club.” A brief pause, then, “and Gilbertus is loading up several more of them at home.”
“Th-those s-sticks?” I asked. “Hans was working on several.”
“I suspect so, as they were turned up here by the request of your wife-to-be there,” said Andreas. “There aren't many people in this area who know how to properly load clubs with lead, and Lukas isn't even close to the house right now.”
“Otherwise he would do it,” said Sarah. “Where is he?”
“As of this afternoon, about thirty miles short of where that one witch was last reported,” said Andreas. “He used one of those buggies you worked on, so he's making decent time.”
“Uh, crossing the river?” I asked. “Bridges?” A brief pause, then, “that one ford?”
Andreas shook his head, then said, “that witch is known well for his trickiness, which is why Lukas went further south to cross the Main, and he did so at dusk.”
“That witch would learn about it?” I asked. The tone of my voice was utter incredulity.
Andreas nodded, then said, “there are a great many witch-sympathizers who would speak of such matters, and once a witch of sufficient potency heard of it, that would be sufficient to send a messenger.” Andreas paused, then, “and witch-messengers, especially those that travel by hidden means, are not slow.”
“Hidden?” I asked.
“There are tales written of the hidden ways and how the witches of old traveled upon them,” said Andreas, “and I know for a fact that many of those hidden ways are not only usefully intact, but also still used.” A brief pause, then, “though one main gathering place recently went where it belonged, which should make such travel harder in the immediate area.”
“M-main gathering place?” I asked.
“How do you think witches ship pigs through the heart of the first kingdom, and other areas unfriendly to swine and their owners?” asked Andreas. “Those hidden paths lie below the ground, and they have special vehicles.”
“Which were said to be rapid in their travel,” said Sarah.
Andreas nodded, then said, “which means you will want to not merely travel south by water on that trip you make soon, but watch your return trip closely, as it will need to travel by land.”
“Hence it will need to be large and well-armed group,” said Sarah. “Witches respect such sizable groups and their implied capacity for forceful mayhem.”
“Yes, now they do,” said Andreas. “They've been thinned out enough between here and the third kingdom to have difficulty mustering armies on short notice, and between that and the growing reputation of your husband, you should be able to travel the High Way without undue trouble – presuming, of course, that you are watchful in your travels.”
“And presuming we demonstrate forcefully when imposed upon,” said Sarah.
“That also, though few witches will think to impose upon you,” said Andreas. “Most of the 'obvious' witches left in the first kingdom have learned a measure of fear, and the same for a decent portion of those in the second,” said Andreas. “Those most troublesome in the third kingdom, at least those frequenting the High Way with the goal of robbery, are still replenishing their numbers.”
“And below that, they are untouched, more or less,” I muttered.
“That is chiefly due to their sheer number, not due to recent casualties,” said Andreas. “One of the less-populous districts in the fifth kingdom house has more witches than the entire first kingdom house had before the Swartsburg went where it belonged.”
“And hence plagues do but little,” said Sarah.
“Yes, even the plague your husband-to-be started,” said Andreas. “That plague, by the way, is still very much active in that district.”
“Is it spreading?” asked Sarah.
“It is, though slowly,” said Andreas. “It will not have an appreciable effect save in the area immediately around the house proper – and there, that effect, while noticeable, is not nearly as drastic as what is to come.”
“What is to come?” I asked.
“That is something yet of a mystery,” said Andreas, “but I can guess, based on what I know. Any place with that many witches inclined toward feuding is just waiting for something to get them all started – and if...”
“Not if,” said Sarah. “When. It is less than a year.”
“Thank you,” said Andreas. “When they all start feuding, the entire place is quite likely to be wrecked, and wrecked thoroughly.” A pause, during which Andreas uncorked the jug and filled a tinned copper cup he removed from his satchel, then, “and when it gets wrecked that badly, then change is not merely possible, but likely.”
“As there will not be any witches in the area strong enough to force matters?” asked Sarah.
“Again, thank you,” said Andreas. “The late-departed Swartsburg should give ample ideas as to what is likely to happen.” A brief pause, during which Andreas turned to me, then, “and, when your relief comes, we can go upstairs.”
That relief proved to be another single man. While I had seen him before – I knew all of the older guards by sight now due to their drastically diminished numbers – I did not know his name; and when I told him of how quiet it had been, he muttered, “'twon't stay that way much longer, as more witches are coming up from points south.”
“Have you seen them?” asked Sarah. This was news to me.
“No, but talk has been about how many fifth kingdom freighters been coming up this way,” he said, “and those people tend to want to be witches, at least for the most part.”
“Hence witches wishing to start in a less-demanding environment,” I murmured. “Those tend to be, uh, easier to deal with.”
“If they're from around here, they are,” he muttered. “Ain't no witch easy to deal with in the fifth kingdom, and that's a fact.”
I left the man to his fuming and began walking along the west edge of 'the main court'. The dim lighting – many of the candles were out, and those still burning were near 'stub' status' – made for long shadows and a 'spooky' aura, and when something moved in my peripheral vision, Andreas spoke.
“The rats are getting friendlier with the warmer weather,” he said, “and in another month or so, they'll truly start outdoors.”
“They're making their nests now,” said Sarah. “What is this place like?”
“Dark and smelly,” said Andreas, “which is why I have two lanterns hid in an alcove not far from the place.”
“Alcohol lanterns, correct?” I asked.
“Both of them,” he said. “Now you were wondering about glass-blower's wire, weren't you?”
I looked at him in such surprise I nearly collided with a support-pillar, then said, “y-yes.”
“It needs special wire-drawing dies, which I believe you might have among your workbench tools,” said Andreas. “One step at a time, go slow and easy with it, and use plenty of that stuff called red-paste, and you should get the wire thin enough to suit you.” A brief pause, then, “and if it works as well as you think it will, then I'd like at least two of those small lanterns with the shutters.”
“H-how?” I gasped.
“I told him about that one,” said Sarah, “and he thinks those especially wise for the time to come.”
“C-candles?” I gasped.
“That small, and that much light?” said Andreas as we passed an alcove so dark it resembled a black hole. “There were things like that prior to the war long ago, but since... Not even close.”
“And the use of candles will be an advantage in some parts, at least for a time,” said Sarah. “We will definitely wish a few of them for that trip, if not sooner.”
“I'd do up at least two for the Abbey,” said Andreas. “Many of those people working on that place are about as backward as you're likely to find in the first kingdom.”
“Meaning none of those...”
Again, I paused in my speech at seeing a darkened shadow dart into a shadow darker still. Exploring a smelly witch-hole during the depth of night sounded like a half-hidden desire to be scared out of one's mind.
“Why are we exploring that place now?” I asked.
“Because the rest of the house is sleeping,” said Andreas, “and we don't need to worry about them being taken over should they become curious and come near.” A pause – the stairs were in sight – then, “what's in there has enough worry as it is.”
“Do you know what is in there?” asked Sarah.
“Not precisely, but I can guess to a degree, based on that piece of paper,” said Andreas. “That's a very old – and quite powerful – ceremony, and if those men were strong enough to survive it, they became true-witches at the least.”
“And if not, they died in the chamber,” I said.
“Someone died in there regardless,” said Andreas. “That portion that speaks of 'circled fire' means a ring was drawn with a witch's sword, and a fire kindled within it, in which the severed head of the sacrifice was placed in a pot resting upon the coals.” A pause, then as we came to the bottom of the stairs, “Freek went white as a sun-bleached sheet when he saw it.”
“Then what I found...”
“Was the original paper,” said Andreas, “and Anna let me look in your ledger when I last came over to fetch the silver for Sarah's necklace – and I copied what you had written, among other things I saw in there.” A pause, then, “your notes supplied a great deal of information about that curse, most of which Freek had had no knowledge of.”
“He didn't attempt it, did he?” I asked, as I paused at a guttering candle with a thick wax candle stub in my hand. I had my shuttered lantern with me, and I loaded it with the lit candle. I continued on with with a wide-open front shutter, and the feeble rays seemed to add a note of cheer to the region directly in front of us. It seemed to make for softer speech, however; and I was surprised when Andreas next spoke.
“No, and for good reason,” said Andreas. “He knew he wasn't strong enough to do so and live when he learned of its existence, and when he was strong enough to perform it and live, he did not need to concern himself with it.”
“And those three men...”
“I am not certain about them,” said Andreas. “We will find at least one corpse, I know that much.”
The second floor of the house was darker still, with but the light from the first floor's east wall shedding feeble rays to add to that of the shuttered lantern's. Here, we walked in near-total darkness, and I thought to open the other shutters. Andreas shook his head.
“There are still witches in the house,” he whispered into my ear, “and one of them might be attempting to learn of the area while he thinks it deserted.”
“That much bolder already?” I asked quietly.
“That, and I suspect those new arrivals are receiving cautious advice from somewhere in the house,” whispered Andreas. “Those witch-run Public Houses may be badly damaged, but all of them are swarming with building crews.”
“When?” asked Sarah sharply. Her voice, while quiet, still had a distinctly sharp tone.
“At night,” said Andreas softly. “Not everyone who worked in the Swartsburg died, and some of those people are likely to be involved.”
“Most of them are,” said the soft voice, “and there are nocturnal scavenging missions conducted by groups of the same people.”
“Getting building supplies from the Swartsburg, no doubt,” I murmured. I could tell – not precisely, but close enough that I would be able to find them within moments – where Andreas had his lanterns hidden, and we were nearly there.
“Correct as to principle and seriously off as to numbers,” said the soft voice. “For every nocturnal scavenger, there are twenty doing so during the day, and while chipped and cracked building stones are thought 'worthless' by most, that is not the case in witchdom.”
“Hence the witches purchase the materials at modest prices,” said Sarah. “Where are those lanterns, Andreas? I can smell aquavit.”
Andreas 'disappeared' into a 'black hole' and came out a moment later with a lantern in each hand. The smell of aquavit was now obvious to me. I had not noticed it before now.
“Your jug leak?” I asked.
“That was why I spoke of witches,” said Andreas softly, “as I brought no jug, and I was careful how I filled these up.”
“Hence that aquavit is actually...”
“A broken jug of underaged forty-chain brandy,” said the soft voice, “and Andreas' caution regarding witches is neither excessive nor unwise.”
“That stuff smells worse, though,” said Sarah.
“'New' forty-chain brandy has but little of that reek,” said the soft voice, “and resembles aquavit more than anything else.”
“Weak aquavit,” said Andreas. “Forty-chain brandy acquires nearly all of its color, smell, and flavor by things done to it after distillation.” A pause, during which we resumed walking toward the former 'Armory', then “it does not get that way quickly – or so Freek says.”
The mention of Freek's name seemed to conjure something, and as we rounded an 'outcrop', the stink of death suddenly struck my nose with such force I nearly went to my knees while gagging. Sarah turned to me, then as I 'gathered myself', she said, “there's more than one body in there.”
“M-more than one?” I asked.
“Those men wished to be certain of becoming true-witches,” she said, “and hence they killed three, one for each of them.”
“Which did them but little good, as all three died when that brothel exploded,” said the soft voice. “I would be especially careful in there.”
“Bad fetishes?” I asked.
“The fetishes are weak as fetishes,” said the soft voice. “They are not weak in other ways.”
“Uh, strong drink?” I asked. “Like with that one witch I called, uh, iron-head?”
“I would be most careful about naming witches thusly,” said Sarah. “I've read of that name on several tapestries, and it was a most-potent name to conjure with.”
“I told him to rust up solid,” I murmured, “and he went up in smoke.”
Yet as I spoke, I knew I would not be dealing with the fumes of forty-chain. There was something about a certain type of bomb-trigger, one sensitive enough to go off if one looked at it wrong. This was not the first time I had felt this way, even if the last time seemed a world and a million miles away to the south.
“They weren't able to get those,” said the soft voice, “as not every witch has the needed money and connections to get a device that approaches restricted status.” A pause, then, “you've dealt with this type of trap before.”
“Good,” I thought. “Nothing I can't handle, then.” I then thought for a moment as the smell once more assaulted my nose.
“That isn't just human remains you are smelling,” said the soft voice. “They ate their last meal as mere 'men' in there also.”
“What?” I gasped. “Don't tell me – they used a forge to cook a Shoet.”
“A larger example,” said the soft voice. “One nearly large enough to make 'bacon'.”
I could almost feel the nausea in my gut starting to rise, and when I looked to my right, I saw Sarah's face. It seemed to be turning green, and her voice betrayed her when she next spoke.
“I hope I do not spew,” she said. “The stink is likely to be enough to cause me to see colors if a pig has gone rotten in there.”
“I hope not,” said Andreas. “I might stand a fair number of stinks, but pigs are not one of them.”
With each step, the conjoined smells became stronger and more mingled, such that by the time we came to the alcove where the armory was located, I could almost 'see' filmy shapes flitting about, and high-pitched chanting echoed in my mind. I wondered if this chanting was a recollection, or something more – until Andreas lit first one lantern, then the other. Sarah was handed one of them, while he kept the other. The armory's door was but a short distance down the 'hall'.
The iron straps I but vaguely recalled from my visit with Karl seemed now to be older than time, and their rust-edged decrepitude recalled to mind some of the more unpleasant places in the fifth kingdom house. The odor leaking from the other side of the door now had depth and breadth to its intensity, and I quietly retched as the other two made ready. I then saw the doorknob.
“Not even a rag will stop that contagion,” I murmured at seeing the etched edges of the bloody handprint upon the tarnished 'brass'. “That's swine's blood, and... Did they culture that stuff?”
“No, because one must not merely be 'made' to see those people, but also wealthy,” said the soft voice. “If you must touch blooded things, use rags, use them each but once, and then bag them for burning afterward – and I would be most careful in general about touching things in there.”
“Meaning I'll probably need to speak to it,” I murmured.
“After you document carefully all that they did,” said the soft voice, “and I would speak from the stairs.”
“It will wake the house up if you do that,” said Andreas, as he brought out a rag and a key from his satchel. “I know about how doors act around you, but this one was said to be tricky.”
“There's another door like that in the house,” I said. “It was rigged...” I paused, then looked closer at the door's filthy-looking rust-streaked wood. “They tried something similar in here – it's not done nearly as well, though.”
Again, I paused. I was getting a distinct feeling: the witches had first eaten their final meal as mere 'men', then performed their ceremony in 'full dress'; and while they had all of their 'reminders to duty' fully clenched by near-lethal doses of datramonium, they dedicated their former lair 'utterly' to Brimstone and then rigged it most thoroughly in hopes of gathering more sacrifices when it was investigated.
“Men after Koenraad the second's own heart,” I muttered. “Once they made up their minds, they went for this wholeheartedly, with no reservations whatsoever.”
“Those tend to be witches to be reckoned with,” said Andreas as he carefully wiped the key with what smelled like an oily rag. He then inserted it into the lock – and brought out a 'stick-collection'. I felt reminded of Hans' meat-pole, and its contrary nature until I learned its secrets.
“I'm turning this from as far away as I can,” he said, while he looked at me. “Unless...”
“Unless I can turn it without touching,” I murmured. “We can do that from out in the hall.”
From around the corner forming the alcove and several feet south along the outer wall with the other two behind me, I asked the key to turn. There was a faint groan, then a muffled 'clacking' noise followed a second later by a soft 'plop'.
“That was a thimble,” said Sarah.
“Meaning their gun misfired,” said Andreas.
“Or it's rigged with a fuse so as to catch us unaware,” I muttered. “I'll bet that's what they did, in fact.”
“None of those men were that tricky,” said the soft voice, “and that gun was selected and then set up with an eye to fetish properties, rather than function.”
As we slowly returned to the doorway – I could feel the reluctance in myself clearly, and that of the others was showing more than a little – I noticed that the door was now actually open a crack. The lockplate no longer had Andreas' key in it, and I glanced upon the floor to there see it. I came closer, knelt down, and looked. Holding a 'decent' light – my lantern had its frontal shutter open fully – helped more than a little, even with my dark-adjusted eyes.
“They put pig's blood in the lock!” I spat as I saw the reddish-brown film the key's barrel was now covered with, “and this key will need some extensive boiling in a pressure-pot...”
“No, not the blood of swine,” said the soft voice. “They had a sizable fetish-bucket filled with blood after doing three sacrifices, and they spent several intoxicated hours putting that blood on everything they could reach.” A pause, “hot vinegar for a glass's turn, then water, then wiping with oil.”
“Those three were in addition to the one mentioned in that curse, correct?” I asked.
“They wanted to do that, but were unable to secure a fourth victim on such short notice,” said the soft voice. “You'll find more than a few answers in that place, which is why it needs careful documentation.”
I put my hand near the door, and began to slowly pull my hand back. I could feel definite resistance upon my hand, so much so that I needed to be forceful; until with a soft grating groan, the door began to slowly follow my hand as it moved in a slow arc backward and I took a step to the rear. I then heard a soft moan to my left, and I turned to see Sarah doubled up and holding her stomach. She looked too sick for words to describe.
“Urargh-Ptttaaah!” came next. Sarah seemed to have little to bring up, for all that struck the floor was but a small amount of 'hot-smelling' liquid. She then wiped her mouth with a small rag.
“Please, dear,” I said softly. “Do not feel nauseated, and the same for Andreas.” A pause, then, “I hope I can avoid doing what you just did.”
I could almost 'hear' – among a forest of audible chants and the sounds of flashing 'curse-colors' trying to break into my mind so as to take it over – words of encouragement regarding asking 'favors'.
“M-me too,” I said softly. “It's bad enough in there without spewing until it comes up green.”
“I'll say that again,” said Andreas as he held up his lantern. “There's a sizable musket here.”
“It's not a roer, is it?” I asked. Andreas was just outside of the threshold
“I'm not sure,” said Andreas, as he continued to look inside. “Take up that other lantern, and follow me.”
I exchanged lanterns with Sarah, then 'sheltered' her in the glow of my upheld lantern. She went in ahead of me, my feet but a second behind her, and the lantern I was using added its glaring brightness to that of Andreas. I blinked – it was almost too bright for me now – then looked around.
The previous benches were gone, as were the tools that had once hung in long low rows upon the wall – and in their place, a tall mounded pile of ashes held a deep-black 'witch-cauldron' centered in the floor. I looked down, expecting to see filth and feel the dung of mules underfoot, and where there was no dried blood – that was nearly everywhere, such that one could scarce walk without stepping upon congealed thicknesses of it – I saw forming a circle a 'deep' blackened marking that looked to have been gnawed into the stones of the floor.
And the curse now rang within my mind, and with each of its lines, I now understood yet more:
“In Circled Fire:
Securest thou Best Toledo,
Well-honed Bright Blade,
Center-Hair with one Disgrace.
Burnest thou in Chauldron Deep,
three handful weed d'doul,
two Jongae spice d'mille,
five copas Garry Owens,
ten full fathom wine.”
The 'Chauldron Deep' reeked of foulness, and a glance within from a distance of several feet showed dried ashes and fragments of bones, while the smell of death was now mingled with the reek of burnt 'brush'. A glance at the others, who seemed transfixed with horror, and I turned back toward the centerpiece of the witches' 'power source'.
“They burnt Veldter Weed in here,” muttered Sarah, “and I can smell some really bad wine.” A pause, “I'm glad I don't feel so sick.”
“Amontillado,” said Andreas from behind me. I could tell he was next to Sarah. “That pot is the strongest thing in the whole place, which is why we're staying back from it.”
I then noticed that I was speaking, and soft mutterings came from my lips unbidden. I took a step forward, then another, and now looked into the pot from the margin of the ashes surrounding it; and within the pot, the ashes slightly stirred, then the bone-fragments twitched in a slow syncopated rhythm. I looked more intently into the pot, much as if I were a witch and using a mirror to conjure with so as to see back into the past; and then I stood back a pace, and looked around.
Sarah and Andreas were no longer in the room. I was standing, my back to the wall in a corner and the darkness surrounding me, save for the region to immediate front, was near-absolute; for the sole light in the filthy 'front' room of the armory was now a single tallow candle of uncommon thickness and smoky flame, and three fully blackened 'witches' – they had not yet made their bones, so all were goats with the name of 'Judas' – looked to be intent upon performing a ceremonial function.
From my hiding place, I saw a multitude of dust-rimmed places where benches and other things had once stood, and those – and all the other things of wood that had once served here – were broken up for burning and mounded in thick waist-high piles. I could clearly see the work of knives and possibly axes upon the greasy old wood of the place's benches, and their scarred beams and planks were chopped and shivered, such that the mounds of 'firewood'...
One of those mounds – the tallest and widest one – blocked the view of the three witches toward me, and thus made my crouched figure less visible. I could watch and learn, and not be discovered.
A sudden 'flash' of total darkness, and now the darkness within the room rose and fell in an unsteady rhythm. Three wick-lanterns, their chimneys tall and billowing thick and grimy clouds of soot, now pulsated their bright-dim-bright light to show a central tableau under a thick and growing thicker pall of sooty black smoke that replaced the ceiling with roiling clouds of utter darkness. The center of the room now sported a large black 'Cauldron' of stereotypical hue and shape, and the stones the thing rested on – three building stones, stolen of course, all of them the same – were the same hue as the pot.
And around this central pot within the sword-drawn and pick-chipped circle strode the three 'beings'. Before, they were merely 'trying out' their blackened dress. Now...
They were witches indeed, and composed entire of solidified darkness by virtue of their chanted curses, their blackened clothing, and their 'reminders to duty' fully clenched by the action of a near-lethal dose of datramonium tincture chased down with much strong drink.
The unnaturally soft steps of the three witches as they circled about the central pot seemed to ring loudly with steady crashing thunder within my mind, and with a closer look – my view 'zoomed in', much as if I were using a camera with a zoom lens – I saw the nature of their dark and sharp-pointed footwear, and then how they performed the true-step: the feet of each new-minted witch raised high in unison, such that their iron-rigid legs were parallel with the surface of the ground; held for an instant, much as they balanced 'fate' and the raging desire for utmost power on the edge of a well-honed razor; and then brought down forcefully, the leg still rigid as a column of stone, with an eye to shaking the entire planet with each crashing blow and announcing to all that would hear that the one so walking had the uttermost favor of Father Brimstone.
“Why aren't they pounding the floor?” I thought quietly. I did not wish to be discovered, as they had desired a fourth person for the rite to come – and I would serve that purpose – and do so admirably. A closer look at the centerpiece showed why their steps were so quiet.
The three witches were foot-pounding in a circle about the cauldron upon the backs of their soon-to-be sacrifices, with the goal of both 'tenderizing them' for the teeth of Brimstone and to show their current status in the spirit world.
They were on top of all others, holding everyone other than themselves in complete contempt, viewing all save themselves as non-human objects that existed purely for their pleasure – and when that pleasure was not fully and instantly gratified...
Those objects cursing them by their chosen disobedience needed to cease with their rebellion, and die instantly as per the inclination of those witches that owned them.
The witches had previously broken troth with humanity by eating a last meal of swine's flesh, and in doing so, they had left behind all that made them human. Henceforth, they would eat as witches; more, they would most assuredly be witches to be truly reckoned with, such that all would hear their high and ringing chants and do their will without hesitation or speech to the contrary. This was the meaning, and the high 'screamed' words in Underworld German seemed to conjure the sensation of infinite perfection now entirely achieved, one world entirely in the grip of Brimstone's hungry jaws...
And I came to myself, still looking down to the bottom within the 'Chauldron Deep', much as if it were a bottomless pit. I then noticed I was shuddering, and that soundlessly, almost as if the three true-witches were still in the room and inclined toward hunting a true disgrace – and finally, as I entirely left the 'state' or whatever had actually happened, I noticed I was still softly speaking.
“I'm glad you're looking at that, and not me,” murmured Sarah softly. She seemed miles away, as I could barely hear her. “I've written down what you were saying.” I then noticed – barely, and that from a wide and great gulf of distance – the emphasis upon the words 'you were'. For some reason, I was not bothered by it.
I had other things that concerned me far more, and I spoke of them: “what was I saying?” As I said this, I clumsily – with leaden feet and stiffened legs, almost as if I had been conjured myself into a creature the witches had spoken of as the chants reached a crescendo – backed away from 'the lake of fire'.
The witches had named the pot thusly, once their sacrifices had given up their blood and their heads, and with their victims central upon the dinner plate of 'Father Brimstone', they were now entirely 'made men' – and men to be reckoned with in the world of witches.
All such sacrifices were so performed, I now knew; and Brimstone was not merely 'ever-hungry', but he had definite preferences regarding his meals – and 'made' witches knew that if he was not fed sufficiently by they themselves – and that frequently – then he would desire them, and take them as per his inclination of the moment.
“What they did, and more importantly, why they did it,” said Andreas quietly. “I would watch your steps, as I've found at least one trip-line in here already.”
“Where?” I gasped, as I froze in mid-step. I had been walking backwards in a daze, I now realized.
“It's near that pot, a little to the side of where you were standing,” said Andreas. “I suspect there are more of them, which is why we were told to be careful as to what we touched.”
“Jugs, also,” I muttered as I once more held up the glaringly bright lantern. “They didn't just use gun-traps, but also jugs filled with powder and light distillate, and...” I paused, gulped, then spluttered, “some wretch stole some of Hans' friction-igniters.”
“Which isn't that hard to do,” said Sarah. “He does those things by the numbers, and that commonly.”
“How?” I asked. I was thinking they were being stolen from where we lived, for some reason.
“The same way the witches would go into Maarten and Katje's,” said Sarah. “I know at least one of the town's gunners has spoken of thefts, and then Esther has seen many witches near their home.”
“They do not steal from Paul, nor do they bother with Willem,” I muttered. “They want to, and they've tried many times, but it's a bit too hazardous for witches to steal around that place.”
“Nor do they need to,” said the soft voice. “Not all cannon-keepers are as careful with their charges as Willem or some of the better-known gunners, and thefts are not rare. Then, friction-igniters are readily available from the fifth kingdom – and the 'witch-grade' versions made there are decent for functioning, if used while fresh.”
I then looked down, and saw in the glaring lantern-light the designs painted upon the floor. I first saw one crudely-painted rune, then another; then as I followed a line of dried blood that looked as if applied with a bad paintbrush, I passed closer to Sarah...
And my senses froze.
I stopped in mid-step, frozen stiff as a statue, and looked directly down at my feet. A thin shadow cast itself upon the floor, one but barely discernible; and I backed away a single step and knelt down with my lantern held closer. My hand reached out to gently touch what I was seeing, and the touch of my finger upon the string nearly made me sick.
“Greased string,” I muttered, “and greased with lard.”
“That's the fourth trip-line,” said Sarah softly. I heard the noise of pencil upon paper. “Andreas found another one, and the door had one as well as that gun-trap.”
I moved to the right, now scuttling like a crab. Sarah came closer with the candle lantern held in front of her, and as she did, I silently thanked God for good lighting. Greased string, especially that which had had a chance to gather dust, was well-nigh impossible to see in less-than-excellent lighting. It made for a desire to smuggle 'Old Sole' into the Abbey so as to avoid trouble with rigged regions.
I followed the string as it 'floated' but inches above the floor, and saw that it led toward one of the corners of the room. There, I saw sundry cast-off rubbish, and as I came closer, the rubbish seemed to go faint, then gauzy; and as I came within a few feet, I saw two jugs hiding behind and under it, with the string going into a small 'tunnel' so as to not be obstructed.
“Those are the biggest common-shaped jugs I've ever seen,” I muttered softly. My words seemed to now ring in the room like the echoes of sacrifice death-screams.
“It is likely they once contained Amontillado,” said Sarah. “I suspect the witches converted them into bombs.”
“Filled with light distillate, no less,” I muttered, “and the detonator is a bundle of three sticks of dynamite.”
“Those men were well-connected, if they secured dynamite,” said Andreas. “That one will need to be disarmed.”
“The others?” I asked.
“I've dealt with gun-traps before,” said Andreas. I turned to see him assembling his stick.
“Uh, let me try with these rags,” I murmured, as I recalled dealing with 'The Great Beast' in the fifth kingdom and the mound of rubbish near it. I then turned back toward the mound, took two steps closer, such that I was but feet away from its border – and slowly moved my right hand in a sidewards wave.
The rags seemed to part to both right and left, and as the 'furrow' widened, I saw first the top of one jug, then a portion of the other, the 'tunnel' – it was made of boards anchored with lumps of brownish-black 'coal' – and finally the charge of dynamite between the jugs. The whole was tied together carefully with a length of thick and bristly rope, and as the rags moved further away from the bomb, I drew closer, all the time watching for the trip-line.
“There's an igniter,” I thought, as I followed the line from its hiding place in the tunnel up to the 'T-shaped' device inserted into one of the dynamite sticks. “Now did they rig this thing to prevent tampering?”
“No, because they thought such trickiness was unneeded,” said the soft voice. “Were Hans here, he would have blown up half the house by now, and the same for those like him in competence.”
“That bad, eh?” I muttered. “Did these people even think of how to rig such charges to prevent tampering, or its possible advisability?”
“No,” said the soft voice. “That level of trickiness is very rare in witchdom.”
“Then it bodes well for us,” said Sarah softly. “I've been drawing and making notes of all I see in here.”
“H-how, dear?” I asked, as I knelt by the charge and carefully cut the string to the igniter with my knife. The merest touch served, thankfully, even though the igniter had lost its sharpest 'edge'. Wax-dipping the finished igniter made that edge remain longer, but did not preserve it indefinitely.
“Because if we are trickier than most of the witches...”
“That gives us a most-dangerous problem,” said Andreas, “as we will be then disinclined to do our utmost.”
“And we will underestimate the witches, also,” I said as I cut the first of the ropes tying the charge together, “as those witches who are that tricky are either in high positions of leadership or have the ready ears of those who are.”
“Very perceptive, and all too true,” said the soft voice, “and while witchdom has difficulty with matters of execution of such plans, that does not mean it can neither make such plans nor attempt their implementation.” A brief pause, “that is for the current crop of witches. Those long in the past were far more capable, and much of what they did survives in functional form.”
“And hence our current witches need merely use what they have ready to hand, should they have knowledge of it,” I said. “Few know anything whatsoever about such matters who are not witches.”
I paused in my speech, and touched the dynamite itself. For some reason, the headache I expected, while present, was nowhere near as intense as it should have been; and I carried the three components of the bomb separately to the doorway, one item per trip, where I put them carefully against the opposite wall. I returned to find Andreas pointing out that first gun-trap.
“Yes?” I asked. “This one isn't a roer, at least for the bore. Are there others which are roers?”
“The roer is over here,” said Sarah as she pointed to a fold in one of the room's walls. I recognized it as my hiding place in the 'dream' immediately. “I'm not sure if it's very good – it's metal is badly rusted because it was painted all over with blood.”
“They figured people would investigate this place much sooner,” said Andreas. “I warned them off, and so did Kees once he came back from the trip.”
I looked about once more in the main room. The greased strings snaking across it – there had been a total of five so far – had been either rolled up or cut; there was still a great deal of rubbish lining the numerous corners of the room; the floor was dusty, but under that, it was nearly solid dried blood; while the walls...
“Every stinking wall in here is covered with either individual runes, the runes of the hiding curse, or writing in Underworld German.” I looked closer at one particular slogan – and found it was in a language I understood.
“That thing which doth not braketh me maketh me yet full harder.”
“Can't spell 'break' right, and tries to copy the second kingdom's version of the written format,” I spluttered.
“I know,” said Sarah. “That's not the most common saying among witches, either.”
“That is not because it is not well-known,” said the soft voice. “It may be a prominent saying in most black books, but it is very hard to live up to – and that goes double if you're a new-minted witch.”
The 'hallway' that I recalled had its shelves still, but they were barren of all save the dust-rimmed outlines of the supplies I recalled as being there; no less than three greased string trip-lines passed inches above the floor along the ten feet or so of its length.
The first of these went to an ancient-looking flintlock pistol of large bore and surprisingly long barrel, and once the string was cut and the weapon 'deprimed' by dumping the contents of the pan, I noted the metal portions of the thing was merely lightly oiled. Not a trace of blood was upon it.
The second trip-line went to a similar pistol, and when I deprimed it, I noted its bore as being larger than that of a 'pirate-special' pistol. Those tended to be 'number four' size or a trifle smaller, while this...
“How large is this thing?” I thought. “I don't have my gage set here.”
“There is another trip-line,” said Andreas as I looked up from what I had in my hands.
I handed him the pistol, and crawled along the dusty floor to the third barely-visible trip-line. I came to the place where it passed under the lowest shelf, just like the others – and came to face with a yawning muzzle large enough to easily wiggle my thumb in it had I tried. I cut the trip-line, then the ropes securing the weapon, and as I dragged out the piece, I noted more and more what it was likely to be – until the lock became visible. I deprimed it then, and stood with the huge gun held near the muzzle. It came nearly to my shoulder for overall length.
“That is a roer for certain,” said Sarah. “I know of a use for those pistols.”
“Y-yes?” I asked, as I began walking back toward the entrance. The musket, while old, looked to be at least passable in the workmanship department – and roers, no matter their impracticality for hunting, had a certain usefulness in the realm of gun-traps, once they were suitably modified. The thimble-style lock was a relatively easy replacement in most instances, and I had a full set of gages and patterns for such mechanisms.
“They work well on rats, if they are in decent condition,” said Sarah. I then noticed she was carrying one of them, and Andreas the other.
“I'm putting this thing outside,” I murmured as I walked toward the door with the gun carried at 'port arms'. “There are other gun-traps and bombs present, but the guns are likely to be blood-painted, and...”
“Some of them, yes,” said the soft voice. “There are more than a few 'looted' weapons that are in usable shape still.”
“Which it behooves us to recover,” I murmured. “They may be balky and annoying to fire, but a 'gun' is a 'gun'...” I almost said 'gonne', for some reason.
“More business for the shop, I'd say,” said Andreas as he came behind me. “There has been talk of converting many of the muskets in the house proper to the use of thimbles.” A brief pause, then as I went out into the hallway, “pistols of that type, if gone through so as to be properly functional, would work well for rats.”
I turned to face him, for he had more to say – and this, unlike the previous speech, was important.
“I've noticed that every weapon and bomb we have found in here has had poor execution, and I include the bombs disarmed so far,” he said.
“You have weapons, don't you?” asked Sarah.
Andreas nodded, then produced a revolver, saying, “I myself prefer rotating pistols, and have for years.”
I wondered for an instant about his statement of 'poor execution'. Was it the rigging of the traps, or the weapons, or something I could not think of? I then had a question for Andreas.
“Where did you get that..?” I indicated the pistol that he had returned to his pockets.
“From the fourth kingdom's market,” said Andreas. “Not one of their 'best' grade weapons, but a decent one nevertheless.” He then retrieved the revolver by a movement too rapid for me to follow or locate its previous hiding place, and as I looked the weapon over, I saw that its finish was more than a little worn, with the metal itself showing in many places. “It could stand reblacking. When your process for that comes good, I'd like it to be gone over.”
“Gone o-over?” I asked.
“Correct what deficiencies you find,” said Andreas. “I know you do that with those things, and I've tried Anna's for function. Then, dull its finish overall, and finally blacken it so I do not need to constantly wipe it with an oily rag to prevent rust.”
“Dull its finish?” I asked. I wondered as to the request, even if I wondered how to readily accomplish the matter without the use of chemicals that were not likely to be available here.
“Shiny weapons, if one is in a situation where they might be used,” said Andreas, “tend to show the enemy where one is, even if they are blackened well.” A brief pause, then, “and this room looks likely for the use of rat-clubs, as I can smell rats as well as a dead pig.”
“Watch that string there,” said Sarah. I jerked instinctively, and froze with my foot but inches above the dusty floor.
The string in question – it was like most of the others but inches above the stones of the floor, greased with lard, and coated with a light coating of dust – did not lead to a gun or bomb. What it did lead to made for wondering on my part – and then a blurted question.
“What is that thing?” I gasped, at seeing something that resembled a four-foot-long overly-thick baseball bat studded with short stubby wooden spikes at its thicker end. The thing was rigged to 'swish' across the juncture between hallway and workroom, and the clumsy execution of its release mechanism was all but laughable – except for the copious coating of dried pig's blood upon the spikes.
“That is a bludgeon,” said Sarah, “and of a type common on both tapestries and in old tales.”
“The ones in the tales tended to be smaller,” said Andreas – who then swung at something near his leg. I heard the sound of a club 'connecting' with a soft thump, which was followed by a soft whizzing noise and then a softer-yet thud upon a far-off wall.
“That rat will not do much,” said Sarah. “I hope none of them become too friendly with me.”
“And I hope we do not encounter a rat-mine in here,” I muttered.
“What species of mine is that?” asked Sarah. I heard genuine curiosity in the raised pitch of her voice.
“What do you call one of these secret passages when you suddenly come upon a massive swarm of rats, and all of them wish to climb your legs?” I spluttered.
“They most likely wished to bite your legs, not climb them,” deadpanned Andreas. “I am not sure if this place is a mine for rats, but I am certain it has a lot more than the one I just thumped.” A brief pause, then, “we'll find the bodies in here, most likely.”
The lanterns shed their glaring light across the room, and as I took in the tableau, I saw the following: mounded blood-dipped tools gone to rust, if not reddened black powder; three elongated dust-piles mingled with bone fragments; many of the tools – that one Dietrich anvil especially – were entirely gone – and finally, one of the forges had fallen apart, and among its dust and ashes lay the well-gnawed and going-to-powder bones of an obvious pig. The tracks of many rodents showed clearly almost everywhere upon the floor.
“If it was that far gone,” I muttered, as I carefully stepped beyond the threshold of the room and into it, “how did we smell the odor so strongly?”
“Witch-holes hold their smell for lengthy periods,” said Sarah, “or so I have heard.”
“They do,” said Andreas. “I've rigged more than one of those places, and the stink of death is strong even if the place hasn't been used in months.”
With alcohol lanterns held high, we diligently searched for traps. I found the first example hidden next to a tall mound of 'hard-looking' ashes, and as I withdrew the bundle of dynamite wrapped with rope, I again noted a mild 'powder headache' instead of the usual 'migraine'. Its cap withdrawn, I ferried the bomb past the mounded debris of the room while the others remained in place; and when I returned, Andreas said, “I found another jug-bomb, only it's but a single jug, and no dynamite.”
“Probably a common species of witch-jug, then,” said Sarah. “Hans has enough of those things in the basement.”
“Where?” I squeaked.
“In the cold-room, along with all of the other things of that type,” said Sarah. “It might not be as cold as a fourth kingdom cold-room, but it is similar for function to the one in the house.”
“Not much smaller, either,” said Andreas. “I've been in that place, and even without ice, it's cold enough to want warm clothing.”
“Here, or..?” I asked.
“Where you live,” said Andreas. “Hans said he would be trying thimble-mix soon, but I suspect that won't be the only thing he will be trying that wants ample ice.”
“What?” asked Sarah. Her voice was pure curiosity.
“I am not certain what it is, beyond it will be most useful for dealing with the Abbey,” said Andreas. “Hans does not currently know of this particular process, even if he thinks he knows all about it.”
“Which would that be?” asked Sarah.
“I'm not precisely sure,” said Andreas. “I'll speak of it after we clear this room, as we don't have that much time left.”
“H-how?” I asked. I was looking for more greased strings, and my bent-over status with lantern held near my head didn't help my speech.
“The witches in General's Row,” said Andreas. “Go over to that hole there” – here, he pointed – “and listen carefully.”
I did so, carefully wary for hidden strings among the mounded piles of debris. With each step, the matter became more certain: Andreas was correct in his time assessment; there were bombs still present, all of which needed disarming, either because of their destructive nature or because the weapons used were needed; and...
I came to the 'hole', and noted it to be a secret passage of some kind. It had once been hid by a cloth, which was now gone to dust and raveling threads beneath my feet. I put my head in, and concentrated.
“They're awake,” I spluttered, “and those of them not speaking in Underworld German are thinking of 'looking about the place'.
“And those of them speaking in Underworld German will need an hour to sober up enough to 'guide' such matters,” said Andreas. “That one guard was right – General's Row is getting a new population in quite a hurry, and they are most diligent in learning the ways and means of witchdom.”
“Wonderful, a fresh crop of those thugs,” I muttered, as I turned away from the passage. “I hope we can keep them out of here, as...” My voice ended with a sudden thought.
“Yes?” asked Andreas. “We can spy upon them readily from this point, and that passage is quite narrow in places.”
“Hence they'd need to be the size of a child starting school to get through it,” I muttered.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While the passage is narrow, you could traverse it and those like it in the house fairly quickly.”
“Meaning we'll need to trap that one,” I said softly.
“You could traverse the passages in question fairly quickly,” said the soft voice once more. I wondered at the emphasis on the first word, at least until I heard, “for that one, it's a very tight squeeze in places for someone the size and build of Sarah. For a drunken General, it verges on being a deathtrap.”
“I suspected that,” said Andreas. “I've gone in most of the secret passages in the house, but not that one.”
“You would most likely get caught up,” said Sarah. “If it is tight for me...”
“Most women your size and build would have great trouble,” said the soft voice. “Andreas could traverse it, though he would need exceeding care in places, while your husband-to-be could all but run through it were he so inclined.”
“How?” I asked. My voice was the picture of incredulity.
“In much the same way you had to work at being visible during sword-drills, and how you saw the worst portions of that ceremony,” said the soft voice. “Now time is short, and there are bombs and guns which need removal prior to your speaking to the place.”
With that, talk ceased; and with lanterns held high, we searched diligently for strings and other trip-lines. In the process, I learned that the other forge needed but a nudge from my clumsy knee to crumble into small fragments; there were tools left – old tools, now solid rust due to a lack of daily attention with red-tallow; some strange-looking pieces of 'iron' stood stacked in rows in a 'hidden' alcove; and finally, the dust we stirred up slowly rose upward to then vanish overhead.
As I carried out the jugs of the last 'jug-bomb', Sarah said, “we will see this one at least once more before the witches are done.”
“The Day of Retribution?” asked Andreas. He had a bundle of dynamite in his hands – again, with a far-too-mild headache. We'd recovered at least a box of the stuff so far, or so I guessed.
“No, before we clear the witches out of the house proper,” I said. “Before that day happens, they will regroup, and do so multiple times.”
“They'll do that until they're truly scarce,” said Andreas, “and the same for people who want to be witches, too.”
“There are enough of those people,” said Sarah. I could hear distinct sadness mingled with another emotion I could not name.
“I did not speak of people who wish to be witches now,” said Andreas. “Those people will be where they belong when this happens.” A brief pause, then, “I meant those who will wish to be witches in the future.”
As we began to move the bombs to that one alcove of Andreas' where he had secreted the lanterns, I asked, “Sarah mentioned something of screws. Do you do those?” My candle-lantern was the sole light now, and Sarah carried it ahead of the two of us as we carried bombs and guns to join the already-stowed lanterns.
“One of my pieces of equipment does screws and things like them quickly, given sufficient material of a type it likes,” said Andreas. “I need be most careful with what it does, in fact, as it would give matters away if I let all save a very few see what it is capable of doing.”
“A Heinrich machine,” I murmured, as I recalled those peculiarly rusted bars and where I had seen their like prior.
“I think the Heinrich works copied one like it, as this machine is very old,” said Andreas, “and no, they do not sell their copies, but use them themselves.”
“Especially hard to set up, correct?” I asked.
“That, and a fair amount of tooling needs making for each job,” said Andreas. “I ordered some more tool-blanks for it while you were gone.”
“From the shop?” I asked. Andreas shook his head 'no'.
“Expect orders that way once you get that new piece of equipment built and running,” said Andreas. “In fact, I'd expect a fair number of orders for 'tool-rods suited to forging' to come from the fourth kingdom once your output from that furnace becomes consistent.”
It needed over a dozen trips, these done in all possible haste, to stow all of the dynamite and distillate in the alcove. Over a dozen long guns as well as nearly as many pistols had been recovered, and Sarah's drawings and notes took up nearly twenty pages in her ledger. I suspected Andreas and I could add to them from our recollections, but now I could feel the stirring of the Generals, and they were about to 'emerge' from their lair.
“To the stairs,” I whispered. “Those thugs are about to come out.”
With that, we broke into a run. I was glad the lantern did not go out, and as we reached the top of the stairs, I was inclined to speak.
“No, the bottom of the stairs,” I thought as I led the other two onto them at a quick-stepping clattering 'jog'. “That whole place is one big stinky nasty fetish, and it's going to go up so hard...”
“I would hurry if I were you,” said the soft voice urgently. “You just started it.”
I leaped the stairs two at a time with the others behind me, and as I leaped for the bottom, I wanted to dive for the floor...
A billow of light came from above. It washed out the darkness and lit the place up as if the sun were inside the house and shining brightly.
Hot winds began blowing from above and to my left, and the yellowed light became an angrier red as the flames roared loudly overhead with near-explosive force. I looked up to see a near-solid sheet of red-yellow-blue fire covering nearly the entire ceiling.
Noise, at first soft, then steadily louder, began to pound rhythmically on my mind, much as if a noise-spirit was handy and using my head for a drum. The beats – two slow thumps, measured in time, and kicked on a huge bass drum – were followed by a pair of rapid-fire rim-shots. This repeated in slow and monotonous manner for what seemed an hour amid roars and rumbles appropriate to the eruption of a large volcano.
I then realized I was indeed prostrate upon the floor, and I looked down the length of the hall. Coughing – faint, yet audible – seemed to ring in my ears; and when I actually looked up, I saw the entire main hall was filled to the top of the first story with thick and greasy-looking gray smoke.
“Oh, let the Generals have that smoke,” I said softly. “Use that one passage and stink them up good.”
The smoke 'shook' – it did this everywhere I could see it in the now near-sepulchral darkness – and with a sudden rush, it shot into a place somewhere distant upon the second floor.
'One thousand, two...” I was counting; and before I could say 'two thousand', the smoke had vanished from my sight.
The smoke was gone; and in the distance, I could hear screaming mingled with choking sounds of such frightening intensity that I wondered what had happened – at least until first one door of General's Row banged open, then two more, and as the black-dressed Generals ran out, the thick gray-black sludgy-seeming fumes followed them as if the smoke were a peculiarly tacky species of glue. I then heard Sarah speak.
“What did you do?” she asked, as shouts from our direct front and behind began to join the howling yells of the Generals as they continued to run from their erstwhile haven.
“He asked that they have the smoke,” said Andreas softly. “Look at those thugs run.”
“There are more of them in there than I thought there were,” said Sarah softly. “That place is going to be full of them inside of two weeks.”
“It already is 'full',” said the soft voice. “The 'imported witches' that are en-route will make it 'properly full' in short order.”