Investing the Abbey: Desmond Alley.


While the others were indeed messy, Sarah led me to that one office. There, I was surprised to find not merely those things that I had seen before, but also a small wooden bucket and a jug padded well with rags nestled inside it.

“The jug?” I asked.

“Vinegar mixed with water,” said Sarah. “I would douse yourself, as I doubt that thing's mess is good to wear like you're doing.”

“P-poisonous?” I asked.

“That smelly thing must have drank three entire jugs full of Benzina,” said Sarah. “I've smelled it when it burns, and that thing smelled like burning Benzina when it flamed.” A brief pause as I emptied the jug into the bucket, then a faint shout came from the room we had just vacated. Sarah went to the doorway and vanished as I cupped my hands into the water and vinegar, then poured that small amount out over my head. It made me wish for my bathing dipper more than a little, and I recalled it being in the tub, along with several sectioned bars of 'clothing-soap' and three of the 'nice' soap. Sarah returned by the time I had splashed myself with the vinegar-water twice more.

“That ax Maarten brought might not be terribly good,” said Sarah, “but it is working on that dragoon now.”

“It is?” I gasped.

“Very much so,” said Sarah. “Now I hope we can get help.”

Someone ran past the door at a quick trot.

“Who was that, dear?” I asked, as I began cleaning my sword. I'd not be able to clean it or my other things much, or so I thought until Karl began bringing my equipment inside.

“Now even my sword works on it,” he said – and then as he shined the light of his lantern on me, he said, “you look worse than someone who's had three days of too much swine.”

“My eyes?” I asked.

“No, dirt, and blood, and smoke, and soot,” said Karl. “Gabriel is doing his part now.”

“Who was that who ran past the door?” asked Sarah.

“That was Katje,” said Karl. “We are going to need more tools to cut up that thing, and then we are going to need to get it out, that and clean up a lot of the mess in here.”

“The smell, right?” I asked, as I found the rag-hunk I carried in my possible bag – it was a bit smaller than the one at home reserved for my bathing – and began sponging myself off with it.

“That too,” said Karl. “Then, there is that big hole downstairs, and that one is trouble.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It stinks like a witch-hole,” said Karl. “I have had dreams about those places ever since I went in that one with you, and I know about how they stink.”

I then noticed Sarah going out the door. When when she returned a moment later, she was carrying some other supplies.

“That thing is not much worse than a large bull for cutting up now,” said Sarah – who then muttered about old tales and what they were good for. I caught the words 'privy rags' at the least.

“Yes?” I asked. “This was not the horned dragoon, wasn't it?”

“No,” said Sarah. “It was plated up worse than an Iron Pig, and what it lacked in legs, it made up for in other ways, some of which are beyond my understanding.”

“It was not the horned dragoon,” I heard Gabriel speak. He was still shouting – which given he was mostly deafened, did not surprise me. “It might as well as been a smaller version of Smog, and not even the fifth kingdom house's worst days smelled as bad as it did.”

Fainter yet, I heard other voices, these sounding excited, and among them, the clear strong voice of a woman.

“Sounds like Katje's got help,” I said, as I finished cleaning my sword of the worst of the reptilian blood and body fluids. “I'd best go outside and dump this stuff on me, as I really need a bath.”

“Best do that in that room, then,” said Sarah. “It could stand all the cleaning it can get.”

Over the next few minutes, our 'gear of war' – not my words, but Maarten's – went in that one office, and I managed to get myself cleaned up 'passably'. I picked up the bucket, now full of reeking liquid, and began walking slowly toward the 'battle zone'. When I got there, I was astonished.

Iggy was in at least four pieces beyond the several sections I'd personally managed, with everyone who had beforehand 'hung back' now becoming as messy as I had become. Maarten's ax had been joined by two more as well as a crude-looking wood-saw, and while talk continued outside, I wondered what I could do beyond 'stand out of the way' and 'listen'.

“My uncle spoke of fifth kingdom smelters,” said Karl, “and this thing flamed worse than one.” A brief pause, then, “was that cellar this bad?”

“Do not speak of that room,” muttered Gabriel. His hearing had seemed to return to a degree. “I did not go inside that place. I only saw it from the outside.”

“Did Smog flame at both ends?” asked Karl between swings of his ax. My eviscerating Iggy with dynamite had made him much easier to cut up, if I was going by the progress of the axes. Those at least worked, unlike the saw – which was tossed by two people when they attempted to use it before being set aside on a bench-top. I could tell Sarah wished to hear about Smog's incendiary tendencies as well.

“No,” I said, as I looked around. I was starting to feel as if I'd been blown up inside the Swartsburg all over again for soreness. “That one only flamed from the front, unlike this one – and before dealing with Iggy, I had no idea dragoons could flame from both ends.”

“Did Smog stink?” asked Sarah.

“N-not in those books,” I muttered. “They did not speak of it or those like it having an odor. T-this thing...”

“Iggy stinks horribly,” said Katje as she showed with an obvious wheelbarrow, one that seemed to have climbed out of a history book. Her voice was the picture of distaste, and as I stood around looking dumbfounded, another voice, one I had not heard before, came to the shattered window. This person did not deign to lower themselves to our level, but shouted as if we were all entirely deaf – or as drunk as stinkers. For a second, I wondered about him that way.

“Are you all right in there?” yelled the man.

“Y-yes,” said Sarah. Her voice shook almost as much as mine did when I last spoke. “We need some help getting this thing out of this room.”

“What is it?” shouted the stranger. I wanted to speak to this man, for some reason – and my reasoning, while currently beyond my understanding, was not kind. “A horned dragoon?”

“I wish it were one of those,” muttered Sarah. I could tell she was not feeling charitable toward this person, any more than I did. He sounded as if he was as oblivious as Gabriel at his very worst – and drunk as well. It was a good deal more obvious to me now. “No,” shouted Sarah. “It was worse.”

“It is not the only one of those worms,” said another shouted voice from outside. “I think that there is another, for I have heard it banging on that cap-lid once the sun goes down.”

This was followed by various whispers, all of which seemed to speak of how the night belonged to witches and anyone outside after sundown was a witch by purest definition. I then caught the word used – worm – and tucked it away in my mind.

“No,” muttered Gabriel as he filled an old bucket with 'slop' using a past-its-prime shovel. The rope went outside, and someone seemed to be holding its other end. “The night does not belong to witches. Fighting Iggy cured me of that rubbish, as no night was ever so dark as what I saw then, and this cursed creature finally failed in the midst of its greatest strength – which was darkness.”

While none of these people seemed inclined to come in, within perhaps two more minutes, someone from outside showed where we were with another wheelbarrow, then another – and then the flood-tide of assistance showed, so much so that while the seven of us had to do some work, the worst parts were done by clay-stained individuals who were obviously accustomed to 'ditch-digging' – and more importantly, had plenty of clean clothing. Gabriel 'sneaked off', or so I thought until Sarah spoke of having him fetch water for our baths.

“We may wish to dissect this thing to a certain degree,” I murmured – or so it sounded to me amid my still-ringing ears. “It either needs to go in a manure pile...”

“This thing?” spat one of those helping. His voice had a troubling familiarity; he was one of those totally-oblivious people from earlier – and he did sound as if somewhat drunk. “Now why is it you want to cut it up further?”

His shouting was enough to make me wonder yet more, as he did not stink of anything resembling drink, and when one of his neighbors with a wheelbarrow elbowed him lightly in the ribs, he seemed to bristle – and yell louder to all and sundry. “It needs burning, all of it, and I'd just as soon forget it, its mess, and its trouble.”

“Johan, be quiet,” said one of our helpers. “I've heard about that man over there who looks like he's been doing too much with swine, and if he says it needs cutting up and looking at, then it most likely does.” This second man then asked, “why would it need further cutting up?”

“What if there are more of these things?” I asked softly. My ears were still ringing like chimes. “What we could learn from this one would help us fight them better.”

“That's so,” he said. “You sound like some of those people from down in the potato country, and they do better than most against pigs. I'll see it done.”

Yet with hearing this one person of sense, I could tell that he was the only one of those 'helping' that were willing to listen. None of these others laboring wished to hear a word beyond their own thoughts, for they only wanted to 'deal with it' and then 'go on' – and the less they were 'bothered' by such messes as we had made for them, the better.

More importantly, they had 'better' things to do, and 'common sense' and 'foresight' were things they wished no part of. None of such thinking was part of their world.

With Iggy mostly outside, we left the still-messy room behind. For some reason, even amid the slimy tracks we left behind us, the hallway seemed much less dirty, as did that one huge columned room. Once we were outside in the sunlight again, the horror of dirt, soot, smoke, and fire became far more apparent; for we had once more returned to the land of the living, and while the stink outside was far less, it clung to us as a potent reminder of just what we had endured. It was perhaps midmorning, and as I blew my nose near our three buggies, it seemed a signal for general coughing, spitting, and retching.

“Thank God for small favors,” I gasped, as I began coughing up horrible-looking messes to leave them on the grass.

As we each took our baths – I went first, as even after my sponging off, I was still sticky and nasty to the touch, and I knew I needed a session with that 'awful' Geneva downwind afterward – I recalled once more the need to perform some kind of an autopsy upon Iggy. At the very least, I wondered if his skull showed other marks of some kind – both marks on its outside, and more, markings on the inside.

“Did he really grow a brain?” I thought, as I cleaned my equipment after my bath. I had a lot to clean up, and this time, I needed to do it right. My sword, especially, did not relish the filth that still remained upon it, and I had grime on everything I had brought inside with me. I had just cleaned my rifle properly when Gabriel returned.

“Save for that one man who was leading them,” he said, “those that were sent to help us were common laborers.” A brief pause while he coughed, then, “and according to what that one supervising man said to me privately where they could not hear me, rather mediocre ones at that.”

“Mediocre?” I asked, as I began to clean out my possible bag.

“They are not merely thought to be lazy by those who work here,” said Gabriel, “but also, he spoke of them acting as if they might have worn brass cones in school.”

“Manure-piles for interring that thing?” I asked. “Or must they burn it?”

“There is a manure pile,” said Gabriel, “but those dullards must be quite unusual, for they seem to have large voices, and all of them wish to burn it.”

“And those from the fourth kingdom are too tired to, uh, do all of the work themselves,” I said. “It's cursed, duh, so it needs burning.” I then asked, “do they know the nature of those curses? Not all cursed things need total and complete destruction by fire.

“I doubt those people know much of anything beyond their usual labors,” said Gabriel, “as while I have seen few genuine dullards, and no one truly fit to wear a brass cone, these people seem like some laborers I have encountered in the second kingdom – they know what they know, which is very little – and they are altogether content with that little knowledge, and have no desire to learn anything new.” A brief pause, then, “besides, drop-wood is sufficiently uncommon in this area that finding enough wood to burn that thing is going to take some hours at the very least.” Gabriel's unspoken speech was 'closer to days, actually'.

“Hence best bury it in that manure-pile, as we will want that manure,” I said. “Saves time, effort, and firewood.”

Gabriel slapped his head, shook it slightly, then said, “let me go tell them that. Even those dullards know when they don't have to do extra work.”

As Gabriel left – not at a run, but he was not wasting time, either – Sepp came up to me and then sat on the grass. He'd dirtied his things nearly as badly as I did, surprisingly, and now needed to clean them up also.

“I learned enough cutting on that thing to know your asking is a good idea,” he said. “Iron Pigs are bad, or so people say, but I've seen enough common swine and witches lately to have an idea about why you're asking to have that thing looked over good.”

“I shot an Iron Pig, remember?” I asked, “and I did the Swartsburg twice, and that one town, and the hall...”

“Don't remind me about that place,” said Sepp with a shudder. “Witches are bad, domestic pigs are worse, but that lizard was the worst thing or creature I've ever seen or heard about.”

“Me too,” I said, as I began cleaning up the things I'd taken out of my possible bag. “I wondered where that awl got to, and now I know.”

“Awl?” asked Sepp. This was an unusual awl, one I had made with a round 'needle' nearly seven inches long with a scalloped triangular 'cutting' point. Lukas' talk of 'cleaning ears' had figured in its making, as that seemed about the easiest and least messy way of dealing with 'shamming' witches. “That thing's almost as big as a tent peg.”

“Jael used a tent peg on a place near Sisera's ear,” I said. “It's in the book. I did this one after I got home from that trip and I remembered Lukas' talk about cleaning ears with awls.” A brief pause, then, “the usual way to deal with witches seems to be in a cursory and hurried fashion so as to get it over with...”

Sepp shook his head, then said, “not everyone. Some seem to enjoy the sight and smells of burn-piles, but I've seen enough of that type of person being routed out by pigs lately that I'd ride money on those people either being witches or wanting to be witches.”

“He's right, though,” said Katje as she came closer. She looked much better after her bath, even if her 'cleaning' clothing had a lot of new rips and tears in it. She'd done what she could, I now knew – and that, for someone who'd never been in a real fight before, said something about her attitude at the least.

“Who is?” I asked. “What I said about how most people think about witches? How a lot of people don't want to learn anything, but would almost prefer to remain mired in ignorance?”

“You said it correctly,” said Katje, “both as how most would prefer to remain ignorant about anything beyond the commonplace, and especially the things of witchdom so as to combat them better.” A brief pause, then, “I have seen this, and it is true: most think the whole of such warfare is to kill and burn every witch they see, and burn all that is connected to such people.” Another pause, then, “that is but the start of such matters. It is far from the whole of it.”

“Individual witches and witch-holes are readily replaced?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Katje. “Until where we lived burned to the ground save for our house, and those witches all died, you could almost kill every witch you saw, and every person you suspected that way, and more witches and those wishing to be like them would replace the dead within days.” A brief pause, then, “I learned more about witches and dealing with them since Maarten's last sermon than I did during the whole of my life beforehand, and much of that I learned since we came to this place here.”

“How?” I asked.

“Watching you, and hearing you talk, and smelling that dragoon, and shooting at it repeatedly, and having Sarah hold me back so as to not blow myself up with dynamite, and then seeing you stop it almost by yourself,” said Katje. “I did what I could, but it was ignoring all of us except you.”

“Not quite,” I muttered.

“Perhaps it was not entirely as I said,” said Katje, “but I did see this: that thing saw you as its chief danger, and if it stopped you, then it could deal with us when and as it was inclined.” A brief pause, then “back to what you were doing beforehand, though, even though all of us wished to 'get started'. You did not.”

“Cowardice...” I muttered, as I recalled the accusing voice.

“No, that was not cowardice,” said Katje. “That lizard wasn't cursed by common witches, even for that time and place – and no witch currently alive comes close to those people in terms of what they could do. There was something about making it live a very long time, then be almost impossible to kill, and then be able to outwit nearly everyone who came against it – and had we gone about our business as we felt inclined and not done as you thought to do, it would have devoured us all.” A brief pause, then, “and I myself found enough human bones on the floor while cleaning up the mess it made that I knew that lizard had eaten many in recent days.”

“I think she means to say that without careful, systematic, and thorough planning, with an eye to contingencies while trying to learn whatsoever you possibly could during your preparations,” said Gabriel, “we would have been easy meals for that lizard.”

Katje looked at Gabriel, then said, “thank you.” She then looked once more at me. “Then, there is your attitude, which is a key issue.”

“What?” I asked. I was confused.

“You just exhibited it,” said Katje. “Most that do the simple and obvious things regarding witches believe as they do to such a degree that they do not think to look beyond what they currently are intimately familiar with, and that in all areas. More, they are fully satisfied with what little they actually know, and do not wish to learn anything new – and hence, they do not think to issue questions. You ask them constantly.”

“You heard it from two people,” said Gabriel, “and when two people tell you the same thing, it's either especially commonplace or is likely to be more trustworthy than hearing from just one.”

Then, in lower voice, Katje said: “those 'dullards' merely were more vocal about their prejudices than is common for this area.”

“Not for the second kingdom,” said Sarah. “Now Karl and Maarten are the only ones left yet to bathe themselves, and I think those familiar with cooking might wish to start doing so.”

Katje looked at Sarah, then said, “you might manage soup if given a well-adjusted stove, and Gabriel's the same way if talk is true, so it looks like the two of us are elected.” Katje phrased this last as something of a question, for some reason.

“Me?” I asked.

“You'd best clean up your things,” said Sepp. “I think she means me.”

While Sepp was right – I had more a lot left to clean and repack, as well as weapons to finish cleaning and looking over – the smell of cooking soon seemed to take hold of my mind. I then recalled another need: a privy. I was about to ask about the matter when Sarah suddenly ran between the buggies in a tearing hurry.

“Where did she go?” I thought, as I resumed cleaning my sword. It would truly not wait a second longer; more, it needed oiling, this done with 'preservative oil', that stuff with the torment-grease in it; finally, the scabbard was 'dirty' with blood and grime, and it needed cleaning also – and that now. I wished heartily for saddle soap, and knew none was to be had locally. Perhaps we would find some later.

Sarah assumed a place beside me a minute later, and I found that not only did she have dirty weapons – her revolver was covered with soot – but she was inclined to watch me clean mine and then clean hers in the same fashion on a trio of widespread rags. She seemed a trifle awkward, for some reason.

“I think I need to have you teach me how to do this, as I suspect I was not doing nearly a good enough job on what I use.”

“Did you find rust?” I asked. I had had my eyes on what I was doing.

“None that showed, and none inside that pistol,” said Sarah, “but when I took it apart this time, I found a lot more dirt than I usually do, and now it works much smoother than it did beforehand.”

“You never really used your sword before today, either,” I said. “Here, wipe it once more with this oil-rag. It's not just oil in it – it's got some of that nasty torment-grease mixed in and heated gently with plenty of stirring while I 'cooked' it.”

“Is that what you use on your tools now?”

“Those I don't use a lot get that stuff now,” I said. “Those I use most often I usually just wipe with boiled distillate, and until recently, I used that or that special oil for wiping the others.” A pause. “We might want to get in the habit of oiling and wiping down weapons with this stuff, as that ocean doesn't promise to help much with rusting and I have my suspicions about that place across the sea.”

“You're right,” said Sarah. “Regular water causes rust quick enough, but the ocean is bad for it.” Sarah paused for a moment, dampened her oil rag with the 'preservative-oil', then folded it carefully and tucked it in a hidden pocket in her satchel. “Does that place across the sea have trouble with dampness?”

“I think unprotected iron articles tend to rust in a big hurry in that place,” I said. “I'm not sure if it's just high humidity...” I looked on the grass and saw what looked like crawling spots of gray-yellow 'mold'. “Somehow, the only reason they don't have bad damp-trouble over there is what they have in there tends to either resist such attack or they work hard at keeping things undamaged that are otherwise well-protected.”

While the food cooked, those of us not cleaning weapons 'washed' our dirty clothing in the tub, this two at a time; and as I had the most weapons to clean, I did my clothing 'last'. I soon found what I needed to do was closer to pile my 'dirty' clothing into the tub, add some hot water, scrub what I could as well as I could – I was still very sore – and then let the messy stuff set with some added chips of 'laundry soap' that someone had cut up fine with their knife.

“And it will need repairs,” I muttered, as I went out of the 'bathing area' and over to the buggies. I was more than a little surprised to find a sizable hole dug with a small bag of obvious privy-rags next to it on one side and a mound of dirt with a 'decent' shovel planted in it on the other side. I surmised it was a buggy-shovel, one of those that had gone on the trip.

“Thank you, whoever did that,” I murmured, as I did my business – and after washing my hands in a wooden bucket next to the hole, I surmised 'food' was next.

It was; and after the dishes were setting in a 'boiling pot', I suspected it was time to take a nap. Half of the others were either inclined that way, or busy doing things that interested them; and when I laid down with my possible bag for a pillow and my ground-cloth under me, I 'passed out cold' almost instantly to awaken suddenly with the sun at or near its zenith.

And I thought the matter utterly strange to see so many strange-looking 'flags' flapping in the breeze above me. “What are those?” I asked quietly. My ears were ringing much less than they had when I had gone to sleep.

“Clothing,” said Sepp. “They have a strange thing for washing behind that smith's shop back there, and it gets clothing cleaner than anything I've ever seen. You might want to look at it.”

“Yes, after today is done,” said Katje. “Were it less busy, we would wish to use it, but they have long piles of laundry waiting for that thing.” A brief pause, then, “I checked my lantern's candle, and there is plenty of wax left, but I put two more of those candles inside my pockets.”

“Y-you're wearing th-that thing?” I gasped.

“Yes, I am,” said Katje, “and now I know why Sarah spoke as she did, as she did the work to repair it.”

“She sews a lot faster than I can,” I said. “Now let me finish my business – oh, beer. I need that.”

“I refilled both of those odd copper jugs you had,” said Katje. “Now I hope I can do my share this time, as that dragoon was indeed the worst of this place's guardians.”

And yet after we 'formed up', aching and sore in spite of borrowed 'potato-country Geneva' for our lumps and bruises – the jug we had brought did not have the 'nasty' stuff from that one half-full jug, but rather what Hans usually made, and I did not think it wise to ask it to become liniment that induced vomiting almost as quickly as it relieved soreness – there was no talking beyond occasional whispers. At the transom, I stopped and sniffed.

“Smells better already,” I muttered, as I went down the steps slowly. “Now it just smells like an old building.”

Once down on the floor and a few feet from the transom, however, I needed to add the likely location of that old building, that being in the old Chicago stockyards. The reek of deceased iguana was everywhere – and Iggy smelled nearly as bad when he was dead and gone as he did when he had first come out of his silo with 'blazing rocket motors'. I felt that way so much as we came to the juncture of the pillared room and the hall that I wanted to write 'Iggy's Silo' on the blank walls of the 'laboratory'. I then had an awful question as we went inside 'the hall of offices and dead bodies'.

“Was that lizard guarding something in that hole?”

“What would that thing guard?” asked Sarah. She was, again, behind me and to my right, her gnawed club out and ready for use. I wanted to use my 'baseball bat' for a cane due to my soreness, but thought it better to have it ready for use as a club. I wanted to be ready for more 'large rats'.

“Eggs, perhaps,” I said. “I know it was spoken of as 'he', but I think that had to do with the cursing dumped on it. It might well have been a mother lizard.”

While that comment would have normally made for a beehive of questioning, the appalling silence spoke of other matters: fighting Iggy was about as much fun as blowing up the hall and the second instance of the Swartsburg combined into a nightmarish whole, and Maarten and Katje, at the least, had not previously been to anything like either of those things, hence Iggy was their 'baptism of fire' in both a literal and figurative sense. I wondered silently if either person had had any previous experience with 'hairy situations' – and I wanted to change 'hair' to hare.

Fighting Iggy was a decent description of 'Seeing the Hare' in my book at the least.

“No, Katje has encountered Iron Pigs before,” I thought, as I recalled her panicking when I needed to shoot that one pig. “Maarten, I don't know. They both had to endure an entirely dark town for some weeks at the least, so they weren't totally green.” A brief pause, then, “I wonder if Gabriel's thanking me yet?”

More quiet steps down the hall, this time with but little dust falling or filling the air. All of the stuff that had tried to dirty us up beforehand had fallen to the ground, much as if it had remained present by the power of the curses poured out upon Iggy; and when the figure of 'months' of cursing came up again in my mind, I wondered if it were indeed true.

There was no answer, at least until we came to the laboratory-cum-abattoir.

Then there were comments, and Sarah's screeching voice spoke for everyone.

“Only the inside of that Kossum's place smelled worse than this room does,” said Sarah. “Now those steps go down into some place, and I'm glad I checked everything I have.” Then, this softly muttered, “if I ever meet a dragoon again, it will be too soon.”

There were more of such soft murmurings as I took the first step amid the sandy rubble of Iggy's blasted entrance, and here, I first saw and felt the shards of rotten wood I had discerned on these filthy broken-down steps. Their current covering was mostly dusty and dirty fractured chunks of reinforced concrete, with most of that reinforcement being a species of 'knotted' and rusty wire about an eighth of an inch thick.

“I thought they used scrap,” I murmured.

“They 'did',” said the soft voice. I could clearly hear the emphasis. “That wire was 'scrap' because the witch in charge at that time said it was, and since he was plugging the hole, he directed his 'slaves' to cut it into lengths and bind it together with thinner wire, which accounts for those 'knots' you saw.”

“Sounds familiar,” I thought, as I recalled reinforcing rod where I came from. It tended to be a fair amount thicker and made of 'mystery metal' – or 'scrap iron', as some called it.

Each step I made raised small spurts of dust amid the fragmented rubble, and the grinding sound of my boots upon the steps brought forth echoes of a melancholy sort. As my head passed below the surface of the floor, I saw clearly the thickness of that floor – over a foot, easily; it was thicker than the plug had been – and then, as I came down further on the rubble-strewn steps, I saw before me in all directions a veritable forest of thick white 'plastered' columns overwritten thickly with straggling and blackened cracks.

I was counting my steps – witches preferred multiples of thirteen steps for entries on general principles – and when my feet trod upon the fifteenth step, I saw that I had less than ten steps remaining. There were more steps leading down than I thought there might be, and once at the bottom of the twenty-four stairs, I found myself standing in more rubble. I moved to the left and out of the 'mess' to kneel down next to what looked like a wide and spreading mound of ashes, this to listen and 'provide security' while the others picked their way through the fragments of broken concrete and the rotting chunks of wood beside them.

I could hear and feel those behind and above me 'clearing' a path of sorts by moving the mess out of their way as they came down single-file, at least until a small waterfall of broken concrete cascaded to the floor behind me with snapping crashes and crumbling noises. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Hist,” I whispered. “I'm trying to listen.” A pause, then, “I heard something.”

My speech all-but-silenced the others, even if they continued coming down the stairs. I then 'felt' the noise rather than heard it; it seemed to chatter like madness, grind like fury, and gnash its teeth like a burning arch-witch in hell, and I then knew I was 'hearing' this also.

I was not hearing it conventionally, however.

I then recalled what kind of creature made that noise, and more, what else had been said to be here – namely, a large Desmond. A soft hand touched on my shoulder – I nearly jumped once more, at least until I knew who touched me – then as I turned to see Sarah, her face unreadable as I saw it in profile, she spoke.

“There are more worms,” said Sarah's 'spooky-sounding' voice – which abruptly changed to a falsetto howling shout: “Hark! I hear a Desmond, and it calls for Meat!” She then turned to me, and I slowly stood up as the others came down somewhat quicker amid more sliding crashes of 'mess' falling to the floor behind the two of us.

“Dear,” I asked, “what gave you that idea?”

“Pump and Tilly, most likely,” said Gabriel as he reached the floor and began moving the debris over to the wall with his shoes. He again had his lantern, and he had the thing 'cranked' to its best brightness. Mine, I realized, needed adjustment – or so I thought until I looked down at the thing and saw I had forgotten to light it, much less adjust it. I then tapped on its side, and to my surprise, it lit.

“Now that I have heard of,” said Sarah as I began adjusting my lantern to get it as bright as possible. The wire needed dropping nearly half an inch before I got it 'right'. “You were so busy you forgot to get that lighter candle when it was going around.”

“What did he do, light that thing without a match?” asked Sepp. He had his musket in both hands, a 'braided' rope over his shoulder dangling one of those familiar-looking cloth satchels just below his waist. He seemed ready to shoot, at least until I noted the hammer of the weapon was not in the 'full-cock' position.

“Yes,” said Sarah. Karl was ahead of Maarten and Katje; all of them were moving rubble to the side with their feet as they came down. For an instant, I wondered why the whole floor wasn't covered with slimy reptilian dung. Sarah then resumed speaking.

“I have watched Pump and Tilly a few times during my traipsing, and sometimes Pump speaks as I did, though he usually speaks of Geneva when he does so. Then, he has much wind.” A pause, then, “which end of him has more wind, though, is a very good question.”

“This place smells too much like the cellar for me to like it,” muttered Gabriel. “At least its most lively occupant is gone.”

Only then I notice the stench, both as to its quantity and its quality – and the stench drove all before it as it entered my mind, seemingly with the express goal of performing rape upon my memory. I had hitherto been so intent upon guarding the landing, and then locating the source of the recalled danger, that only now did I see or feel a portion of the larger picture. As my eyes now swept the forest of columns – they seemed to move, so as to hide better what lay in the distance – I noted indistinct features, most of which lay some distance away. I could see enough that I wondered just what I was seeing, but not enough to have an idea as to what dangers lay ahead.

“How big is this room?” I thought. “This stinking place seems to go on forever, just like that cellar did at one point, and its columns are bigger than those of the room above it!” Then, softer – at least in my mind – “I know one thing about what that lizard was guarding. This is a witch-hole of some kind.”

The columns once more seemed to waver in the semi-darkness produced by several lanterns glaring like tormented candles, then as I put my lantern beside me to the left so as to cut its 'glare', I looked to my right. There, I saw the beginnings of what looked like a long line of tall and rusty wheeled beds, each with a thick and rotten-looking mass setting atop the framework of tubing. It resembled an ancient 'bier', one once white as snow but now turned a dark and dusty gray by time and neglect, and the inert nature of this 'bier' spoke of long-aged death and decay.

I looked leftward, and now, seemingly a mile distant – something was playing with my sense of distance once more; I understood this implicitly, without conscious effort – I saw an uneven and hazy-looking 'ring' of brownish cylindrical objects of unequal height, these clustered about another 'bed' – a bed that not only was not rusty, but also showed itself surrounded by a faintly red haze. The reddish glow was almost superfluous, given my previous statement; it but confirmed what I had stated before as being the cold-blooded truth; and now, I knew that I was looking at a ring of thirteen idols surrounding an altar for sacrifice.

And, far to the left and further yet away, came that chattering grinding gnashing-of-teeth racket.

I moved further to my left as Katje and then Maarten came down the steps, and when I looked to my right, I knew why they had come last: each of them was armed with a shovel, and they had been clearing a path through the mess. The debris now lay mostly on the floor next to the solid-looking 'wall' of the stairs but feet from where I stood, and as Maarten cleared the last of the rubble off of the last of the stairs, he handed Katje his shovel. She laid both of them against the far wall next to the bottom of the stairs.

“What is this place?” asked Sarah. Her voice was just above a whisper, and I wondered how I could hear her and not hear the noise of the two last down the stairs clearing them of debris.

“I think this is a type of witch-hole,” I said, my voice just as soft. “I doubt it's been used much lately, not with Iggy in here – he'd devour anyone he could get his teeth into, witches included.” An odd thought came into my mind, then as I felt something below me, it came out.

“This one, though, is for, uh, amateurs,” I said. “The real witch-hole is deeper yet below us, but if I go by that noise I'm both hearing and feeling, we'd best check out this one before that creature forces the issue upon us. Do not touch anything in here unless I see it and name it safe first, as it might well be rigged – and that's the case even if you know what you are looking at.” A pause, then, “the familiar among you-all is well-known by witches...” Then a question: “would the witches of that time rig this place?”

“With bombs, no,” said the soft voice. “Iggy was worse than any bomb than they could have come up with once he grew larger.” A brief pause, then, “however, it is a witch-hole, and while it was for the 'amateurs' of that time and place, that included most of those witches that lived and died here – as not many witches that came here were strong enough to endure the real one.”

“And those people, compared to now, were not even close to being amateurs,” I murmured. “Come, follow me.”

My steps toward the beds were slow, halting even, my thinking now doubly wary for some reason. With each step I made, I could feel the slow yet steady awakening of the place's long-sleeping evil, and before I had made ten steps, I knew clearly: this was not a normal witch-hole by current standards; it went far beyond all of those places that were currently in use, save for a very few examples – the cellar of the house proper before it went to hell being one of those places, unless I was far wrong.

“The cellar may have been smaller for physical size, but it was fully as dangerous for curses,” said the soft voice. “This place hasn't seen use since Iggy was sealed up inside it during the waning years of that war's 'hot' phase.”

“How did he eat those people if he could not get out?” asked Sarah.

“I'm not sure, dear,” I said, as I came to the side of the first of that long row of beds. Looking farther into the darkness with the lantern held low to my lift side showed a line of them seeming to go on until they ended in hell itself. I then raised up my lantern to head-height, and looked closer at the bed nearest me.

The long – easily eight feet – 'slab' of a bed showed a pair of tall metal stands, each filthy beyond any definition I could come up with, each stand topped with a thick and grimy metal crossbar holding two dust-obscured oblong glass bottles. Each of these bottles had the following attributes: empty of all their contents; a strange ovoid shape, with a built-in semicircle of glass on 'top' for a hanger; a long and tapering funnel-shaped neck, this of 'graceful' and shapely conjoined curves; a cork, this ancient, black, and two holed; a long glass tube in one hole, this tube tapering to a near-point on the bottom and bulging near the top just shy of the inside of the bottle; a much shorter glass tube, this with a diagonal slice that showed just inside the bottle, and the end outside the cork with a knurled and rusty connector – and from this connector draped down a long, black, and age-checked rubber tube that led to a slit in the sheet that formed the top of the 'bier', this last crossed with a quintet of rotten-looking cloth straps and gone a dingy and dusty gray streaked with a darker black. This darker black portion seemed to draw attention to what the cover-sheet hid beneath its coarse and ragged-looking weave.

“May I use a swine-spear?” I asked.

“This one has nothing tied to it,” said Karl, as my hand was filled with a thick and clumsy-feeling 'pole'. “The other two that we still have dynamite tied onto them.”

With the rust-tinged and slag-streaked point of the spear, I gently touched that portion of the sheet where it rose up from the surface of the 'bier'; and when the spear-point entered the fabric, the stuff tore with such little noise that it seemed unusually flimsy tissue paper.

And not merely did it tear; the fabric seemed to part as if it were stretched to the tautness of a drumhead and unravel at the same time amid clouds of gouting gray dust; and as it unraveled completely to show forth that which it was hiding, I backed away, spear still in hand. I was not prepared to see the bones of a skeleton, even as the fabric covering went to dust and tatters – and with an involuntary grunt, I nearly gagged as the stink of death seemed to billow thickly into the air from the blackened sheet that lay beneath the stark-white bones. The darkened portion of the covering fabric now made perfect sense: it was the outline of the body as it went rotten after death, and the bones stood as mute witnesses of evil.

At least until they themselves collapsed into an elongated bone-pile beneath another group of blackened gray straps holding them down to the 'bier' and raised up more dust but seconds later.

I tried to spew, and could not, even if I could speak the single word “Ugh!”

It took me some seconds, this walking ahead so as to get clear of the slow-growing stench. I then found my tongue anew.

“No, this was not a hospital,” I spat. “Are there any tapestries that speak of this kind of rubbish?”

“N-no,” said Sarah. “I've seen my share of black books before, but that one that went to dust wasn't like anything I've ever seen – and I've never seen anything like what I just saw, either.” Sarah then muttered a word at once troubling and all-but-unintelligible, and the sense I got was 'that wasn't a normal skeleton, but something utterly different, and it wants a different name'. Katje's earlier use of the words 'bone-mass' now made much more sense.

There were no further comments as I slowly walked past the second bed, the third, and then the fourth. As we past that particular bed – they were monotonous now in their sameness; they looked almost like copies of one another in fact, so much so that I wondered as to why there was such an emphasis on precision in regard to the strapping of 'corpses' – Gabriel asked, “may I scrape upon the frame of this next bed with my knife?”

I turned around in my tracks, now suddenly horror-stricken, and asked in a feeble voice, “why?”

“I am not sure this on the metal is rust,” he said, “and I do not have a file. I do have a knife.”

I nodded 'yes'; and I wished heartily I had not done so a second later, for when Gabriel scraped upon the cold metal, the eerie scrabbling screech was such that I scarcely managed to not dive for the floor and hug the filthy coarse 'concrete'. As I gathered my composure, I saw that I was not the only one to nearly perform a headlong 'crash-dive' for the floor.

Sarah was shaking as much as I was, and her demeanor spoke of a similar sensation in her mind. With a surly tone, she spat, “Gabriel, that noise scared me!”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“How many traps have either of the two of you set?” said Sarah, meaning Gabriel and Karl – or so I gathered. “I've set my share, and my cousin set three to my one while I was with her.”

The silence was deafening. I felt rooted to the spot, at least until my breathing was normal enough to speak somewhat normally – and I had definite words for both men.

“That noise sounded too much like a harbinger of immanent destruction,” I muttered. “Gabriel, in the future, let me do such investigating.” A pause, a quick dry-swallow of my own fear, then, “what did you find?”

“Dirt, if I go by the brightness of the metal underneath these things,” said Gabriel. “I truly doubt you can make steel of this type, and these beds, once they are given suitable cleaning...”

“In a furnace like Frankij for function, if not its construction,” spat Katje. “They will serve that way. I would not wish them used for aught else, as if they were used by witches, then they are evil things, and nothing less.”

“Even if they were not cursed?” asked Gabriel. “I scraped off an area which indicates they may have once been used for care of the sick.”

“Here?” I squeaked. “Here? Gabriel, getting sick in this region prior to the war meant being sacrificed to Brimstone by the very first witch who learned of the sick person's deliberate choosing to become ill, and nearly every person living in this area either wanted to be a witch or was a witch.”

“And witches do not do medicine,” said Sarah. “Katje's right. Frankij might not do well with this metal, but I know that there are furnaces that do – and we will be going to where they are found soon enough.” A brief pause, then, muttered, “this place feels trapped in some fashion.”

“Any ideas as to where?” I asked, as I resumed leading the group in single file along the beds. I could feel a trapped aspect also, though I was still checking this everlastingly-long row of beds out of thoroughness. The trapped portion that I could feel was nearer the southeast corner of the room, and I wondered what Sarah was feeling. Did she know its general location? What the nature of the trap was?

“It's somewhere in that direction,” said Sarah as she pointed off to the east. “It's near a corner, and it's a most-tricky one.”

“Like some your cousin set, perhaps?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then said, “why do you think that noise scared me so much? It sounded like a trap about to go off!” Then, a second later, “the beds are coming to an end up ahead.”

Sarah was indeed right, for not a minute later we came to both the end of the beds and the south wall of this massive room, that wall showing its filthy 'concrete' but ten feet distant from the south side of the last bed. I did not feel any trapped aspects of the beds, even if I had a fairly good idea of what those skeletons once were: the witches had caught their victims, drugged them as per the inclination of the witch in charge of such matters, and then kept them 'fresh' in that fashion, reviving them as needed for the 'thrice-daily sacrifices' the head arch-witch had decided were appropriate so as to keep the place in line with his ever-changing inclination of the moment. It made me wonder about Sarah's thoughts on the matter, especially given her muttering about a phrase that made me wonder as to its meaning. I'd never heard it used before.

“Probably sacrificed anyone who irritated him,” I thought.

“Precisely the truth, at least until he himself 'died',” said the soft voice. I could hear the 'quotations' about the word 'died', and I wondered as to what they meant. Did he 'die' but partly, like a certain witch in the second kingdom house proper? Was he 'undead' and hiding in a box somewhere, just waiting to cause trouble like a certain well-known 'two-legged dragoon' of bloodthirsty nature was said to be?

The last, at least, was fiction – where I came from. Here, either possibility seemed plausible.

“What happened to that witch?” asked Sarah, as I turned to the east so as to look at the central region.

“He was slipped some 'contaminated' drugs,” said the soft voice, “and when he became sufficiently impaired, a sizable team of his most-powerful underlings took him down to the real witch-hole – where he recovered enough to curse them before he entered his own 'rest' – as he wasn't quite hard enough to totally ignore that poison.”

“And hence he chose the time of his death so as to meet Brimstone as he thought he should, rather than as a 'disgraced' cripple,” I muttered. “Full and complete control of all aspects of life, from conception to decomposition – and he bought that lie entirely.” I then recalled one word: “Rest?”

“He was a good deal stronger than that witch you were thinking of,” said the soft voice, “and hence 'persisted' to a much greater degree after his choosing to 'die'.”

“Wonderful,” I spat. “We've got a bad witch down in that stinking place.”

“The one in the second kingdom house proper managed about forty years of 'persistence' before you stopped him,” said the soft voice. “This fellow deteriorated to that point about four hundred years ago, and he's gone downhill since then regarding his ability to cause trouble.”

“Good,” murmured Sarah, as I turned to my left and slowly led off through the columns.

In passing through the columns, I could see mounds of dust gathered in piles about each one; and when I shined my lantern on one of these columns, I could plainly see the faint-but-noticeable outlines of runes strung together into curses. The blood the curses had once been written in had fallen with the action of time and the deaths of those writing them, and while this place – rather, this witch-hole – had once been filled with curse-energy, the remnants of that energy now mostly concentrated itself in the bodies of those creatures that were cursed during that time of conflict that yet kept their lives.

I then noted once more that single word 'most'. I could feel some of that remaining curse-energy, its locus ahead of me, and when I came to the edge of the raised uneven mound of dirt upon which the thirteen blood-caked wooden posts stood upon, I then passed through their still-hungry circle alone.

Something crackled and shattered in the still air, and I felt it fall as I advanced upon the 'bed' with the others following me; and when I came close enough to touch, I knew beyond all doubt that what was before me was not a bed.

It was obviously an altar, and the dream I had endured months ago told me what was done upon it, even if it was not of black stone but some species of metal that looked closer to Monel alloy than what I recalled of the 'stainless steel' of the instruments that had showed in that trunk. Confirming this grisly assessment was the darkness of the dirt beneath it, that being a near-black color, unlike the gray-brown of most of the dirt I saw that was further from it.

Most of the dirt,” I thought. “That which surrounds each of those thirteen posts is also nearly black, as are the posts that support this thing. They've probably been soaked so much in blood they've gone entirely rotten.”

The smell that then tunneled into my nose confirmed all that I was feeling.

“This is a witch-hole,” I muttered, “and this mound of dirt is where they killed the sacrifices.” A brief pause, then as I looked around, “why isn't everyone taken over?”

“Because the spirits in this room are either all concentrating upon you,” said Gabriel, “or they are concentrating upon what is making that noise I've been hearing in the last few minutes. See, listen.”

Yet for a moment, I could ignore Gabriel's pronouncement. This long-unused altar was important; I needed to commit it and its features to memory, as I knew I would see things like it again in the foreseeable future; and more, those I saw in the future would not be denatured by nine hundred years and more of inactivity. That was much of the reason for the others not being ridden 'like smelly mules': no witch had used this particular altar in more than nine hundred years. The cellar, in contrast, had seen much recent use when I dealt with it, and I knew it was easily as old as this room

The dream had implied it had continued in unbroken operation for a millennium and more.

“That, and what Gabriel said is the truth,” said the soft voice. “You have a certain amount of time, so look at this thing closely – and then, do not delay in what you need to do.”

The platform before me – Monel, stainless steel, it no longer mattered – was 'sculpted' in a peculiar fashion and surrounded by oddly-shaped tapered round-bottomed gutters, with a strangely-shaped central 'valley'. This depression varied markedly in width, such that it was 'contoured' to the shape of a person's body, and the ringbolts and other fasteners I saw showed just how the person to die would fit inside the hollow. Finally, at each end and where the hands would lay there were deep funnel-shaped depressions, and a glance to their undersides showed a place to hang a bucket so as to catch the blood dripping from each blood-caked spout. Its function was obvious, even if it did not have the cachet of a black block of blood-caked stone.

Its power lay embedded in its cunningly-wrought shape, for here was an ever-hungry mouth truly worthy of Brimstone himself; and as I looked it over for the last time – it, and its function, were now seared upon my mind – I noted that every crevice and seam showed blackly the remains of centuries-old dried blood.

“This thing was intended for easy transportation,” I muttered.

“What is it?” asked Sarah. “I've never seen anything like it.”

“That's mostly because you've not gone into a witch-library,” said Gabriel. “These things are shown in detail in those places, both as to their use and what every portion of these accursed things mean.”

“An altar,” I said flatly. “This type was called 'the mouth of Brimstone', and the only reason it isn't trying to 'devour' us all is that its spirits are most discomfited by the recent lost of their foremost champion.” A pause, then, “they'll not stay that way long, which is why we need to continue our work here.”

“How do you know it to be such a thing?” asked Sarah. “The tapestries mention black blocks of stone, and those only.”

“Mostly because of the dried blood,” I said. “That, and its feel, its 'smell' – and what I was hearing just now.” A pause, then, “it really needs to be cut apart and then melted, just like everything in here. Everything metal, including the buried tools in this place, was dedicated to the service of Brimstone.”

As if to provide an answer, that chattering grinding noise that reminded me of 'the weeping and gnashing of teeth' spoken of earlier was slowly becoming louder; and as I held my lantern low in my left hand, I led with club in my right toward this noise. It seemed a haunting reminder – a reminder of the end of those who did evil – and as I walked toward this infernal racket, I looked once more at the columns.

Perhaps I would find clues, but as I continued walking, I could see clearly that each such column was shedding dust and dirt as I came closer to it, almost as if it wished to hide its centuries-old information from me, and with my passing, the dust and dirt sheeted down yet more from each column to leave a growing network of cracks – and behind me, faint and echoing sneezes.

The room was playing games with distances again, for which I found silent prayer to avail but little – or so it seemed as I came to the last two rows of columns. There, I saw a hole...

“Or is that a storm drain, like I used to play in?” I thought.

Unlike that one storm drain, this example was barred by an iron gate, its black unpainted iron seeming impervious to the action of age. It was easily eight inches taller than the nine foot or more of the storm drain – or, perhaps, sewer – that it was blocking; and the wall three feet or more taller yet.

There were two leaves to this gate, I noticed as I came closer, and each side had three massive hinges. All of it looked surprisingly new and untouched by time, and as I looked at the padlock holding these two leaves of massive iron shut, I noted that it had but a single hefty pin...

A pin that went through both leaves, like a killing knife stabbing into the chest of a sacrifice.

My eyes seemed fastened upon the lock, for writ upon it was a single rune. I had seen this one before, and one of its meanings was 'witch'. I then recalled mention of a curse-lock, this holding shut the door to 'the secret way'.

The secret way, the way of the witch, the witch who paid homage to Brimstone every time he inserted a key into its lock and mumbled the words of the chant. It was that single repeated rune that made one sound as if visiting a privy to 'make water' was the single most important thing in life...

And as I thought this, the gate seemed to shake, and the grinding chatter seemed to hollowly echo, as if from a great distance – and this shaking continued, until with a faint groan, I saw what looked like a faint reddish-brown powder begin to slowly sift down from every portion of the gate – as if its rusting had been held in abeyance for nine centuries and more by the sheer presence of Iggy.

With the rust sheeting down slowly and softly from all portions of the gate, I noted more: the massive thickness of its members, this curse-wrought as well as hammered out upon an anvil of massive size; the pierced black-iron strip across the top, this showing the twin runes of the 'double-lightning' marching across the whole of its length; the cylindrical nature of the lock itself, now that a portion of its cursedness had broken. It was hiding portions of its nature from me, but now with each curse breaking into nothingness, it hid less and less.

The rust was coming down steadily.

“They did spend months cursing that lizard, didn't they?” I asked. There was no answer, beyond my recollection of Katje's words: 'the first, and the worst'. This thing that was coming – I wondered about.

I wondered now if I needed to 'blow' the lock – and more, how to fight a huge Desmond. I looked about, seeing once more the thickness of the columns that were now an ashen white with but few traces of the deep black cracks that had once covered them, and saw the dust around each column growing slowly apace as the last traces of centuries of cursedness applied to them a millennium and more ago eroded in minutes.

“Use the columns for cover while slicing on it,” I said. “Present those dynamite spears to it with burning fuses.” I then came to myself, and asked, my mouth dry, “could I have some dynamite to pop that lock?”

As I said the word 'dynamite', the staple rattled in its hasps, and the lock shook as if someone were wagging it back and forth like a hyperactive semaphore. That grinding noise was coming closer: slow, steady, but closer. The noise of the Desmond was now joined by the rattling of the gate, and beforehand, I knew now, the noise made by the shaking of the gate was not conventionally audible.

Unlike now.

Now I could audibly hear its death-rattle, and the sifting of the reddish-brown clouds of rust seemed to grow steadily with each and every second to form a soft and spreading mound of dried-blood-dust upon the dirty gray 'stone' of the floor.

“What are Desmonds like to carve?” asked Sarah quietly. She was the only one not petrified, or so it seemed to me.

“I've only seen a few of those worms,” I said. “None of them seemed armor-plated. The largest I ever saw, either in reality or in dreams, was perhaps four feet long. This one... This one is at least as big around as I am tall, and its length... It might be thirty paces or more long.”

I now noted a difference in the rate of dissolution of the pieces comprising the gate. The lock on the end of that thumb-thick staple was dusting down rust at a faster rate than before I had spoken, and its previous semaphore-like wagging had become the metallic version of an ague-fit – and as the rust continued falling, I noted another matter.

The rust was not becoming thicker upon the floor, nor was it spreading further, even if it seemed to be doing so outwardly – for now, enough curses had broken that it was having trouble hiding its true nature from me. Normal ferrous alloys of that time and place, if not cursed, tended to be as bad for rust as unprotected iron was in this region – if not worse yet.

“What is that th-thing doing?” asked Maarten.

“I am not entirely certain,” I said. “For some reason, I am not inclined to ask it to open, and I do not know why beyond my speaking to that gate there is not a good idea – which is why I asked for dynamite.”

“That key?” asked Sarah.

“N-no,” I said. “That would be worse than speaking to that gate, as it's not a common gate, either for purpose or construction.”

“I can speak of that lock,” said Sarah. “It has a rune-mark upon it, and if it is shaped like a person walking, then I've seen that type of marking before.”

“Where?” asked Gabriel.

“On tapestries,” said Sarah, “and more than once in coaches, and then twice at Boermaas.” A pause, a dry-sounding swallow, then, “that is a curse-lock, and there was another like it in that room where we fought Iggy.”

“Not quite,” said Gabriel. “That one there is a true curse-lock. The one in that room merely looked like one, and those buying it were sold.”

“True curse-lock?” I asked.

As if to answer, a small chunk of 'metal' fell down from the lock, then another, then two more. The lock itself would hold but a short time more, but the nature of the staple would prevent the door's opening. I wormed out a squib from my possible bag, then as I did, I felt someone nudge my elbow. I turned to see Sarah holding a boom-bottle, this with its cork replaced by a wooden plug holding a cap and fuse winding around it in a spiraling fashion. The whole looked as if she'd taken some substantial time and pains to do it as well as possible. The fuse was still tied neatly, though I knew Sarah did not tie knots much better than mine outside of those needed for sewing.

“You will wish this,” she said. “Using a swine-shell or those smaller metal-cased bombs in here would most likely cause trouble.”

“But won't this do...” I wondered about the effects of something as strong as a box of dynamite.

“Not from the blast,” said Sarah. “The splinters.” A brief pause, then, “Iggy may have been the first and the worst for trouble, but Desmonds do not normally live long enough to get nearly as big as you said that one is.”

“There was one in the fourth kingdom...” said Gabriel. His voice faded out. “Is this one what was meant?”

“I am not sure,” said Sarah. “I am sure of what I was told by my uncle. He said something happens to Desmonds that usually causes them to die before they become much longer than a large freight-wagon – something about them becoming too big for their tripes to allow them to stay alive.” A brief pause, then, “the only reason that one is so large is that the curses put upon it were strong enough to overcome a number of troubles those worms have once they become larger than a certain size.”

“Take cover,” I murmured, as I tucked the boom-bottle into my possible bag and put the fuse of the squib to the chimney of my lantern. I moved closer to the gate as the fuse spurted smoke, then tossed the bomb between the bars as hard as I could – and then I turned to run for a column to hide behind while yelling once more for the others to take cover.

For some reason, the columns seemed an impossibly far distance, and as I finally found one and hid myself behind it, a deep-echoing rumbling roar came from behind me – and as I turned to come from behind my column, I saw a wall of what looked like thick gray mud coming with the speed of a hurricane. I ducked back just in time to see – and smell – a massive wave of choking dust.

Dust that smelled like long-aged dung, just like I'd noticed while coming here.

The grinding was now much louder, and its tempo fast and furious. I wanted more than anything to run, but I kept myself in check. Instead, I began to slowly back away from the column that I hid myself behind, now conscious of the nearness of each neighboring column. I would wind that worm up good and proper around them, and with this knowing, I spoke.

“Use the columns,” I said quietly. I was surprised at my voice; it seemed the very picture of calm. “Let it come out entirely before you go after it, and attack it from the flanks nearer the rear. I'll take care of the front.”

The worm had its answer: a steady, and somewhat faster, increase in the volume of noise it made. I could now once more see the lock, even though there were no lanterns close enough to show it clearly. It was outlined in a purplish-red haze, just like the entire gate and its mounting, and as more pieces fell from the lock, I saw faintly in the distance a shiny surface in the lower center of the tunnel.

“S-spears?” I asked. My voice was shaking now.

“I have one of them, and Karl has the other,” said Sepp. “Both of them have dynamite, fuse, and pull-igniters with string, so they will light when we toss them.”

“Where did you get that idea?” I asked.

“Sarah spoke of it, and she said she'd seen it in your ledger,” said Sepp. “Now why do you call such an idea crazy?”

“I-I'm not sure,” I said. “Oh, the title?”

“Is that what you meant?” asked Sepp. “It's a good idea, as I tried it out with a stick and an old Harvest Day squib, and it worked just like she said it would.” A brief pause, then, “where should I plant this spear?”

“Near the head, if you're set up like that,” I said. “I was thinking you'd had something a bit harder to use – like you'd have to light the fuse and...”

My voice came to an early stop, for now, the grinding noise was overlaid by a rumble of such deep pitch it seemed imported from the heart of the earth – and as the lock went to pieces to then vanish like smoke upon the floor, a shuddering clatter and deep-pitched grinding overrode all noises of softer nature – and the entire gate went to smoke and dust as the massive tapered head of a huge Desmond squirmed itself out of the hole and came straight for me.

The others? They needed no urging from me, for they left their places of refuge and ran like frightened sheep. I was on my own now, I knew, and this entirely.

While I was frightened to some extent, I turned and trotted a short distance as I held my lantern in front of me, then I darted behind one of the columns and ducked around, my lantern held in my left hand down low, so as to watch and see this huge creature 'come out of hiding'. I then found myself amazed beyond my capacity to believe.

While a Desmond of a yard's length could manage the speed of a very rapid walk if so inclined, this example was doing very well to manage that of a slow one. I could see no legs beneath the monstrous creature, only a steady rippling motion of the lower third of the worm's body. The taper of the frontal portion had ended once about fifteen feet of the worm had emerged from its hole, and once that point, it became entirely cylindrical.

More, it was not 'a bit less than six feet tall'.

Its body was a tight fit for the nine feet or more of the tunnel, and it 'inflated' noticeably once out of it to almost brush the top of the ceiling – and as it came slowly closer, the source of the noise became synchronized to the three rapidly-chewing pie-slice-shaped black teeth.

“If that thing has eyes,” I thought as I looked at it, “I cannot see them.”

'Ye Greate Worme' seemed inexorable as to its speed of travel and unmeasurable as to its length, and it seemed to be heading past me and to my right. I thought to head left, dodging columns as I trotted to the wall, and then move along that wall and away from it. I moved to the left of the column I was hiding behind, then moved at a rapid walk as silently as I could. My ears still rang slightly, but even so, I could not hear the others at all – and the worm seemed unable to hear me moving.

And as I moved, I wondered if attacking the thing from the back end was worthwhile. It seemed a possibility until I recalled the black and oily semi-liquid ejecta these worms left behind them as a trail.

“Perhaps the middle?” I thought. “Where is the middle on this stinking worm? It has not yet gotten entirely out of its hole yet!”

As I came to within sight of the east wall – my lantern was down at my side, and I could see better without it than with it, hence I thought to wave it out until I recalled the shutters. I spent a second shutting them entirely, then drew up the pin after loosening the collet. The light became so much dimmer that now, as my eyes adjusted, I knew I could see better without it – and as I began walking north along the east wall, I thought to turn – and there, outlined by a faint redness that spoke of powerful cursing...

“Not months on this one, but still more than a day or two,” I thought, as the back end of the worm finally cleared the end of the tunnel. I wondered for a moment if it had the smarts to encircle me in a laager of worm-flesh and tighten up so as to savor me as a meal.

It then sped up noticeably, and the rumbling noise became both louder and higher-pitched.

I reversed course, then ran like a shot toward the back end of the worm. As I ran, the noise of my passage 'alerted' the worm, and I heard the rumble change pitch as it began to turn, and its turning...

Its slow and 'achy' turning. The columns were causing it a lot of trouble, as a worm of its size needed a lot of maneuvering room – at least, it normally would need a lot of room. This one could manage the trick, but it made more noise and moved about half its straight-line speed then.

I could see no trail of black slime coming from the worm's hind portion, but as I came within 'tossing' range of its posterior – perhaps twenty feet – the odor...

“Stinker smells like a jug of Houtlaan distillate,” I gasped, as I dug out a squib, then put its fuse to my lantern. A second there meant for a spurt of smoke from the fuse, then I tossed the bomb as hard as I could at the open hole that lay quartering away from me at a range of now thirty or more feet.

The bomb seemed to have a mind of its own, for it hooked noticeably and then shot right up the worm's posterior – and as I ran for a column, I heard a muffled 'thump' – and then as I made the column's safety, the entire area seemed alive with light as a ragged jet of yellow flame shot out of the rear of the worm with a low-pitched roaring sound.

“One, two, three, four, five,” I counted, as the flames billowed thickly and left choking clouds of smoke and soot as they hissed to a halt. I then thought to run – and as I did, I noted the worm's head was but perhaps thirty feet away and coming faster than ever. It had indeed assayed encirclement, and as I ran for the south wall, I saw in the dimness the altar and posts. I wondered if the worm would rumble over those or circle around them.

Which would it do?

No matter. I ran like a shot, the worm now changing course to intercept me. I saw the edge of the dirt, leaped up onto an 'idol', and then leaped over the altar as the worm came harder and faster. I landed outside the circle of dirt, then shot to nearly the row of beds – and as I slid to a stop, I thought to wait a second.

I turned around – and saw the worm crash right through the witch-circle of 'logs'...

Send the embedded-into-the-concrete altar flying with a mountain of red-glaring sparks...

Crush the other side of the circle of 'logs'...

And then accelerate more.

I shot along the beds, now aware of the worm's ability to sense where I was. I realized being unpredictable caused trouble for witches, and hence I did an abrupt hairpin turn at full speed that left me sliding almost into a column as I doubled back on an intercept course as the worm continued moving.

I had led back into the columns, and as I came within 'sight' of the worm, I drew my sword – and then, while running along its side for a distance of twenty feet or more, I ripped a deep and weeping slice in its pale white skin before sheering off away from the thing.

The others seemed completely gone, and as I slowed to a trot – I did not wish to be encircled again as I headed through the columns and toward the northeast corner of this huge room – I wondered just where they had gone to.

I had but seconds to wonder, for the grinding tempo behind me was not merely faster than ever, but the slash I had made in the worm's side seemed to but make it move quicker. I slung its body fluids off my sword and saw them go up in smoke, then as I continued running, I recalled just what was in my possible bag. I stopped, sheathed my sword, then pulled out the boom-bottle. I then saw just where the worm was.

“Further away than I thought”, I muttered, as I brought up the lantern and lit the fuse. Sarah had wound it cunningly around the bottle and tied it in place with several pieces of what looked like sewing thread. There was a loop at the end, and when the fuse came undone and was burning 'free', I would make my 'bombing run'. I moved off as the worm came within thirty feet of me, this time my course one of weaving through the pillars while still heading for the northeast corner, then stopping.

This fuse, for some reason, was burning at the 'right' rate, and as I continued moving and leading the Desmond through the pillars – I'd done another 'high speed run' to avoid being cornered, which proved closer than I thought possible due both to something happening regarding distances once more and the deceptive speed of the worm – I kept an eye upon the fuse.

When it was on the last turn, I paused. I was by the beds again, this time once more heading south at a trot, with the worm coming the fastest it had ever come. I wondered for a moment, then as I surveyed the wreckage of the altar and 'death-circle', I saw that the cursed things had indeed been buried in the dirt. They were covered with rust and going to hell, irrespective of the things the witches had done to preserve them.

More, every post still standing was going to dust in a hurry, and the altar was rusting faster than the curse-lock had done.

The fuse burned free of its surrounding ties. Nine inches, perhaps forty seconds. Here came the worm. I'd toss it at four inches and hope...

The fuse suddenly began burning faster, and without a second thought, I slowed...

Stopped...

And reversed course. As I shot past the worm's head at a range of twenty feet, I turned, leaped into the air, and threw the bottle my absolute hardest.

The bottle shot from my hand like a bullet and punched through the skin of the worm some ten feet behind its tooth-grinding 'head', and as my feet came to earth, they were flailing crazily. I hit the ground running, and ran as fast as I could away from that worm – until not two seconds later, a massive explosion caught me and tossed me up in the air to set me down but a few feet from the east wall.

“How did I get here?” I thought, as I began to run to the left. I thought to circle around at top speed, as no help with that smelly Desmond was not working out at all – and as I reached first the northeast corner, then the northwest, and then shot past a strange hidden spot that I had not seen before, I hoped – fervently – that the worm would not manage the stairs. I came to the rubble, slowed just enough to make the turn, then about eight steps up the stairs, I stopped to catch my breath.

I felt like spewing, for some reason, and faintly, I heard someone's voice. I turned toward the top of the stairs, and there saw Sarah.

“Are you all right?” she asked. I could hear panic in her voice, which was a first for her in my hearing.

“Where did all of you go?” I shrieked.

“They all ran for the outside of the building when it showed,” she said, “and they are all still outside. I was coming back to help you, as I was afraid it had...” Sarah paused, for she too was out of breath. “I was afraid it had devoured you.”

“Why did all of you leave me?” I asked. This time, my voice was calmer and closer to normal for volume.

“Th-that worm is too big to fight,” squalled Sarah, “and I was coming to die.”

“What?” I screamed. “What gives with this rubbish?” I was still screaming. “I cannot clear this building alone, no matter who says so or what they happen to believe about me!”

I then paused, for once more I was out of breath. I then noted something unusual: the grinding noise had stopped. I turned back and cocked my head so as to listen better.

Again, I could not hear any of the noises the worm made. I came up the stairs, there to find Sarah weeping on the threshold amid the stench of Iggy, and as for the others?

“They are gone,” I muttered. “Gone completely, just as if that worm had gulped them down wholesale.” A pause, then, “how did that worm become so frightening to you all?”

Sarah had neither idea nor answer for me, and as the two of us walked slowly outside, I felt as if I had failed; failed utterly; failed irredeemably. I had to confess – this audibly to Sarah – that there were many times – no, almost the whole time, once I had seen it coming – that I had been frightened. We came, hand in hand, to the transom, and mounted its gritty steps slowly, one step at a time; and once outside, I stood upon the grass in a state of near-shock.

Our encampment had been 'struck', its accouterments laying haphazard upon the ground, and now the remaining five men and women, all of them insane with fear and frantic with haste, were tossing their belongings into all three of the buggies. The horses were already hitched, and the reason why was obvious: we two had been abandoned, sacrificed to the great worm. I had but one solution, and I drew my sword unthinkingly.

“Stop that rubbish right now,” I yelled.

The whole scene came to an instant halt; then, one at a time, all of the people toppled over, stiff as statues and frozen in time, to lie as if dead upon the grass.

“I have no idea what happened here,” I said, my voice now as chilled as ice and seeming to radiate the calm that goes before a violent storm, “but this smells horribly. Every one of these people turns and runs from a worm as if they are frightened to death.” A pause, this to cough and breathe. I felt as if smothering, for some reason.

“I was scared of that thing also,” I said. “If this is what can be expected of everyone save myself, then we are truly doomed – and that is the simple truth. We might as well cut our own throats and invite that accursed witch-queen that runs Norden to this continent so she can feed her swine and people at our expense.”

I turned to Sarah, and as I watched, she slowly collapsed onto the grass as well. I then looked around, and saw in the shuddering distance those working on the foundation-ditch. They were laboring as if their lives depended upon it, and the picks and shovels made a steady rhythm as dirt flew and the trench moved forward, its path being described by the chant of “straight, deep, and wide.” How I knew this was beyond fathoming.

Those laboring, however, were blissful in their all-encompassing ignorance.

They were also wasting their time.

The others – those sent with me – had laid themselves down and died. I went off by myself, now despondent. I had a job given to me, and the fact that it was too big for me did not matter. I had no answers, and now...

Now, I had been sacrificed, and that done in a witch-hole, and this by a pack of 'well-meaning' yet cowardly Brimstone-worshiping idiotic fools. I found myself a tree, where I sat down and began weeping. When I had finally cried myself to sleep, I slept for perhaps three seconds until some wretch insisted that I awaken – and this by shaking me like a baby's rattle.

“Leave me be,” I murmured. “They all left me to rot in there, because I'm a disgrace and the manifested evil in nature.”

I then opened my eyes, and to my shock, I saw Sarah.

“No, I did not,” she said emphatically. “I wanted to leave when that thing showed, but I was not about to leave you behind. The others left when they heard the scream of that boom-bottle, but I took cover from the explosion and then went to the bottom of the stairs until I could see you.” A brief pause, then, “it blew my lantern out, and I'd left my lighting things there, and I knew you'd come to the light if my lantern was lit.”

A brief pause, during which Sarah coughed, then, “once I'd gotten it lit, though, I did not wait, and I went toward the sound of your boots. I grabbed your hand, and led you outside.” Another brief pause – and this time, Sarah coughed until she came to her knees, where she spat repeatedly and nearly spewed. “That thing has some nasty fumes, and I think you were having trouble from breathing them, as you had almost turned blue before I got you outside.”

“What?” I gasped – which started my own coughing fit. I hacked up several nasty-tasting blobs, one of which – for an instant – had an odd shade of purple as it began to smolder on the grass. “What happened?”

“Once I got you outside – your eyes were closed, and they were tearing badly – you spoke of a portion in the book that speaks of a spirit of fear,” said Sarah. “That worm most likely had one put to it as part of its cursing, and when Katje spoke of Iggy being the first and the worst – she was right.”

Sarah had more to say, however, and she said after drinking from her cup. I then noticed I had one sitting beside me, and I drained it in a series of frenzied gulps.

“What she did not speak of,” said Sarah, “was the amount of work those witches put into that worm – as in someone spoke of Iggy being cursed at for months, and that worm for weeks. I think that is wrong.”

“What?” I asked. “Less than weeks?”

“No, more,” said Sarah. “I think they put just as much work into that Desmond as they did Iggy, but that worm wasn't as easy to curse as Iggy was.” A brief pause, then, “once you feel better, we can go in and check that smelly worm.”

“Worm?” I asked. “Calling a dragoon a 'worm'?”

“I've heard people speak of them that way,” said Sarah, “though I wondered where they got their speech from, as no tapestry I have seen confused the two, and none of those old tales that I read did, and no lecturer at the west school ever did.”

“Perhaps at Boermaas they do,” I said, “or at some of the other higher schools.”

“They do,” said the soft voice emphatically, “and in the larger black books, there is a sizable chapter that can be thought of as 'the witch's bestiary' – and there, it speaks of 'worms' and other 'extinct' creatures like that snake you battled when Kees tried for you.”

“The others are where?” I asked.

“Off using the camp's privies,” said Sarah. “I had to fill up the one we had here once they filled it, and I smelled dung on more than one of them when I last saw them.”

“So now we wait upon their return,” I murmured. “At least the two of us can bathe before digging another privy, as there's still work to be done today.”

“Today?” asked Sarah. She then shaded her eyes and looked upward. “What? That could not have taken more than an hour, and it felt like a year in there!” A brief pause during which Sarah coughed and then spat a nasty-looking blob that smoldered on the grass. “I know of a good name for that room now.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Desmond Alley,” said Sarah. “I have been in the fifth kingdom's Alleys several times, and that room reminds me of one.”