Investing the Abbey: The end of Iggy


The first part of the 'true prize' that showed was a glossy stippled gray-blotched black piece of 'plastic', then as I continued digging into the sawdust with my awl, I noted its outline. It was far too familiar to be a coincidence.

“This is a knife like that latest batch,” I murmured, as a hint of a blue-black blade showed. It certainly had the right shape, as far as I could tell. “Is this a fetish?”

“Nothing below that false bottom is,” said the soft voice – which implied everything else in the drawer was or had been a fetish. “That dagger was not made in this area.”

“Where was it made, then?” asked Sarah.

“Vrijlaand,” said the soft voice, “and that 'supplicant' found it by the purest chance on his way here from an area well to the south and east of this location. He did not know what it was during his travels north and west beyond 'it looked likely enough, and it seems decent', and when he left for 'home', he wished greatly that he had brought it with him.”

“Why?” I asked, as I got my awl under the handle and pried gently. My awls were not intended for for prying, even if they seemed to stand up passably to 'abuse' like cleaning the ears of witches, and as the handle of an obvious 'knife' 'popped out' of the sawdust, I noted underneath it what looked like tarnished silver.

“That you will wish to be careful with,” said Sarah as I finished prying the dagger loose. It was definitely giving me some ideas as to how to finish up at least one or two of mine. “If that knife is from Vrijlaand, then it will be as sharp as those you make.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That was a 'common' knife, not one made by someone strongly marked.” A brief pause, then, “it's still very usable just the same – which is the reason that man wanted it so badly. He needed a good knife then, as he had learned about fetish-grade knives while he was in here.”

“Usable?” I asked. “As in 'it takes a decent edge'?”

“Better than decent,” said Sarah. “The knives of Vrijlaand, as well as all of their edged weapons, were the most prized weapons to be had then – and that by man and witch.”

“What, no fetishes for swords?” I asked.

“They had those also,” said Sarah, “but most fetish-weapons tended to be about as good as those like them today.”

Most of them were significantly better, though still far short of what either of you would think 'decent',” said the soft voice. “There were a number of exceptions for swords, however – and most of those weapons looked like what the two of you carry for shape and fittings.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “Is that why those p-people thought I was an arch-witch?”

“That but added to the other matters they saw and had heard about,” said the soft voice, “but yes, that type of sword is written about in that black book – both as being especially difficult to master in combat, and also as being especially treacherous save in the hands of a most-powerful witch.”

“Treacherous?” I asked – until I recalled brief snatches of talk about blades made by myself acting as if having minds of their own.

“Not everything written in black books is true,” said the soft voice. “What the original writers meant was closer to 'don't even be thinking about using a real sword unless you're a strong-enough witch to heal yourself instantly should you get clumsy and slice yourself with it, and then forget entirely about using a weapon made by a strongly-marked swordsmith'.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“Because those weapons hated witches,” said the soft voice amid blooming recollections of what I had said during that infernal third-degree session about my sword's 'appetite' and its life-seeking ways, “and the better ones acted much like preflood fetishes did around that time's 'third-rate' witches.”

“What?” I asked.

“That one picture told you but part of the story,” said the soft voice. “The marked person had escaped from his hiding place and was moving around that hillock so as to ambush his pursuers – and he had a sword like those I spoke of.” The unspoken portion was, 'one like yours'.

“And?” I asked. I was removing the last of the sawdust from the drawer with the flattened handle of the spoon, and the four coins – or 'slugs' – I had found, while black with corrosion, were of obvious silver. They had no apparent markings, and their lack of reddish 'flaming' or other signs of witchcraft made me wonder more than a little as to just what they were. I wondered if I needed to confiscate them and try them out on the touchstones at home – until I suddenly realized I had no idea how such stones showed the 'cursedness' of metals, and no experience in using them for their usual purpose.

“Andreas,” I thought. “He might know.”

“He does to a certain degree,” said the soft voice. “The rest, you'll need to learn by experimentation and possibly some other means.” A brief pause, then, “that marked person spoken of in the picture was one of those the witches called 'monsters' – and he single-handedly wiped out that entire detachment of witch-soldiers before nightfall using both what he had on his person and the witches' own weapons.”

The knife wrapped in rags – its dark mottled gray-black finish yet unmarred, sawdust still clinging to it in bits here and there – and the same done for the four silver slugs that lay under it, I set my supplies on the other side of the workbench. I only then realized the nature of my 'load', for some reason:

One bulging-full possible bag, weighty with promise and supplies.

One 'heavy' rifle and a smaller leather pouch on a thick 'thong' for its supplies. The possible bag had only recently run out of room for such things.

One 'baseball bat' of heavy laminated dark-brown and pale-yellow wood.

One catalytic lantern that needed adjustment. I paused to get it 'right', and the light grew noticeably brighter as I came closer to the optimum setting.

One added cloth bag on a strap that I had found in my recent exploring of the house proper. I had the rag-wrapped decorator in it, along with the two rock bits and the short-handled riveting hammer I had used when working inside the shell of Frankie.

And finally, my knife-pouch and pistol-holster. I'd need to make several more such knife-pouches before we left, I suspected – and at least one more pistol holster, also. I suspected Gabriel would need something of that nature, and I had a trio of revolvers at home ready for final assembly after I blackened their parts.

After getting all of this arranged properly – I needed a breather from all the work I had done thus far – I went to the end of the workbenches where I had felt the 'doorway'. Recalling something Kees had said months ago came back to me, and as I knelt down in the dust of centuries with my lantern held above my head so as to better find the door, I murmured softly those particular words about this being 'the reptile's way inside'.

No one heard me, thankfully, even if Sarah seemed to understand what I meant, if not actually what I said.

With an old-feeling and somewhat dirty rag, I began to sweep the dust aside slowly, at least until Sarah produced a pair of paintbrushes and gave me one of them. The thick and clinging dust gave way under our slow methodical brushing to show chipped light gray paint that covered this portion of the floor, and as some small clouds of dust arose, I again noticed an odor of death and decay. I was wishing for a lantern stand, and not a minute later, I had my wish – though not in the manner I had thought of.

Katje was holding both of our lanterns overhead, and their light was precious in the whispering sepulchral gloom.

I was sweeping side to side with my brush in a definite crossing pattern so as to hopefully find the outlines of the door, and within two minutes of my starting, I found a thin rust-marked seam – and on one side of this seam, the floor seemed not merely slightly higher, but much smoother compared to the other side – which was gritty under my knees, slightly uneven and lumpy, and sloppily painted with obvious crude brush-strokes. This latter, I presumed, was the door-plug itself.

“I found this rusty hole,” said Sarah, who then pointed at the hole in question. It looked as if someone had torched-off a steel pipe and then roughly ground the jagged stump flush with the floor.

“There are a line of those,” said Katje, as she pointed three more of them out to Sarah.

The holes were just to the outside of the first rust-line, and as I followed the rusted line and its dust-filled holes, I soon found another intersecting rust-line. This example had holes also, and as Sarah joined me to sweep off the dust ahead of me as I crawled, I kept seeing more and more of the obvious.

This was the door to the place below, and someone had plugged it with a bad species of concrete. The miracle, at least in my mind, was that it had held as long as it had.

“Probably made up for its poor quality by using a lot of it,” I muttered, as I drew my hand away from a slightly protruding rust-spot. It looked like a very thin piece of reinforcing rod.

“Did they reinforce this stuff?” I asked.

“Yes, and in great measure,” said the soft voice. “Those doing it were not masons, and those over them knew both their own lack that way and the yet-greater lack of their laborers – which is why they used broken-up rocks and cut-up metal scraps to extend their 'meager' supplies of concrete.”

“Should be easy to bust, then,” I thought.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “They used a lot of all three things, and that plug is nearly a foot thick, which is why it has held up as well as it has.” A brief pause, then, “that gelatin will easily shatter it just the same if you drill and fill several holes in a line near its center.”

To find its center, however, I needed to learn the true size of the door; and when I came to another intersecting rusted line, I had an idea of just how large this 'doorway' must have been. It was easily eight feet across, and no less than twice that long – which meant eight feet or so in height for the passage, if I guessed right.

This I thought as I uncovered more of the seam and the holes beside it, and when I came to the third intersection, Katje said, “there are none of those holes on this side, so they must have gone down from here.”

“Poles?” I asked. “Oh, the tubing. They hung chains from the poles so as to keep, uh – what? They needed to keep trashed witches from falling down into that place?”

“That sounds like what fifth kingdom mining-town thugs would do,” said Sarah. “When they get inclined toward strong drink, they do well to walk out of the place where that drink is sold when they are done consuming it of a night.”

“Gunshots and stab wounds?” I asked.

“Those also,” said Sarah. “Anna says those northern people drink like fish, and maybe they do, but I've seen those mining-town thugs drink down an entire jug of strong drink between two of them while sitting at a table in a salon.”

“How..?” asked Katje.

“It was not easy sneaking into that place,” said Sarah. “I went in the back way, found this one small dusty passage, and crawled in between the outer wall of the place and the false wall to where there was a hole I could look out of.”

“Hole?” I squeaked, as I 'completed the rectangle' and began fishing out one of my 'string-holders'. Where the diagonals crossed while running the string from intersection to intersection would be the precise center, and a run of holes each side of it would do the job – or so I hoped.

“Do not underestimate the power of that explosive,” said the soft voice. “Just 'eye-measure' it as to centering and distance, and run a line of three or more holes with those rock-bits you made.”

And upon hearing this, the dust seemed to slowly move to the sides in a small area near the center, much as if to show me where it lay, and I crawled toward it. As I did, I looked down, and saw that truly, this concrete held its current place as much by its sheer mass as all else, as calling it 'badly done' was calling it wonderful. Below the concrete – the rocks were closer to coarse irregular gravel, and the scrap metal, while plentiful, was indeed that – I could 'see' rotten wood used for a pouring frame, then wide concrete stairs, these numerous, badly scarred, and slightly crumbling.

And upon these stairs, borne by a massively thick neck, was a long and spiky-looking reptilian head with a beady black eye nearly four inches across. This eye was turned up to look at me in some fashion, and it seemed to be appraising me as to my nutritive value.

Thou shalt eat rocks, reptile,” I cackled, as I drew out hammer and rock-bit before handing the pouch to Sarah. I did not wish that gelatin to be close to where I was drilling.

Iggy did not like my suggestion, and he made his displeasure known with a deep and roaring reptilian scream that even a foot of bad concrete could but scarcely muffle. The 'door' itself began to shake as the lizard now scratched furiously at it with its claws. Thankfully, he wasn't doing much to it.

“That is a dragoon, all right,” intoned Sarah with due solemnity, “and it sounds as if it is full of itself, just like the horned dragoon was said to be in that tale.” A brief pause as I 'found' the first spot for the holes, then, “I doubt it is very smart.”

I took hammer in hand, then said, “I hope it isn't. That one in the tale had enough sense to know when it saw food nearby, and it had something of an idea as to how to get it. Smog, on the other hand...”

Sarah shuddered visibly. I wondered why, as knowledge of Smog wasn't a common matter here, unlike where I came from. I then asked, “have you heard of flying dragoons?”

“Yes, from you,” said Sarah. “You were speaking of it last night while you were asleep.”

That had me shuddering, and now I did not blame Sarah at all. Smog was uncommonly smart for a reptile, and bad-tempered to boot. I put the bit to the concrete, prayed briefly, and swung the hammer.

The clang was all but buried as the bit dug nearly an inch into the concrete, and as I turned the bit and swung the hammer, I quickly noted a change: the first inch or two of concrete was soft and somewhat friable, but after that, the stuff became much like I recalled it being where I came from, and that was when I did not hit metal.

That tended to be 'tinfoil' compared to the concrete, and after a dozen blows of the hammer, I needed a 'lifter' to get the dust and fragments from the hole I'd bored.

That I had made some months ago of soldered brass as a foundry tool, and my first one had been followed by a large number of others after my first few I had made had proved their worth in my foundry adventures. Georg had found a sizable market for them quickly after seeing my first few castings shake out smooth and clean.

The lifter was a slow business, however, and as I wondered exactly where I could drill my next hole, Katje suggested that Sarah clear my holes for me using 'that strange brass tool'.

“This is a founder's tool, Katje,” said Sarah as she began using it and I started on another hole about two feet away from her. Again, the first portion of concrete was soft, but after that, it was a good deal harder. “I've seen them before, and I had one once while at school, along with my other molder's things.”

I'd drilled perhaps three inches when Katje indicated Sarah's hole was close to empty. I had the impression she was finishing it up rather than being actually 'done', and accordingly I went to her other side to begin a new hole. I had the impression I would need several such rounds of 'hole-drilling' before I had holes deep enough to truly bust the concrete up.

“No det-cord,” I thought. I then wondered if it was needed. Gelatin was pretty sensitive.

“Not with that gelatin,” said the soft voice. “Two feet apart in concrete will propagate nicely.”

Sarah looked at me, then moved to hole number two as I began hammering and turning the bit on hole number three. I could tell the others were 'finishing' their preparations, at least until I looked up at Katje. She was shaking her head.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought I brought enough dynamite for doing this place,” whispered Katje between my hammer-blows, “but Karl looks to beat me for quantity.” Then in louder voice: “Karl, what are you doing?”

A faint reply seemed to indicate visions of shooting dynamite into the lizard's mouth by use of a large skyrocket. I shook my head. “What you need is a rocket-launcher, Karl.” A brief pause in my thoughts, then, “are there any of those things here?”

“Yes, there are,” said the soft voice. “More, they're of a most-unusual type.”

“M-most unusual?” I asked.

“You've seen things like them in pictures many times,” said the soft voice. “These are a lot easier to use compared to those you've seen pictures of, much safer for the firer, and a lot worse for the receiving end.”

“Lukas..?”

“Will find them most amusing when he goes coach-hunting,” said the soft voice. “Only one problem – there aren't more than about four or five rockets per launcher stored here.”

“Elsewhere?” I asked. There was no answer. I resumed my drilling labors, now certain of one thing: at least for a short while, we had a weapon that would cause coaches to acquire a measure of caution.

“Especially given that parts to make more of such rockets aren't exactly rare across the sea,” said the soft voice. “While complete rockets are rare, and launchers are rarer yet, they do have the plans tucked away – and given the parts, those rounds aren't hard to assemble by hand.”

“Especially the... What?” I squeaked. “Th-thermal recognition seeker heads? What are those?”

“The rockets present here do not have those devices,” said the soft voice. “They're fairly common overseas, however, which should give you an idea as to why you want to blacken your unpolished lanterns and dress warmly in that place.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. My hands had kept busy during my speaking, and now I needed to go to another hole to make another inch or so of progress in some uncommonly hard concrete. This stuff wasn't anything close to consistent as to hardness, however, for one blow of my hammer would sink the bit half an inch, and the next one would do little beyond make the bit ring like a bell from a similar blow.

“I-I-they don't have things like that where I come from,” I said. “Not that small, and nowhere near that capable.”

The sense I had once I had said that, however, was that a 'thermal recognition seeker head' was a truly alien piece of technology, one so alien that I would be completely lost in figuring it out.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those work on the same basic principles as some missile guidance systems where you come from – only they're closer to a very sensitive high resolution infrared camera in terms of what they can pick up, and then they actually look for a given pattern using a form of recursively programmed artificial intelligence. The best prewar devices could actually plant the seeker head itself in the bore of a just-fired artillery piece – and while what is used overseas for surveillance isn't anywhere near that capable, what they do have ignores the effects of grease and grime and clumsy functionaries attempting to clean them.”

“And they also ignore clothing...”

“Yes, the usual clothing issued to those who live there,” said the soft voice. “They won't see through what Sarah's made, they aren't 'tuned' to pick up catalytically-enhanced candle lanterns, and they won't recognize the bulk of what you have due to its age and materials.”

“Centrally gathered intelligence analyzed by a truly effective artificial intelligence program and then printed out for the leaders,” I murmured. “Orwell didn't see this future, because it was as beyond him as it is beyond me. Nowhere to run to, and no place to hide, and every prole is just a number in the great gray faceless machine of the state, fully owned and utterly controlled.”

“Up until recently they were exactly that,” said the soft voice. “Now Iggy is waiting, and you'd best get yourselves ready to receive him.”

“And you'd best move to another hole,” said Katje softly. “That one you're banging on looks to be filled with dust, and Sarah's cleared out the other two.”

I resumed my drilling on another hole, and as I did, I seemed to recall the mention of that large lizard being in an expectant mood. I then 'listened' – I had been distracted greatly by first the mention of Karl going after a skyrocket, then mention of some real rockets in here, and from that to some of the dangers we faced overseas. I had had to bring myself back to the here and now, and now I knew why.

I could now tell that Iggy was wondering as to why I was drilling holes in his door with a rock-bit and hammer, and why three of us were treading about in such a haphazard fashion upon his doorstep. The lizard thought he – or she; gender was impossible to tell on these things unless one could examine them at some length and knew exactly what to look for – owned the place in its entirety, and in his or her younger days when he/she ran amok inside the place long years ago, he/she more or less did what he or she felt inclined to do.

“And now he's a tight squeeze for much of this place,” I muttered. I used the male pronoun out of simplicity and convenience.

“Once he'd been cursed he was,” said the soft voice – who spoke as if the lizard were indeed male, regardless of its actual gender. I wondered how I knew this as the words resumed. “He became nearly as big as he is now, as well as 'living unto the end of time' – which is a rough translation of part of what that curse actually said.”

“Unto the end of time?” I asked, as I moved to another hole leaving an inch of dust in the bottom of the one I had just hammered on. I wanted the holes at least six inches deep, and a glance at my bits showed them thus-far untouched by their labors. My arms were just now getting warmed to their tasks, and my blows sank the bits deeper with each strike. Five such blows, each strike followed by a quarter turn of the bit, made nearly an inch of progress in concrete that had usually all-but ignored my efforts previously.

“The larger black books speak of how to recognize 'the end of all that stands',” said the soft voice. “One of them is 'the destruction of cursed things', and another is 'the return of the monster'.”

“Oh, my,” squeaked Sarah. “That has been happening.”

“The return of the m-monster?” I asked. “Do they speak metaphorically, or..?”

“Both that and in reference to you,” said the soft voice. “That dark-haired witch foresaw two possibilities, and she spoke of 'the end' coming to pass hundreds of years later. More, she did not see a future favorable to witchdom in either possibility – hence she committed that information to her books and told what she learned to no one.”

“The witches are doomed?” gasped Sarah.

“Yes, they are – and that no matter what happens,” said the soft voice. “If the last pendant fails, it is as he's known for quite some time – this planet falls out of space-time and becomes annexed to hell, and the witches are the first living things devoured by Brimstone as he takes ownership of his newest fiefdom. If it doesn't, then witchdom is no more.” A pause, then, “most importantly, witchdom will never return to this planet if the last pendant succeeds entirely.”

“All or nothing at all,” I said grimly, as I sank my bit through what felt like an inch of concrete with a single blow and dust spurted up in a small and angry cloud from the hole. “This one feels done, and I wonder if it is deep enough.”

“If it is much deeper than this one I'm emptying,” said Sarah, as she used the lifter to bring up some fine-powdered dust, “then I will not be able to empty it.”

As Sarah was quicker than I was in emptying, I began to make ready my supplies once she'd tested them with the handle of the lifter and pronounced them deeper than she could fully clear. There were several cut pieces of fuse still laying out on the benchtop, and I took one, setting it aside near my lantern. In my possible bag, I had a small store of caps, these being some of the 'stiff' ones I had bought on the southbound leg of our trip through the five kingdoms, and when I tucked the bag back in, Katje said, “I found that box of caps someone had taken, and did up my things.”

“Mine?” I asked. That box was still at home, as far as I knew – even if I was having to hunt for caps in the box's sawdust now. I wondered briefly if I had been shorted in the count, as the box said there were fifty 'stiff' caps.

“Tam brought some when he showed, saying he'd gotten them shortly after we got back,” said Sepp. “He said they came from Badwater, so they were about as good as anything we might be able to get.”

“Good,” I muttered, as I then recalled I still had nothing to crimp the caps onto the fuse. I then looked at the fuse and the well for the thing in the cap, noted the drastic disparity in sizes – the fuse was easily an eighth of an inch smaller – and thought, “crimping? I'd probably blow the cap up!”

“Not if you use the right type of pliers,” said the soft voice. “If you are careful, you can use your 'wirecutters'.” A brief pause, then, “the reason why fuses are commonly tied in place with string is because most people setting charges either do not have the right tools, or they are too 'clumsy' to use the available tools without killing themselves – and premature blasts are a common matter in the fifth kingdom's mines, which is why those people in the fifth kingdom spoke of you like they did.”

I gingerly began crimping the cap down onto the fuse, and the hush that settled over the room was so astonishing that I found the silence welcome for a change. I found that if one put gentle pressure upon the handles of the 'wirecutters' and rotated the cap and fuse a small amount at a time while squeezing thusly, the copper 'sheet' of the cap's body seemed to fold inward neatly; and after about two minutes of intense concentration, I looked up.

“What did you do?” asked Sarah.

“I crimped this cap onto the fuse, dear,” I said. “If you use these, uh, wirecutters, you can do it, but you need to go really slow and gentle...”

You might manage that,” said Sarah, “and perhaps Andreas, but you two are the only people this far north who have tools fit to do so, and...”

“And most would blow themselves to bits if they attempted to do so, even if the correct tools were ready to hand,” said Gabriel. His speech still made sense. “Those are not the correct tools, and if you can find the time, I would make one of the correct ones before we sail – as time will be of the essence should we need to use caps and fuse.”

Gabriel did not need to speak of the matter; for while I had managed to crimp the cap without the thing detonating, the fear I had felt upon doing so was so intense – and so real – that it took all of what I had to manage that two minutes' labor. My mouth was dry enough that I drained my water bottle in a frenzied gulping, and then realized the jugs of beer we had brought were back in the buggies.

“I brought all of those things,” said Sarah. “Let me fetch you another.”

While Sarah did so, I suddenly realized I needed to visit the privy, and taking up my lantern, I went some distance back down the hall we had come and ducked into the first office that showed to the right. There, I was astonished to find desks – two of them, each desk facing its own wall – covered with jugs, and I 'nitrated' the whole of the corner furthest from the door in this 'monster' of an office. I could not merely feel the dragoon below us, but also knew that we needed to 'hurry'. We had 'wasted' enough time as it was.

And yet, as I returned to the workbench where my cap was laying, I realized that though we had easily spent an hour or more preparing, the fight with the dragoon itself was likely to end one way or another very quickly – perhaps in less than a minute. It was not a pleasant thought.

“Had you not dealt with the corner fetishes and those jugs not been removed from the area, then that would be the truth,” said the soft voice. “Still, you are right.”

“What – the fight might end in less than a minute?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It will last longer than 'a minute'.” A brief pause. “Look at your hands and count the fingers. It will take that long at the most.”

I had all ten of those, unlike before I came here, and as I picked up the bag with the rag-wrapped decorator, Karl asked, “what is that thing you have there?”

“Blasting gelatin,” I muttered, as I removed the bundle and found my knots had come undone on their own. I'd almost expected as much to happen. Still, I had matters to say, and as I began removing the rags, I said, “it's really strong stuff.”

“He's just saying that,” said Sarah.

“Why?” asked Gabriel. “I have never heard of it.”

“Be glad you have not, then,” said Sarah, “as it looks like a runny species of vlai, and...” I could hear rustling, then Sarah said, “here, now. This is fever-bark powder. It helps some. Get it down quick, and then follow me.”

“Why?” asked Karl. “Will it blow him up?”

“No,” said Sarah in a voice that seemed on the verge of panic, “but you will wish it had blown you up when you get the headache it causes.”

As I unwrapped the decorator entirely, I muttered, “at least I can do this by feel. This stuff gives headaches so bad it can cause blindness the instant you s-smell it.”

And yet, as I uncapped the decorator and began loading the first 'borehole', I felt the headache but slowly creeping into my head, and as I topped up the first hole – the gelatin was a trifle thicker than I recalled, for some reason; the still-chilly decorator might have had something to do with it – I was only starting to get the usual migraine. I prayed as I eased up on the pressure, and crawled to hole number two, and as I began squeezing, I hoped I had enough gelatin to fill all of the thumb-diameter holes. Each one, fully filled, would not be much smaller than a stick of farmer's dynamite.

And I prayed that I would not go blind, even if the headache was still increasing in intensity.

Hole number two filled a trifle quicker, and I held the drippy decorator up in one hand as I quick-crawled to hole number three. There, I put the decorator's nozzle down the third hole, and began rolling up the cloth between episodes of squeezing. I wanted to use up the whole of the 'vlai', and when I finished the decorator's contents, the fourth hole was as filled as the other three.

Every one of the boreholes was brimming full of steaming 'vlai'.

I stood, walking carefully on tiptoe, much as if the floor was well-populated with too-hot thimbles with ten times too much thimble-mix in them, and when I came to the cap, I noted that not merely had the benchtop been cleared of all save my things, but where Sarah and the others had gone was a mystery.

At least, it was a mystery until I heard soft muffled groans, and softer-yet speech complaining of head-crushing headaches. One person – Katje – asked, “how can he stand that stuff? My head feels worse than it ever has!”

“It is not easy,” whispered Sarah. “Now when he lights the fuse, we will need to take our places. He needs at least one person with him, and I would think one group should stay where we are, and another go behind the thing so as to catch its rear when it emerges.”

“That would be most unwise,” said Gabriel. “I'm the least able, so I should stay out of trouble best if I am with him.”

“And I will air out your smelly hide if you try anything,” said Sarah. “I know you've changed, but that is but the seeming; and if you run, you will not run long. I swear it to God as I stand here, you will die – and my hand will be the one that kills you.”

The feeling I had upon hearing Sarah speak so was chilling, as if anyone had ever meant something, she did; and I could feel the fear take over Gabriel's mind like an icy grip of iron. While he could fool me for a while, he knew – how, I wasn't sure – that he could neither fool Sarah nor escape from her; and while he might be able to reason with Tam to a small degree, Sarah had no such inclination toward reason if her mind was made up. If she swore an oath, she meant exactly what she said. I then recalled I more-or-less did not swear oaths.

“She took her book with her,” said the soft voice, “and while Gabriel underestimates you, he underestimates her even more.”

“What?” I thought, as I took up the cap, the 'old' file I used for a striker, and a trio of matches. I wanted to make sure to light the fuse readily, and these matches were not fresh ones.

“She had put her hand upon the book when she said that,” said the soft voice. “Recall what she said about the first time she set foot in a church? How she managed but a few feet before she was on the floor?”

“Y-yes?” I asked, as I tiptoed toward the three fuming holes. I could see the fumes now as well as smell them, and I hoped I would not have to light the fuse by feel.

“She meant precisely what she said,” said the soft voice, “and like what you did with those three witches, she means to carry out just what she said should he fail in any way or trip you up – and if she does so, she will suffer no repercussions whatsoever.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“Hendrik has his eye upon her, and knows her well,” said the soft voice, “and also, has the words of the fourth kingdom's king to back it up – as she was the one he spoke of when you were speaking with him with that sack over your head. More, that man understated the case, and that to no small degree – and Hendrik knows something about that, also.”

For some reason, as I approached the boreholes, the headache I was feeling did not grow exponentially, and I was able to lay the cap atop the center brimming-with-gelatin hole with the fuse running away from it at a right angle to lay in the dust. I then tried the first of my matches; the thing ignited on the first feeble scrape of the blackened file. A touch of the smoky sulfur-infused flame to the fuse, a hissing spurt of smoke and spit of fire, and I lay fuse and burnt match down as I walked toward my supplies. I was going to hide behind the workbenches near that one gap, as the blast promised to toss throw-rock to no small degree and I wanted 'shelter' from it. I had three minutes, roughly; we had only taken 'good fuse'. I suspected Tam had a hand in that matter.

“Take cover everyone,” I said softly, as I came to my things. I did not wish to yell, as that would alert Iggy; and for some reason, I wanted him to eat rocks and other sharp-edged bits and pieces of rubbish.

“Perhaps it will soften him up some,” I thought, as I gathered the remainder of my supplies and began walking toward the back wall of the laboratory. I could tell that lizard was trying to either 'blow out' the fuse, or wondering just what I had done to his door – and he was right on the other side of about ten sticks of dynamite's worth of blasting gelatin.

“More than that,” said the soft voice, “and yes, Iggy will 'eat rocks'. It will just irritate him, though.”

“Good, a peeved dragoon is more likely to forsake his guile-curses,” I thought.

While I received no answer, I suspected I was right; and when I came to the end of the hallway, ahead I could see someone coming hotfoot and leaving a dust-trail behind them while being unable to see much of anything. I went to the side and crouched, then as Gabriel slowed, he whispered softly, “where are you?”

I rose, then came closer – and to my complete astonishment, I nearly had to touch him before he recognized my presence. I passed him, then pointed ahead to a spot just forward of that one gap; then, upon reaching it, I knelt down, setting the lantern such that it was next to a cabinet so that its light was mostly hidden. For some reason, I then thought to blow it out.

“You didn't bring one, did you?” I asked.

“No, as Sarah had us all put them out, and she took mine,” said Gabriel. “I'm glad yours is still lit.”

“For a moment, anyway,” I said. “The blast will no doubt put it out for me.” I then looked at what Gabriel had, and to my astonishment, he had a satchel full of something. I could faintly feel a headache starting to bloom.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Two smaller bundles of farmer's dynamite,” said Gabriel. “Sarah said you might wish it.”

“B-bundles of dynamite?” I asked, as whispered voices seemed to speak of the fuse nearing the cap. Then, in louder voice, this such that it surprised me, “take cover, and ready your weapons. We're going to have a worm in here.”

My voice seemed to faintly echo, and the air above the still-smoking fuse seemed to gather a faintly reddish aura. Iggy was still wondering what was happening, but he knew something was going to happen shortly, for my words had 'activated' a small library of curses that had been applied to him centuries ago.

“I think you calling him a worm was what did so,” said Gabriel. “Dragoons do not like to be insulted.”

“Th-those things in those b-b-books,” I gasped. “S-Smog was c-called a worm.”

“He does not know of that creature,” said Gabriel, who stood – and then ducked down an instant later. “About four more inches of fuse, if that. I could see the cap still, and it had fuse yet.”

As I waited out the remnant of burning fuse, I readied myself, rifle in hand. I wondered briefly what fighting a 'fire-breathing dragon' was going to be like, for I had not given the matter more than a few seconds of thought on a handful of occasions prior to now. This was no fairy tale, no tale from the Grim Collection, nor a cartoon, nor any other species of fiction, real or imagined.

I put my fingers in my ears, and opened my mouth, letting the rifle rest upon my lap as I knelt feet behind buttocks, knowing that the blast would release the troublesome varmint into the room; and as Gabriel looked at me...

A brilliant flash turned the sepulchral darkness into bright daylight for an instant's time, much as if lightning had shot up the hallway and struck in the area of the 'door', and the workbench reared up to nearly a forty-five degree angle as I instantly went deaf from the earsplitting high-pitched 'electric' thunder of undiluted blasting gelatin. The force of the blast picked me up from my kneeling and head-down position, and flung me sprawling onto the floor and sent me sliding backward in the dust for nearly eight feet, and as the thundering roaring echoes died out, I noted vague and filmy light coming from behind us. My rifle was still in my hand, for some reason. I must have grabbed onto it and held it as I flew backwards and then slid on my back in the dust.

“That explosion disintegrated the glass,” I spat, as I got up slowly and scrambled back to the rest of my things as the enraged reptilian screams of a monstrous reptile rent the air and my mind. I then noticed the dust in the air.

“Dust storm?” I coughed amid more thundering roaring screams and dust so thick I could not see my hand in front of my face. I was navigating mostly by feel and familiarity. “This is worse than being dusted by a lightning-hare!”

I gathered what equipment I had shed. Gabriel had vanished, or so I thought until I saw him crouched down low against the west workbench in the gap between the two of them. The look upon his grime-streaked face was that of genuine fear, and while I wondered about my facial expression, I did not wonder about the frantic sounds of huge claws scrabbling upon the concrete.

Iggy was not out yet, even if the gelatin had blown up his door. I needed to look closer, perhaps close enough to either toss a squib or one of the bundles of dynamite at him so as to 'get him in the mood' for homicide.

“Attempted homicide, at least,” I thought, as I came within ten feet of the end of the bench. I had moved close to its sheltering overhang, and now I could not merely smell Iggy – he stank horribly – but also, I could nearly see what he looked like.

I came to the corner, and peered from around it amid the still-thick dust. There, I saw a blood-streaked dark green...

Or was it brown?

Iggy's snout was obviously reptilian regardless of its actual color, and it was poking up out of a hole easily half again as big as that of an earthly manhole cover. I could see rusted wire and other shards of rusted metal poking up where Iggy had bent them aside in his attempt to emerge from his long-suffered 'pen'.

As I looked closer at the tip of the lizard's nose, I saw what looked like a thin tendril of grayish smoke merge from wide bloody nostrils, then, as I watched, a long and thick black tongue, this raising up in the air like a rope-trick and forked widely at the end, came out of the lizard's mouth. There, it waved about like an angry cobra, which made me wonder if it was a sensory organ.

It sucked back in his mouth seemingly instantly, and for a second, Iggy seemed to be 'scenting the air'. I then noted his crocodile-like teeth, and as he opened his mouth slightly, I saw hints of long yellow spiky teeth inside his mouth – and then, for an instant, a faint gauzy glow of yellowish color showed between his lips as they opened a trifle wider...

That yellowish color instantly bloomed into a long white-hot blast of luminous fire that shot forcefully into the north hallway for nearly three-quarters of a second. Iggy's fire, while not of long duration, was sufficient to make me think flamethrowers to be sick jokes – and his flaming almost made that of Smog believable.

As well as that quip about 'hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen' – for Iggy's 'gases' made a badly-run fifth kingdom smelter seem clean for smoke and perfume for odor, and the fumes from his flaming burned the eyes and made them tear badly – and a biannual checkup? He did not need one.

Someone in the hallway thought to reply to that jet of flame, and the thwap of a slingshot was followed by an earsplitting crack and bright flash right on the tip of the lizard's nose. He seemed to ignore it – or so I thought until he loosed another brief burst of fire down the north-running hall.

This blast lasted over a second, and now the fumes were choking and intense from his burning. I scrambled back to where I could hide, as now I had a name for this particular beast.

“Oh my G-God,” I gasped as Gabriel came out to look at me. “Th-that thing is a f-f-four-legged rocket engine.”

“What?” screeched Gabriel. He seemed in the grip of terror, and I did not blame him much. “That lizard is not a story.”

As I dug out a round squib – one of the latest batch, a bomb filled with 'damp meal' – amid the sounds of yelling and the stertorous breathing of a huge reptile, I said in a strangely calm voice, “perhaps I can get him to come the rest of the way out of his, uh, hole with this bomb here.”

I had almost said 'silo', as Iggy reminded me of a rocket in more ways than just his tendency to spew long blasts of well-directed brilliant yellow-white-with-hints-of-orange flames.

I began crawling back the way I had come, the squib in my right hand and me wishing I had an extra set of hands just for crawling. I did not, so my crawling was slower than I liked. With each foot closer to the end of the workbench, I could hear scrabbling claws ripping into the concrete so as to make the sizable hole larger. Iggy was having some success, as while we had blown a fairly small hole relative to the size of the plug, the blast had shattered the remaining concrete to an astonishing degree. Only the metallic reinforcing had prevented it from coming completely apart in a near-powder form, and as I came closer to the edge, I realized that I might need to light the squib in the still-dusty air.

I came to the edge, thought for a second, discarded the idea of using a match, then as I made ready to make a gentle toss, I murmured, “the nose, please.”

The squib shot away from my hand as if I'd thrown the thing forcefully, then did a three-quarter-loop to then fly with sparking and smoking fuse straight down inside Iggy's nose. I jerked back just in time to hear an earshattering roar that segued to the screaming thunder of a giant – and now truly angry – iguana. Smoke billowed up in a thick cloud as I kept backing away, but about halfway to my refuge, I thought to look up over the benchtop – and ducked down and dove for the floor just as another blinding white-hot reptilian firestorm blasted over the top of the workbench and sent its thick coating of dust into the air to once more turn the place into a realm of dust and blindness.

And darkness, though some light was coming in from the empty window-frame far behind us now, and faintly, amid the rumbling bloody-sounding breaths the lizard made and the cracking sounds of breaking concrete, I seemed to hear yells coming from outside, and as I backed to where Gabriel had hid himself, I had an idea.

“Out of there,” I muttered. “Get out, now. I want to go in there so as to see that wretch from a better vantage point.”

Gabriel responded with alacrity, and I crawled into the 'tunnel' until I came to the other side. To my astonishment, I had a clear view of the lizard, and I stared in shocked amazement.

He had his head out of the hole, nearly seven feet of angular 'lizard' head, and I could barely discern a saucer-sized black eye surrounded by a faint reddish haze due to the thick still-settling dust. His 'beaded' skin, what of it I could see, was blatantly reptilian; again, I noted the spiky yellowed fangs that showed when his lips were closed. He reminded me of a crocodile that way.

I then saw a claw, and as I watched in horror, the long hooked blackened talons dug deep into the fractured concrete and raked off nearly an inch of crumbled concrete with a single stroke. He wiggled a bit more, and then his head came much further out of the hole. He now showed his full head, his 'horns', and then his spike-topped neck. The variegated vertical-running striping I saw – blueish tints, mostly green, hints of brown here and there – made for wonderment, at least until he turned his head my way with lightning speed and I ducked back in my refuge as a powerful blast of blinding white-hot flame shot past where I had been looking.

I then noted once more the stink of the 'hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen'. Not only did Iggy have a powerful flamethrower, but his breath stank as well as made one feel like suffocating, and with watering eyes I came back out to where Gabriel was hiding.

“You still have yourself after he tried to set you alight,” he yelled amid the strident screaming thunder of Iggy's raging noise as he tried once more to 'get loose'.

And for some reason, an odd – and old – recollection from my childhood surfaced with frightening abruptness amid my ringing ears. I wondered to its sense, even as it came out of my mouth.

Whoa, Dragoon, Whoa,” I mumbled. “Dragoons is the stupidest things.”

And after I said it, however, I did realize its sense: we were in a dust-filled darkened cavern filled with old laboratory equipment, a severely peeved giant iguana, thick 'toxic-feeling' smoke, blinding blasts of white-hot fire, and vast amounts of 'hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen'.

“I wish we were dealing with that one,” laughed Gabriel nervously. “This one is worse.”

“More fire and less smarts?” I asked numbly.

“No,” said Gabriel, as he looked in his 'bag'. I wondered if all he had was dynamite in it. “More fire and more smarts. That one you just spoke of did not even know what its dinner was.”

As I looked in my possible bag for one of the grenades, I found in shock that I only had two of them. The third one's vanishing was a mystery, at least until I recalled offering Sarah one of them. I knew she could probably be trusted to not blow herself up with it. I then heard more concrete breaking up, and as the dust slowly continued to settle, I began once more crawling up the aisle between the cabinets to my right and the central bench.

It was a good thing I stayed low, as another white-hot 'rocket-engine' blast – this one quite short but still substantial for smoke and 'gas' and blinding for light – shot over the top of the workbench. Iggy seemed to have an idea where I was, and I wondered for an instant why no one seemed to be doing much from the other quarter beyond perhaps shooting blasting caps at him.

“That thing has me scared,” I muttered. “It's probably scaring them gray.” A brief pause, then as I made ready to draw up to toss my first grenade, another short eruption of fire shot over the top of the central bench.

Iggy knew exactly where I was; and more, he was ignoring the others, as they were 'powerless'. That made me so angry I pulled the pin on the grenade, tossed it to the side to tinkle on the floor, and resumed crawling. I wanted to get close enough so as to not miss my target, that being Iggy's mouth.

No matter that I had never been in the military.

No matter that I had never tossed a grenade of this or any other type in my life.

None of that mattered. I wanted to plant this bomb in the worst way imaginable, and had I a boom-bottle with an impact fuse handy, I would have tossed that and then eaten the glass and the blast and the flames.

I inched toward my target, now ignoring the spiky ache of the steel shot upon my unprotected knees, the dust coating my body with filth, and Iggy's continued 'tracking' me with his flamethrower. I then noticed something. Iggy might have had plenty of flame, but he did not have an unlimited supply of whatever he used to make it; and each blast was shorter and more feeble than the last.

“Trying to sucker me in, no doubt,” I muttered. “He's probably saving the Benzina for when I get ready to toss this thing so he can light me on fire.”

I came to the end of the workbench, then looked around. Iggy was expecting me to stand up – and when he saw me at a range of ten feet, it took him a fraction of a second to realize I wasn't where I was supposed to be.

Long enough for me to then jump up in the air and throw the grenade in his wide-open mouth, then dive for cover as he turned loose the Benzina in the longest flaming he'd managed yet.

And amid the roaring of the flames overhead, I heard an explosion thunder such that the whole room overhead billowed white-hot gases for nearly a full second longer as the concrete began cracking and breaking up in a great and tearing hurry.

I turned around and began sneaking back toward the noise from where I had dived, and with each foot closer to the edge of the workbench, I could hear – and feel – more concrete breaking up. I could feel the suffocating oven-like heat in the air as I crawled; I could smell the potent and smoldering fumes of old paint turned bubbly and carbonized; and I stopped just in time to get splashed on the arms by a silvery droplet of melted 'pot metal', which sent up gouts of smoke from the dust upon the floor. I moved around the small and growing puddle of silvery smoking liquid, then continued crawling. I finally came to the vertex of the corner, dropped to my chest, and worm-crawled to where I could look at Iggy.

I poked my head around the corner.

Iggy now had both front legs out, all of his shorter-than expected spike-topped neck, the front half of his huge torso – he was squirming a lot – and his head, which showed substantial damage to the lower portion. His lower jaw now drooped noticeably – it was still mostly closed, however – most of his visible fangs were broken off, and the number of blood-dripping rips and tears I saw – these reaching from near the tip of his lower jaw to where his neck joined his head – was astonishing.

He was also leaving a thick and growing pool of blood upon the dusty floor, and he was angrier than ever.

“That stinker might flame like Smog,” I thought, as I began reversing slowly, “and he might have an attitude like Smog, and he has grown larger with time and lack of attention, just like, uh, air pollution, but he is not invulnerable if the right weapons and techniques are used.”

He was also preoccupied with getting out of the hole, if I went by the squirming and snorting noises he was making, and more, he seemed to realize his chief 'danger' was in my direction. I continued moving backward, then got to my knees just in time to avoid more waterfall-splashes of molten metal and detour around the still-dripping 'pot-metal' gouting smoke as it set the dust alight.

I then found one of those larger metal balls on the floor under the overhanging portion of a cabinet, and wondered for a moment if I could toss it at him. My right hand closed upon it, and as I crawled back the way I had come, I heard someone yell, then a faint whizzing noise followed by the thundering blast of a round squib 'somewhere' near Iggy's head.

I went to my knees, and then stood to throw. Iggy was now facing north. I saw his eye, this amid dust, smoke, and 'pollution' so thick I could but scarcely see it save for the reddish gauzy halo that stood out clearly amid the murk, and I threw the ball as hard as I could.

Right at his eye.

The 'thunk' I heard spoke of hitting something soft, and when I dived for the floor, a huge and...

Yellow, this time – not white, and nowhere near as blinding.

The flame was yellow, billowing with smoke, and thickly tinged with thready clots of soot, just like an oxygen-acetylene torch without oxygen going to the tip. I ducked my head up, and saw Iggy's face 'wreathed' with smoke and covered with greasy-looking soot.

He could no longer perform his 'rocket engine imitation'. He was still quite capable of setting himself alight, if I went by the still-rising smoke coming from his burnt face. It told me another matter that needed attention: he needed dosing, preferably with the contents of that one vial. I dug it out of where I had somehow stuffed it in the possible bag, then found the two matches I had pocketed and the scrap of old file. I scraped one of the matches, and again, it lit at the first touch to my hand-ground file-stub. I knew how – now – to deal with files. Overnight cooking in a cooking can packed with a distillate-dampened mixture of charcoal and sundry chemicals was just the beginning of how to 'cure' their many and manifold ills.

The cap had a foot of fuse. I touched the flame to its end, saw the spit of fire, tossed the match, and spat the following as I jumped up and began running toward the workbench's end.

Time for your dose, Reptile,” I yelled.

Iggy didn't see me until I was almost directly in front of him, and as he looked up and opened his mouth to flame, I got closer yet and tossed the bottle with the smoke-sizzling fuse down his throat.

Bullseye!

I did not stay to admire my handiwork, even if I'd made a perfect down-the-throat shot at a range of less than six feet. Iggy was waving his claws to try to reach me and rip me to shreds, and as I jumped for safety, the yellowish flames he spewed billowed thickly like burning gasoline and I landed to tumble and roll with faintly scorched clothing amid the reek of what might have been acetylene. I then heard – and felt – the bang of the cap followed by gargling noises – gargling noises that slowly segued into the distorted roaring of a massive lion-like creature.

Faint commands came, these piercing and shrill, then the booms of three muskets firing in 'volley mode' were followed by the rapid-fire cracking of at least one revolver. Bullets pinged and howled off of the lizard's head to scream in all directions as I dove for the floor and rolled to the wall so as to dodge the flying 'hot lead'. I looked up to see the powder smoke drifting out of the northbound hallway – which said the others had not run off, but had followed my audacity with some of their own.

The gunfire only irritated Iggy. The bones of his head were uncommonly thick, and he was thick-headed for intelligence, also, for he lit himself on fire again with a thick billowing cloud of yellow flame that left slow-drifting threads of soot settling slowly amidst a cloud of thick black smoke. It made me wonder if I could shoot him, and I began crawling closer to the edge once more. He expected someone 'smarter', or so I suspected – and like with witches, 'audacity', the unpredictable, and the unexpected went a long way with cursed reptiles. I unslung my rifle, and crawled forward, the leather sling-strap carried in my teeth. About ten feet from the edge of the workbench, I stood up suddenly, shouldering my rifle amid the swirling murk.

I had dotted his eye with that steel ball, for I saw nothing resembling an eye remaining in the weeping eyesocket. I aimed, drew to full cock, then fired at the 'hole' presented to me. The roar of my rifle seemed eclipsed by the crashing 'thunk' made by my bullet drilling a hole in Iggy's skull.

As I turned to 'run', I could feel the rest of the concrete go to powder, then amid huge billowing flames that reached short of my fleeing body, I skidded to a stop and turned to look.

Iggy had actually managed to get out of his 'silo'; more, he was still up in the air with his convulsive leap after taking my 'lead'. He hit the floor with a thump that shook the building as he once more set his front half alight, then, with a startling display of agility – size not excepted, this thing wasn't nearly as clumsy as I thought he'd be – he turned my way and tried to come up the aisle after me.

And got himself well-and-truly stuck before he'd managed five feet, with all his claws atop the cabinets on both sides of the too-narrow passage between the workbench and the wall-cabinets. He then began thrashing his tail, which made me dive for the floor.

“That thing has more tail than I thought it did,” I muttered as I crawled for that one place of refuge and away from the likely fireball he was likely to loose after me. I found Gabriel already in the place, and I crawled in after him as he moved ahead of me to the other side of the bench as Iggy made horrible roaring noises and thrashed his tail angrily. He was really stuck now – and he thrashed his tail yet more.

Though Iggy did not have the proportions of an earthly iguana, he was using his tail much like I had heard of them doing; and as I came out on the other side of the workbench, I heard someone running closer, then suddenly a 'spear' clattered on the pavement to roost under the lizard's tail. Gabriel stood, and I pulled him down just in time for an explosion to send screaming metal splinters flying all over the place and shower us with smoking bits of metal and flaming wood chips.

“What was that?” he gasped.

“I think that was the missing grenade tied to a spear-shaft,” I said, as I looked to my right to see a small jagged fragment of metal. I then noticed what had narrowly missed my head.

“See, right here,” I said with surprising calmness as I pointed to it. “There's the spearhead.”

“Had I any knowledge of that weapon, I could load it for you,” said Gabriel, “but I've heard it does not take balls.”

“No, it does not,” I said. “Let me show you how, as... Down!”

I pulled Gabriel down to the dust of the floor as Iggy's tail lashed the air overhead with a crack like a whip, then I heard crunching noises coming to my right. The workbench moved some few inches toward us, then rose up in the air such that it was nearly standing on its side before it came down with a thundering bang that sent dust up into the air in massive clouds amid roaring screams.

I wondered what Iggy was doing, so after showing Gabriel the bullets and ramrod – and speaking of how the powder measure was set to dump 'the right amount' – “just put it in the muzzle and move that lever there” – I moved somewhat closer to Iggy's 'silo' so as to look at him better. The workbench was still shuddering and trying to move aside, and more than once as I crawled, my right hand nearly was crushed by it as it convulsively shuddered and bumped into the air to crash down with a soul-shattering bang. I then stopped and stood up abruptly, revolver in hand.

Iggy seemed utterly preoccupied as he attempted to turn around, and more, he seemed to be quickly becoming 'as stiff as frozen molasses'. His rump was partly up in the air, and it dripped blood steadily from a wound somewhere on his underside. I'd heard about 'the soft underbelly' – that was one area the horned dragoon was easiest to poke, if I went by that tale, and then of course that portion was the only place Iron Pigs were relatively vulnerable. For some reason, I'd been sticking my bombs inside, as Iggy's hide...

It somehow seemed that his 'pebbled reptilian hide' was indeed set with stones of unusual hardness, stone that had been cursed so as to be unbreakable. “No common weapon...” seemed to ring in my ears for a second, then it hit me: Iggy, for the most part, was 'armor-plated'.

Just like Smog.

The crunching of the workbench and the north side cabinets brought me out of this revery, for Iggy was destroying them in the process of turning himself around. I then got down, and found Gabriel putting the cap on my rifle. I saw the ramrod – that had been unscrewed, and he was returning it to the leather pouch, and for an instant, I wondered if he'd done as instructed. I did not wish to shoot a pig-load out of that thing – not now, and not in the future, at least without adequate protection from its deadly recoil.

“Can you dot his other eye?” asked Gabriel amid coughs.

I screwed the ramrod back together, then ran it down the barrel. I recalled the dream where I'd been slipped a pig-load by an ignorant lout – and as the ramrod went in to roughly its usual spot, I knew that had not been done. The pig-load had came out an inch further if recollection served, and as I withdrew the ramrod to begin unscrewing it amid other signs of wreckage, Gabriel said, “I'd drill that thing before it gets entirely unstuck, as it will be less capable if it is blind.”

Drawing to full cock, I stood, aiming at Iggy's still-intact eye, and pulled the trigger.

The earshattering roar made my ears ring anew, but that was the least of my worries – for I toppled backwards to slam into the cabinets to there lay stunned for a second. Only the screams of a reptile in dire agony seemed to rouse me, and I thought, “ignorant lout?” in my aching misery. It made for questioning, this once I'd recovered.

“How much did you put in there?” I asked.

“The usual measure and a bit more, I think,” said Gabriel. “I could not put in three such measures, as that gun would not take them, and it was said to be like a roer for power – and hence it wanted a roer's worth of powder at the least.”

I shook my head, then tried moving my arm. Thankfully, it did not seem broken, but now that dream made utter and complete sense; and more, it had foretold with astonishing accuracy what would happen. “Just like my dream,” I muttered. “You thought you were stuffing a roer. Didn't hear a stinking word I said, did you?”

“I can barely tell you're talking, and that only by seeing your lips move,” said Gabriel. “My ears have more bells in them than the whole of the five kingdoms, and I cannot understand a word you say.”

I then – and only then – realized something: Gabriel might as well be deaf, and he had not heard my instructions – hence he had gone by what little he had heard about muskets and possibly seen others do. I then noticed that my ears were ringing like chimes, and as I moved, I felt a gritty powdery substance under my hands.

“He tried to dump three measures of powder and spilled more than half of it getting it down that small hole,” I muttered, “and he sort-of managed to seat the bullet. Backwards, most likely.”

“Tam showed him how his musket was loaded,” said the soft voice into my mind, “and he went as much or more by that than all else he knew – and Tam's does not use a 'measuring' powder measure, but the older type that uses a small container.” A brief pause, then, “then, he did not use a measure sized like Tam's but one for a fowling piece.”

“Three m-measures,” I thought amid Iggy's continued roaring. I was still somewhat stunned by the recoil of 'a pig-load dumped by an ignorant lout'. “I didn't have time to do much beyond what I managed.” Then a question.

“Where did he get a measure?” I asked.

“He found one some time ago as part of the first portion of getting his own fowling piece,” said the soft voice. “His salary has not yet been increased, so he's not been able to get much more thus far.”

“Th-three measures?” I asked.

“Yes, he did try to put three measures down, but he spilled well over half of the powder each time because he was shaking so bad,” said the soft voice. “Not only is he entirely 'deaf' at this time, but he's more frightened than he's ever been his life – which caused his shaking.”

I moved my arm around as I laid aside my rifle, then went to my knees. Iggy was moving slower yet compared to when I last saw him. I then thought to slice on his tail, which went back well past the hollow between the two benches when he wasn't thrashing everything in sight with it.

“Seems stuck,” I thought, as I dropped down. For an instant, I thought about holding my sword in my teeth, and thought better of it as I began crawling. The movement seemed to bring life back to my benumbed arm, and by the time I reached the tunnel – Gabriel had no idea as to what I was doing, and his fear was now so great he seemed nearly as 'stuck' as Iggy – I could move it passably. The tail lay visible there, only for some reason, I knew I would not be able to slice on it from a place of refuge.

I'd have to go out from where I was and slice, this my hardest – and I wanted as much tail as I could get. The part I could see was nearly a foot thick, and as I went into the tunnel, the strangest thought came to mind:

“What if that lizard has an afterburner?”

This thinking had distinct and unpleasant possibilities implicit in it, and I continued crawling in the tunnel, my arm freeing up steadily with each movement I made. I'd get out, run ahead to the left, and try to slice at the base of his tail. There were big arteries there, and that kind of blood-loss would not help him much, I thought, as I came to the edge of the tunnel. Another crunch of the workbench, the tail lifted slightly up for another sweep...

And I leaped from the tunnel, jumped nearly eight feet to my left, landed feet astride the near-stationary tail, and sliced my hardest at what lay between my legs but three feet distant from the back end of Iggy.

The sword bit deep, shearing through tough hide and then bone as it all but amputated his tail, then as the lizard roared and my eardrums imploded, I swung on his tail again as I turned to run.

There wasn't time. A huge gaseous billow, this indescribable as to both intensity of reek and actual size, erupted from the reptile's back end. On one leg, I leaped, then landed in a crumpled heap next to the refuge, my feet hitting the northern wall of the cabinets. I pushed hard...

And slid into the tunnel on my back as the entire area between the northern cabinet-wall and the workbench became engulfed in roiling flames with a muffled explosive roar – and as the flames washed over me and blanketed me with soot, I gasped at the stink.

“Sulfur, distillate, and the entire amalgamated reeks of Grussmaan's all roiled into one,” I spat, as I turned over and began to crawl. The soot seemed to follow me, as Iggy's afterburner was worse for soot than anything Hans ever did in the basement at home, and as I came out of the tunnel, I entered a world so dark and choking it seemed made specifically for a nightmare. The unearthly stench, the soot softly raining down out of the sky, the choking black smoke, and above all, the swirling dust, made for a world that seemed to overload my mind – which made my next thought all the more surprising.

“Be glad for small favors,” I thought. “At least that afterburner doesn't light off nearly as quick as that front engine of his does.” I then turned around to look back in the still-smoking tunnel.

A small river of blood seemed to be putting out the flames, this thick, slow, molasses-like material having a stink that reminded me of Kossum's and its worm-ridden tins.

“Best not go after more tail,” I thought, as the blood continued flowing. “That afterburner's fumes are deadly, even if they take a lot longer to catch fire than what comes out of the front end.” A pause, then, “the stink alone is enough to make me sick.”

Only the lack of stomach contents prevented spewing on my part. If I went by the smell, someone nearby had addressed that lack amply already. I moved westward on my knees along the much-narrowed passage left between the wall of cabinets and the west workbench, thinking to wait and see what happened.

As I crawled, another musket-volley roared out a challenge, bullets pinged and whined, and Iggy reignited himself, if I went by the noises: banging, then screams of reptilian rage, then a thundering 'Whoomph' that shot yellow flames all over and deluged where I was crawling with more soot.

“Did that wretch ignore being shot?” I asked.

“More or less, even if the three with muskets got within ten feet of his head and fired under Sarah's command,” said the soft voice. “That lizard knows that's mostly a distraction, which is why he saved what flame he has right now for you.”

“Blind, so he's cursed enough to know where I am, eyes or no eyes,” I said. “Sucker probably needs to be composted before he's truly dead.”

“That and his 'pits',” said the soft voice. “Those curses gave him the equivalent of a pair of 'thermal recognition seeker heads' instead of the usual heat sensors.” A pause, this as I continued crawling and another brief burst of flame shot over the benchtop to dump more crispy soot upon me. I almost made a joke about Iggy's 'suppressive fire'. “That grenade damaged those sensory organs to no small degree, and that drug's just starting to have an effect.”

“Down his throat?” I asked.

“It went down far enough that it went into his gullet,” said the soft voice, “and since he's not able to vomit, the cap ruptured the entire vial and cut his gullet open with its glass – which, while rather messy, works almost as well as a syringe for dosing.”

“Stuff probably lost most of its power,” I muttered.

“No, that lizard weighs more than nine thousand pounds,” said the soft voice, “and is heavily cursed. Hence, he needs a dose big enough to kill a sizable herd of elephants to even notice its effects – which he is definitely noticing – and that drug has lost none of its substantial power.”

“Witches made it, so it's cursed too,” I spat. I was near the end of the workbench, with but perhaps four feet to go.

“To no small degree,” said the soft voice, as I reached the end of the workbench and glanced about the corner.

I only glanced, as Iggy flamed hard the instant I showed myself, and only a sudden backflip kept me from being set alight. As I shook myself, the screams of a burning reptile seemed to drive the following into my mind.

Iggy had 'armor plate' for a hide – and that no matter where it was situated. Only my sword seemed to really do much to it, as musket balls did nothing and that grenade of Sarah's didn't seem to do much.

Bombs had to go inside of that hide to have any real effect upon him.

Gabriel had two bundles of dynamite; I had my lighting things; and I had my sword.

In the time it took me to find that one now dirt-caked satchel, my mind was made up. I would need to light the fuse on one of the bundles, I would need to jump up on the bench and run across it to where Iggy seemed 'wedged', cut a sizable hole in his hide, and then cram a charge of dynamite in the 'cut-hole' I made.

“Simple as putting in a blast,” I thought numbly, as I removed a bundle of seven sticks of farmer's dynamite tied well with tarry string and a cap inserted in the middle stick of the seven. More, this cap was obviously crimped.

“Wh-what?” I gasped.

“Ask Tam to show you his crimping pliers,” said the soft voice. “Granted, your idea for those is much better, but it might be a bit faster to just copy what he has given your time constraints.”

Gabriel was shuddering and quivering somewhere close by, his fear so overwhelming that I could now easily see why I had been told what I had been told about how the Abbey would affect him 'if he survived'. What I had done last night was a primer compared to fighting Iggy.

I would leave him to his misery. Iggy needed to be stopped now.

I dug out my 'last' match and the file stub, then lit the fuse. The hiss and sparks amid the thick soot and swirling dust in the air seemed a spur for my efforts. I leaped up on the workbench, and left safety, sanity, and all else behind, sword in my right hand, and the bomb in my left.

I ran across the seemingly wide expanse of the workbench in but three strides, this quartering across at nearly a forty-five degree angle. I slid to a stop, put my foot down as a brake, slid further – and slid that foot off of the table to plant it on Iggy's hide. The fuse was burning fast – far too fast. It wasn't the good stuff, but something entirely different. I then knew someone had screwed up, and it was up to me to make it good somehow.

Just like usual.

I rammed my sword down, then slashed the hole I made wider as Iggy screamed, then as the slash opened 'wide enough', I dropped to my knees as I ripped out the sword, and amid the swelling blood gouting up thickly like a thick red-brown geyser, I stuffed the bomb inside the lizard's body cavity six inches past my elbow. I then turned loose and ripped out my arm, and flung the blood and gore off of my arm and toward Iggy's head.

In slow-motion, Iggy turned his head toward me. There might be a few inches of that well-disguised quickmatch still to go before its fire crawled into the cap. I turned and jumped toward safety.

I managed about half the width of the workbench before I crashed down to its top. I looked behind me, saw a thick and squirmy black rope curled around my leg, and slashed at it. Red lights seemed to peal and rumble about me, then somehow I did a backflip from a flopped-onto-my-back position, the rope still twisted tight about my leg.

Lightning flashes across the black polluted sky as it begins to rain more soot and oil.

I hit the edge of the tabletop. It bucks like a mule under me, but I remain 'present' somehow as a violent wind flings me off of the top. The lightning bursts forth from its hidden prison and flings the dirt and soot in the air onto the ground. I begin falling.

A wave of fire, this hot, yellow, blue, and red, takes the place of the lightning. The flames wash over me as I free-fall into darkness.

There is no end to this falling, or so I think in the instant of time left me before I hit the dusty floor with a shattering crack...

And a tidal wave of offal and body-fluids pours off the edge of the workbench as I stretch out my sword arm ahead of me and roll onto my face and under the sheltering overhang as the light of the world suddenly left it behind and the former reign of darkness once more resumed.

Only it did not resume; it became far worse, with smoke so thick and choking, as well as soot so clinging and blinding, that I grabbed for a rag and tied it over my nose and mouth as I continued crawling under the sheltering overhang. A glance upwards showed flickering flames, then suddenly a blue-flaming chunk of lizard 'intestine' splatted on the ground but inches from my right hand. I reached the 'tunnel', and Gabriel was not there.

A huge messy 'lake', this low-burning and flickering with foul-reeking flames, had kicked him out of his shelter – and I was not about to try such nonsense as bathing myself in reptilian body fluids that corroded like acid and burned with flames like a weak species of aquavit. I continued crawling, now conscious of the slow-growing mess behind me amid the still-gathering darkness and slow-dropping sooty threads yet hanging thickly in the air.

And as this soot continued settling, my hands and knees kept finding other things: small puddles of reptilian body fluids, chunks of meat, bits of reptilian viscera – and amid one particularly large piece of 'guts', the partly-digested well-gnawed skull of an obvious person.

“That wretch bolted that fool,” I spat.

“The third one that evening,” said the soft voice. “That was the last 'wine-bibber' of that one encampment.”

And seeing that galvanized me. No more retreating. I turned around, and stood up. The fact that I could somehow discern colors and shapes amid such thick and noxious murk was astonishing. I resumed my inventory of what I was seeing.

The top of both workbenches were covered – the west one more so, the east one less – with Iggy's innards. Where I did not see obvious intestines and other internal organs, I saw what looked like long-past-its-prime red-brown blood of a thick and noxious consistency, a yellowish fluid that still briefly spurted with bluish flames here and there amid a charred and mangled countertop, and a sickly green material that reminded me of bile.

My bile, specifically.

Iggy, however, was still much on his feet, and though I could almost see the scorched and blackened blood-dripping cabinets through the massive hole I had blown in his side – it was a most-serious injury; a normal reptile of his size would not have survived such a wound for longer than a few seconds, and I wondered if a reptile 'hardened unto adamant' could endure for long.

“No wonder,” I thought, as I noted his more-ready moving and recalled the nature of current 'hard-witches'. “That thing needs to be rotting in a pile of dung before it's truly done.”

I began looking for my rifle, and found it along with the other things I had shucked when I went to plant my last bomb. As I did, however, I could feel a difference: while Iggy did need to be rotting in a pile of dung before we could consider him entirely finished, the cumulative effects of his injuries were telling upon him. He was cursed, this to endure not merely 'unto the end of time', but also such that he was was exceedingly 'hard' when it came to injuries; but, he had been cursed by witches, and not God.

And therefore, he could be killed, because witchdom, even then, had only the cheap imitation and not the real thing.

“Just a smaller difference, is all,” I thought, as I checked my rifle over before reloading it by feel. It was still Stygian in its darkness, and I hoped and prayed Gabriel would not resume his idiocy and attempt to ignite that one lantern. I then 'saw' where he was.

“He crawled into one of those cabinets,” I gasped, “and he passed out in there due to the stink and the fumes.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “He is hiding, but he is not causing you trouble, either.”

“He'll hide himself in hell if he doesn't get his carcass out here to help as he can,” I muttered, as I put the cap on the nipple. I was of half a mind to go and shoot him before I did anything else. “Stupid fool, get out of that hole and do your duty!”

The screams that erupted from where I had been looking were only eclipsed by the roars of Iggy, and as I turned, slow as molasses, I saw that he was coming closer through the smoke and the soot. No more could he flame; no matter. He was still coming. I aimed at his open mouth, then fired.

The bullet hit with a solid 'thunk', then I laid my rifle on the table. I reached for the second grenade, pulled the pin with my finger, and threw the bomb with all my strength into the gaping maw of the lizard as it showed clearly but six feet away in the swirling mists of death.

“Heartburn,” I yelled, as I leaped up on top of the workbench while drawing my sword. “Iggy, you need more heartburn!”

The blast of the grenade nearly tossed me off of the workbench. As it was, I was flung backwards to land upon my side, and as I did, I rolled in the slimy and still-flaming guts and body fluids of the reptile. I came to a stop, then without a second thought, I retook my feet and charged the accursed beast.

You or me, damned lizard,” I screamed, as I slid to a stop and put my foot against the monster's back and swung my sword with all I had.

The blade bit deep, but not deep enough. I yanked it out with a jerk. Iggy turned, his mouth wide agape, and as he brought up a forepaw, I sliced hard at the raking claws and sent them flying like darts off to the side – and then I waded in for the kill.

I moved to the side, then sliced once more on him. This time the sword bit deep into his head. I yanked it out with a jerk, surprised now that the blade did not crack or break, then as I slid further to his side, I saw 'the' place.

The narrowest portion of his neck. I swung again.

The sword once more bit deep, until it encountered bone – then it chipped off a piece of reptilian backbone, hit the next vertebra – and went inches deeper still.

Into, through, and past the lizard's spinal cord.

The shuddering that now overtook the whole of the reptile's body was astonishing, but I waited no longer. I yanked out my sword, then past the reptile's head I ran atop the benchtop. In the corner of my peripheral vision, I saw the others just starting to come out of their hiding spot as I passed Iggy's head and jumped. I slid on the lake of blood as I hit the floor, then turned around to face Iggy while still sliding backward – then began running in place while still sliding. Finally, my boots found traction as I sprinted, then 'launched' at the lizard's front as the world turned entirely red.

I didn't care what happened now, and as the lizard stood immobile and waiting, I ducked down...

Slid under its jaw while spraying up blood, guts, and body fluids from my boots and then my knees...

Took my sword in both hands, a prayer upon my lips. I was going to pith the beast from the only spot where its bones were thin enough to permit such doings. I rammed my sword straight up, up, up until the bronze oval hilt pressed against the icy-cold blood-dripping skin of Iggy's throat

The monster-scream I heard was of such pitch and volume I seemed to at once faint in place, but now mechanical, like an automaton running a program, I ripped out my sword and shoved it in again, this time a few inches further back. The jolt I felt in both arms told me I'd hit the one single place the long months of cursing didn't reach – the actual reptile brain he'd been born with, not the sizable added portions created out of pure curse-energy by the witches that gave Iggy the intelligence he needed to outsmart all of his enemies until now – and as I ripped the sword out again, I jumped up...

Hit the workbench's top...

Slid like a log after falling down to then roll...

And fell off on the other side to splash down face-first in the lake of blood.

I picked myself up, then shook my head and brought my sword out of the pool as I staggered to my feet. From seeming nowhere, not merely did Gabriel show, but also, all of the others, Sarah leading them. I shook my head again, then thought, “is it over?” A pause. “It can't be. That thing's got to be shamming.”

Amid ringing ears, the sense of silence and of 'redness' slowly faded over a slow and clangorous count of ten. I could feel slow splashing steps coming closer, then someone touched my shoulder with a trembling hand. I turned to see Sarah.

“Are you, cough, all right?” she asked amid further coughing.

“I-I'm not sure,” I croaked, as someone – who, I could not see – held up a long black 'rope' amid the slow-clearing sooty smoke and the dust-riven 'fog of war'. I heard other voices, these faint, anguished, discomfited. I felt sick – and more, intensely thirsty. “That felt like at least an hour.”

“Seven minutes and forty-three seconds from the gelatin's explosion to you finding that one spot needed to shut that thing down with your sword.”

“S-shut it down?” I asked.

“Only when it is rotting in a manure-pile will that creature be truly done,” said a shaking voice that took me a minute to recognize as that of Gabriel. “I somehow heard you say that phrase exactly, and then I truly got the fear of that thing.”

“Did you think it impossible to kill?” asked Sarah. “It is dead now.”

“N-no,” said Gabriel. “Th-those curses mean that it will not be truly dead until it is cut up and in pieces and rotting in a manure-pile, and I was t-t-told to get myself out of his way.”

“What?” I asked.

“I heard you yelling for me,” said Gabriel, “but to come would have meant disobeying the person who told me to stay clear.”

“What?” I asked.

“I was told explicitly to stay clear, as I would only hinder your efforts,” said Gabriel. He was all but shouting. “I nearly got us all killed by not paying attention to what you were trying to tell me when you were explaining how to load what you shoot, and I thought in my stupidity that I knew what I was doing.” A brief pause, then, “and then, I was shown what awaited me if I did not do exactly what I was told, as that lizard would have killed me first once it had dealt with you, and then I would be put in the deepest portion of Hell that exists.”

“We had best get to cutting it up, then,” said Maarten. “I did bring an ax, and I was going to use it, but Sarah held me back when you were dealing with it.”

I gasped, then looked down at what I was wearing. Never had I been so filthy and messy in my whole life. Only Sarah's comment about 'Benzina' brought me back to the present.

“Those swine-spears are worthless as spears,” said Sarah. “Karl broke the point off of one tossing it at that thing, and when I saw that, I knew they were only good for one thing, and that only.”

“She did not toss that thing,” muttered Karl. “I may have tied that bomb to that spear, but then she goes and serves it up right under that dragoon's bottom with it smoking like a bad pie, and I had to catch her when the explosion tossed her back at me.”