Investing the Abbey, part four


Hearing about a bird that tasted like tar and burned like a smoky torch was a sufficient distraction that I did not notice the Abbey when it first hove into sight. It was still miles away when Sarah spoke of it.

“All that green stuff is gone!” she squeaked. “What did they do, use catapults to toss jugs of lye at that place?”

“I'm not sure, dear,” I said, as I called a halt. “It's time to oil everyone.”

That operation took but moments, for Sarah had included a small vial of oil for my possible bag; and while I used my finger to make the sign of the cross upon everyone save myself – I'd want Sarah to oil me after I did everyone else, as I needed help as much as anyone else – I found myself praying silently, asking for assistance and protection from evil. I finished painting the others, and as I let Sarah 'paint' me, I somehow saw a reddish haze in my peripheral vision; and when I turned toward the north again, I saw the building itself, far distant, but little more than a dot upon the horizon.

A red dot on the horizon; and the red-hazed flames of evil billowing up into the heavens were now most-evident. A glance at the slow-climbing sun made for words as I remounted.

“They start in the fields about now?” I asked.

“Those who have crops needing tending do,” said Sarah. “See, over there. See those people?”

Ahead and to the right I saw a buggy pulled into the middle of a field utterly covered with the 'bushes' of turnips, and as I watched, a man, two boys, and a girl slowly walked the wide and bushy-seeming rows. Now and then, one of them reached down and removed a massive dirt-covered root by its thick and cumbrous-seeming cluster of leaves.

“That's one advantage of turnips,” said Sepp as we passed the intent-upon-their-work foursome. “You plant a field with those things, and you get turnips out of it for months.”

“When did they plant those?” I asked.

“Most likely as soon as the snow melted enough to walk the fields,” said Sarah. “Turnips stand cold weather better than any other crop that I know of.”

“They probably grow a lot of those things at Norden,” I muttered.

“Not with what they put on their fields,” said Sarah. “I read that report.”

“A mutated species of turnip is grown at Norden,” said the soft voice, “and while those there need special care and well-fenced fields, they get two large crops of those things during their growing season, not one like the other things they grow.”

“Fenced fields?” I asked. “Special care?”

“Norden's turnips tend to escape their fields otherwise,” said the soft voice. “They're not mutated versions of the turnips grown around here, but mutated true-turnips – which were among the vegetables most preferred by witches prior to the war due to their 'living' nature.”

“Living?” I asked.

“They weren't normal plants,” said the soft voice, “nor were they animals. They were 'hybrids' between the two – and the mutated versions, unlike the originals, tend to migrate readily to 'more-fertile' pastures.” A brief pause, then, “they work just as well for body-disposal now as they did when they were grown in this area.”

“Th-the Abbey,” I gasped. “That area to the rear was filled with those stinking things, and they tossed the dead into that area so as to feed them up!”

“Yes, and those working there have begun to find the old traces of the walls around the place in the process of digging the trenches for the foundation for the wall they're trying to erect.” A brief pause, then “those old wall-foundations were mentioned on the plans Hendrik has, as well as the need for their disposal by 'utter destruction', just like all the works of witches that place has.”

“Which they have not done in the slightest,” I muttered. “They've found them, but have done nothing about those foundations or the remains of those walls.”

“Those creatures prevent them doing so,” said Sarah. “That is another reason why the place needs clearing – those working there must keep their distance from it so as to not be ridden or eaten.”

“Correct on the second, and substantially wrong on the first,” said the soft voice. “For most of those working there, they are affected substantially by those creatures and the other things in that place. They would need to be as far away as you are right now to not be more or less 'taken over', at least in many of the critical areas of thinking.”

Sarah looked at me, her mouth open in a small 'o'. “Is that why you stopped where you did to oil us all?”

I was about to answer, but did not. Someone else did.

“That was but one reason among several, dear,” said the soft voice. “He'll need to do so once more before you set foot upon its grounds, and then as often as he can once you-all are inside the place.” A brief pause, then, “the reason Hans and Anna were not ridden when they went inside with him was the spirits in that place then were concentrating on him to the exclusion of all else.”

“They did not know your true nature,” intoned Gabriel. “Hell is a large place, and its districts do not communicate well among themselves, as is appropriate for a place that endures continual warfare.”

“He still makes sense,” I thought, “even if what he says makes me wonder as to its meaning.”

“It's simple,” said Gabriel. He seemed to be speaking to Sepp now. “You've seen witches, and you know how they are inclined to fight? Imagine a place where that inclination has nothing to stop it in any way, and the place is so crowded it makes the Swartsburg during its time of peak inhabitation seem like this area for its numbers.”

“This area?” I asked.

“No towns are within at least two miles of where we now are traveling,” said Gabriel. “Most major roads, unless they are well-distant from towns or are in areas truly unsuitable for farming, will have the areas to their sides cultivated because transporting such crops to market tends to be easier than otherwise.”

“And the fields that surround towns?” I asked.

“Those tend to be crops that are consumed locally for at least part,” said Gabriel. “Near where you live, I suspect half of what is grown is kept in town, unless you speak of corn.”

“I think more of that will stay in town now,” said Sarah. “Hans has three barrels for mash now, and he is thinking of putting the still out in the soap-shed.”

“That would work for aquavit, but it would not work for Geneva,” said Gabriel. “The flavors of soap tend to migrate nearly as much as the odor of mules.”

“Even if that Geneva is for rubbing and not drinking?” I asked.

“That might adversely affect that portion, also,” said Gabriel. “While Hans does not consume much Geneva beyond that needed for testing its taste, he does make some for medicinal purposes beyond use as liniment – and even I know about that, as I recall being dosed with that stuff for the crae the summer before I left for the higher schools.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and Geneva tastes sufficiently vile that it does not need the flavors of soap added to make it taste more so.”

“Yes, and you like wine,” said Sepp. “You were asleep and stinking of it when we found you.”

“I also had a very late night,” said Gabriel, “as I thought I had a ten-day's worth of work to do in a week of seven days. I was wrong, and not a little wrong.”

“How were you wrong?” asked Sepp.

“It was closer to two weeks worth of work,” said Gabriel, “and when I say 'week', I do not mean 'a period of seven days', but rather 'the time between one church-day and the next as it has been lately' – and I have counted twelve days between two instances of church since we returned from that trip.”

“Hence you tried to put in a double-shift,” I murmured, “and... I recall you speaking once of consuming wine to help you stay awake. Was that what you tried to do?”

“I thought it might help,” said Gabriel. “I realize now that what it tended to actually do was make me think it helped me stay awake by causing a certain degree of intoxication.”

“And in reality, you simply wrote down whatever you were thinking while camped upon the borders of Drunkenland,” I murmured. “You tried beer, did you not?”

“Yes, and that helps up to a point, provided it is consumed in substantial quantity,” said Gabriel. “It might give another two hours to my day then, with those hours being decent for work. I needed closer to ten such hours per day, though, and I was desperate enough to try wine for that purpose once more.”

“Life in the fast lane,” I muttered.

“That will make you ready for a rest-house, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “I recognized what he just said, and that's exactly right.”

What?” I gasped. The Abbey had somehow 'magically' become much clearer. I could now discern clearly the building itself; it was no longer 'vague' in the slightest.

“It was on a tapestry,” said Sarah, “and it referred to how the witches of that time lived and how many of them seemed to be made insane by doing so.”

“Long days?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Sarah in 'spooky' voice. “The days and hours of witches were said to be legion, and the ones today try hard to equal their practices that way.”

“Uh, is there a saying for that?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Sarah. She sounded even spookier than she had before. “The tapestry spoke of the hours of the witch, and the days of the witch, and the whole of them together were said to be 'witch-hours, and witch-days' – and I have heard my share of those black-dressed witches speak that way.”

“Where was this?” asked Gabriel.

For the first time ever, I now realized, I was hearing Gabriel speak a question in a tone that indicated true and genuine curiosity. I thought to look at his eyes, and as I turned around to look, Jaak moved to the side slightly. I thought he might need to use the ditch.

He did not. I suspected he had an idea of what I was looking for, and when I saw Gabriel's eyes, I shuddered – for what I was not seeing was anything remotely close to 'a long stare'.

I was seeing something I had no words for beyond “he has come unto the mouth of hell itself, and there, he was burned by the ever-hungry flames of its chief denizen.”

“Closer than you think,” said the soft voice. “Recall that time when you thought him 'shamming' when he collapsed in the mud?”

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“At some level, he was doing exactly that,” said the soft voice. “At the physical level, though – he was not.”

“What had happened?” I asked.

“You did not have an auto-defibrillator handy,” said the soft voice, “so you scalded him, which was the best you could do under the circumstances. The sudden shock and the pain of a second-degree burn caused his heart to once more beat regularly. Ask Anna about 'jumping hearts' when you next see her.”

“I did that twice, though,” I thought. “The second time?”

“The same thing, only then he wasn't shamming at all,” said the soft voice. “He may have had a fairly good idea when you creased his head with a bullet about how serious you were, but when he 'woke up' from near-death that time, he knew you were fully prepared to kill him – and not just by any means, but by a method written about in several old tales.” A brief pause. “One of those tales – the one where that method is mentioned in precise and lurid detail – is one everyone who has gone to the higher schools knows very well, even Maarten and Katje, as it illustrates the nature of witchdom and those marked better than almost anything written that is readily available.”

“Which one?” I asked.

Smokestack Heroes,” said the soft voice, “and while Anna spoke of what she knew when she mentioned that tale, that woman who told you what she thought of your life knew much more about the truth of the matter. More importantly, only two types of people would do what you did those two times, and Gabriel knew that when you 'doused' him the second time.”

“What?” I asked silently.

“Either a true-witch who had worked in Berky during its most evil days,” said the soft voice, “or an escaped 'Disgrace' – namely, someone marked – who had been in Berky or a place like it during the same timeframe.” Another brief pause, then, “and those people became the most feared 'monsters' of all.”

“Why?” I asked. This again was silent.

“It changed their genetic structure to a certain degree,” said the soft voice, “and all of the 'marked' switches were turned on fully.” Another pause. “Just like yours are, in fact – which is yet another reason why you were brought here.”

“It was changed on the way here?” I asked.

“Your past all-but ensured that would happen,” said the soft voice. “But one difference.”

“What?” I asked again.

No one on this planet, not since its inception, has endured four decades and more of living in an environment resembling Berky at its worst,” said the soft voice, “and that really affected those changes that happened to you on the way here.”

This manner of speech, however, brought back to mind the term 'them changes', and as the Abbey itself drew steadily closer – it was playing games with my eyes again, as I could not seem to determine precisely how far away it was – I recalled that I had been told those would be 'later'.

Was this the later spoken of, or would 'later' indeed be later?

“No, not this,” I thought. “I might have never seen a real 'dragon' before, but that varmint is as real as anything.”

Then again, so was that 'snake' I was slicing on when Kees was trying to make his bones by murdering me. It made me really wonder about 'them changes'.

“That dragoon might be somewhat harder to stop than 'Kees' was, but it's nowhere near that agile,” said the soft voice. “It's a little bigger, and it's somewhat tougher, and it spews a lot of flame, but that 'snake' you fought then was worse in every other way.” A brief pause, then, “and 'them changes' is not happening today.”

I looked up from my ruminations, and saw the Abbey. It seemed to abruptly 'loom closer' in my vision, and as I recalled its former green and clinging garb, I saw that now, it was gray and brown in tall and ragged stripes; and where I formerly recalled its near-mountainous shape, I noted it to be a tall – taller than the first kingdom house proper, unless I guessed wrong, and that by no small amount – and wide rectangular building. I then looked closer as it seemed to fade slightly – and then move another half mile away.

The place was much longer than I thought it was, for it seemed to turn about its axis slightly to show me its true length.

To the east of this tall and graying monolith, I could see a cleared area; and beyond that, this being perhaps half a mile by my guess, I could see once more the resumption of the forested realm I recalled. Yet I knew not merely trees lived there. People did also, and at least one such person was a smith.

I was hearing the sounds of forging, and it made me recall something Georg had spoken recently as I had labored upon a task. He'd spoken of trying to find more people, as with Frankie running on anything close to a regular basis, that meant a lot of added 'simple' work: cutting up scrap with hammer and plate-chisel, bagging up charcoal and the other materials used for running the furnace; breaking up 'flux-rock' into a near-powder; spading and raking the sand-heap regularly – I would need to check it before each use to ensure the stuff was in 'good' condition, but its routine maintenance demanded much sweat and little actual thinking – and finally, unloading and loading deliveries of one kind or another.

“Once Georg gets his new buggy running, that is,” I thought.

“He's partly made up for its lack by speaking widely of its destruction,” said the soft voice, “and hence customers are now commonly coming to check on and pick up their things when they're ready. Notice how those people became far more common at the shop once Georg lost that vehicle?”

I nodded mentally.

“That was one reason why,” said the soft voice. “The other reason is you are becoming better-known among non-witches, and the witch-thinking masquerading as gossip that speaks of the ways of instrument-makers is influencing the behavior of many new customers – at least until Georg manages to set them straight.”

“A lot of them don't listen, though” I thought.

“True, many of them do not, which is why they will tell their friends about you as if you were 'an especially nasty evil spirit',” said the soft voice. “Given that some of those 'friends' are either well-hid supplicants or better-hid plain-dressed witches, that's all to the good.”

“Uh, why?” I thought.

“Because those people will not dare to come near 'your favored haunts',” said the soft voice. “Those 'ignorant' customers might not be privy to much witch-gossip, but those supplicants and witches are; and when they hear their rumors confirmed and cemented into their very worst nightmares – namely, that you've taken over 'their' people so completely and now 'own' them – the vast majority of those witches and supplicants will leave where they live so as to get out of your newly-acquired 'territory'.”

“And then get themselves shot,” I thought. “They might not be 'panicking' when they hear such talk initially, but they will be leaving as if panicked – and that, coupled along with the general suspicions upon people who leave that suddenly with no good explanation...”

“You left out the pigs,” said the soft voice. “Panic among witches and supplicants makes their 'smell' vastly stronger – and any pig within smelling distance will come running for food.”

“And pigs mean witches are close-by in the eyes of nearly everyone...”

I stopped speaking, as for some reason – why was a mystery, as I could not sense any such animals in the area – I was smelling pigs. I soon learned it was not merely me.

“I smell a pig,” said a woman's slow and 'disembodied' voice, “and if that pig could wake me from a sleep like unto death, then it must be the father of swine.”

“Where is that?” asked someone further back yet. “I do not see any pigs.”

“One passed by here, Karl,” said Sarah. “I saw swine-tracks in that field we just passed.”

“Then it... Where was it going?” This from Karl. He seemed to be thinking more than usually for him, which was in a way, good. I could think of ways it might well be bad, however, given where we were going.

“East, Karl,” said Sarah. “It was heading east, and that in a hurry, if those tracks told me truth.” A brief pause, “though how Katje could speak of a pig not much bigger than a Shoet as being the father of swine is a mystery.”

“How could you tell?” I asked. “The size of the tracks?”

“Yes,” said Sarah, “and seeing the tracks of a pig this close to the Abbey means witches have been near here in recent days.”

“They think they own the place,” said Katje's 'disembodied' voice. She seemed very much still asleep at some level, “and we trespass upon it, and thereby earn their displeasure.”

“Good,” said Sepp. “I've got stiff shot in my musket, two squibs, a borrowed fowling piece, and a full-loaded pistol – and I don't mind shooting witches.” A brief pause, then, “I am not certain about dragoons.”

“The pistols named that, or that lizard?” I asked mildly. The Abbey now seemed 'close enough to touch', yet I knew we still had a half-mile or more to go. I suspected 'painting' needed to happen in the next few minutes, and I called a halt a minute later to paint and be painted.

While I once more painted everyone save myself with oil from the vial and then topped it up from the jug Sarah had brought, the buggies were 'serviced' – Sepp had the oil, and Karl borrowed my hoof-pick as he went over the hooves of the buggy-horses. I noticed that while he seemed careful enough with them, he was not about to get close to Jaak; and upon finishing with my 'tool', he handed it back to me.

“That you can do,” he said. “I'm afraid I'll get kicked, as I am still new to this business.”

I checked Jaak's feet over quickly – I had not felt any stones, as when he got one, I felt it not a second after it became lodged as a rule – then tucked away the hoof-pick. I could tell I would need it inside, just like the club hanging on its leather 'strap' and what I usually carried.

Somehow, I suspected the lizard at least was not immune to my rifle. The Desmond most likely would ignore gunfire – at least, any gunfire I could manage.

“It will not ignore explosives, though,” I thought. “Now if we can present dynamite to that thing...”

“Karl!” I shouted, as I remounted. “I know what we can do with those spears!”

“What?” came a faint echo.

“Put dynamite to that Desmond,” I said. “Three sticks tied to the shaft, light the fuse, and then toss the spear!”

“I hope he ties the string, then,” said Sarah. “We have that tarred string that is used for bundling that stuff, but I do not want its tar upon my hands, distillate or no distillate.”

“If you have dynamite,” said Gabriel, “then I would be most careful around Katje.”

“Why?” I asked. For some reason, I had the impression that she would cause fuses to burn like quickmatch, if not cause the stuff to spontaneously detonate upon her touch.

“Because I heard her speak of it,” said Gabriel. He was trying not to yawn. “It seems she has heard tales of that stuff, and how useful it would be at the Abbey.” A brief pause, then, “and I have heard tales of how some women are around explosives.”

“Yes?” asked Katje, as she woke up in truth, this with a certain abruptness. “I have had instructions about dynamite, and they were strange.”

“Strange?” I asked as I turned to the rear. My voice seemed to have acquired an echo, and when I turned once more to the front, the Abbey seemed to be drawing closer like a moving mountain in search of an avalanche: those laboring there had not touched the front of the place, it seemed, and the sides of the river seemed unblemished by effort until I saw the long snaking lines of mud that ran thinly along its banks, save in two certain areas. There, not merely was there no mud; there was no sod, also.

“That would be where they will put the bridge,” said Sarah. I wondered how she knew where I was looking. The lines of mud were yet a mystery to me. “Now up ahead is that one place where one enters the grounds from the west side. There is another place, though it is well-hid at this time, where one can reach the place from the river-road.”

“There is to be a docking place there, also,” said Gabriel. “It is not marked upon those plans.”

“No, there's one there also,” said Sarah. “Hendrik could not see it until I showed it to him.”

“What?” I asked. “How did you know of it?”

“That tapestry I had to bathe for spoke of it,” said Sarah. “Now Katje, did you see Esther?”

“Yes,” said Katje, “and someone left a large package for me some weeks ago. She told me not merely what was in that package, but also how to use it.” A brief pause, “and I know someone in the party has a part-used box of stiff caps with them, as that stuff needs them to do its best.”

Sarah looked at me. I could have sworn she was stifling a laugh.

“Then, there was another person, though how she came so soon after Esther did was a mystery,” said Katje. “It was on the rest day, and I have not met a stranger woman yet.”

“Not even as strange as I, correct?” said Sarah. “There's the entrance. Turn to your right when we reach it.”

I recalled the narrow and 'jungly-seeming' aspect of the 'entrance', as well as its rutted and rocky soil; and now what I was seeing but a short distance ahead between two tall and part-trimmed trees had in common was 'both of them were entrances to very strange places'. This example was markedly wider; it was free of grass – that had been replaced by a mixture of clay and gravel rolled deep into the earth and packed flat by the passage of a multitude of buggies and wagons – and as I led into it, I noted more:

No longer was the region to each side of the once-narrow path resembling a jungle. The earth between the trees seemed raked, it was so free of sticks and 'undergrowth'; and as we passed by the place in question – it was easily a hundred yards distant from the now-much-wider path that ran among the trees – Katje said, “that other woman might be related to Sarah, at least for her speech.”

“Short, thin, somewhat lighter-color hair..?” I asked.

“The same, and stranger-yet,” said Katje. “She must know Esther, as she said she'd been by recently, and she said I needed to know about traps – mostly about avoiding them, but she said that such knowledge also applied to their setting.” A brief pause, then, “and how anyone could think to cause her trouble is a mystery, as had she been handy when the place was dark, she could have cleared out every black house overnight without making a sound.”

“Oh, hard to see at night, also,” I said. “I'm not sure if I'm...”

You could be the wind,” said Katje. “At least she left tracks. You... I'm not sure if you leave any.”

“Did she seem silly?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, much like Esther is,” said Katje, “only this was but the seeming, and that with both of them.”

“I would think you met my cousin, then” said Sarah, “and she does know a fair amount about traps.” A brief pause, then, “why do you speak of her clearing out those black houses?”

“She spoke of having encountered a small party of witches,” said Katje, “and she warned me about them before she left.” A brief pause, then, “I found them the next day when Maarten and I had to lead our older horse to the nearest town for supplies.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“We found the witches,” said Katje, “and every one of those black-dressed stinkers had gone rotten in their clothing.”

“Did that one black-dressed thug last winter...”

“Was that you?” asked Katje. “The others like him dragged his body off the next morning, and had I your musket then, I would have drilled one of those dragging him.”

“It was,” I said. I could see the 'light at the end of the tunnel'. “Did this second woman have knives?”

“Yes, several, most of which she spoke of 'acquiring from the witches',” said Katje. “The one she had of her own reminds me of this knife one of those guards who wears greens has, at least for its shape. She said she wanted a better one, but it was the best she could find thus far.” A brief pause, then, “and she spent some time cleaning that thing up once she had decent light inside our kitchen.”

“Cleaning it up?” I asked.

“I suspect this woman works as a jeweler,” said Katje, “but if ever Hendrik is inclined toward women guards, he would do well to take her, as she'd step right into greens just like you did once she finished training.”

“He is inclined that way,” said Sarah, “and I will tell her that when next I see her.”

We burst from out of the trees into the grassy region near the river, and where there once had been a vast region of tangled briers, those were now gone. In their place, I saw dirt rolled flat, this sparsely dotted with tents in scattered disarray under a few clustered trees; and in places, these having neither tents nor long-seeming rows of supplies, I saw a fuzz of pale-green new-sprouted grass. Further away, I saw more grass, this a deeper green; and beyond its borders, I saw once more the beginnings of the trees that had once all-but covered the grounds.

“They cleared those back some,” I murmured. “They used to be much closer.”

“In places they did,” said Sarah, as she drew up to where I had dismounted. “That smelly plant is gone, and talk has it it was the first to go when people came here to begin clearing the property.”

“If we do not clear that place over there soon, it will return,” said Katje darkly as she indicated the Abbey. I then noticed where Katje actually was.

She was trying to get down from the buggy, and seemed 'stranded'; and her baggy and much-mended gray clothing seemed utterly unlike anything I had ever seen a woman wear here – and that for nearly everything about it. It almost reminded me of that of those blue-dressed thugs for shape, if nothing else.

“Esther left one of her old sets of 'cleaning clothing' with me, and that other woman repaired it. Esther's lost around needles and thread.”

“She's not that good with sewing things,” said Sarah. I presumed Sarah meant the latter individual mentioned, as I had a hunch about Sarah's cousin. That 'family's' women tended to sew 'decently' regardless of who they were.

“Yes, compared to you she is not,” said Katje archly. “She makes most people seem worthless.” A brief pause, then as I went to help Katje down, she said, “I did not mean you when I spoke about sewing.”

“What?” I asked.

“She sews about as well as you do,” said Katje.

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “I had no idea...”

“Anna must not have told you, dear,” said Katje, “but she did tell me – and not only that, she showed me some mending he had done.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

“The clothing he came here with, dear,” said Katje. “Maarten, hand me... Maarten?”

Katje's sole answer was a soft snoring sound – and she reached into the bed of the buggy, then grabbed at something, much as if she were an irritated goose. The snoring continued, then it suddenly segued to a surprisingly loud yelp of pain.

“Wake up,” said Katje. “We are here, and you were holding both of those muskets as if they were brooms.”

“Brooms?” I asked, as I heard once more the clanging sound of forging. I localized upon the source, that being among the trees to the east some half-mile distant – and faintly, I saw heat-waves rising from among them. The near-complete lack of smoke told me what was the most likely fuel – and also, the fact that the forge in question had had a fire going long enough to burn hotly. That did not happen in less than an hour from cold unless one wished a forge to fall down quickly. That was one bit of smith-lore that seemed trustworthy, especially as the masons had confirmed it to be the case, that being so even if they did the work and used their materials – which made most others available in the area look poor indeed. Those I had seen go to sand and gravel in the armory seemed to confirm such matters utterly.

“Coke,” I murmured. “He's running a coke fire.”

“I suspect why, also,” said Katje. “Charcoal, until very recently, was nearly impossible to get in the needed amounts to run a new-sprouted smithy, and it is still difficult to find in real amounts unless you are a long-time customer with those who make it.”

“And burnt-coal?” asked Sarah.

“That, I suspect, comes from some distance upriver,” said Katje. “That second woman that visited me knows of some place that sells it about half a day's ride south of where she lives – and she has spoken of seeing people from the Valley in that area.”

“Veldters,” I said. “They bring that stuff up from the northern settlements, that place buys it, and then sells it to...”

“They must be especially careful in that area, if this is where I think it is,” said Sarah. “Those towns along the river were the favorites of witches for quite some time, at least until recently.”

“And that town with the niter?” I asked.

“They started leaving when you did the Swartsburg the first time,” said Sarah, “and when it went where it belonged entirely, they started clearing out of those towns in swarms.”

“And while witches and those who wish to be like them are no longer common in this area, those places where they once lived continue to think as if they still had witches living in them,” said Katje. “It might not be that way where we live, but that is only because our house is the only one that remains standing.” A brief pause, then, “now where do we put our things?”

That was the chief matter, and I began walking into the field toward the tents I had seen earlier. The others remained behind me. I could feel something akin to fear, as well as a nervous bustling as Sarah – she wasn't afraid of this place to any real degree, and perhaps Katje wasn't that afraid, but most of the others were – tried arranging matters for quick unpacking.

Or were they making ready to leave in a hurry? I could not tell. I hoped they would stay, but the talk of Hendrik speaking as if I could clear the place alone – and then cross the sea alone – was almost as frightening as the prospect of being abandoned.

“How would he expect me to do that, though?” I thought.

“As you said, he was speaking of his fears when he spoke to the boatwrights,” said the soft voice. “He knew matters were at the point where he was lost, and he knew if anyone could do such a thing...”

“He said that, didn't he,” I thought.

“That was but the smell of the mule,” said the soft voice. “He's merely less ignorant than most about what is required.” A brief pause. “Most people don't have anything vaguely resembling an idea that anything different is required – or, that any change is needed beyond that which you yourself have effected already.”

“Or so they believe, anyway,” I thought. I knew it was far from just my efforts.

“True,” said the soft voice. “Do not overestimate the contributions of others, however. In his ignorance, Hendrik – at least at this stage – was closer to the reality in his thinking than he realized.”

And with this, the effects of the place seemed to subtly change once more, even between one step and the next; for one instant, I was easily thirty feet from the nearest tent; and the next instant – the time it took to lift my foot and make ready to stride forward – I found myself in their scattered-to-hell midst.

“What a mess,” I mumbled, as I saw the tangled jumble of legs protruding from the open mouth of the nearest tent. It looked like a scene from a nightmare involving prolonged drunken debauchery. “Who are all these people?”

“The recipients of prolonged witch-thinking,” said the soft voice. “Their 'leaders' have not aroused them yet, as it is not the entirety of 'the third hour' for another half-hour yet.”

“How did they get the brambles cleared, though? These people, look, uh, as if they got trashed.”

“Two of those leaders have had run-ins with pigs,” said the soft voice, “and those two did much of the work since you left. These people aren't...”

An instant's pause, and once more, I looked around. The solidity of what I was seeing seemed to waver, become hazy. The word 'aren't' became 'weren't' in my mind, much as if what I was seeing was but a waking nightmare. The words resumed.

Quite useless...”

That seemed the sum of what I was seeing.

They're not much good...”

The tents seemed to waver faintly in an unfelt breeze – an ice-chilled breeze specially imported from a nightmare – one involving Norden, perhaps. The voice finally resumed speaking.

“Only during those hours deemed proper by witches,” said the soft voice.

“Like when those stinky coach-riding thugs were dumping curses in Roos,” I thought. “A large portion of the matter was what everyone in town had been taught to believe was the truth, because without that, those witches were just wasting their time, more or less.”

And with such thinking, a flood of ideas followed: the secret way. Cursed trees, sprouting up from below-ground delvings long-unused by witches. Long-buried potent fetishes. These, and many other things I had heard and seen, all of them suddenly became a coherent whole, and though I could see a number of large and gaping holes in this pastiche, I could also see the pattern coming together in my mind.

“Stinking violent north?” I spat. This was clearly audible. “This whole accursed place is one long-buried witch-hole, and everyone who lives here is at least two-thirds taken over from the instant they're born until the day they die.”

“Unless they are marked,” said the soft voice. “For those otherwise, you are close to the truth regarding many areas of thought. With the Swartsburg gone, this property is currently the worst for such behavior north of the area upon which the second kingdom house sits and its immediate vicinity.”

As I looked around, I wondered if there was a horn handy, one I could blow to show 'them' that a monster had arrived in the area, for it irritated me greatly. I turned to go, and as I did, I seemed to hear on the edges of my hearing a faint note that blared, deep yet dire, a sound that infringed upon the corners of my mind. I thought to try whistling – and again, I made the precise same 'ridiculous-sounding' barely audible 'bubbling noise' that I had when I had tried to whistle once before. There was but one difference compared to the last time I'd tried whistling.

I put a lot more effort into it this time.

The eruption of animalistic screaming that deluged me as the bubbling slowly faded was a cause for panic upon my part, and I wasted no time running from the tents toward the buggies. Behind me, I could hear – and feel – the start of a raving riot, one where every man's hand was against that of his fellow, and only as I slowed to a walk as I came among the buggies did I notice the smell.

The smell, at once faint and yet so profound, of death.

“What did you do?” asked Sarah in awe.

“I tried whistling,” I murmured.

“I think those creatures being potent fetishes is nothing short of the truth,” said Katje, “as most of those people were being ridden like smelly mules.” Again, I caught the past tense in Katje's speech.

“Every one of that group was,” I said. “They only worked from the third hour unto the ninth, and the only ones not affected were those who were marked...”

“Then who is that smithing?” asked someone who was still back at the buggies, “and how did those tents collapse like that?”

Once more I looked at the tents, and this time, I saw in truth: the tents were nothing more than collapsed pieces of old cloth, and the reality...

“They're giving this place a wide berth,” I thought; and in saying so, I knew another truth: those marked were not allowed in this camp. Those pariahs slept elsewhere, where such 'disgraces' could endure loneliness and privation, as was appropriate for those not desiring the things of witchdom.

“Everyone who labors here lives among those trees to the rear of the property, and save for a handful of marked people, they are not doing anything...” A pause, during which time I seemed to hear another dire horn, this one less faint than the one before. It seemed to curse sloth more powerfully than the curses of the witches who demanded such behavior. That took but a brief thought that led immediately to action. “Time for more oiling, I guess.”

And before doing this now much-needed business, I took another dose of the widow's tincture. After doing so, I was so focused upon the need to oil everyone and pray as hard as I could with closed mouth and active mind, then as Sarah oiled me, concentrating as hard as I could upon seeing correctly, that when I turned from the south and once more faced north under that grove of trees, I saw that no traces of the 'tents' yet remained standing. I was then startled out of my revery.

“They have started work,” said Sarah. “Look!”

My eyes began sweeping from left to right. Up to that one grove of trees, I saw nothing that moved, but as I continued moving my attention to the right, I began to see groups of people emerging from a well-worn path among the trees, all of them stifling potent yet obvious yawns; and in the hands of every such person – mostly men, but a fair number of women – I saw digging implements of one kind or another. As my eyes continued sweeping, even unto the seeming 'border' of the forest to the east, I saw a long, chest-tall, and somewhat 'snaking' line of earth next to a wide and disgustingly-sloppy trench that led from perhaps a hundred yards north of where we stood to near the north bank of the slow-moving and somewhat swollen stream.

“The foundation for the wall?” I asked.

“Until we clear that place over yonder, said Katje, “they more or less labor in vain; and while those who cleared the brush did not do so, those people were devoured by what yet lives within that witch-hole over there.” A pause, then, “its guardians that live within it devoured every one of those people by the time they'd cleared away the witch-planted vines and briers that hid it.”

“And what I saw?” I asked.

“There was no answer to my question, at least the one I was looking for. In a nervous voice, Sarah said, her voice hiding the fear she felt well nonetheless, “we should get ourselves started.” A pause, then, “and if those people were devoured when they stayed that distance from the place, then taking what we have any closer is...”

“Is safe enough for you,” said the soft voice. “Recall just who is receiving all of the attention now?” A brief pause, then, “with that attention diverted from themselves, those people you see yawning will not merely 'wake up' fairly quickly, but they will see the vast multitude of the more-obvious mistakes they have thus far made and begin correcting them.” A brief pause, then, “all you-all merely need do is to do your jobs – which need to be done properly before much of anything more happens here of importance.”

Sarah then looked at me, and asked, “then where should we park?”

I could think of nothing beyond 'somewhere shady within sight of the entrance' and 'well away from where those people died, as those things in there claim that place for their own, and they're bold enough now to not wait for darkness'. This came out of my mouth differently, though.

“Near the entrance? Under those trees, there?” I said as I pointed to a much nearer stand of three trees. Beyond that, I had no idea, save an added thought: I really did not wish to be near where those wine-bibbing fools had been devoured. That wine helped their demise to no small degree, as their consumption had been anything but 'modest'.

“Precisely correct,” said the soft voice. “They may have been the first of such fools, but they are far from the last of their kind you will encounter here.”

“And now is not the time for a witch-hunt,” I thought, as I began walking toward the three trees standing but forty yards from where I recalled the transom to lie. These three trees, tall, straight, wide-spreading and in full leaf, seemed to beckon me; and as I walked slowly toward them, wary for signs of trouble and possible places to bog the buggies, I kept a corner of my eye upon that former camp.

As I glanced at it, over the course of seconds, the shreds of cloth and other portions of 'the camp of fools' began to vanish into the grass, much as if that region's grass was hungry.

Hungry mouths, close-lined with crystalline spiky teeth, waiting, ever waiting, like all grass that grew at the behest of the witches and their ancient guardians. And as if to call up more such ravenous open-mouthed grass, faintly, upon the edge of hearing, I heard soft and muted the 'calling notes' of a muffled drum. Sarah hitched in her stride, much as if she herself had heard what I had just heard.

“Did you hear something?” she asked. “Some kind of a drum?”

I nodded, then as I came to the first of the three trees – the transom, now mostly cleared of brush, lay but perhaps forty paces distant; I had gaged that distance correctly – the drums became slightly clearer. I could now discern their rhythm. It was one I had heard before, and as I wondered why I was hearing it now, with each second, it became yet clearer and more distinct.

Boom-Boom, Boom-Boom-BaBoom-Boom.”

“I never liked drums,” murmured Sarah, “and whoever is playing those sounds as if they ate that datramonium bush that used to be here.”

Yet unlike the times before, there were not merely words coming to follow the thundering drums. Those would come later, I knew. The others seemed faintly oblivious, at least to what I – and possibly Sarah – were hearing, and as Sepp began to pull out 'his' supplies – we would bring in what we could easily carry, and leave the remainder in the early-morning shade of the trees – I heard not merely the first drum, that being the thumping cauldron-shaped thundering 'beast' I had heard at least once in recent memory, but a number of other drums of similar shape and differing size join in.

This, in turn, was joined by a shrieking calliope, this instead of an organ; and with it, I began hearing clearly the words. They had been there before when this drum and its ilk had beaten upon me, but they had been muddy, distorted, and most of all, greatly muted:


Our day devours the night,

Our night destroys the day,

If you try to run, you can not hide,

We broke on through to the other side.


A guitar joined in, this screaming like a tortured soul. Somehow, I knew it wasn't right.


Came on through to the Spirit Side,

Rushing on like a coal-black tide, yeah.


Another guitar. This made two. Somehow, I recalled the original music. That only had one guitar, not two; and these two ax-men battled each other with volume upon volume, and both of them fought together for the lead of the pack of thugs that pounded out time with watch-like precision

That had not changed. The rhythm was such that I could clearly discern it, and it matched that of what I recalled perfectly. I knew this was not a coincidence.


We cut our fetishes there,

Dug them out of the air –


The thunder I had heard before now differentiated further: unlike the original song – and more, that particular group of people – this version that I now heard – clearly – had the thudding tilt-hammer of a long-necked bass guitar, this thing louder than anything else playing; and by the juxtaposed playing and singing, I knew – how, I did not know – that this group did not have four members.


Do you still recall,

The day the creature cried,

Break on through to the other side,

Come on over to the spirit side.


It had six; and the person playing 'bass' was also doing the vocals. His instrument seemed to modulate his voice in some peculiar fashion, such that its subaudible range became his own rumbling 'tongue-of-Brimstone' growl.

Yeah...

Come On, Oh, Yeah...


Right,” I thought. “You might want such a mess.”

I then counted on my fingers as that calliope continued screaming like a damned soul. One, the drummer; two, the calliope player; three and four, the guitarists; five, the bass player...

“But that's five,” I spluttered. “How can it be six?” I then understood: six was a number favored by witches, and there had to be a sixth person, even if that person seemingly contributed nothing save their presence. In reality, they did contribute; perhaps they were the arch-witch that led this chant, and...


Every witch, loves our Brimstone,

Every witch, loves our Brimstone,

He eats,

We eat,

They eat,

Sacrifice!


The vocals suddenly 'lost' their modulation by the bass, and I could now hear the separation between the two; and in doing so, I understood a trifle more than I had before.


I made a hole into the sky,

A country underground,

a Curse that chains,

A Chant that blinds,

Break on through to the other side,

Come on over to the spirit's ride,

Break on through - Aaaagh!

Oh, yeah...


Witch-chants needed one's undivided attention, as well as one's absolute maximum in terms of volume and devotion; and with the separation between vocals and bass large and looming larger, I now heard the words much clearer. It made me want to run – somewhere, anywhere at all – amid the rumbling cataract of sound, and as I stood, now rooted like the tree that this horror-curse had made me, I was forced to listen to its noise.

Make the scene,

Weapons need,

Red to black,

Ours the power,

Dungeons straight,

Deep inside.

Break on through to the other side,

Come on through to the spirit side,

Break on through,

Break on through,

Break on through,

Break on through,

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


“What is this?” asked Karl. He was next to me, and looking around on the ground. I then saw Sarah, and her face was unreadable. Sepp had ceased with his efforts early on, so much so that he had done nothing to remove his supplies.

“Is that person singing something about 'breaking on through'?” I asked. The song, I realized, spoke each and every word of its horded multitude, all of them at the same time, this done such that it reverberated through all of time and space. I half-expected to see – in the near future – an ancient and warped turntable in one of the Abbey's many hidden rooms, a turntable so old that the distorted notes of its long-dead semiconductors were being carried forth by the action of its cursing-spirits alone.

“Yes, that wretch is,” spat Sarah. Her vehemence was astonishing to me – and I knew her to a fair degree, or I thought I did. Only Georg had seemed to have a more-even temperament. I knew better now: when it came to witches, Sarah had a vast reserve of ire – and based upon her run-ins with them that I had heard of, it was hard to blame her. “That northern witch is most fond of it, and she conjures its noise daily.”

Somehow, the pictured idea of Ultima Thule having a bad turntable with a single ever-spinning scratched-into-garbage vinyl record on it was so ridiculous I nearly laughed; and in doing so, the hold over me of this horrible noise seemed broken.

“No, it isn't the same,” I murmured, as I went back to the buggies. I began to 'organize' our loads. I had to do that; Sepp – and all the others, save perhaps Sarah – had no idea of what needed to be done. I had to lead matters, and as I did, I noted something else.

Tam was better than most common people for packing, but that was a matter purely of long experience on his part. In reality, his job looked neat. It was nowhere near as good as it looked to be if one wanted what he had packed ready to use, and about all I could do was lay everything out on the ground and essentially redo most if not all of his work. I'd been too tired to do it 'right' last night, and I had had my hands well beyond full besides.

“Be thankful for what he did do,” said the soft voice. “He was able to get it such that it could be transported here in one piece and with no damage, and it's less disorganized than it looks to be, chiefly as he used his experience rather than your knowledge to go by.”

“He doesn't pack for expeditions, but for transporting things...” I thought. I was then brought back to the present by the still-thundering noise – and more, the comments of the others. They, unlike myself, had nothing to worry about beyond staying alive, and that by following my distinct and all-controlling orders, much as if I was in truth an arch-witch.

“Only the message that defines evil is worse than that chant,” muttered Gabriel darkly, “and no, it is not ambiguous in its meaning.”

“What?” I asked. “It's not nearly the same for words, it has more people involved, it sounds almost totally different...” I then changed thoughts, and said, “I could never figure that one out.”

“Isn't it obvious?” said Sarah. I wondered if she knew more about that infernal song than she was letting on.

“The words I recalled hearing were a lot different,” I said. “This version has a very specific goal in mind, and then the person singing...”

I now heard the words clearer, almost as if the other tracks of the thirteen-track recorder were muted so the triple-wide 'chant track' was the only one still in the red zone. Recordings like this one had a peculiar VU meter, and the goal was minimal 'flicker', with a needle as close to pegging the stop without touching it as was possible. Recording done in this fashion was said to give a 'commanding presence', but the reality was closer to 'the witches chant as if they mean it, and that means as loud as possible – and who cares if the tape saturates as long as the message gets into people's minds'.

“And that...

The vocals stood out yet clearer, and now, I seemed to hear their underlying aspects:

The original singer – I could not recall his name – had a much better voice. This person had less vocal range, a much rougher timbre, and in comparison, almost no 'real' emotional content, unlike the man who had sang the original. More, the recording process...

No, not the process. The 'tape' or whatever they used to record with handled signals that smashed the circuitry and blasted on through into 'the hot zone' just fine. This was the way the singer actually sounded; and his voice – deep, almost monotonous, with a grating pitch and periodic squeals that sounded like the screaming of a 'stuck pig' – reminded me more than a little of a talking machine.

“Seems to have stability problems, too,” I said. “I can hear some feedback screeching away in that mess.”

And, as if to underscore what I had just said, a faint semi-modulated low-pitched howling, one that sounded like a deranged wolf, seemed to scream homage to Brimstone. I suspected poor circuitry design, as 'wolf-tones' were a well-known symptom of such trouble; and I had just heard one, unless I missed my guess.

“Maybe one word in five is the same, and that's being generous,” I said. “You may cease, sir.”

The horrible drawn-out squawk that came upon my speaking caused the sky to seemingly go dark, then brighter-than-burning, then dark once more, then back to normal – and from some subterranean place, I could hear a snarling metallic roar that all but shook the ground under my feet.

“It's almost as if they took that song and reworked it into a witch-chant,” I spluttered – for I was shocked at the silence. The place was like death, almost, until I looked at the laborers. Their movements, now rapid and sure, seemed to be immured in the silence of death, and when I muttered under my breath, “bother some witches, you things,” my hearing abruptly came back up. I then noticed what I had actually done while I was being 'annoyed' by a sextet of chanting witches.

“Tam may know his packing, but I think he should stick to packing things for Mercantiles,” said Sarah. “I can tell he did not go to the west school.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I laid out the drop-cloths and began to rapidly unload the sacks. “It got the supplies here in one piece, but now we have to organize them for our use.”

“Which needs you doing it, as he had but little idea of what we would need to do in there,” said Gabriel. “You could not be spared last night, so he did what he could do.”

However, once I had done a certain portion of the rearranging, I found that I had 'real' help; for as I 'cleared' the bags, learned that Karl and Sepp had indeed packed some of their own supplies; Sarah had her old satchel, which was fuller than I ever recalled the thing being; and Maarten and Katje each had a pair of those cloth satchels I had seen used for the transporting of bottles during the final phase of the hall's destruction.

“Where did you get those?” I asked absent-mindedly as I worked. I meant the cloth satchels.

“That room with those Benzina jugs,” said Sarah. “It had a great many of those things in one of those other boxes, and I know most of those newer guards have at least one such satchel for carrying their things.”

But a few minutes more, and I had 'arranged' matters. I then looked around, and saw that the others had been busy otherwise. Sarah was directing them in setting up a 'field bathing' location. It would be but a few minutes more before they finished, unless I guessed wrong.

“How did she cut the canes when they're on the other side of the river?” I thought.

“That wasn't the only room in that hallway with old dusty supplies,” said the soft voice. “The one next to it on the same side did not merely have those 'drop-cloths', but also pre-cut poles for what you see.”

“We'll still want canes, though,”

“Yes, for at sea, as well as much smaller pieces of thinner cloth than those 'drop-cloths',” said the soft voice. “Until you get out into open water, however, 'beaching' the boat is a real possibility.”

“There aren't any places to do that, though,” I spluttered.

“You just hit upon the one big problem that exists with the ideas that almost all have had with traveling with that boat,” said the soft voice. “There are, however, a lot of small coves on the northwest portion of the continent; and while stopping frequently is a bad idea – that isn't something you can do in minutes with that boat, unlike what almost everyone believes – you can stop long enough to bathe on dry land if you do so after dark and remain only long enough to get your baths.”

“Does Sarah..?”

“She, and now you, are the only people who have any real idea of what the northwest coast of the continent is currently like. You don't find much in the way of beaches this far north, unlike the regions well south of the second kingdom port.” A brief pause, then, “those who thought that way only had those old tales to go by, as the continent had beaches of some kind almost everywhere prior to the curse.”

Those?” I thought.

“Gabriel wasn't the only person indulging in 'sabotage',” said the soft voice. “Those other five 'scholars', as well as their coterie, were doing so as well; and while Gabriel's objections were meant to be helpful, theirs were not intended that way in the slightest.”

“Meant?” I thought.

“He thought they were helpful,” said the soft voice. “The fact that his objections were meant in 'good faith' had but little effect upon either the content of his words or their perceived meanings by those building.”

“Not true good faith, but something else, correct?” I thought.

“True,” said the soft voice. “He now has a much better idea of why he was doing what he was, even if he's still altogether ignorant of what lies out upon the sea.”

I glanced once more at the preparations in progress, noted they were nearing completion, and lit my lantern. As I closed the lantern's 'door' and transferred the match's smoky flame to a 'lighter-candle', I heard soft voices indicating the 'bathing shed' was nearly complete in its preparations. Sarah then came from behind it.

“Everything's set up in that thing,” she said, “and if that place is as dirty as I recall it being, we will want to have proper places to both change and wash our clothing as well as bathe.”

“N-no spares?” I asked.

You might have spare clothing beyond a single set,” said Sarah, “and I do, and I brought what I have, but I doubt Gabriel has anything other than what he's wearing, and I doubt much...”

“You mean they forgot to bring spare clothing,” I said.

“No, they did bring some, but that place is so dirty that you either want a buggy filled with clothing, or you want some good way of washing things,” said Sarah, “and that I know about, as I helped Hans and Anna in there once before you came here.” Sarah then muttered about turnips and farming for a few seconds.

I handed my 'lighter candle' to Sarah, who lit her lantern and then passed it on; and as the thing made its rounds, I had a distinct hunch.

“I'm not certain I can have one done in time for you, dear,” I said as I began walking toward the transom with Sarah but a step behind me, “but you, and everyone else that goes on that trip, is going to need a pack.”

“I know that,” said Sarah, “which is why I saw those people just after the hall went where it belongs and made arrangements for several of those things done like yours. They had made patterns for it, and that one man who just came up from the fourth kingdom knew how to work those things so as to fit those wearing them.”

I was utterly tongue-tied, so much so that when I came to the still-closed 'gateway', I turned around. While Sarah was next to me, the others were coming along slowly, the 'lighter candle' still making its way among them as their clumsy hands fought and cursed at the lanterns...

“No,” I thought. “I did not teach them.”

“I did,” said Sarah, “and did I not know better, I would wonder if they were being ridden like mules.”

“Cease,” I muttered.

The 'clumsiness' vanished with such abruptness that I knew I needed to paint everyone anew, just as if they were new-minted witches, and as I found the small vial once more, I could feel objections. Everyone now wanted to 'get on with it'.

“No, this is important,” I said, as I painted Sarah first. She then shook her head, and muttered, “you're absolutely right. It was affecting me, also.”

“If it affects you, then this needs doing,” said Katje. “At least until that one lizard is dead, as that's the chief trouble.”

“With eating people, you mean,” said Gabriel. “Their supports will not be affected by that reptile's demise.”

“No, she's right to some degree,” said Sarah. “That dragoon is as much a fetish as anything else in there, and if it's like those things I've read about that were that way, then when one fetish of a collection goes, the others have less power.”

“Exactly,” said Katje, “and that lizard is the first and the worst of them, at least for those things that are physical.”

“Not just physical, dear,” said the soft voice, “and you gave those other things more credit than they warranted.”

Once I had finished painting the others, I let Sarah paint me, and when I turned once more to the still-closed 'gateway', I could now feel clearly the fear of the others. Save for Sarah – she had been inside the place before – the others were deathly afraid, and deeply disinclined to leave light and air behind so as to penetrate deep into the lair of darkness. I reached down, now cognizant of a line forming single-file behind me, almost as if everyone was trying to use me as something to hide behind; and I put my hand to the handle.

I did not look back.

The sensation of the grimy handle was unpleasant enough, but the grimy metal-framed dirty glass of the transom hid the interior of the place from us until I opened it. This needed force, and the noise made was the same grating 'dying-cow' moan that I recalled. It brought back unpleasant memories of just what this horrible place was like, and as the light came down to light up the steps, a rat scurried off the bottommost step and into the sepulchral darkness. I then sniffed gently.

The stink was, if anything, far worse than I recalled, and it seemed mingled of the odors of an ill-tended privy, the meat-crock at home when I had first come and 'High Meats' were a common repast, the more purulent aromas of the fifth kingdom house, and a handful of odors far too noxious to name. The confluence caused dry heaves in myself and retching noises behind me, and when I took the first step down, I felt something break underfoot – and all around me – with a sound like crumbling masonry.

“Fear,” I muttered. “It's chief power is fear.” A brief pause, then, “come, follow me.”

Each step caused more crumbling noises, these plainly audible, and when I came to the bottom of the steps, I turned for an instant so as to see why. The steps were going to pieces underfoot, and when I turned back around to face the front as the others carefully walked down the steps, I caught the place's odor once again.

“That stinks,” I thought. I hoped the others would not notice my sense of illness. “Best stand here for a minute or two so as to let our eyes get used to the darkness.”

“Good idea,” said Sepp. “I've done enough exploring in the house proper that this place reminds me of some of the worst places I've been in there.”

“Worst places?” I asked.

“One of them had blood on the floor,” said Sepp, “and it had just come there days ago. I think someone got killed by a General back when they were still common in the house, unless it was a trap you set.”

“Uh, when was this?” I asked. I was 'getting my bearings' in the darkness, only these bearings were ones of 'sensing' and not 'seeing'. I could almost feel not merely the presence of the dragoon, but also that Desmond; and while both creatures were not trivial for potency as living fetishes, the dragoon was, even as we had been told, the worst of those on site.

“During the time just after training finished,” said Sepp. “It wasn't more than than twenty paces from that one privy where Karl kept running into those thugs.”

“It wasn't me, then,” I said. “I've only set one or maybe two traps in the house proper, and none of them on the ground floor.” A brief pause, then, “is this the ground floor of the place?”

My eyes had become adjusted by now, and I waved my lantern slightly before walking slowly and carefully across the floor. I recalled the speech regarding blue-back spiders, which was why I had the club in my right hand; while the left held the lantern, this down near my waist. I wanted to see not merely the spiders, but also any new trip-lines that had been laid; and as I walked, the aspect of nightmare became steadily more potent; for while the lanterns did not flicker, their shadows did, much as if the candle-flames were neither stabilized nor catalytically intensified.

These shadows, on the other hand, seemed alive; and they hid behind the multitudes of thick columns, these covered with a crude species of 'plaster'. Briefly, but for a second, I wondered if I was in truth seeing a species of concrete. If so, it was indeed 'bad'.

I could see the faint traces of footprints ahead, and I wondered briefly if they were those the three of us had left months prior. Somehow, I doubted it, and as I came past yet another 'row' of columns, I smelled faintly the odor of death amid a silence at once grim and gloating. It seemed to howl for blood, and behind us, I was glad that transom was still open. I could sense slow-rising miasmal clouds of long-dead dust in our wake; the dust would arise from that location, and give testimony to the light of our passing into darkness.

“What a morbid thought,” I said to myself. For once, I was glad there was no answer, even as I followed the footprints as they tended steadily toward the right.

And yet, I noticed something. I held my lantern higher, and here, I saw the matter plainly: these footprints had not been made by anything of a common nature, but by pointed boots.

“Witches,” I muttered, as the entrance to the hallway became steadily closer. While I knew about the skeletons in at least one office and I had been told about witches bringing coaches full of blue-back spiders to the place, I did not recall the odor I was now smelling – until not ten feet from the entrance to the hallway that I recalled, I stopped in my tracks upon seeing empty black clothing gone to tatters – and beyond it, something that shined eerily in the darkness.

I shined my lantern about, my club held out at readiness; and steps came cautiously closer. To my right, another lantern shined, and I glanced to my right to see Sarah.

“He was right,” she whispered. “That's a witch, and that thing there is a cage like some I've seen.”

“A spider-cage?” I asked. This too was whispered.

“No, for birds, though those cages are a good deal larger,” said Sarah, as I once more began to move forward. I was still much afraid for spiders, until I saw Sarah with her rat-club out. “Karl has his slingshot ready.”

“I hope he is a better shot with one of those than with pistols,” I whispered.

“He has shot one of those more, I think,” whispered Sepp. “She told me about the spiders.”

“They're supposed to be rare,” I said – as I suddenly turned and with a move too quick for my mind to follow, I swung on 'something' and hit a column with a cracking sound to then hear something hit the floor with a soft thud.

“How..?” squeaked Sarah.

“That witch came just last night and died then,” I said, as I saw superimposed upon his dust-filled clothing the less-than-faint red-tinted outline of a huge and hungry 'twelve-stepped' spider, complete with a red-outlined light blue hourglass-marking upon its ghostly back. “His own personal stock, those he held out on of those things. One bit him as he turned it loose, and he died right then.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, as I turned to see what I had hit. A dark blot lay upon the column, and radiating out from that blot lay a network of writhing cracks that showed dark-red within them like frozen hungry lava from an angry volcano. “You just dropped the last spider in this area, though.”

“In this area?” I asked.

“There are two more on this floor,” said the soft voice. “Neither is up to doing much at this time.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

A faint movement below my feet became evident, more by 'feeling' than all else, and I shined the lantern on the spider I had mashed. This one was nowhere near as large as the one I had shot, but I suspected it was big enough to kill just the same – and in the darkened distance, I could see the entrance to the hallway.

“Those spiders found each other this morning, and while both are still alive, they are not doing well,” said the soft voice. “Those spiders can bite or sting each other and still survive.”

“Yes, barely,” said Sarah, who spoke as though she knew from experience. “They tend to do but slightly better than most people do.”

“Sting?” I asked.

“Yes, those spiders can sting,” said Sarah. “Press on the back portion of the one you mashed, and... There's the stinger, right there. You must have hit it just right, as the stinger comes out then.” Sarah was pointing at the dead spider with her club, and I bent down and looked at it closer.

“That's nearly as big as a small nail,” I gasped as I nudged it with my club. That, thankfully, appeared undamaged. “The teeth on those things must be huge!”

“No larger than those of a small rat,” said Sarah. “They do not hang on like rats, though – they can be brushed off readily if one is quick enough. I did it more than once while exploring Boermaas with my cousin.”

I now walked past the spider and his pet witch, and shined my lantern once more ahead. Knowing that at least one witch died in the process of turning lose those 'coach-loads' of spiders made for a question, even as I passed the last of the many rows of yard-thick columns. The hallway beckoned like an ever-hungry mouth, and it seemed to have added a faint odor of sulfur to its many and varied reeks.

“Did that witch come last night?” I asked.

“He did, but he neither died 'right then' nor did he have any 'personal' stock of spiders,” said the soft voice. “He was hoping to catch one so as to grow his personal stock of such spiders, actually, and that spider you smashed bit him and then fed itself – it took its time, as that neurotoxic venom paralyzes quickly but takes hours to kill 'large' prey – and hence, it was glutted with blood.”

“They tend to be slow then?” I asked.

“That's when they're the quickest,” said the soft voice. “This isn't the forth kingdom. You hit the fastest spider in the whole building before it could try for you.”

As I entered the hallway, I asked quietly, “did he plan to turn it loose somewhere else?”

“Yes, after it had laid a clutch of eggs in his newly-built 'spider-chamber',” said the soft voice. “His house is now empty of both spiders and witches.”

The door which opened upon the room with the skeletons lay ahead, and I stopped there when I came to it. As I turned my head to look inside, I seemed to see – not with normal vision, but otherwise – a slow-crawling bone-pile begin to show itself in the room. I knew about the skeleton lying on the floor ahead in the 'laboratory', and as I bent my thoughts ahead to that location, I could 'feel' a faint reddish glow coming from that direction.

As I looked inside that one office, however, I could feel the desire of the 'dead' skeletons for our company; and also, I could feel – this clearer than all the other risible sensations I as feeling – the desire of these 'dead' to clap their bony hands to our throats so as to strangle our lives. I then noticed Sarah peering in from below me.

“That room has nothing in it but bodies,” she said. “The trouble-place is ahead of us.”

I resumed walking down the dusty hallway, and while what I had felt and Sarah's speech were both chilling, neither thing was the precise and most-worrisome trouble: for with each slow and near-silent footstep I made, and each second of time, I could feel the sense of growing evil coming up from below; evil that had awoken from its long-rotten tomb, evil that was now awake and searching for fresh blood-dripping meat to assuage its never-ending hunger. I felt for an instant as if I were walking alone with no one to hide my back, and I brushed off the lie that tried to take over my mind. However, this made for soft speech upon my part regarding the reptile below us, and an even more unpleasant recollection.

Kees had once spoken of 'the reptile's way inside' – and that particular phrase, among others, was part of this lizard's 'arming chants'. A faint tremor from below shook my feet – both the one on the floor and the one in the air – as I took another step, and I knew the cause.

“That dragoon just woke up,” I whispered. “Now I wonder as to its length.” A pause, two more long steps, more dust came up with each one. “Is it just fifty feet long?” A longer pause, a sidewards glance into an office I had never looked into – barren of bodies, if not desks or dust – then, “does anyone feel anything unusual?”

A shriek from behind me made the hair stand on my head, and I turned as the screech merged with thrashing followed by a thud as someone fell to the floor. I moved slightly to the side as I finished turning, and saw Katje quickly struggling to her feet. Thankfully, her lantern had survived the fall, and she was now adjusting its 'coil' to achieve maximum brightness with Sepp's help.

“I wish you had not spoken so,” she said, her voice replete with the effort that came with adjusting a somewhat finicky device. “A rat decided it had a story it wished to tell me, and it landed on my shoulder, and I do not like rats, especially in dusty places like this.”

“Be glad you did not go...” Sarah paused in mid-word, then asked, “was Boermaas full of rats then?”

“Yes, and that place had swarms of them everywhere,” said Katje.

“She still checks the bed to make sure it is clear of them,” said Maarten, “and it was nearly two ten-years since the two of us met in that place.”

“You want a slingshot then,” said Karl. I looked at him and saw him holding his example at the ready, while Sepp had his pistol out and pointed down and away from himself. Gabriel was now beginning to wonder if he needed something, and I suspected – strongly – that he was thinking himself to be a prime example of ballast about now.

Katje had gotten her lantern its brightest, and I thought to adjust mine. I loosened the collet, then moved the wire down a fraction.

“Yours was about due,” said Sarah. “I filled a vial of oil for each person, not merely you.”

“Yes, I know,” said Katje. She was holding a pistol, with both satchels in her other hand. “What, exactly, does oil do?”

“Spirits find it most unpleasant if they encounter it on door-frames, among other things,” said Gabriel, “and it causes them trouble in general. Should you put it on door-frames – the top, and each side about shoulder-height – it tends to block their passage in some peculiar fashion.” A brief pause, the slight plopping noise of a cork, a pair of quick swallowing noises, then as the cork went home, “what kind of trouble it causes them, I wonder about – though if one should enter the Devil's Playground, one needs to know such things to even pass through the place, much less endure long years in it.”

“What?” gasped Maarten. “Brimstone has a place to frolic?” He was still adjusting his lantern. I wondered if it was giving him trouble for an instant, then as he got 'white' and then 'bright', he said, “I thought that place burned all the time.”

“That place might well be smoky enough to pass for Hell much of the time, and while it often burns as if it were Hell, it is not Hell,” said Gabriel. “I sometimes wonder which location of the two is worse.”

This last was said with a distinct shudder, and as I resumed my slow pacing, lantern held low in the left hand and a ready 'baseball bat' in the right, I recalled the place where I now walked slowly and in near-silence.

This place, and the hall I recalled, had but slight similarities once one took into account their 'gross physical location'. Compared to what I recalled, this hall was markedly longer, vastly dirtier – the dirt seemed to jump out from the walls and collect upon one's clothing as if it were a collection of tiny blue-back spiders – narrower, even to the point of inducing a sense of crushing claustrophobia...

“I've never had claustrophobia,” I thought. “At least, I never had it before now.”

And the dust of my recollection was but a primer for what this place now had. The dust rose in faint clouds, such that each doorway I passed flamed redly with 'energy' that the tendrils of dust seemed to manifest, and above my head, the entire ceiling of this impossibly long hall – it felt like it was miles long, even if I recalled its distance as 'about fifty yards' – burned with faint neon-red flames, flames that built mighty shadows about odd-looking light fixtures above my head that my memory had omitted.

These light-fixtures were more than slightly corroded, their whitish paint causing both filth and rust to show all the more, while the dust – it too was on the ceiling, waiting to drop down upon us – also coated these fixtures. Their bulbs – thick milky-white things with a pronounced bluish tint to their glass – were nearly three inches across and slightly over a foot long, with two thick dark knobs at each end of the sausage-shaped bulb.

The bulbs also shown faintly green, with snaking lines of such filmy green light crawling like hyperactive spiders all over the inside of the thick and somewhat lumpy glass that contained them.

With each further glance – the fixtures dotted the ceiling, such that every few feet, a new fixture showed itself slightly off-center and at times a trifle crooked – I noted more details. Wires held the bulbs in place, their darkness speaking of long years where corrosion had attacked them; four 'screws', each of these deeply rust-pitted, with dark corrosion covering them overall thickly with rust, lay at each corner of the fixture, their wide cross-shaped slots seeming like microscopic deep-water canyons; the electrode-holders at each end of the bulb were of ancient brass, thickly coated with verdigris.

And still, I could clearly feel a definite aspect of these things being 'jury-rigged', and that being for every single one that I glanced at.

My looks overhead were but glances, for the realm ahead, one of a thick and murky blackness, had my entire attention otherwise. Now, I felt underfoot the first of a few small ball-bearings, and a glance downward showed them rust-tinged as they lay amid centuries of dust. This dust, however, showed no tracks, even given the numbers of witches that had delivered up the hordes of spiders the place had received.

A question: “did those people bother coming inside here?”

“No, because they could feel the 'guardians' here,” said the soft voice. “Granted, they could not feel more than the smallest fraction of what you are feeling, but most of them could tell it was not a good idea for them to do more after dark than open that one entrance and let the spiders out inside from the bottom of those steps.” A brief pause, then, “those who did otherwise were eaten.”

And yet, with further looking at the centuries-thick dust upon the floor, I could see a faint smudged trace of travel from a few months ago. It took effort, for I could sense that the place had worked hard to erase our pitiful intrusion. It wanted silence; silence and stillness, and an absence of life to long-brood over its ceaseless and immortal long-pondered wrongs.

The blackness to our front desired to hide behind the thick clouds of dust now coming from beneath our feet. Our lanterns cast ominous shadows ahead, and these shadows seemed alive with an evil frenzy.

“I can feel that dragoon below us,” said Sarah quietly. She was behind me and slightly to one side. “Its door is ahead.”

“Do you know where that door is?” I asked.

“I'm not sure other than 'it's ahead somewhere',” said Sarah, “but I can tell that door is very old, almost as old as this building is, and it is plugged well with stone of some kind.” A brief pause, then, “I am glad we brought as much explosives as we did.”

“To 'feed' that dragoon?” I asked softly.

“That also,” said Sarah. “That door will need to be blown up.”

And as if Sarah's speech had conjured something, a caterwauling yell nearly pitched me onto the ground as someone banged – hard – into the left wall behind me, then with a grunt of effort, someone else caught them. I turned around to see Katje looking at the floor, shaking like a leaf. She then looked at me.

“What gives with all of these round things all over the floor?” she screeched.

“Right, dear,” I thought. “I really think you and Maarten should have had me drilling the pair of you along with Gabriel – as at least he's not tripping and screaming.” I then recalled my 'teaching' had nearly killed him, and I thought for a second before speaking. My mild tone then surprised me.

“Those are from some mines, dear,” I said. “I found the trip-line the last time I was in here, and triggered them with one of these, uh, metal balls I found on the floor.” I then turned to look ahead, and suddenly saw that the optical tricks this place played upon my mind were far from over: we were but ten to twenty feet from that room.

“That room is ahead,” said Sarah, “and if we find more of those things and they are not rigged, we may wish them for swine.”

“You know about them?” I asked.

“Anna spoke of their noise,” said Sarah, “and how they nearly tossed her with their wind.”

As I began to move forward once more, I noted the room seemed to have moved further away again, and with each further step, the dust seemed to not merely drop down in clouds from the ceiling, but also spew out from the walls and up from the floor. It was not only hard to see, but harder yet to breathe; and my itchy-nosed sneezing was but the signal for the others to join in.

“Dust that lizard, and not us,” I thought.

A muffled noise – it was not audible conventionally – seemed to thunder faintly; and suddenly the air was as clear as that after a rainy night, one where actual rain fell and not the usual thick and dripping mist; and the darkness was now that of ink save where our lanterns shown their light.

Before it had been like swimming underwater in a very muddy river, and with the passing of the dust from the air – it was still thick indeed upon the floor and the other surfaces of the hall – I could feel a passing of the aura of 'dread' that seemed to weigh upon my mind. I wondered if it were wise to paint each other, then knew beyond all doubt it was needed but seconds later.

The huge and inky blackness of the room that now lay truly but another ten paces ahead seemed to billow with faint reddish-orange flames, and at the juncture of the hallway and the room itself, I could see the rectangular aperture to be lined with long spiky teeth, yellow-tinged and pitted, teeth that had obviously seen better days. A glance overhead showed a ceiling clustered thickly with smoke having a biting aroma, and with a now-clear nose, I smelled the following mixture: burning datramonium, a dead pig, and something – what, I had no idea – that stank worse than Sam Brumm's 'cigar'. I wondered if the others were noticing this particular stink, until I recalled who was getting the vast majority of the attention. Accordingly, I broke out my vial, and began – slowly – to walk back along the line with an oily finger, crossing each forehead one at a time as I came to those behind me.

Once Sarah had painted me, however, I could see her wrinkling her nose, and as I began stepping forward once more, she muttered, “I smell a rat.”

“Ahead?” I asked. “That one large room, hiding in the darkness, waiting to spring?”

“If you know that, then I would keep your club ready,” said Sarah. “Those witches may have dumped spiders in here, and the rats have devoured them because those spiders wanted the fourth kingdom's heat, but rats endure cold much better than most spiders.”

“Did they bring rats from the fourth kingdom?” I asked.

“I am not sure if they needed to go that far,” said Sarah. “After learning about how warm some witches like to keep their places, I would not be certain if they didn't just have to catch one of their rats and place it in here as well.”

“What do you think devoured so many of those spiders?” said the soft voice. “Rats gather intelligence and cunning the longer they live, just like they gather length and strength – and while these rats are perhaps twice the usual size for the first kingdom, they're several times as intelligent.”

“Not as quick as those white ones, though,” I murmured, as the threshold of the room came within 'striking distance', and here I paused to check closely for trip-lines. I had not been this cautious the last time, but I had been but days removed from a place that had few of such traps.

“It had other traps,” said the soft voice, “ones much harder to both dodge and disarm, and easily as lethal.”

I knelt down at the very threshold, and looked carefully. Ahead, and perhaps a few feet to the left, was the door to the realms below, but to my right, far into the distance, blackness seemed to stretch; and while my lantern was far brighter than the candles we had used last time, it also was bright enough to cause me trouble. I handed it back, almost as if to give it to Sarah, and my eyes adjusted almost instantly to the near-total absence of light.

“This place is huge,” I murmured in the shadowed dimness. “There's this big bench in the middle that's got to be at least twenty paces for long, and the room itself is easily ten paces for wide, and it's so stinking long that it goes to the outer wall of the place, almost.” I brought my lantern back, held it down near my waist and out slightly, then stepped 'over' the line.

“Carefully – and slowly – follow me,” I said, as I moved forward, my slow steps but barely rising above the dust.

My previous visit had showed little beyond the mound-of-bones skeleton I was now passing to my right as I walked over the door – I knew roughly where it was, now; it was under my feet, solidly constructed of stone or concrete, and quite sizable – and a long row of cabinets that showed on the far wall.

The bombs had blown a large section of the upper cabinets on the north wall to wide-scattered kindling, and the splinters of wood underfoot were testimony to the raging power of their blasts. I looked to my right, and saw another such long row of cabinets that traveled endlessly to the east until they vanished into the still-dusty darkness, and while these cabinets were not splintered into kindling, they looked as if someone had shot at them with several dozen roers, each gun filled with stiff shot.

Further details showed as I continued forward: an extension of the hall, this passage extending far into the darkness; many drawers and cabinets of time-bleached wood, these to my right and beneath a long gray 'countertop' that seemed unending as it escaped into a darkened eternity heading east; a grimy wall between the upper and lower rows of cabinets, this of peeling paint that exposed more of that deeply-cracked 'plaster' I had seen covering the columns in that one large room; and finally, a collection of rust-bitten metal rods atop the benches, which were wider than I had thought them to be. I thought to walk the far aisle, this slowly, my club at the ready.

The first two steps showed further evidence: the workbench was in sections, these joined closely together and with numbers of drawers and doors beneath each six-foot section of workbench. I was still wary for trip-wires of a sort, so much so that when I peered into the hollow beneath one section of workbench to see a rusted collection of pipes, I saw – at the same time – a gray rat crouching so as to leap. My club 'tapped' the rat on the head, and with a horrible crunch mingled with a tortured screech, the rat's head spurted red and gray from its mouth and ears.

“What was that?” asked Sarah. She was on the other side of the bench.

A rat,” I said, as I nudged the animal. “How big do the ones up here get?”

“That one sounded as if it was a bit big for this area,” said Sarah. “Most of them up here are but little longer than my feet, if you measure their body.” A pause, then, “how big is it?”

“About a foot... No, it's bigger. It isn't quite as big as those white ones were, but I'm still glad I have a club.”

“You will be glad for that club, as that rat was a primer,” said Katje. “Only Boermaas smelled worse for rats than this place does.”

A sudden snapping noise from behind and to my left nearly made me jump, then Karl nudged something with his foot. “That one has a sick-headache.”

“Uh, what did you do?” I asked.

“He shot a rat,” said Sepp, “and now I know what he was talking about when he spoke of getting them by the sack-load when he did business in corn-cribs.”

“What?” I asked.

“I might not get paid to shoot rats at the house,” said Karl, “but I did when I was a boy and the corncribs were full, as those things have rats in them then, and the farmers do not want rats eating their corn. I got two guilders for each sack of rats, and I would get two and three sacks of those things in an afternoon.”

“He wishes he did get paid, though,” muttered Sepp. He seemed to be looking the place over as if it might have trouble. “Now what is a privy-basin doing here on this workbench, and why is there this bad faucet next to it?”

“I suspect they used to do chemistry in here,” I said, as I came to the first gap in the previously-monolithic workbench. “There are a lot of drawers here, and...”

“I will let you look at those,” said Sepp. “Hans told me about this place, and how you knew about those mines.”

“He did not,” said Katje. I now saw her grim features settled upon her face. This lady might be 'too old' for much fighting, but she was fully prepared in her mind at the least to do all she could. “I take it we should not touch something we see unless you look at it first.”

“Especially in here,” said Sarah. “If that dragoon is the size of a tyrant lizard, it will be trouble in here.”

“It is much larger than that,” said Gabriel.

“How much larger?” I asked.

“I am not sure beyond 'much larger',” said Gabriel. “Now why are we looking this place over, other than you suspect there might be more of those mines?”

“Rats, for one thing,” said Sarah. “You do not want one of those in your lap if you are going to be fighting a dragoon.”

“And other surprises,” I said. “I'd rather find out about them now, rather than waiting until we have our hands full of that lizard.” A brief pause, then, “this will be a war-zone, and it would be wise for us to know where things are.”