Investing the Abbey: “This is a Tosser!”
Sarah and I did not have to wait long: by the time we had bathed, our first changes of clothing had dried, and with those on and the privy dug in a different spot – its new site needed rearranging two of the buggies, which I did readily – the first of our escapees began returning. All of them had strange and unreadable expressions upon their faces.
The first to arrive – and hence speak – was Sepp.
“I tossed that spear,” he muttered, “and not only did it not light, but none of my matches would work when I tried lighting the fuse regularly. I then just pulled the fuse out and charged that thing with that spear, and least that worked.”
“So did mine,” said Karl, “and I almost burnt my fingers to charcoal trying to light that fuse when that igniter thing did not work.” A pause, then, “now someone, who I do not know, set fire to that thing, and it made smoke and soot so bad that only that lizard's was worse.”
“The smell, Karl,” said Sepp. The other three were just now emerging from the 'hidden' area to the east.
“That spear worked, even if I had to ram it into that thing with all my strength,” said Karl. “I then thought to shoot the dynamite, and my pistol misfired when I tried it. I snapped every thimble, and nothing happened, and then, there was its stink. That made it almost impossible to stay in there.”
“Until it exploded, you mean,” retorted Sepp. “That tossed me a good distance, and I almost fetched up against one of those thick things like poles that they have in there.”
“That was too much,” said Karl. “My uncle may have spoke of southern powder mills exploding, and I saw at least one of those things go up when we were in the fifth kingdom house, but I have never been close to a powder mill when it went up.” A brief pause, then, “when that thing exploded, it was like being inside a powder mill, a big one, and I got tossed worse than when the hall went up.”
“Exploded?” I asked. “I put a boom-bottle into that thing with a short and fast-burning fuse.”
“Those things are bad enough,” said Karl as he scratched his head, “but the explosion sounded really strange, not like those at the Hall. I heard something like dynamite at the start, but that stopped and then this other noise came that sounded like a rupturing distillery, and that made the smoke a lot worse.”
“Smoke?” I asked, as I recalled the sight in the fourth kingdom house of a large flying Desmond laying a trail of purplish smoke across the sky.
“It was gray, mostly,” said Karl, “though it was not normal smoke. It had this purplish tint to it. I am not sure that was real, as the grayish part was something my eyes were seeing, and that purplish color was different somehow, almost as if it were not entirely there.”
The other three, once they had returned, needed to wait for their baths and clean clothing on Karl and Sepp, and Sarah and I were heating and boiling water for everyone else. By the time the 'cleaned' clothing was flapping in the breeze using a vast number of strange 'fourth kingdom clips' someone had found in a sizable unlabeled bag, the sun showed 'early afternoon'. A snack, and then it was time to return to the 'nether regions' to learn of the worm's dissolution.
Unlike the two times before of entering the Abbey that day, the odor this time was unlike anything I had smelled before in my life. The stink seemed to conjure its own special brand of insanity, and the nausea-inducing gray fumes covering the ceiling that had been spoken of forced me to recall an odd word Gabriel had used as we entered the fifth kingdom house. He spoke it anew seconds later.
“That smells like a gaseous fumigant,” he said, “and that worm was a mobile container for such.”
“We do not need that worm's fumes,” I spat. “Find a witch-hole which does, and send them there.”
Nothing seemed to happen at first to the chest-tightening fumes, but within perhaps a second, the gray smoky 'fog' seemed to begin fading, and before I could count quickly to ten, the visible signs of the fume were gone – unlike the stench, which remained. The insanity, I was not certain of, at least until I was well inside the upper columned room. Then I knew that aspect had left with the fumes.
The reek, however, grew steadily stronger as we entered 'the hall of offices and dead bodies', and at the entrance to 'the second cellar' – those cleaning up Iggy had taken out the worst of the rubble that had laid on the floor as well as the lizard's dismembered carcass – I had to pause for a moment to catch my breath. I still felt a tightness and shortness of breath, and I coughed twice before looking down the stairway.
The realm down below had an odd purplish cast to it, and again, I felt reminded of my 'trial' in the fourth kingdom and seeing a smoke-trailing Desmond. It was as large as a locomotive, and it left a purple trail of smoke behind it.
“Is anyone else seeing purple?” I asked, as I took the first tentative step downward.
“Solid purple, no,” said Katje. “I can see that color, though, so you are not imagining it.” A brief pause, then muttering that segued to “but I checked that musket, and it would not fire, and Sepp watched me load the thing up with this really big shot he had!”
“R-really big?” I asked, as I stepped down once more.
“Yes,” said Katje. “Then, none of my matches would light, so I could not use a single one of those dynamite bundles I did up, and then that worm! I had no idea anything that big existed, and then it went almost as fast through those columns as I could run!”
“It tried to encircle me at least once,” I muttered. “It was slow enough coming out of its hole, but it became faster once it was loose – and everything I did to cause it trouble just made it faster.”
“That was because it was after you the most,” said Gabriel. “It saw the rest of us as nuisances, and this time I know why.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl as I came to the bottom of the stairs. “It did not ignore my spear when I rammed it in hard enough to make it stick.” Karl's voice implied he'd tried to stick the worm more than once, and the tough hide of the worm had needed unusual force to penetrate it with what he was using. It wasn't Iggy-tough, but 'as tough as old shoe-leather' was fairly close.
“I think it did, Karl,” said Sarah.
“It ignored all we did,” said Gabriel. “No fuse was able to be lit, every gun we had misfired, and none of us got close enough to put a blade to it, except Sarah – who sliced on it more than a little.” A pause, then, “that worm ignored her entirely, same as the rest of what we did. I suspect that worm was not merely cursed as much as that lizard, but its curses were but slightly less potent in their impact.”
“It was a worm, Gabriel,” said Sarah through clenched teeth. “Desmonds do not have much smarts, even if you compare them to lizards.”
“That was its chief difference,” said Gabriel. “It was far less promising as a subject, so the witches put fully as much effort, if not more, into cursing it – and I suspect that it, like that lizard, gained an appreciable level of intelligence.”
While I found the idea of a mutated parasitic worm having that much smarts to be difficult to believe, I looked around in the gloom. I'd remembered to light my lantern this time, and its shutters were wide and its wire adjusted for best light, with a fresh candle in place. I'd put the stub in the small bag we had hanging on one of the larger buggies for receiving candle stubs, with the goal of reclaiming their remaining wax and pouring more candles.
“No worm-noises,” I murmured. “We'd best go find what remains of this thing.” I then had a thought: “both of those spears with dynamite?”
“If you used a boom-bottle,” said Karl, “they are likely to be gone, as those bottles like that would set off dynamite if it was close.”
My first steps into the darkness, however, made for echoes of the chattering grinding gnashing-of-teeth noise of the creature, and the rumbling sound of its movement seemed everywhere at once. I stopped, turned with shaking hands to look at the others following me in 'staggered single file' – and saw them, save possibly for Sarah, to be oblivious to what I was feeling. Sarah then pointed, and said, “I think I see a piece of that thing over there.”
“Where?” I asked. My teeth were chattering in fear.
“I doubt much it will move under its own power,” said Sarah, who left the line slowly. “I think it is in pieces, and not big pieces, either.”
As we left the line parallel to Sarah, I was glad I had a sizable rat club; for while rodents were scarce in here, this creature might well wish 'tenderizing' in case those pieces had minds of their own like some parasitic worms I had heard of. I came upon a fragment of the creature's huge teeth, and as I touched it with the club, it began to go to powder, this gray-black in color. I looked around.
“The front portion is gone to pieces,” I squeaked. “The rear part...”
“My bomb went off,” said Sepp, “as I found bits of the spear's wood, and the rest of it is gone. I think what you tossed set our spears off.”
“Yes, and there are large pieces of this thing left, also,” said Katje. “Here I see a piece as long as our house is wide.”
“The back part?” I asked.
“That is here,” said Karl. “You might want to come over here, as this is strange.”
I followed the wreckage of the Desmond's body, and it was as those encountering its 'corpse' had said: the front quarter of 'the great worm' had been disintegrated; a portion behind that, this some fifteen to twenty feet long, remained partly intact; another smaller section was 'blown to rags'; a part behind that, this the longest one thus far, remained intact; behind that, another destroyed section was mingled with shards of wood; and finally, the truly longest portion of all, this one ripped open like a ripe banana peel. The reek of distillate, while faint, was still noticeable.
“I would say 'the worm stops here',” said Gabriel as he shined his light over a destroyed section of the creature. The mess was appalling. “Now how do we remove its remainders?”
“C-cut it up and haul it out?” I asked.
“Those stairs will cause trouble, even if they are cleared partly at this time,” said Gabriel.
“Boards,” I murmured. “Those, wheelbarrows, shovels, and, uh, these odd-looking things that I think some people call hoes. We'll need those – and this thing won't need that much help, perhaps three people, maybe as many as five beyond we ourselves. Oh, hay-forks also.”
“Those we can get,” said Katje, “as that trip to use their privies showed just how big that place is, and it is going to get a good deal bigger still. We can do that while the two of you rest outside and keep watch.”
With some misgivings, Sarah and I went outside along with the others, but upon doing so, I knew another aspect of trouble: the smell of 'the great worm' was its chief remaining trouble, and once outside, I paused and began heaving up my scanty meal. Sarah did likewise shortly thereafter, and as the two of us began drinking beer so as to have some nourishment that would remain inside us, she said, “that place needs to air out some.”
“No ventilation will do that,” I said. “How did those things avoid smothering in that place?”
“There are ventilation shafts, though they are well-hid and covered with leaves on the building's roof,” said the soft voice, “and when you go back inside to clean up the remains of what the witches named 'the great worm', you will then learn how Iggy managed to get out and secure his food.”
“How did that thing do that?” asked Sarah.
“Well, if it got out to eat, then it probably did its business outside also,” I said. “I'm not certain how that, uh, Desmond did its business, but I know about that one hole that was covered with brambles...”
“The witches planted those brambles,” said Sarah.
“Which is how that worm got out when it was inclined toward depredation,” said the soft voice, “and since both creatures did so at night, they managed more-than-passably for food.”
“Not just people, either,” I said.
“Neither of those creatures were picky, especially the Desmond,” said the soft voice, “and both of them much preferred the flavor of witches, hence many 'spider-trips' were one-way trips for the witches riding in those coaches.”
“The witches were eaten?” gasped Sarah.
“Two out of three as a rule,” said the soft voice. “The third one, who was 'in charge', remained in the coach out on the road. That usually kept him safe – though more than once, Iggy learned of the taste of mule in the recent past.”
“And the Desmond cleaned up Iggy's leftovers,” I said.
“If his kill wasn't too far away, yes,” said the soft voice. “Iggy had a sizable territory, as you will soon learn.”
“He was faster than that worm was,” said Sarah. “Now I think they've not just found tools, but some help.”
“Hopefully none of those coming are those dullards,” I muttered, as I glanced at the trench. It had progressed to no small degree, with a line of people nearly a hundred feet long steadily digging and spading dirt. My guess as to its progress with the current group laboring was on the order of a foot or more per minute – and I knew that group would grow steadily in size in the days to come. More, there were supposed to be two shifts, but local people still predominated – and that was something they wanted but little part of as a rule, if I went by what I'd learned since I came here.
“I doubt any of those people would wish to go down in that place,” said Sarah as she indicated the diggers, “especially as I thought to mark it fit for what happened there.”
“You marked it?” I asked.
“Yes,” giggled Sarah. “I had a stick of colored chalk in my bag, along with a small covered slate, and I wrote on the wall.”
“Best get a bronze plaque cast for a marker, then,” I muttered. “We've got plenty of daylight left, and today – or rather, the rest of this day – is going to be quite long. We've got to find out how to get down into that 'real' witch-hole so as to deal with its nonsense; as now, that is the chief cursed aspect of the place. No Desmonds, and no huge lizards that flame from both ends, and the 'common' witch-hole aspect of the place is gone...”
“How?” asked Sarah.
“I led that worm over the place where the witches did their business,” I said, “and it did a most-thorough job of wrecking that witch-circle.”
With the tools in the three wheelbarrows that had come and two long planks, we returned to the second stairs. There, once I had arranged the boards, we all learned that Gabriel had drastically overestimated the trouble inherent in going up and down stairs with such barrows – and also, he had not mentioned the sensation that crawled upon ones hands when touching the worm's remainders became needed so as to load the wheelbarrows. The combination of an intensely foul reek...
“This thing stinks worse than a dead squab,” spat Katje.
And a slimy 'squishy' feeling, combined with that reek, made for a measure of nausea too great to put into words.
At least until Sarah cut loose with a screeched outburst: “this worm is accursed!”
“Yes, with an intensely unpleasant feeling should one need to touch it,” I thought. “Most of the curses went up in smoke when the worm stank up the place. Now what did she find?”
“No, not just how it feels,” she said. “Come over here and look.”
As I moved my way over to where Sarah was looking at a patch of 'Desmond-hide', I could feel a slow-growing familiar sensation; there were curses yet upon this creature, and as I came to Sarah's side, I heard her muttering about 'witch-scribbling'.
“Now that is a curse,” I spat, as I saw the tattooed red-edged black 'inscription on the creature's mottled yellow-gray-white 'hide' – and as I looked closer, I noted a definite purplish aspect to what I was seeing. It conjured the recollection of what I had endured in the fourth kingdom once more regarding a Desmond the size of a locomotive that left purplish smoke behind it.
“Is that a curse?” asked Katje. She seemed to be speaking for all of the others. “What does it mean?”
“The first mark is an 'attention' mark, and is commonly used to 'call' spirits to the one speaking,” I said. The next symbol means something like gates, walls, or fortress.” I could hear scribbling, and I reacted, my voice now a shout: “Gabriel, don't even think about writing down that curse! It will turn you into a witch on the spot if you do!”
A feral screech was followed by an explosive thump. In my peripheral vision as I turned, I saw the remainders of a burst of flame, and as I turned to the left of where Gabriel stood, I saw the ashes of a ledger settling slowly but feet away from his still-smoking hands. Gabriel looked at me in shocked surprise, and Sarah asked, “what happened? Did your ledger go up in smoke?”
“Y-yes,” said Gabriel. “I had put down the first of those characters, and...” Gabriel slapped himself alongside his head, then said, “Rachel spoke of those things, and I forgot what she said until just now.”
“That you would turn witch if you wrote that curse?” asked Katje. “I would take that as a warning about curses in general, and not merely on the basis of what you were just told” – and then in lower voice, “that curse is from before the war. It is not a common one, even for that time.”
“No,” said Gabriel. “She said those things were unwise to write down, and I heard from someone they were unwise to speak, also.”
“Now you know why they should not be written down or spoken,” said Sarah. “In your case, I think it unwise to even look at such things, much less do what you were doing.” Sarah left the obvious portion unsaid, and it scarce needed saying, at least to those who had traveled with us back from the fifth kingdom: Gabriel was extremely vulnerable that way, nearly as much as Kees was before I finally 'dealt with him' in the second kingdom house; and Kees – who had been a most-serious supplicant before that time – had spoken about him wishing to be a witch because of his drunkenness.
“The third one means tool or control,” I continued, “while the fourth one I recognize as one I've heard spoken. It means the speaker is a witch, and not a common one, so his demand for attention must be recognized and obeyed.” A brief pause, then, “the first time I heard that one, I wondered if the speaker needed to visit a privy, and that quickly.”
“Why?” asked Sarah.
“The sound of that one was a colloquial term for 'making water',” I said. “At least it was where I came from.”
“They must be bad witches in that place to use runes to speak of visiting the privy,” said Maarten.
I ignored that comment; Maarten had missed the point entirely. “The next one means 'destroy those who flout my authority', and that last one... Oh, no wonder it caused everyone – me included – to feel so afraid. That last symbol means 'terror, fear, and doubt'.”
“It did have a spirit of fear helping it,” said Sarah softly. “What does all of that mean?”
“We know what it did,” I said. “Now we need to deal with what is left of it – and I'm not sure this thing belongs in a manure-pile.”
“Why?” asked Karl.
“There's something about Desmonds – something if they're put in manure, they tend to turn it into something that acts like a herbicide,” I said. “Mule-dung does something similar, only it takes its time to kill plants. Desmond-contaminated dung, though – that stuff will kill whatever grows in it right away, at least while it's fresh.”
“You're right about the dung of mules,” said Sarah, who was now holding a strangely-shaped and uncommonly sturdy-looking 'hoe'. “I am not sure about these things, especially one that's been cursed as badly as this one was.” A brief pause, then, “we may as well cut it up and bury it then, as you speaking of firewood being scarce around here is calling a pot dirty when someone has burnt stew in the thing.”
“That is bad, then,” said Karl, as he used a hay-fork to load Katje's wheelbarrow with a scrap of slime-dripping worm-hide. His fork reminded me of Sarah's hoe: all business, uncommonly sturdy, and very well-made, with an eye to function rather than 'beauty'.
“I did not mean just anyone,” said Sarah. “I meant someone who has no business attempting to cook.”
“Your cousin?” I asked, as I 'surveyed' the mess. It needed 'strategy', as I did not wish to waste another moment. We had further work to do in this building, and it needed to be done today. Yet still, a final word needed saying.
“That worm was the guardian of the witch-hole proper, while Iggy was the guardian of the property,” I said calmly. Then, in lowered voice with a hint of mock grimness, I said, “Maggot-Brain is no more.”
This last seemed good for a laugh, if nothing more. I was not looking forward to handling pieces of a large, slimy, and nasty-smelling worm, and when I heard tramping upon the stairs, I knew we had three helpers by the sound of it – and all of them had tools or wheelbarrows, if I went by the noise on the boards.
I turned to look, and to my surprise, one of them had a titanium lantern in one hand. In the other hand, he had a shovel; and while this last looked usable, it wasn't nearly as 'usable' as the tools we had initially brought down. It reminded me more than a little of those three fifth-kingdom plows we needed to essentially 'build from scratch' rather than merely 'repair'.
“Now that is what we needed,” said Maarten. “You had to carry it here in a bag, didn't you?”
The man nodded, then said, “this mess is worse than that of that lizard.”
As we began working – I wanted to stay clear of the thing, and after Sarah spoke of my actually 'stopping' it and nearly smothering afterward, my reticence was not questioned – I could hear questions being asked. Some of them were about my last comment, and when Sarah came up to me with a slime-splattered shovel – a 'good' one, one we had brought down – she asked, “what did you call that thing?”
“M-maggot-B-b-brain,” I murmured – and as I spoke, I noted a drastic diminution to the purplish aura of the place. How that had happened was anyone's guess, but when I turned to see the rune-string on the scrap of 'worm', its reddish flaming was gone – and the area of Desmond-hide was now wrinkled, shrinking, and beginning to rot.
“What does the word 'maggot' mean?” asked Sarah. “I doubt much it is in any word-book we have at home.”
“Mostly because it is a very rare word,” said Gabriel from some distance away, “and you will only find it in a Gustaaf.”
“Or a larger black book,” I said, “though there that word has an utterly different meaning.” A pause, then, “a maggot is normally the larva of a fly, at least where I came from, and the 'maggots' I recalled seeing at Kossum's looked a lot like very small Desmonds.”
“Desmonds do not become other than they are when they hatch,” said Gabriel. “They remain 'Maggots' until they die. At least, that's what Freek told me about them.”
There was more labor; and I kept my distance from much of the work, for I could feel something on the east wall. I was moving toward it when suddenly Sarah showed by my side.
“They're cutting up the big pieces now with an ax,” she said. “I think you are right about it needing burial.”
“You've dealt with Desmonds before?” I asked. “Near your relatives in the potato country?” I wanted to ask about the tools we had brought down, as I suspected Katje had picked them. She knew more about the use of tools than she let on, chiefly as she had to use them a great deal. I suspected one of the small batch of 'carpenter's hammers' I had recently finished was intended for the two of them.
“I saw a number of them in that place,” said Sarah, “and I have burned several, but until now, I have never touched one with my hands.” A brief pause, during which she managed some dry heaves and tried to sneeze. “I think touching that thing makes me sick.”
“I thought so,” I said. “There's something else in this place that's trouble, and it's over here somewhere. It's on this one wall, and it's a place that I can speak to, unlike that one gate.”
“Best do it while you're a distance away from behind a pillar,” said Sarah. “I'm glad that worm is dead.”
“Uh, why, beyond the obvious reasons?” I asked. I was still 'homing in' on the area in question. It was hidden very well, and I was not having an easy time finding it.
“Those things will bite if they are given any chance whatsoever,” said Sarah, “and they need burning to black crisps once they are cut into pieces, or they will get over it.”
“For common sized ones, or ones like this?”
“That was so with the ones I burnt,” said Sarah, “and my relatives had much in their journals about them, so I suspect the usual sizes needed to be cut up and burned to truly kill them. This one, I am not certain.”
“If the firewood can be arranged,” I said, “then maybe it should be burnt. Does that sound wise?” A brief pause, then, “how did you burn those things?”
“The best way is with blacksmith's tongs and a hot charcoal or burnt-coal fire,” said Sarah. “If you wish to bait them, and know where a witch-hole is, then leave out a piece of meat that has gone High near that place, and they will be showing near or on that piece of meat within a day or two.” A brief pause, then, “I saw them a number of times during my travels, so they're a lot more common than most people think.”
I kept moving to the left, all the time feeling as if I were getting 'warmer'. A faint reddish haze was now showing in that direction, and with the loss of Iggy and Maggot-Brain as 'curse-loci', the curses that had been used for this 'thing' could no longer hide themselves nearly as well.
“Perhaps now,” I thought. I then spoke: “Open.”
With a low rumble, a gout of dark red-tinted gray smoke shot into the room, then the smoke suddenly dropped to the ground to become soot amid a faint shaking beneath our feet. Shovels and other tools dropped to the floor some distance to my right and behind me, and Sarah and I ran for the shelter of the nearest columns. From behind the column I had hidden myself behind, I noted the sense of dry cool air flooding into the room from 'elsewhere', and I began to move closer to the source of this soft wind, again sheltering behind the columns and running from one column to another. I half-expected something to come inside the room.
“No, stay back,” said Sarah loudly to those who had dropped their tools. “This is a cursed doorway, just like some I've seen and read about on tapestries.”
“Is that what this thing is?” I asked quietly, as I rested behind a column. I could feel the 'distance tricks' now most thoroughly, and I somehow knew that the curses involved with this thing were mostly to blame for what I was currently enduring. It needed observation before telling it where to go, as I suspected that I would see more of such things in the foreseeable future.
“Ones like this one are very rare now,” said the soft voice. “Its outlet is such that it permitted Iggy to get out almost anywhere within a twenty-mile radius when he 'scented' suitable prey.”
“What?” I asked. “Suitable prey?” I was still moving to my left, much as I had before. I wanted to get a good look at this particular doorway. I knew that much; this was important – though I did not wish to get too close to it. This doorway was hungry that way.
“The witches cursing him spent no small amount of time and effort to ensure their curses would become firm and strong,” said the soft voice. “Your figure of 'months' needs to be revised to 'close to a year' – and that Desmond got a similar level of cursing, at least on the basis of time and effort.” A brief pause, then, “those curses spoken over both creatures could be summed up thusly:
'We curse all of those witches that shall follow us who are unwilling to bring
back our land to its full Brimstone-worshiping glory, and a curse upon any
witch who does not give his all to Brimstone, and a curse upon all humanity:
let them either be entire true-witches, or entire monsters, and let all the rest
become food for this, our pet, that it may be a foretaste of our own meals in hell'!”
Far away, seemingly in another country, I heard speech regarding rotten potatoes, and I retched, for now I had a name for the stench of Maggot-Brain. It made me wish to spew, and I gagged, then spat, “stink, go in that doorway and plug it for the rest of time!”
For a second's ticking of time, nothing happened; then, as I gripped my column tighter, I saw a plate-sized piece of the stark white grainy material go dark and then become shiny, much as if it were a mirror. It was the pathway to the outside showing as if a finely detailed picture, and as I watched this picture, that pathway began shrinking in length. Coupled with this contraction, a faint rumble shook the floor, and as I watched closer the tableau before my eyes, small motes of dust began to fly into this hole. Around me, I felt wind blowing, wind that soon made for a desire to closely embrace the column with all my strength, and with my face but inches clear of the 'picture', I saw in my peripheral vision bits and pieces of the Desmond become airborne, these first examples being small fragments of its body. They began to fly toward the hole as if in the grip of a powerful hurricane.
The picture I saw before me now showed from the 'side-view' a hole that continued to contract, and as I saw it doing so, the long and tenuous connection with another time and place began to contract also. It was narrowing down and shortening at the same time, and as it contracted 'on the other side' of the realm of normal time and space, its hunger for the things of this world, especially those it owned by the action of the curse-collection that had originally opened it, became greater. In my peripheral vision, I now saw larger chunks of the Desmond's body take wing, along with drifts of sand, rock, and dirt; the picture before me showed this true 'mouth of hell' swallowing all that it could hold, and this happening on both sides of the wall that formed the boundary between this reality and that of a timeless realm of unending torment.
As the wind gathered to itself strength and hunger, the sound that assaulted my ears was a screaming hurricane-force howl, and the larger-yet chunks of the Desmond now began slowly sliding toward the mouth. As I watched the picture but inches from my face, I saw the previously-hidden curses applied to the worm now manifesting their fury with long and billowing reddish-violet flames over the whole of the creature's body parts as the 'mouth of hell' devoured them and sent them to where they belonged, while on the other side of 'night'...
The previous tendril that had been twenty miles in length and the thickness of a pencil lead had now contracted to perhaps four miles, this done with a corresponding gain in thickness. I knew Iggy could not fit through such a portal conventionally, but I suspected that it 'swallowed' him and spat him out upon the surface of the ground as per the conjoined indication of the curses upon this doorway and the lizard – and the portal remained open until Iggy, his hunger sated and the remains of his previous meal dumped out of his backside to 'mark his territory' as a reminder of just who ruled the area, was ready to return to his accursed and impregnable 'nest'.
With the larger pieces of the Desmond, I could see – and feel – the other cursed things in the room flying toward the 'mouth of hell', and as I watched the picture with staring eyes, I saw the remains of the witch-mound, the remaining long-buried tools of sacrifice that Maggot-Brain had uncovered in chasing me, the IV bottles, the beds themselves, the skeletons, the rusting pieces of the 'altar' – all of this stuff came sliding and tumbling toward this 'mouth', along with some of the tools that had come down with those who were helping us. These last objects flamed as much the other items did, for I could see hidden rune-curses blazing fiercely upon them, these curses speaking of the suffering implicit in slavery and how all of that which slaves made was entirely made for the use of witches and the training of 'fully-owned witch-slaves'.
The howling scream was now at its highest pitch, and the rate at which the 'back-side' shortened was only equaled by the contraction of the mouth's opening upon the side of our world; the dust and dirt inside the room now shot like a rain of gray and raging fire into the hole as it contracted from manhole-cover size to perhaps half that large; I saw a misshapen rake fly in the hole, followed by a falling-to-pieces shovel, then the mangled pieces of a disintegrating wheelbarrow, all of these things flaming fully as redly as anything that had flown into the hell-mouth previously. The hole in the picture before me was now perhaps the size of a dinner plate, and as the back end shrunk to less than a hundred yards, the sound became louder, higher-pitched, and screaming, as now, the actual curses that had made this infernal doorway spewed forth from the air around us and shot into the 'mouth of hell': faint screams, shouts in languages long dead, and horrible cursing, this last in a language unspeakable and all-but impossible to hear.
It needed different anatomy to speak it, in fact – and the screaming last seconds of the curse-passage's existence raised the pitch of its words into the ultrasonic range; until finally as it actually contracted into nothingness, a muffled thud segued to an earshattering bang – and then, complete, utter, silence shook the room like an earthquake. I looked at the column, and saw the picture showing a blank wall – and then, slowly, over the course of perhaps ten seconds, the picture faded from my sight.
As I unclenched the column, I looked to my right at where the mess had once been. To my surprise, those helping us and the other members of our party had not been touched.
“Now this I have heard of,” spoke one of our helpers. “I heard someone speak of a cursed doorway, one that leads to Hell, and that thing was it.” A brief pause, then, “fellows, we is done here. All of that rubbish we tried to use went where it belongs.”
“Yes, and it ate most of our tools, too.” said one of the other 'helpers'.
“Why do you think they gave us those tools that weren't much good?” asked the first speaker as the three 'helpers' piled the few remaining tools – all of them those that we had brought down – into the three wheelbarrows that had remained. I began walking toward them, and as I looked at the three men, I suddenly knew.
“Those other tools were made in the fifth kingdom by slaves,” I spat.
“Exactly right,” said the soft voice, “and they, like most slave-made objects, were subject to the curse that was just broken – so they went with the pieces of the Desmond and all else in this room that was burdened in the same way.”
I then looked around. The dirt-mound: gone. The beds, gone – no longer a trace of them remained. The altar – it too was gone. A glance back at that one hole, the one which Maggot-Brain had emerged...
“It's gone too!” I squeaked. “Where did it all go?”
“It has gone to where it belongs,” intoned Gabriel solemnly, “and I can think straight again.”
“That doorway was connected to both creatures,” said Katje, as she shook out her clothing. I was astonished at how little dirt it had on it, and also the near-complete lack of dust in the air. “It seems my clothing is fit to wear again.”
“And this room is clean enough to use now,” said one of our helpers. “Smells a lot better, too.”
As we followed the last man up with his wheelbarrow, I heard a yelp of surprise, then, “it got the mess up here!”
“No, not all of it,” I muttered. “There's still a lot of dust and dirt, even if...”
“Smell,” said Sarah. “I think he means that Iggy's smell is no longer there, and the same for those portions of him that remained upon the floor.” Sarah then paused, and with a piece of pink chalk, she wrote the following under a faint scrawl similarly-colored scrawl that I could barely read. This time, she took the time and pains needed to make it legible:
“Here lies Desmond Alley.
Abandon all Appetite if you enter Here.
Maggot-Brain, Rest in Pieces.”
“It is that,” said Katje, as she passed up past what Sarah had written. “Now I need beer, and perhaps some bread, and then...” Here, Katje paused, then asked me, “what next, beyond find that deeper place?”
“That's all I can think of,” I said. “It may take us a while, but we need to do that today, even if we end up heading home long after sundown.”
There was no comment, even as we again wore a deeper path through the dust and dirt of the hallway, and thence through the 'Upper Alley' – which Sarah wrote upon one of the columns on the way outside. Once out and washing up, however, I had another question regarding the vanished doorway.
“That pathway wasn't just for Iggy, was it?”
“It was intended for any sufficiently cursed creature or person to pass, and it was a two-way portal,” said the soft voice, “even if only one direction permitted 'roaming'.”
The thought that occurred to me then was so outlandish that I thought it impossible, but I thought it anyway: “Iggy was essentially guarding the head arch-witch's escape route, as well as his 'castle'.”
“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “Those witches that cursed the two creatures – that was done elsewhere, save for the last portions of cursing that 'installed' them here – could also visit to 'check on' that head arch-witch and then deal with him in case he did not 'read their minds properly' or they wished to replace him with someone more amenable to their inclination of the moment – and of course, Iggy would ignore them.”
“And then Iggy was not slow, either,” I said. “How did those witches use that witch-hole, then?”
“The head arch-witch would be present to officiate, remember?” said the soft voice. “Iggy would ignore him and his property, so as long as that particular witch lived, that place was used as a witch-hole. Once he 'took his repose in the deep hole', then Iggy saw all that came into his lair as 'food' and the then-ranking arch-witch 'sealed him up' using his remaining 'slaves'. Of course, that did not stop Iggy from coming out and grabbing any witch that tried to leave the Abbey – and he caught almost all of those witches that tried to do so.”
“And that Desmond?”
“It was the first 'true' Desmond,” said the soft voice, “and it lived more by the action of curses than all else. Every Desmond that lives today, both in Norden and on the continent, is its offspring; and when it became too large to lay eggs some tens of years after it was 'manifested', it was placed in that gated channel.”
“How big is that place?”
“It too no longer exists,” said the soft voice, “as while it was not formed entirely of 'curse-energy', all of its building materials were thoroughly cursed, its builders were the witches of that time and place, and curses bound it and that worm together so intimately that when that Desmond died, it started going to pieces then – and it vanished when its remaining curses left along with that one 'mouth into hell'.”
“There are others like it?” I asked. I meant 'the mouth into hell'.
“They used to be common,” said the soft voice, “but that was the last readily accessible one on the continent. Those few like that one that remain are not readily accessible – they are either very well-hidden, closely guarded by witches and witch-slaves, or are all-but inaccessible from the surface.”
“They'll all need finding and then closing,” I thought, as I found my ground-cloth and lay down upon the grass with my possible bag for a pillow. I fell asleep almost instantly – and awoke what seemed seconds later to find everyone else as deeply asleep as I had been. I went first to Sarah and gently touched her shoulder, and jumped back a second later when she awoke with a start.
“We must not waste time,” she said. “I'll help you wake the others.”
We were back inside the Abbey not fifteen minutes later, and now, we had 'trouble': we needed to find the pathway down to the deep witch-hole, and no sign of such a path existed in those places we had gone thus far. However, before we began searching, Gabriel mentioned some progress on Iggy's autopsy.
“First, that creature has an uncommonly thick and bony head,” said Gabriel, “and they ruined one metal-saw and damaged another getting its brain-case open.”
“And?” I asked, as I looked down that one northbound hall as I stood between the entrance to the lower 'region' and the west wall of the laboratory trying to 'find' the entrance. I still was of a mind to write 'Iggy's Silo' on the wall of the laboratory, and I was looking for chalk in my possible bag. Someone then put a familiar-feeling squared chunk of dusty material in my hand, and I began to write this statement on the wall I was facing while I held my lantern in my left hand.
“It was as you suspected,” said Gabriel. I had just done a 'passable' letter 'I' and was now working on the first of two lower-case letter 'G's'. “There was a small portion filled with pieces of a shriveled dark gray lump half the size of a common potato, this being well back from its eye-holes, and then ahead of where that lump rested, there was a much larger cavity.”
“Yes, and what was in that portion?” I asked. I had finished 'Iggy's' and was now working on 'Silo'. The color 'pink' fit well, or so I thought.
“They found nothing present,” said Gabriel, “but that empty portion was fully as damp and slimy as the rest of its brain-case, which means something was there not long ago.” A brief pause, then, “and, in the process of sawing that lizard's head open, they sawed through a number of small copper things that looked like the tips of some knitting needles I have seen, both for shape and size. They were badly corroded, which would speak of them being embedded in that lizard's head for many years.”
“Knitting needles?” I asked.
“Long, somewhat slender, sharply pointed, containing lead and other materials, and about fifteen lines in thickness and well over an inch in length,” said Gabriel. “That was what they spoke of. This, I found on the floor while cleaning up that Desmond's mess.”
Gabriel reached into his 'bag', then drew out an empty cartridge case.
My reaction was so intense I nearly dropped the chalk in my shaking hand, then gasped, “do you know what that is?”
Gabriel shook his head, then said, “these are fairly common in that scrap market. The ones most commonly used for whistles that I have seen are a bit larger for diameter and length.”
“Yes, if you wish to call birds,” said Sarah, as she came to look at the shell casing. “Whistles using that size work best for cats.”
“Cat-whistle?” I asked.
“That one we heard on the third floor of the house proper was a bird-whistle,” said Sarah, “and they tend to be slightly larger and much more common, at least in whistle form, than those like that one. Then, there is the dog-whistle, which is larger yet – and every one of those things needs regular cleaning, lest they leave a bad taste in one's mouth.” Sarah then looked at me, and asked, “why, do you know what those things are?”
“I do, dear,” I said. “That goes to a rifle of some kind, and it looks very familiar.” A brief pause, then, “the one I used for target shooting took cases that were about that size.”
“So that is what that weapon was,” said Gabriel. “I knew you used something unusual where you came from, but I had no idea it used these.” He then handed me the shell casing, which I pocketed.
“They were like that,” I said. “I think they were a trifle shorter, and perhaps a little smaller in diameter, but without my usual measuring tools, I'd have some difficulty telling exactly how much they are different.” I paused, then wrote the rest of the word 'Silo'. “There, now this portion is marked.”
“What is a silo?” asked Sarah. “I do not recall seeing that word written before.”
“In this case, it was where a missile was hidden until it was ready for launching,” I said, “and since I called Iggy a 'four-legged rocket engine'...”
“You did not see what he did when you sliced on his tail and he flamed from the back end,” muttered Sarah. “I thought he might fly out of that place and come after us, but he was stuck too badly to manage it by then.” A brief pause, then, “he might not have been a rocket, but he tried hard to act like one.”
“Hence the name,” I said. “Now this hall here does strike me somehow as likely, especially as we have not yet explored it – and I'll most likely need to f-find this doorway myself. It's hidden especially well, and dealing with those other curses has made this one hide better, not less well.” A brief pause, then, “those tools you-all brought for cleaning up that worm's pieces?”
“I got the ones that looked to work,” said Katje, “as our house is not getting better for keeping the wind and cold out, and then I and Maarten have had to do a good deal of digging lately for our garden.”
“That is not a small garden, either,” said Sarah. “I have seen it more than once since we went there to plan for this place, and I spoke of how we did our gardens at the west school so as to make the work easier.”
“And she spoke of what kind of tools I wanted, also,” said Katje. “Had I the money for them, I would have them made at Georg's.”
“Did that influence what you picked?” I asked.
“Very much so,” said Katje. “Sarah described those used in the potato country, and I went after those things the most.”
“She was crazy for them,” said Karl, “and I learned why she was like that when I used one of those hoes, as those things work better than anything I have ever used for hoeing – and I have done much hoeing.”
“They do a lot of that in the potato country, don't they?” I said. The question mark was 'hinted at', as I recalled being told that this was the case. It was more for the benefit of the others rather than myself, as I had known I had needed the best tools I could get my hands on long before coming here. I was far clumsier that way than I had looked to be then, and how I had lost so much of that clumsiness during the process of coming here was still a mystery, even if the change that way bordered on miraculous when I had first come.
The change since then was greater yet – save in the area of writing. That was currently the worst it had ever been.
“They do,” said Sarah flatly, “and potatoes need a lot of hoeing, so you want a good hoe that not only works well, but takes and keeps its edge.” Sarah spoke from real experience, I now knew. A brief pause as she moved in the direction of the 'north corridor', then, “the ones common around here might last a month in that place before they became unusable.”
After lantern-adjustment and 'oiling' – the place felt a lot less 'cursed', but I was loath to take chances when I did not have to – I led off into the dark realm where I had never been before. A brief overview of this portion seemed wise, even if I could not feel the doorway nearby, and I was wary for more members of the Rat Brigade. I had a hunch the 'big rats' had trained the smaller ones to be annoying cannon-fodder, and when the 'thwap' of a slingshot was followed by a screech, I stopped in my tracks.
“That rat is dead,” said Karl flatly. “Pistol balls work well in these things, and I centered its head as it came for me.”
“It what?” I asked. My club now seemed a bit much, given that the dead rat Karl was nudging with his boot wasn't a 'monster rat', but a common-sized one.
“I think those big ones gave the others ideas,” said Sarah. “Now I hope those large ones are done.”
“For now they are,” said Gabriel. “There are no more of them on this floor at this time. Those above us, I'm not sure.”
I resumed, now doubly wary. This area had seen no traffic for a very long time; Hans and Anna had been too afraid to go here, no witch had even tried while Iggy was still alive, and now...
The first office I found, this but perhaps four paces from the edge, showed its share of traffic; I suspected the others had hid themselves inside it when Iggy assayed setting them alight. A murmured assent from Sarah indicated my idea was true, even if this office wasn't the only refuge, merely the closest one.
“Katje and I hid ourselves in the next one down the hall, as she was needing help with that dynamite still,” said Sarah. “I wished I had crimp-tools then, but I had no such things, and her knots with small string are worse than mine.”
“Sewing?” I asked.
“It took me quite some time to learn how to tie knots that...”
Sarah's voice was cut off abruptly as she landed a flying kick that sent something sizable flying and herself flying after it to seemingly vanish. She came to earth with a thud an instant after, then ran out of the nearest office. She seemed to have eyes for my club.
“What, dear?” I asked.
“That was a large rat,” said Sarah. “It must have been one that had been stunned, as it...”
I had been steadily moving toward the office where Sarah had emerged from, and as I came to the doorway, the rat in question came crawling slowly to then 'try for me'. It was injured to no small degree, so much so that a simple 'pile-driver' blow that crushed its upper body killed it with a loud and echoing screech.
“Tough wretches,” I muttered as I turned back toward the others. “How hard did you kick that thing?”
“Hard enough that I am glad for these boots,” said Sarah. “It was jumping, so I needed to get up in the air so as to kick it.”
I led off again down the hall. As I walked, my steps slow and cautious, I listened carefully. I had a faint and indistinct sense of 'getting warmer' with each step further down this dark, dismal, and smelly hall. It had an odor distinct from the rest of the place, and when the right wall of the hallway 'vanished' after what seemed like three hundred yards to my mind and what my feet said was closer to thirty such units, I adjusted my lantern again for maximum brightness and stepped into this open area. Within seconds, I had an idea as to why it was open.
I looked down to see the uppermost half inch of a time-eroded metal stud protruding from a blue-painted concrete floor thickly layered with dust, and I now noted that mere 'care' was not enough to miss these 'traps'. I was about to warn the others when Sarah said, “they had things here, and they are gone.”
“Things?” I asked, as I moved to an aisle that seemed free of protruding studs.
“Yes, like at the Heinrich works,” said Sarah. “I do not know what those machines are called, but those I saw wanted a close room, and this one feels close enough for their use.”
“It is a good deal larger than that room you spoke of,” said Gabriel, as he moved into the room. For some reason, he seemed uncommonly careful as to where he was walking, with shoes lifted barely above the dust and moving them slowly so as to find the studs by contact. The studs were in a most-definite pattern, so much so that as I continued slow-walking down the hallway, I wondered if this space to my right was indeed a machine shop long in the past.
“It was a passable copy of a fifth kingdom drink-house, and those 'studs' held down the tables and chairs,” said the soft voice. “While they did not serve 'forty-chain' to those who came here, they served other drinks that were equally deleterious.”
“Where did they get that stuff?” asked Katje as she nearly tripped over one of the studs.
“One of the chief 'industries' in this general area prior to the war was the production of 'potable beverages' – and in that time and place, that meant things stronger than Geneva for the weakest examples. Most were closer to aquavit for strength.”
“Typical witches – have to be trashed every waking minute,” I muttered. I could see in the distance what looked like an old 'entrance' of half-oval shape – I was almost expecting a round doorway, for some reason – and I wondered just how big this 'drink-house' actually was. I began counting my steps some distance from where I had left the main hallway, and as I reached forty, I came up upon the outer wall itself. The place was well over a hundred feet in width, I thought, as I then moved to my left. Blackness swallowed my lantern's light long before that light reached the walls of either side.
This was not a small room.
“There used to be an entrance here,” I muttered, as I touched the concrete of the wall and then touched obvious bricks but barely hidden by a crude species of 'plaster'. The change was too abrupt to be anything but intentional, and I found more concrete about eight feet further to my left. “Probably needs about two sticks of farmer's dynamite to bring it down.”
“I would wait upon that matter,” said the soft voice. “Your estimation of that wall's strength gives it unwarranted credit, as two men with sledgehammers could knock it down and then clean up the mess within an hour.”
“Not if those men are from around here,” said Sarah's alarmed voice. “Those from the fourth kingdom could do so, but they are still few in that camp to the east.”
“That will not be the case for long, Sarah,” said Katje. “Recall that there was one large convoy of people coming? That was just the first one. More are on the way, and we did not see the whole of that settlement, either.”
“Most of those planning on coming here are still tying up their affairs, also,” said the soft voice, “and the witches in those areas, unlike witches around here, are numerous, capable, and 'untouchable' – either because they're past masters at disguise, or they more or less own the areas in question.” A brief pause, then, “that one jeweler is very glad he was given so much money, as what offers he has had regarding his shop since he left that area have been paltry at best.” A pause, then, “he got out safely, even if he's needing to stay at Ploetzee for the time being.”
“How long did they serve drink in here?” I asked.
“As long as they could do so,” said the soft voice. “Once the supplies from outside became restricted as to their availability, the nature of what they served changed drastically – and then, it was shut down by orders of the then-ranking arch-witch when matters on the outside became altogether serious.”
“Rationing?” I asked.
“The drink-house was among those things first dispensed-with,” said the soft voice, “which was some time after that head arch-witch 'took his rest' in the deep witch-hole and Iggy was walled up. Before that happened, the place steadily ran up its prices, it served 'concoctions' made on-site to the lesser witches, and those remaining witches of higher rank dug into what they themselves had confiscated from the hoards of dead witches or what they themselves had hoarded against such an event.”
“And those not witches received no such privileges,” I muttered.
“Those 'laborers' suspected of drunkenness were sacrificed in the 'upper' witch-hole while it was still open,” said the soft voice. “That did not stop them from running their own illicit distilleries, especially after that place was closed – as the witches, at least while they were numerous, did not routinely go up into the upper part of the building, which is where all of the 'laborers' actually lived and where nearly all of them worked.”
As I paced off the room – I made a circuit, lamp held out in front of me, right hand gently tapping the wall with my club – I counted my steps; and at the end of my circuit, I had a better idea as to the room's size.
“It's bigger than I thought it was,” I muttered. “Easily seventy feet wide, and almost three times that deep.” Then, a question: “how many people were in here?”
“Enough that this 'drink-house' was packed constantly until it was shut down by order of the then-ranking arch-witch,” said the soft voice. “By the time the place was shut down, the witches were few enough that all of them at once were needed to 'properly' fill the place.”
“That's still a lot of witches,” said Sarah. “Not many drink-houses are close to the size of this room.”
“None currently, if you omit witch-run Public Houses,” said the soft voice. “This location did not serve food, but only 'drinks'.”
“Where did they serve food, then?” I asked.
“There were several places in 'witch-territory' that prepared it,” said the soft voice, “but there were no places set aside for eating it. That was 'every witch for himself', much as it was on the outside before it was turned into flaming ruins during the first days of that war – and each witch had his own utensils, which he kept on his person.” A brief pause, then, “many of the high-ranking witches had their living quarters such that they lived much as they had done outside – and that meant that they had their own food stocks, cooking facilities, and utensils.”
The hallway ahead, once we had left the drink-house, was of such length and darkness that I wondered where it ended. Offices showed to each side every eight to twelve feet, as well as long hallways now and then instead of offices; and when we finally came to its end – two hallways, one going left and the other right, with a plastered-over 'former entrance' of some kind blocking our path – I thought to double back and begin investigating the offices.
At least for a minute or so while that seemed a likely course of action. The left hallway, however, seemed to beckon me, and as I led down its endless-seeming length a few minutes later, I heard speech coming from behind me. My focus was ahead, for there were no offices bordering on this hallway, and when I 'looked' to the right, I seemed to see 'nothingness' at first – and then a freshly-cleared area perhaps another two hundred feet away from where I made slow and tentative steps.
“Further away than that,” said the soft voice. “You are getting warmer.”
“How big is this place?” I asked, as I came to the first hallway on the left. A brief shining of my lantern on the wall showed it needed adjustment, and once I had done so, I knew this hallway too was 'endless'. I glanced up, and saw another light-fixture like those earlier, only this one was flanked on each side with numerous – and rusty – pipes.
“Quite sizable,” said the soft voice – which made for wondering. Was its physical size alone meant, or did it have 'added' dimensions which but added to its apparent size – dimensions closed off by 'curse-energy'?
“None of those currently exist in the building,” said the soft voice – which implied there might be some nearby, and more, there had might have been some in the far-distant past. “That witch-hole below has one, but it has not been 'accessed' since some time prior to that war's starting.”
“The physical size of the building?” I asked, as I came to a hallway on the right, this one but perhaps three and a half feet wide. The 'main' hallway was closer to six, and our current passage between the two extremes for width. There was another hallway up ahead, that one being 'bidirectional'; and I wanted to go left on it, as it too was 'a main thoroughfare'.
“Over a quarter mile long,” said the soft voice, “and nearly five hundred feet wide where you are now.” A brief pause, then, “it's wider yet in the middle.”
“Middle?” I asked.
“Near where you were thinking of going,” said the soft voice, “and you are feeling that deeper witch-hole's entrance.”
“I thought so,” said Katje. “This place is certainly large enough.”
“Those plans I saw spoke of enlarging this place,” said Gabriel. He'd but seen them briefly, I suspected; more, he only had eyes for certain portions of those plans, chiefly those that might need his attention in regards to what he normally did. As I saw the corner of that one 'main thoroughfare' up ahead, I had two suspicions, one being about what Gabriel thought his responsibility was in the matter of the Abbey's 'reworking'; and the second, about that 'real' witch-hole – and I knew which of those two matters concerned me more.
“Yes, today,” said the soft voice. “The other issue will become a matter for your concern in the foreseeable future.”
“Which of these is for today?” asked Sarah.
“That witch-hole below us,” I muttered. “Desmond Alley was a primer for this place, even if it's a lot smaller.”
“And the attic this place has is much bigger,” said Sarah. “It is not possible to get there at this time, as it is walled off, much like where Iggy lived.” A brief pause, then, “that witch-hole's entrance is well-hid. I know that much – it will need you finding it.”
“Secret passages, just like in the king's house proper,” I muttered. “I've found enough of them in that place, but this place... This place could have taught those builders about making secret passages.”
“Right on both counts,” said the soft voice.
“B-both?” I asked.
“There are many secret passages in this building,” said the soft voice, “and some of those secret passages in the house proper are there because witches requested them through multiple levels of intermediaries during that house's planning process.”
“How?” asked Sarah.
“Recall just who built the first kingdom house?” asked the soft voice. “The same people as did the second, only afterward? That house in the second kingdom was done as per the demands of witchdom, and a number of those building it – those not marked, anyway – had surreptitious curses put upon them during the years of its building.”
“Which is but one reason why they look alike to a modest degree,” I thought, as I actually came to the corner. I then realized 'someone' was once more playing games with distance.
“Only because you are indeed 'getting warmer' and that place below is indeed working hard at hiding,” said the soft voice.
And yet, as I led out onto what I now knew to be the true 'main thoroughfare' of the building – this hallway went the whole length of the building, nearly, and it was the widest one yet at nearly eight feet from wall to wall – I knew that during the process of looking for this hidden entrance, the immediate area around it would need careful checking for traps of one kind or another.
“And I'm glad we have these lanterns,” I thought. “Candles aren't nearly good enough for this, and I wish we'd brought one of those lanterns...” My thinking stopped abruptly, as I suddenly recalled a matter of critical importance in an environment involving potential explosions: liquid-fueled lanterns, even those that were made especially well and running alcohol, were not a good idea to have around; and while our candle lanterns were poor sources of light in comparison, they were not 'light-giving firebombs'.
It wasn't just distillate-fueled light sources that gave trouble that way, I now realized; any portable light source, other than those using solid fuels or batteries, was a potential 'fuel-air explosive' when tossing grenades or dynamite.
“And we will be tossing more of that stuff before all of this is through,” I thought as I moved slowly past another narrow side-passage.. “I can feel that doorway now, and it's up ahead somewhere to my right.”
Another hundred feet, this at a slow pace, all the while trying to find the place I was after. The rats were most-scarce in this region, and the dust the thickest upon the floor that I had seen yet in this building. There were occasional soft sneezes behind me, then suddenly someone – female – shouted and fell to the floor with a thud. I nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned to see Katje picking herself up amid slowly dissipating clouds of dust.
“That was a rat,” said Karl. I then noted that he'd somehow found a rat-club of uncommonly dark 'varnished' wood.
“Yes, I know,” said Katje. “I was not expecting to have it try to get underfoot, though.” She then took the club from Karl.
“That one is a spare,” he said. “You can use it while we are here, but once we are done, I will need it back.”
“W-why?” I asked.
“Because those thugs have hard heads sometimes,” said Karl, “and I might break the other one, so I will need two of them instead of one, same as most things we should take on that trip.”
If ever I had heard 'sage advice', I was hearing it now, even if I usually did things of a similar nature 'as a matter of course'. I then turned back toward the front, and as I put my first foot forward, I stopped in mid-stride.
“How did I miss this?” I thought, as I bent down to look at an obvious pistol. “I bet it is trapped.” I then saw the loaded cartridge laying beside it, and I blew on both cartridge and pistol carefully as the 'column' began 'stacking up' to my rear.
“What did you find?” asked Sarah. She was holding the others back. How I knew this made me wonder.
“A pistol of some kind, and it looks very suspicious,” I said. “It has a loaded round beside it, and...”
I stopped speaking, for now Sarah came to look over my shoulder. “I think so,” she said. “That thing there beside it is c-cursed.”
“What?” I asked.
“That thing by it right there,” said Sarah – who then came to herself with a screech. “What is that thing?”
“A pistol, dear,” I said. “All of you, move around me to each side, and none of you get any closer than Sarah is. This thing is trapped, and we'd best get in one of the offices before I, uh, do anything more.”
Once the others had gone some eight to ten feet 'downrange', I carefully backed up two whole steps, then went to the right wall and went around the 'trapped' pistol. As I did, I seemed to see a faint reddish haze starting to flow over the whole 'tableau', and I stumbled into a run that had the others fleeing ahead of me.
“Get into an office!” I yelled. “Now!”
I took my own advice, then as I jumped inside the nearest office and turned around once inside the doorway, a sharp popping noise sent flying debris past the doorway to clatter with tinkling noises on the floor. I then noticed I had company in the room.
“You were right,” said Sarah. “That thing was trapped.” She then asked, “how could you tell, other than it showing one of those cursed things that witches like?”
“Cursed ammunition?” I asked.
“That one especially,” said the soft voice. “It may have been dimensionally identical to what that pistol was normally loaded with, but it was not made where the pistol was.”
“N-not?” I asked.
“You can go out and look now,” said the soft voice. “The pistol was scattered by that 'cartridge'.”
Not only was the pistol gone – its pieces lay strewn over thirty feet of hallway, and it was obviously unloaded, as I saw no more ammunition laying around – but the 'bomb' had made a sizable yet shallow crater in the floor – a crater that had odd purplish streaks showing for a second or so as I knelt down to look closer.
“That thing was cursed,” said Sarah. “I see that purple color.”
“That – was the pistol itself loaded?” I asked.
“No,” said the soft voice, “and that trap was 'set' by one of the last witches of real strength living here,” said the soft voice. “He was hoping to kill some of the surviving laborers so as to have food to eat prior to making 'his final journey'.”
“Final journey?” I asked. “As in he knew about Iggy devouring witches when they tried to go outside?”
“No,” said the soft voice. “He was planning on escaping by other means, means that were rumored to be as deadly as Iggy was suspected to be – and by that point in time, the remaining witches knew they could not leave the premises safely, unlike the laborers.”
“The laborers were escaping?” asked Sarah. “How, if that lizard could show anywhere within twenty miles?”
“Because Iggy much preferred the flavor of witches,” said the soft voice, “and while 'the great worm' was nowhere near as picky, it hid itself during the day – and by that time, there weren't very many people or witches in this area – hence that Desmond more or less 'hibernated' then, save when enough prey came near enough to make its forays from shelter worthwhile.”
“There was much else lacking then,” I muttered, “including edible food, or water, or shelter, or much of anything except poisons of one kind or another.”
“Correct on the food aspect, but otherwise it wasn't too bad by that time,” said the soft voice. “The 'dangerous' portions tended to be fairly obvious at a distance, so as long as one stayed clear of them and kept moving, one could get into regions where one could survive within about two days of traveling.”
“Around-the-clock days,” I muttered, “and walking steadily the whole time.”
“True, one did have to keep moving – at a decent rate, no less – until one got out of the main witch-region and into an area where witches had not been the bulk of the populace before the war,” said the soft voice. “The only ones who routinely made it that far were marked, which by that time were most of the surviving laborers in the Abbey.” The unspoken portion was 'those otherwise tended to die of mischance before they'd gone any distance at all'.
“How?” squeaked Sarah.
“The witches were trying for them, dear,” I said, “and they most likely were injured. Most of them that survived probably had missing fingers or toes – just like today.” I then had a question, “did the witches wish to eat them, or were they just being witches?”
“Both of those things and then some,” said the soft voice. “Cannibalism among witches was a lot more common than it is today, and many witches prior to the war lived as 'entire predators' upon the flesh and blood of those they killed or sacrificed.”
“Probably needed to get above a certain level of inhabitation then,” I muttered, as I stood up.
“That was but one means among many,” said the soft voice. “There were a number of others.”
With one trap behind us, I suspected there might be more, but before I had traveled perhaps another thirty feet, I knew there were no more 'tricky' traps in this area. There were more traps in the building; and more, they were in areas where we had not yet gone; but as I came into 'the general area' of the witch-hole's entrance – it was within a hundred feet at the most – I knew that with the 'real' witch-hole dealt with, these other traps would have less power over us all.
“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “All of the traps that remain in the building are as cursed as that 'cartridge' was – and it derived much of its power from that witch-hole.”
“Where did the rest of it come from?” asked Sarah. She could tell I knew the entrance was 'close'.
“What it was filled with,” said the soft voice. “Without that witch-hole providing the 'power' and that witch invoking that power by his curses, that cartridge would have needed to be loaded in that pistol and then fired.”
“And it would have been worse yet,” I muttered. “I can...”
I paused again, for here but some few feet in front of me, I saw another pistol on the floor – only in the case of this one, there was not merely no cartridge laying near it, but the surface of this weapon was a solid mass of corrosion. I came closer, knelt down, and put a hand near it – though still over a foot away – and tried to feel if it was cursed.
“That other one was not like this,” I muttered, as I recalled the pristine nature of its appearance. It had looked as if it had just been made, in fact – which I now realized was another aspect of suspicion about it. “Why is this one so rusty?”
“Because it was not cursed,” said the soft voice, “even if that witch used that pistol to shoot two laborers who were foraging in this area but a short time before setting his trap down the hall.”
“Is that a clue?” I asked, as I wondered why the witch had wished to set his trap after shooting two laborers.
“I suspect it to be one,” said Gabriel. “I learned my lessons with those beds, though – do not touch anything in this place unless you specifically state it may be touched.”
I was about to protest when I suddenly realized: while that wasn't a 'general' rule in this area, if it was to be applied to anyone, it was probably best to apply it to Gabriel due to his 'extreme vulnerability'.
“True,” said the soft voice, “and that more than you realize, even now.” A pause, then, “the reason the witch did not eat the laborers he had shot was because he had used poisoned bullets, and he was not strong enough to ignore that poison.”
“Poisoned bullets?” I asked.
“Those massive drink and drug intakes did not improve those people's accuracy,” said the soft voice, “and by that time, most of the surviving witches were down to their last tins of ammunition.” A pause, then “and most of those witches had at least some poisoned rounds.”
“Was that ammunition routinely poisoned?” I asked.
“No, but poisoned ammunition was readily available to those with the right connections,” said the soft voice, “and enough of the witches inside here either had those connections prior to coming here and 'stocked up' on it – or knew how to envenom bullets – that it was both fairly common in here, as well as routinely used.”
“Is there some of that stuff still handy?” asked Sarah.
“No, as the last handful of witches used it all in a series of gun-battles when the surviving laborers began to forage aggressively,” said the soft voice. “By that time, the surviving witches were 'living' by cannibalism exclusively, as all of the 'witch-food' was entirely gone – and no witch of that time and place would think to eat the food of 'lesser beings', even if the clear alternative was starvation.”
“Those witches that still live around here would eat common food if they had to,” I muttered. “They did learn...”
“Yes, now,” said the soft voice. “Up until a few hundred years ago – in this area – all witches and most serious supplicants lived by the black book's dictates regarding food – as in 'it be far better to take ye yourselves' rest than feed ye yourselves upon ye food of ye commons'.”
“And it is not like that elsewhere,” said Sarah with finality. I suspected she meant 'witches eat witch-food' – whatever that actually was; it wasn't conventional food that 'mere mortals' such as myself could buy in a Public House; I knew that much – 'and no exceptions'.
“No, it is, save in a few areas,” said the soft voice. “Outside of those regions the witches 'own', it is 'one must survive today if one is to rule tomorrow' – and hence witch-food is consumed when and if it is available, with an eye to the matter of 'survival' as a rule.”
“Yes, if they are those things forbidden by the book,” said the soft voice. “Any witch can eat meat that is High if he or she is sufficiently patient and resourceful enough to conceal its odor before eating it and for a time after its consumption, and the same for many other unhealthful foods – but the sign of true witch-food is being forbidden by the book first and foremost.”
“Hence swine are the top of the heap,” I said. Squabs were not forbidden in the book, even if those birds here were unclean enough to qualify as 'pigs that fly'.
And the instant I spoke, I knew my speaking was wrong. While pigs were high on the list, there were things higher still on this planet, at least at one time.
“Before the drowning, yes,” said the soft voice. “They were exceedingly rare afterward until this area had been owned by witches for several generations – and then, and only then, did they once more become common in this area.” A brief pause, then, “about the only place you will find those things any more is in certain well-hid underground regions – and most of those creatures are in 'museums' of one kind or another. Living ones suitable for 'witch-food' are not easy to find, even in those well-hidden areas that the witches truly own.”
“Meaning they still exist and need finding so as to destroy them utterly, and that once and for all,” I muttered. I then noticed just where I was. “It's here, right around here, not twenty feet distant.”
“No, it's a bit further down the hall,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you're right.”
I began pacing off the distance, each step silently counted, and at seven paces, I began to look for the nearest doorway. The sense of 'real close now' steadily grew, until I came to the first office on my left. Witches would surely wish such an entrance to be 'the left hand path'.
“No, not that one,” I thought. “This next one, though – it is in there, and finding it is going to be a trick indeed.”
It was all I could not do to run the ten steps toward that office, and when I came to its doorway on the right and shined my light inside, what greeted me was a complete shock. Unlike any previous office, this place was walled with coarse bricks, these the near-black color of long-aged dried blood, and their 'mortar' was a color that made for wondering.
“Black mortar?” I asked. I could tell it was not tar. Using 'tar' would have been a dead giveaway, as that accursed tower in Babel had used that – and the reason for its construction became more obvious to me with such thinking. 'Making a name for oneself ' was pure unadulterated witchcraft, and the reason for making a huge 'marker' such as that huge and darksome inflammable tower was – that was equally obvious to me.
They wanted to proclaim as loudly as possible to God that he could go to hell, and that literally. He'd just gotten done drowning the place, and he was saving the fire for later – and hence, he turned every man against his brother by creating 'differences that mattered'.
Nothing mattered more then than one's manner of speaking – much as it did with witches in this time and place – and incomprehensible speech was the mark of 'the enemy'. Hence, the first 'war' among post-flood men resulted in fire, smoke, utter destruction of the tower, and the scattering of the burned and bruised survivors in different directions.
A lot of them did not survive, and God thought the matter no great loss. He meant what he said by 'vengeance is mine alone, and I will have my price paid in its entirety', which was how it was translated here.
“They could not find tar at that time,” said the soft voice, “so they mixed soot with their cement.”
“Cement is not mortar,” I thought.
“Here more than where you come from,” said the soft voice, “and the witches laying those bricks were not strong enough to make their curses stick for long, so that stuff has lost the bulk of its grip.”
“Is that why that one place would only need an hour's time?” I asked.
“No, that work was done when mortar was available,” said the soft voice. “The bricks will give way long before the mortar does.”
“Those sound like curse-bricks,” said Sarah, “and these look like curse-bricks.”
“The second far more than the first,” said the soft voice. “Those used to brick up that former entrance were merely third-rate common bricks, while these in here are 'curse-bricks' of a sort.”
“Of a sort?” I asked.
“They were 'sold' as curse-bricks,” said the soft voice, “and in both cases, the witches doing the purchasing were 'sold' – and the seller did well for that time and place, far better than is common today.” A brief pause, then, “given that that individual had an effectual monopoly on building materials, and had had that all-inclusive situation unto himself for many years prior to that time, it isn't surprising.”
“Buy from him, or else,” I muttered.
“More like 'buy from him if you want anything at all',” said the soft voice. “By that time, there was no other option to the majority of people and witches, as all importation of foreign goods, save through that particular witch or a small handful of most-careful smugglers, did not happen – and if a matter involved anything of an important nature that was near and dear to the hearts of the continent's witches of that time, that witch was involved in it at some level.”
“Who was he?” asked Sarah. “He's spoken of on a tapestry, correct?”
“Several tapestries,” said the soft voice, “and you've seen his 'name' at least a hundred times.”
“Too many names to recall, correct?” I asked, as I continued looking into the brick-house. “Split up into pairs... No, that won't work, as there's an odd number of people. Two groups, then – and I...”
“You need to look over that room,” said Katje, “as that doorway is hidden behind those stinky bricks, and it will need finding by feel.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Thank you for confirming what I suspected.” A pause, then, “we need to search the rooms adjacent to this one, as there might well be a 'guardian' or three around here and...”
As if matters were decided, Karl, Sepp, and Maarten went in one direction while 'surrounding' Gabriel, while Sarah and I needed to watch over Katje during our search of the south offices. I then knew I needed to watch over Sarah also, as she seemed preoccupied.
“No, I can remember that witch's name,” said Sarah. “I cannot speak his name, as he was named strangely.”
“Strangely?” I asked. I was keeping my voice down – at least until it involuntarily raised itself in pitch as I watched Sarah come 'too close' to an 'unseen' desk. “Careful, dear – watch that desk!”
I had to actually 'catch' Sarah, then move her away from the desk in question. I then saw what was on the desk, that being another 'corroded into rust' pistol. After doing so, I only then realized the size of the room we were in – and its furnishings.
“What was this room?” I asked, as I surveyed the close-packed 'herd' of desks – which reminded me more than a little of 'the main room' of that warren that made up General's Row. “The secretariat?”
“I hope not,” said Sarah. “That witch ran that part, and that was part of his name, too.” Sarah then said, “oh, now I recall how his name was spelled, I think.”
“How was it spelled?” asked Katje. She was looking over one of the desks, and for some reason, I suspected she was eying it as much for its practical utility as she was for its possible dangerous contents. While it was made partly of that one wood substitute, these desks were intended for serious use, at least at one level – and I knew Katje and Maarten needed something better for their work than their too-small kitchen table and the two old student's lanterns they had for light sources. It made me wonder about a 'full-sized' catalytic lantern, or one with a trio of candles for 'added light' for places where 'Old Sole' or a titanium lantern weren't currently a good idea.
“I-H-M-T-P,” said Sarah. “At least, that was how it was written on the tapestries, though how anyone, even a bad witch, could be named so strangely is beyond me.”
“Unless their name was normally written in runes,” I said. “Those have strange pronunciations at times, so much so that...”
I paused in mid-sentence, for now, I knew what had happened: the writer of that section of the tapestry did not wish to spell out the witch's name exactly, as his name was an effectual curse or acted like one.
“No,” said the soft voice. “The witch in question was still very much alive at the time that former supplicant was writing down what was eventually compiled into that tapestry, and not merely did he have trouble with spelling in general, but he also had great trouble making his handwriting legible.”
“He was marked?” asked Sarah. She was now looking around upon the floor, though she was still most preoccupied.
“Not merely 'marked', said the soft voice. “One entire hand was gone three inches above the wrist when he began his writing, as well as most of the fingers of the other – and hence, he had trouble holding anything, much less writing.” A brief pause, then, “he eventually became a much better writer, even if he was left slightly stiff, badly scarred, and with two missing fingers on his more-injured hand as a reminder of just who he needed to pay attention to.”
“And he thought it unwise to write that witch's name out,” I murmured. “He probably thought that wretch would show up where he was to then kill him if he did.”
“Mostly because that former supplicant had heard of that precise thing happening, and that from multiple sources,” said the soft voice, “and given that one of those sources was that dark-haired witch, he knew that writing that witch's name properly was not a good idea.”
“Ooh,” spat Sarah. “Now I can spell that witch's name better. “I got my letters mixed up, and I left out two, as it was never spelled the same way twice and I had to figure it out.” A brief pause, then, “it's spelled 'I-M-H-O-T-E-P'.”
“Best not say his name,” said Katje. I knew I was meant when she said it, and I could see the name blazing red-flashed blue-black in my mind. If ever a name was both a name and a dread curse, this one was for a certainty. “I heard about that one witch you ran into in the second kingdom, and I think the one Sarah was speaking of was similar for quality if not quantity.”
“As in he's still 'hanging around' and causing trouble?” I asked. The stink of that one 'dead' witch's 'red-tallow' was much upon my mind.
“I suspect that wretch is,” said Katje, “and you'll need to deal with him when it is time – and that time is not now.” A brief pause, then as she returned to the desk drawer she was inspecting, “now this is a fine mess.”
Katje then screamed, and as she fell sprawling to the floor after leaping backward, I heard a scrabbling noise shoot across the floor and head for the doorway. I turned to see a rat vanish at such frantic speed it indeed seemed to be riding a hot-fueled skyrocket.
“What happened?” I asked, as I went to where Katje had fallen to help her up. “Did that rat surprise you?”
“Yes, it did,” she said. “It tried for me, also.” A brief pause, then, “it was nesting in that drawer there, and I did not see it at all until it leaped out of that nest as if it was hiding from me.”
“Was this rat swollen badly?” asked Sarah as she came closer. She was no longer 'preoccupied'.
“I did not have time to look at it closely,” said Katje, “as it was moving most-quickly. Why?”
“It might have been a mother one,” said Sarah, as she looked in the drawer closely, “and if it was, then I think getting clear if it was most wise.”
“Why?” asked Katje.
“Mother rats are most fond of biting,” said Sarah, as she probed the 'mess' with a lantern in one hand and a knitting needle in the other. “No, she did not drop them yet, even if she was most likely inclined that way.”
“Them?” I asked. “The babies?” I then thought to ask a question: “do those have a special name?”
“Not really,” said Sarah. “They are named as is common for animals, by adding a special suffix to their name. For most animals, that would be 'L-E-T', so the young of a rat is called a ratlet – and I do not see any ratlets in this nest.”
As I came to the far wall of this sizable room, I found another badly rusted pistol on the floor. This one was the fourth example of its kind I had seen in this area, and upon finding it, I thought to look at it closer. These were obviously common weapons, and as I looked at it with my lantern held close, I noted a number of matters.
While I had seen and handled my share of pistols before coming here, I had never seen one exactly like it, either as a picture or an actual weapon. Secondly, this weapon was not 'handy-sized' like the one we had found in the drawer. It looked to be a real handful – as in it was longer than my revolver for overall length, and the grip was not merely 'long', but hand-filling – presuming one had larger hands. I wondered if I could hold one like it, in fact, and as I reached for it, I heard movement to my rear. I stopped my hand's moving.
Something was about to happen, and as I turned, slow as a glacier, I saw Sarah walking, lantern in one hand, her bag somehow on an over-the-shoulder strap that I had not seen before – and in her other hand, something that I could not recognize – at least until she was 'framed' by the doorway.
It was another rusted pistol, and I could hear her muttering about 'rusted junk' and 'witches don't know how to look after weapons'. She then spat something unintelligible beyond I knew she was disgusted – until with a strident-sounding yell, she screamed the following:
“This is a tosser!”
Sarah then put actions to her words, and threw the pistol northward down the hall as if it were a tomahawk.
The pistol flew with a faint whizzing noise, then some few seconds later, I heard it hit somewhere 'down range' with a clattering rattle of 'too-loose parts' – a rattle that persisted for perhaps two seconds...
And then, a final protest from the pistol:
The rippling roar of an entire magazine's worth of ammunition jerkily firing 'full-auto' mingled with the piercing screams of ricocheting bullets, and Sarah dived for the floor inside the office amid shouts and yells of protest from down the hall. I came running, leaped over Sarah's still prostrate form, and then turned the corner at a dead run to find Gabriel sprawled upon the floor some thirty feet distant with his hands over his head. He looked up with a face coated thickly with grime and dust, and said, “thank you for teaching me how to dive for the floor. Is this why you spent so much time doing so?”
I shook my head soundlessly in negation, then asked, “are you all right?”
Gabriel felt his scalp, then said as he took his hand away, “I think so. I do not see blood, so I guessed that bullet missed me.” A brief pause, then, “I'm glad you taught me about hot lead, also.”
I then felt a presence behind me, and I turned to see Sarah. She seemed shocked beyond any recollection I might have had.
“I never heard of a piece of junk shooting like that before,” she screeched.
“I think it unwise to toss rusted junk in this place, Sarah,” said Gabriel dryly. “I'm glad he taught me to dive for the floor like he did, as I would have been drilled repeatedly otherwise by those bullets.”