Investing the Abbey, part ten


Our path outside was a lengthy one, one of coughing, spitting, retching, and occasional dripping of blood. While Sarah had indeed sliced on several people – including Katje, surprisingly; she had a slice in her cleaning suit nearly a foot long that was edged with blood – she had been surprisingly 'gentle' in her cutting, so much so that when I saw the bloody rent in Gabriel's trousers she had made, I muttered, “that's about as bad as what happened to Lukas down in the fifth kingdom house.”

Gabriel said nothing, at least for a minute. He then looked at me, looked up and down my utterly filthy and reeking form, saw my all-but-destroyed clothing and several obvious red-weeping cuts and burnt places, and muttered, “I thought you knew enough to not play with fire in hell.”

Gabriel then coughed, this hard, racking, and choking, and spat convulsively onto the nearest wall. The blob was nearly as large as the ball of a 'large' musket – that of a number four, if my guess was right – and its clay-like consistency was only equaled by its tenacity in remaining stuck to the wall. It slowly began to smolder, this faintly and with a reek like the place where I had dealt with that huge reptile.

Gabriel's sputum-ball stuck like glue to the wall as we continued on out of the building; and the hacking coughs continued once we were outside. There, I noted the state of the sun, and wondered if it had been paused in its movement until I recalled hearing about days gaining hours and weeks gaining days, and this but recently. This day looked to be a 'long' one – and indeed, it seemed possible that it had been 'stretched' some. It had happened before under vaguely similar conditions. I knew that much.

“We have daylight yet,” said Sarah. Her voice was astonishing for one so filthy. What she next said, however, was not: “I want a bath.”

That was a universal sentiment, and while I got my bath first with Sarah right behind me, it meant that I also needed to examine everyone's 'accessible' cuts and bruises. Katje had been using my club liberally from the start of the exodus out of the deep witch-hole – until Sarah sliced on her, whereupon she began striking at anyone she saw to her front as if completely out of her mind – and the injuries she had inflicted were astonishing. I was more than a little surprised she had not killed someone outright.

“She needs lessons for using clubs,” muttered Karl. “She might hit hard enough with a club to hurt people bad, but she does not hit in the right places.”

“To kill, you mean,” said Sepp. “I think she knows a lot more about clubs than she's let on to us.”

I did not speak of the matter, as I had my own hunches about Katje and clubs. She wasn't nearly as bad with them as she seemed, as I had seen a definite pattern regarding her blows; more, her motive wasn't that of killing, but of urging people to their very utmost, hence 'disabling injuries' needed to be avoided at all costs, and the same for 'killing' blows – and Katje knew about those. I then had a question.

“Did someone teach her about the use of clubs?” I asked, after coughing up another smoldering mess.

“Yes, before I went to Boermaas my uncle spent much of a summer teaching me,” said Katje between coughs, “and I then had a great deal of practice at Boermaas, as I commonly had to mash several rats when I came to my room to study after a lecture.”

“Were you ever swarmed?” I asked.

“Not after I learned to hit what I aimed at consistently,” said Katje, who then spat a truly nasty-looking mess that smoldered on the grass. “My clubs were usually not this good, nor this large, but by the time I left that place, I could kill common-sized fourth kingdom rats as fast as I could swing on them – and I usually cleared my room within a few minutes' time, even with those rats being common-sized and me chasing them.”

“Boermaas might not have large rats now, but then it did, didn't it?” My suspicions were that the place had had big rats in large numbers during its early years, unlike now.

“It did,” said Katje between racking coughs, “and it had a fair number of white rats of varied size, and then twice I saw these others that were a strange color.”

“Strange?” asked Sarah. She was coughing and then spitting up nasty-looking blobs, some of which burst into flame upon emerging from her mouth. For an instant, I thought she was imitating Iggy.

“They were mostly the usual gray-brown color mingled with green somewhat, but they seemed to be a deep and dark green in places, also,” said Katje, “and I'm glad I had had plenty of white rats to practice on by then, as when those things showed, they needed a lot of clubbing to go away.”

“G-go away?” I asked.

“I could not kill those two rats,” said Katje, “and by that time, if the rat was less than three feet long and I had my club handy, I could stop it with one stroke and kill it with two more when it tried for me, and that no matter the beast's color – unless it was one of those grayish-green things.” A brief pause, then, “I'm much surprised I had lost so much skill since my days at Boermaas, as I should have killed those rats that came for me easier.”

Between coughing, guzzling beer, bathing – someone found the Fell's soap that Karl had 'forgotten', and it was used liberally to clean ourselves – and then steeping our clothing with laundry soap mingled with the chopped-fine remains of three bars of Fell's soap, it took us nearly another hour to become entirely ready for our final work of today. Food seemed forgotten in our quest for beer, now that the hard work was indeed over – or so Sarah said as she spat onto the grass and then wiped her mouth.

“At least that portion is done,” she said as she spat up another whitish blob that lay thick upon the mashed-flat grass surrounding our encampment. “Not dealing with that place behind that mirror you broke would have caused us all a great deal of trouble.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I knew about the trouble part, but I wished to know Sarah's thoughts about it.

“That witch-hole was the foundation for every coven in this area at the very least.” Sarah was still very thirsty, and her guzzling of beer was a potent indicator of this fact.

“Area?” I asked. “The central portion of the first kingdom?”

“Much more than that,” said Sarah. “All the way from Norden to the fifth kingdom house, and from east-point to west-point of this continent for width.” A pause, then, “where we are going, I am not sure. They might have one of those places to themselves, but I doubt it more than a little if that tapestry didn't lie.”

“Tapestry?” I asked. “The age of that place?”

“From before the drowning,” said Sarah. “There were several such rooms then, but all save one of them were entirely destroyed when the place drowned. One was merely 'buried deep beneath the sands and measure of time', and the description I read about that place matched what I was able to see in there while you were gone.” A pause in Sarah's guzzling, another cough-spit – these were growing smaller, thankfully, and I was glad she was no longer coughing up flammable messes, even if the common ones were still frequent and 'large' – then “what was on that book-stand?”

“A large book, one writ in blood with witch-speech and rune-curses,” I said. “It was the property of that one witch, and now I know her name.”

“Her title, you mean,” said Katje. “She was named thusly as being 'The Mistress of the North', and north is not merely the direction on a compass if you are a witch.”

“As in it's much more?” I asked. “It's almost 'I can define this word to mean what I wish it to mean'?”

Katje looked at me dumbfounded, and nodded, this slowly and studiously. A pause, a massive bout of coughing followed by spitting repeatedly and then backing away as the grass caught fire in front of her, then, “that place was filthy and stinky enough to make me wish to bathe for an hour in that soap Hans compounds for cleaning bandages.” A pause. “What was it like there?”

“Th-there?” I asked.

“You were gone perhaps three minutes,” said Katje, “and when you came out of that place, Sarah was herding us up the stairs at a run with her sword. She sliced Gabriel then when he thought to tarry.”

“I did not,” said Gabriel indignantly. “I was trying to run, but those stairs are covered with sand and I did not wish to fall down and block the path for those behind me.”

“No, Gabriel,” said Sarah sharply. “There was something more than just difficult footing as to why you were so slow, and I knew what was needed to get you moving quickly. I was loath to shoot at you like Dennis did last night, but I did have my sword ready to hand, and I could get to you that way.”

“She learns fast with those things,” said Karl. “I am glad she only smacked my backside, as I think she could cut up a witch like that one in front of Hendrik's door.”

“If that witch is one like who I think you mean, then no,” said Sarah. “I've got much yet to learn regarding swords before I try to fight someone like that wretch.”

“Northern thugs?” I asked.

“I do not wish to try fighting those people with swords,” said Sarah. “People speak of their stupidity, but that is not true when they come to blows.” Sarah paused, spat more, then said, “I read that report, and those people know how to fight with edged weapons – and I've seen them do it enough to know that report neither lies nor exaggerates in reference to their capabilities that way.” A brief pause, then, “I'd rather be a pointer on a gun-team facing blood-maddened swine with full plate than try to slice on those thugs.” Another pause, this longer while draining her cup. “I'm glad I brought an extra jug of this stuff, as it's about all I can stand right now.”

“Beer?” I asked.

“Yes, beer” said Sarah. “I doubt I'm hurt much on the outside, but I'm not thinking kindly of tomorrow.” With this, she stood stiffly, then, “we'd best be looking the rest of that place over before dark falls, as we will wish what light we can get while we are inside there.”

“That place has no light beyond what we bring inside,” muttered Karl as he removed his 'dead' candle from his lantern and put in a new one. I was glad he 'bagged' his used lump of wax, which made me think of bringing a candle-mold and coil of candle-wick for our coming trip. “This wire thing is still good, I think.”

“I am glad spares were brought nonetheless,” murmured Gabriel. He had a rag tied around his arm, and another somehow attached to his posterior. This latter showed clearly a trace of blood where it 'bulged' out of the slice in his trousers, and now I knew another reason why I had been so brutal the night before.

Gabriel normally would have wanted to 'go home and rest' after acquiring such injuries, as they were usually considered to be quite serious by the vast majority of people, Hans and Anna included.

He was truly 'ignoring' those wounds, now that he had bathed and his cuts had some kind of covering, and he was prepared to continue the business as best he could – which was the precise thing I had tried to inculcate the night before.

I wondered for a moment what Sarah had meant as we reentered through the transom, and as we went through the now-white columns of the 'Upper Alley' – it was marked as such with pink chalk, this at a height that suggested Sarah to be the writer – until Sarah said, “that tapestry spoke of that room down there as being 'in the north, with a window to the heart of the world, which is a place where evil dwells in burning heat.” A pause, a spit – then, “and now, it is no more.”

“N-no more?” I asked.

“I have smelled burning rock before,” said Sarah, “and I smelled it again on the way out of that place, and I smelled burning rock on your ruined clothing worse than anything.”

“Ruined?” asked Gabriel.

“Yours I could fix were I inclined that way,” said Sarah, “but what he wore coming out of that place is fit for the rag-merchants, and no mistake.”

“These rooms ahead?” I asked. “Should we search them?”

“Yes, but quickly,” said Katje. “Hans and Anna have gone through them, but neither knew what to look for or how to look for it, and hence they missed much.”

“Hans I could believe,” said Sarah, “but I think you underestimate Anna that way. I've been around her enough to know she can be quite thorough if she has a mind to be so.”

“Fetishes?” I asked.

“I doubt those rooms to have much that way,” said Katje. “Not now, and not after what happened to that smelly room down below us.”

A search – this quick, with me doing much of the initial 'sweeping' – showed that Katje had overstated the case. I could feel much of what had happened in the past when I came near the first of these rooms, and when I came out of the room with a seemingly rusted-into-junk 'Tosser' pistol and an empty brass bullet-tin, I said, “these rooms are more or less clear of fetishes. The witches cleaned them out of those when they tried to break out, as those were as good as money if you met a witch in that time and place – and there still were witches in fair numbers then, even if they were hidden well in this area.” I implied that 'they weren't at all rare or hard to find once you went any real distance, especially if one knew where to go'.

“Exactly correct, which is why movable fetishes of a readily accessible nature are truly scarce in this place,” said the soft voice. “Between the witches taking everything that looked 'likely' that they possibly could, and the laborers then carrying off anything that looked useful to them when they left for points south and east, and then centuries of looting by various other individuals both marked and otherwise, the place is pretty well cleared out.”

“Save in certain regions,” I muttered. “There are places beyond that one location with the weapons, and these rooms do have things in them that we can use.” I glanced at the 'Tosser' pistol, then said, “we can pitch these rusted things in a crock of heavy distillate, and I bet we could then dismantle them.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Karl.

“I suspect I could make them usable, if need be,” I said. “Recall how that one that misbehaved fired its magazine? It worked well enough to give everyone, me included, quite a scare.” I paused, then asked, “why did that thing do that?” A brief thought, then, “don't tell me – poor heat-treating?”

“Nothing that half a day in a cooking can won't fix, at least for a while,” said the soft voice. “That one had a bad disconnector as well, so it was kept as a 'spare' by the witch originally owning it.” A brief pause, then, “those in that one office were coated in a species of preservative wax, so once you clear that off with distillate, they'll be usable – and if you look in those desks a bit more thoroughly, you'll find the ammunition tins for them.”

Sarah looked at me with huge eyes as we passed through Iggy's Silo, then said, “oh my. There must be a hundred of those things in those bags.”

“Yes, in that room,” said the soft voice. “More, while those bullet-tins are not 'filled' as they were supposed to be, the tins themselves are quite useful and what rounds they do have are useful as well.”

“What r-rounds..?” I asked.

“That one witch imported the ammunition,” said the soft voice, “and he 'looted' each tin of much of its intended quantity. He left enough in those tins to fool the inspectors stocking the Abbey, but each of those tins is 'liberally' padded with sawdust.”

“Meaning three bullets to a tin,” I spat. “Stinking witch!”

“No, he had to leave quite a few more than more than 'three' rounds in those tins, as that much of a theft would have been readily caught,” said the soft voice. “He may have gotten a handful of rounds out of most of those tins, but even the emptiest ones have a useful number of rounds – and more, all of those tins are brass ones, hence their corrosion will readily clean up with modest polishing with a rag and rouge-paste.”

“How much did they usually hold?” I asked.

“That size normally held sixty-six rounds of that ammunition, if it was packed correctly,” said the soft voice. “The tins for that smaller pistol hold more, of course.” A brief pause, then, “if you look really carefully in that room's desks, especially in certain ones, you'll find more of those pistols also.”

“Those smaller ones?” I asked. “No ammunition hoards?”

“The general rule with those smaller pistols,” said the soft voice, “was when they were hidden, they were usually done up as that one drawer was – as the witch doing so expected serious trouble and that one former supplicant learned of the practice by observing those more-paranoid witches.”

“Is that why we're searching these offices?” I asked.

I soon learned the truth of the matter: one desk in a room containing half a dozen such desks had an unusual 'draw', and when I went to it, I pulled open an 'empty' drawer to then pull the drawer apart with my bare hands. I was more than a little surprised to see the drawer come apart so readily, at least until I saw the nature of the 'wood', it being that substitute material – and a bad version of it, if I went by its friability. I then gasped at the remains of what I had done amid the sheet of dust covering the desk.

The result: a mound of 'waxed' sawdust, a pair of pistols like the example in that one drawer, several loaded magazines for each weapon, three bullet-tins filled with bullets, and an 'armorer's kit' of sorts. This last had the full complement of tools, but the packer had seemed far less paranoid than that former supplicant, as the number of wax-coated gun parts was fewer than I had seen in that first kit – and that for two pistols, not one. The pistols went in various satchels after being wrapped in the few remaining 'clean' rags, and I took one myself as well as a tin of bullets and a spare magazine. Sarah had the first one we had found, along with that one knife.

This repeated twice more before we turned left on that one hallway – I found a room, went to a desk, took out an 'empty' drawer, then by main strength alone ripped the drawer apart to dump its hidden contents. Both times, however, there was but a single pistol of that smaller size as well as the usual 'load' of ammunition and parts, and as Katje confiscated one of these 'trouble-kits', she said quietly, “the rats are starting where we live, and this might work well for them.”

“I think you will wish something a bit less destructive for rats,” said Sarah. “If these things hit harder than that pistol you have now, they will not merely kill rats, but scatter them.”

“And hitting rats on the move is not easy, especially with a pistol,” I muttered.

“That also,” said Sarah. “I might manage it, and I've seen you do it, and perhaps Andreas...”

“He uses a fowling piece with shortened barrels for 'sudden rats',” said the soft voice. “He does not do well with a pistol if the rats are moving quickly, even if he drops thugs readily enough.”

“Might as well shoot at a skyrocket then,” I muttered – and then coughed up another nasty-tasting blob that hit the nearest desk and began smoldering. I then had a question, even as the region of the desk surrounding that blob of 'yuck' began to send up soft yellowish flames tinged with a greasy species of gray smoke. “Why does that happen?”

“I am not sure,” said Gabriel, as he drew a small rag-wrapped bottle and poured out a small libation of beer upon the flames, which ceased burning amid thicker smoke and a feral-sounding hiss. “I am sure we do not want this desk burning in here, as this is a 'cheap' desk made mostly of that wood substitute, and that stuff has bad fumes should it burn.”

“Not all of these desks are cheaply made, Gabriel,” said Katje. “Those I saw in those scribe-rooms seem decent enough for use, if not otherwise.” A brief pause, then, “are they decent for use?”

“Yes, because those are older desks 'requisitioned' by the government of that time from the homes of those named 'disgraced',” said the soft voice, “and in many cases, they were imported prior to that one witch assuming total control of that process.”

“Hence we have some decent desks,” I muttered. I thought to leave the search for 'more guns' until tomorrow, as time was indeed pressing upon us. We had perhaps three hours of good daylight left to us, and I was starting to feel noticeable fatigue. “Now where else do we go on this floor?”

There were no answers beyond the obvious: we would need to wander most of the hallways in here, at least in most of the building, and as I set out down that one 'main drag', I recalled the mortar shell I had laid in that one room. The others seemed inclined to follow my lead, at least until I collected the thing up and put in my pack. I then looked around in the still-dusty air.

“Uh, not much remaining here other than in that 'untouched' scribe-room,” I murmured. “Those witches in this area took their caches when they left.”

“Mostly correct,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, there are areas yet to clear before you can let others in this building, and that means you will need to hasten your exploration to that degree which you can.” I was glad to hear confirmation of my thinking about fetching guns and bullets right now. There would be ample time to do so tomorrow – but we had to ensure that tomorrow first.

“Which means getting to the upper floors,” I muttered. “Now a place this big has to have something that, uh, lifts?”

“I would not take such a thing on a dare,” spluttered Sarah. “If this thing you are thinking of is like a hoist in a fifth kingdom mine, I would prefer climbing a greased sailing rope without tying a knot in it first.”

Yet still, I needed to try to find one, until half a dozen steps further down the hall I recalled the need for a means of power to run such a 'lift' and the building's current lack thereof. I turned about, reversed course, then when I came to that one hall, I led past the 'entrance' hallway and continued on into uncharted territory, this as if I knew exactly where I was going. I had no idea of the layout of this smelly and dusty realm, and I was glad for my rat-club – especially when I swung backhanded on the wall to my right without turning and then saw what I had hit when I turned to look.

“You mashed another spider,” said Sarah quietly, as she nudged the tarantula-sized 'mess' that lay on the floor. “It had to be one of those blue-backs they brought up here, as no spider gets that large in this area unless it comes from somewhere much warmer.”

“There are warmer places near here, dear,” I said. “Or are there, outside of some witch-holes?”

“That was the one still-capable spider on this floor,” said the soft voice. “Of those two that encountered one another, the other one is dying in a corner of a nearby office – and that one you just mashed was too sick to do much.”

I paused to look at the rat-club, and now I could see the cracks in the thing. While I had started them when I hit that last large rat, Katje had helped them along to no small degree; and this last stroke had made them clearly visible to the naked eye. The thing was fit for a stove now.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice as I turned a corner without slowing. “It will stand a few more 'feeble' blows before it splinters – and while Katje did help matters along regarding that club's destruction, she did so but slightly.”

“I heard that,” said Katje, “and I am not surprised.” A pause, then, “where next, the stairs?”

“Uh, stairs?” I asked.

“This place would need stairs, as it has many stories, and a lift would need an engine of some kind to make it function,” said Katje. “I did learn that much from what reading I've managed in those tales since we got that set of books.”

“What reading?” I asked.

“I have had more time than you might have,” said Katje, “but between repairs upon our house, fetching those things we need to live, and study for Maarten's services, there is but little time for reading such tales, and my goal in doing so was to try to learn what I could about this place.”

“Hence your guidance,” said Gabriel. “You were given a list, were you not?”

“Y-yes, I was,” said Katje, “only I had but little idea as to what to look for.”

“I think the chief matter is that you might learn what you could that would help the group,” said Gabriel. “I am not sure what lies directly ahead of us, but there are stairs near here.”

“Y-yes?” I asked, as again, I turned a corner without slowing. This one was to the right, and ahead, I could both feel and 'feel' stairs. The former sense was that of a soft breeze, and more, a relative lack of smell. It gave me an idea. “That room you were thinking of?”

“Has something you will wish greatly, and something we desperately need,” said Gabriel. He was still making sense, even if his speech was quite mysterious. “I can feel a slight breeze, which means there is an opening to the outside near here, and that means stairs.”

“Wh-why?” I asked.

“The main stairs at the kingdom house proper do not go to all the floors, but end at the fourth,” said Gabriel. “The fifth floor has but one means of reaching it, and that is that staircase nearest my office – and it has a skylight at its top which lets in light and air.”

“No, Gabriel,” spat Sarah. “There are other ways to the fifth floor beyond the ones spoken of as being hidden. How much time have you spent in the Annals of the house?”

“A fair amount, especially recently,” said Gabriel. “Why?”

“The main stairway may end at the fourth floor as you said,” said Sarah, “and that other stairway go all the way up and end in a place most bright and windy, but there is at least one staircase other than that one that goes to the fifth floor that I myself have gone up, and there are probably more. The Annals implied there may be as many as three more paths to the fifth floor beyond those two I have traversed.”

“M-may be more?” I asked. I could now feel the wind stronger, and now I knew I was feeling it on my skin. Before, I was not certain beyond I was somehow 'feeling' it. “Do staircases usually have venting at their tops?”

“If they go to a roof of a building,” said Sarah, “they commonly do. I've only been to two that did not.”

“What?” screeched Gabriel. “Where?”

“One is in the fourth kingdom house, though it is near the king's chambers and is quite well-hid,” said Sarah, “and the other is in the second kingdom house, and is also well-hid, even if it is nowhere near the chambers currently used by that king.”

“He chose his own quarters, and thought the loss of a ready escape path a cheap price for real security – or so he thinks, anyway.” The soft voice again sounded cold and lifeless, unlike usually. “He does not realize just how much and to what degree his hand-picked guards have been 'bought' by the witches.”

“Does he know they were bought?” I asked.

“He does, which is why he has his own means of escape that he thinks no one else knows of,” said the soft voice. “He thinks he has the only copy of the place's plans.”

“He does not,” said Sarah solemnly. “Unless...”

“Yes?” I asked. I was in the home stretch. But two more turns and three more bypassed doorways, these open, inviting, and surprisingly odor-free.

“Unless someone copied the real plans and sold them to him,” said Sarah.

“They did, and made deliberate errors in the process so as to deceive him,” said the soft voice. “The plans you saw – the ones actually used by those building the place – were copied multiple times while the place was being built, and those copies, complete with extensive notes on certain added features that have been implemented over the years, are now in the hands of that area's leading witches.”

Another turn, then another – and then bright-outlined to our front lay a rectangle seeming frozen in space and chilled by time. I slowed, then stopped, wondering now if this door was trapped. I saw a black hole to my right, turned, looked within to see a room, small yet empty of all save dust, and slowly walked inside. There, the others followed without comment, at least at first.

“Is that doorway trapped?” asked Sepp.

“I suspect it is,” I said softly. “Which is why I am going to ask it to open from in h...”

An earshattering blast took the remainder of the last word from my mouth as it shook the floor and our feet resting upon it, and as the echoes died away in my mind, I gasped, “what did they do?”

“A grenade,” said the soft voice. “More, this was not a 'common' grenade, but a 'witch-grenade' set by a fairly strong witch.”

“M-my God,” I spluttered. “That thing was awful. What, did it blow up the stairs?”

“No, but it would have scattered the entire party had you gone much closer to it,” said the soft voice. “That one may have depended mostly upon curses, but the witch who set that one was the place's expert when it came to rigging things.”

“I'm glad I haven't messed with any of his traps yet,” I muttered.

“You did, and that multiple times,” said the soft voice. “He put the papers in the four corners of the lab, and that grenade's filling was about to detonate of its own inclination anyway.”

“What?” I gasped. “Do those things have a 'use-by' date?”

“No, but you dealing with that one deep witch-hole has caused more than a few pieces of buried ordnance to detonate in the area since it went where it belonged, including several that witch planted out in the area out back.”

I nearly screamed, then gasped, “was anyone hurt?”

“No, because it was shift-change time,” said the soft voice. “Granted, this is the first instance of it being implemented, but it's good just the same.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“They were out of the 'danger zone' while that deep-hole was being contested,” said the soft voice, “and when the explosions started in that rear area, they all 'headed for the hills'.”

“There are no hills around here,” said Karl. “The nearest one is that stinking place that smokes because it is full of witches.”

Because it is full of witches, Karl?” I asked. I could just see a huge number of bad copies of Sam Brumm sucking on 'cigars' while hiding out inside that place; it had more than enough room for them and the cannibals. “I thought it was just a volcano.”

“I do not know what you said is,” said Karl flatly, “but I know that place has witches in it, as I have smelled its smoke, and if they do not cook Shoeten in that place, then they cook men instead.”

I looked at Karl with staring eyes, and gasped, “they do cook men in there, because I saw them do that.”

“Then there is but one thing to do,” said Sarah. “We might not manage it now, but when we can, then we must kill them all, and...”

“And what, dear?” I said, as I took my first cautious step out of our place of refuge. For some reason, I knew that the number of rigged places had decreased markedly in the area, so much so that I wondered if the floors above us had any traps we needed to be worried about.

“None that are currently dangerous of that type,” said the soft voice. “They're either in secret passages, or they already detonated when that deep-hole went.”

“Secret passages?” I asked. “Traps?”

“That were set by non-witches, and amateurs at that,” said the soft voice. “That one witch was not merely not an amateur, but he'd put a substantial amount of copy into the training manuals for witch-soldiers, which Cardosso read at length and commented upon extensively in his writings.”

“Did he put anything in what we have?” I asked in my thoughts.

“He more or less copied that portion verbatim into those books,” said the soft voice, “and it's in the middle of the third volume – and unlike much of the remaining portions of those books, that chapter is fairly easy to follow for content and meaning.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Be glad few witches currently alive are careful enough to not get scattered should they assay using that information,” said the soft voice, “as those pages presume the use of a great many devices and materials that are not commonly available to the witches of the continent.”

“Such as 'curse-batteries'?” I asked, as I smelled a faint reek and saw a dusting of purple in the dusky light that showed ahead through the stirred up dust. “That was some grenade that wretch placed.”

“It was nearly as strong as one of those 'pots' you 'put up' recently,” said the soft voice. “Now you know why they would have had so little use in here.”

“Are the stairs scrapped?” I asked.

“No, because they and their stairwell formed a corner of the building's foundation,” said the soft voice, “and while those stairs of the lowest run are chipped to no small degree, they're still altogether usable.” A brief pause, then, “when some masons from the Valley are able get to work in here, they can do the needed repairs easily.”

Those people will find many of the remaining treasures,” said Gabriel, “and not only will they know of their uses, but they will find them most useful.”

“H-hidden pistols?” I asked.

“I think you found most of those worth using that are not in that armory that was spoken of,” said Gabriel. “Those that Sarah named Tossers are that, and that indeed.”

“Even those we can clean?” I gasped, as I came to the ruined doorway and saw the ripped-to-shreds paired metal doors. They had been not merely ripped up, but had been peeled back like the skin of a banana before being thrown against the opposite wall of the hallway, and the pockmarks in the coarse-looking concrete of the stairwell were astonishing for both size and number. “Where did he put that thing?”

“At the bottom of the stairs,” said the soft voice. “Feel the breeze now?”

I paused, then turned to face the others as they slowly picked their way about the ruined doors. The wind coming from my backside was astonishing, and while the air seemed dessicated in its dryness, it was also moving at a non-trivial rate.

“Figure everywhere on the building's ground floor to be a good deal less smelly and somewhat less dusty within perhaps two days,” said the soft voice. “If you open the doors to the upper rooms and what windows you find, it will hasten that process to no small degree, at least for their respective floors.”

The first run of stairs – this being six steps – went up at about forty-five degrees, each wide flat rectangular concrete 'shelf' of the bottom three showing vast numbers of cracks and chips. The stairs ended at a landing of surprising size – it was as wide as that one clerk's office for width and half again as long for length – then the next run showed another six stairs to end in another such landing. The width of these stairs was such that I heard softly-muttered mention of the main staircase of the kingdom house.

“No, they're not that wide,” I murmured. “Those are easily half again as wide as these.”

“These are not the back stairs,” said Gabriel as we came to the second landing, “even if they are laid out similarly.” A brief pause, then, “these stairs are easier to cope with, however.”

“Their width?” I asked. I could put two of my booted feet front to back from edge to edge of each stair, and the solidity of these things, as well as the massive thickness of the walls surrounding us, led credence to the stairwell's use as a 'cornerstone' for the second version of the building. “Is this the only set of stairs?” I asked.

“If you speak of contiguous runs of stairs, then yes, as they were intended as an escape path in case the 'lifts' were not working,” said the soft voice, “which is another main reason for their strength, their width, and their 'fireproof' construction.”

“Concrete spalls if it gets hot, though,” I said. “It's as bad as the hall's brickwork was that way.”

“Yes, where you come from,” said the soft voice. “It only does that here if it uses substandard ingredients and is sabotaged by those mixing it – and that was not done with this building's structure.” A pause, then, “that did not help the designers of these stairs, though.”

“Place turns into a chimney if the fire starts at the bottom,” I said as I came within sight of an obvious metal door. “Doesn't it?”

“That one witch supplied those doors,” said the soft voice, “and as was common with him, the buyers were sold.”

“Too-thin metal?” I asked.

“By half, and no fireproof filling, not even cheap 'treated sawdust', hence any real fire would have melted them within minutes,” said the soft voice. “More, his metal itself was about the cheapest that could be readily rolled, and that only with a group of strong witches chanting at the rolling mills during its processing.”

What?” I squeaked, as I put my hand near the door to feel its 'trapped' aspect. It had little of that part remaining, if my sense was right.

“Exactly what I said,” said the soft voice. “The reason most current witches do much of what they do is because it would actually work in their favor if they were the witches of long ago.” A pause, then, “they simply aren't anywhere close to 'Cardosso-level' – which is where most of what is written in those black books needs its reader to be for that stuff to begin to help and not hinder or kill outright.”

“The less-dangerous portions,” said Gabriel. “Those portions that are truly potent need a witch birthed prior to that war to genuinely work well, and more, a witch reckoned strong by the standards of that time and place.” A brief pause, then, “and I am most glad none of those people still live.”

“I would not be too certain of that, Gabriel,” said Katje. “If you speak of living as we do, and that for the continent, then you are indeed right. Elsewhere, such as where you-all are going within a few days to a week – they might well have some that still live, as the society of that place's rulers has not changed in significant ways since the time of that war long ago – and then, if one ruled, one needed to be a strong witch to endure life if one lived in a society run by witches.”

I opened the door, and to my surprise, there were motes of light – dim light, made hazy by distance and dust – that showed here and there in the distance. I led out into the wide corridor – it was easily the width of that one called 'the main drag', if not wider yet by a small amount – and as I 'provided security' for the others, I adjusted my lantern to its best brightness. To my utter surprise, Sarah formed the rear, and from a pocket on her clothing, she removed a small fragment of broken concrete and wedged the door open.

“This place needs airing out bad,” she said. “I can still smell witches in here.”

“Smell witches?” I asked.

“Y-yes,” said Sarah. “I can smell them, though...” Here, Sarah sneezed, then spat onto the floor – and sniffed again – and her question was astonishing to me. “Was I smelling witches just now, or just their dust?”

“Dust, I think,” I said. “That room's stink will take a while to get out of our noses, and I wonder if it will ever get out of my mind.” I paused, then as I led off, “these places are big enough that we'll need to concentrate on the outer walls and those rooms with windows, so unless I or one of you can feel something, uh, strange, then we'll just circle as we can and attempt to open what windows the place has. Sound good?”

“That would be best,” said Katje. “It would take us days to fully reconnoiter this place thoroughly, and we – or rather, you-all – do not have days.”

Hours,” said the soft voice. “Remember, you're mostly here right now to get an idea of how big the place is while airing it out passably, find anything that might cause common people trouble, and then finding what few treasures are up here that you can use.” A brief pause, then, “there are some, by the way.”

Such talk proved indeed prophetic: while it was possible to open those doors which were closed readily – none of them had functional locks, and many had doors that barely hung by one hinge – most of the rooms were windowless and barren of all save dust, the skeletons of dead rodents, and perhaps a broken piece of furniture or two. In some few smaller windowless rooms, we found small groups of ransacked desks; but the larger rooms – those were uniformly without windows – had nothing in them of use to us.

The first room with a window that I came to was a long and narrow thing with shelves on each side of a narrow and dusty pathway, and as I went into it, I noted the slight sagging and grainy aspect of the shelves. A touch told me that they were not particularly weak – and also that they were of that 'wood-substitute'.

“Have to dispose of that stuff, won't we?” I murmured as I came to what looked like a window. The thing was closed with a lock, same as the one that had closed the window in Iggy's silo – and the window itself was equally opaque to light. “Open, please...”

I leaped back without thinking as the entire window disintegrated with a flash and puff of smoke, and the breeze I felt come in thereafter was astonishingly strong and refreshing. I gasped, “what was that?”

“A curse-lock that was not supplied by that one witch, but the personal property of one of the witches bought on the 'domestic' market” said the soft voice. “In the future, ask such windows to open from cover, as some of those curse-locks are 'grade-A' models, and not 'grade-D' like that one was.”

“And that one in Iggy's Silo?” I asked.

“Grade F, if not worse yet,” said the soft voice. “The one holding those gates in Desmond Alley was between 'Grade-A' and 'Grade-B' – and it was of that head arch-witch's personal supply of curse-locks.” A pause, then, “a Grade-A curse-lock will act like one of those recent-vintage squibs when it goes.”

Again, these words proved wise advice, for when I next found another room with a window, I asked it to open from the hallway some ten feet from the door while next to the wall – and the sooty blast was that of a powerful fetish, one that billowed thick black smoke amid a shower of wood fragments that smoldered faintly in the dust.

“That was a fetish,” muttered Sarah. She seemed to speak for us all. “Now I think I can see the end of this hall, and it will turn to the right to circle around to the front of this place.”

Sarah was wrong, for I came to another 'closet' not fifty feet further on, and there was no end in sight to our current hallway. The 'smoke' from the last closet was already dissipating, though it seemed to be following us to a degree.

The eruption this time was like that of the first window, or so I thought until I saw what had happened to the shelves.

“A lesser lock of some kind,” I said, as my eyes blinked. I could see the sun heading toward the east, and that glowing orb was not wasting time in its descent now. “Best get a move on.”

That seemed the sentiment that took hold of all of us as we passed the now-cleared room, and our search proved a pattern as the 'column' strung itself out 'in-file': me in the lead, my 'easy' steps setting the pace; Sarah behind me, she in the 'slack' position – I was running point, but I wanted someone capable to watch my posterior – then Karl, with Sepp behind him to keep him out of trouble; Maarten; Gabriel; and finally, Katje with her club in case Gabriel decided to falter. So far, she was using her club as a walking stick more than all else, as this region seemed all but clear of live rats and Gabriel was keeping up. I might have seen one live rat so far on this floor. I had seen movement in my peripheral vision, and while it was too 'solid' to be just my imagination, I wasn't sure just what it was beyond it wasn't very large and it was not a blue-back spider. It was inclined to go somewhere else in something of a hurry, and that sufficed for me.

“There is nothing here for those things to eat,” said Karl, in response to Katje's question about the near-total absence of live rats above the 'ground' floor. “We might find some of those things if there are windows that let bugs in, but those witches liked to lock those things up with their bad locks.”

“Bad locks?” I asked.

“Yes, they rigged them to explode,” said Karl, “and some of them are as bad that way as those damp squibs you made recently.”

“Damp squibs?” I asked. I could now see the end of this particular 'tunnel', though I suspected my sight was not conventional vision.

“Yes, their filling,” said Karl. “Sarah said it was damp when those things were filled, and that before the distillate was put to those things, so they are damp squibs.”

Karl's inadvertent 'bad joke' almost had me laughing, at least until I felt a 'closet' some fifty feet away and asked its window to open while in mid-stride. The eruption of yellow-tinged fire and thunderous noise that resulted had me jump for the floor and there cower with my hands above my head, all the while whimpering softly for God to rescue me.

I was in the Swartsburg again after shooting Koenraad the second's lantern, and I could see and feel everything erupting about me as if it was absolutely real. I shook off the flashback quickly, for we had to go on – and that quickly

“D-damp squib?” I gasped, upon getting up to my knees. “That thing was nasty!”

“That was a true 'Grade A' curse-lock,” said the soft voice. “Be glad there are masons coming who can fix the hole it left in the wall.”

“I hope it is not too bad,” said Maarten, “as the way our house is going, it will need such people working on it to keep it from falling down upon our heads.”

“Why, the foundations are going?” I asked, as we came to the doorway. I wanted to look inside, but I dared not tarry. No, not now. There was work to do, and we needed to get it done today.

“I think so,” said Katje, “and that trowel I'm trying to use makes me wish to toss it, it's so bad. Can you make trowels?”

“Can you use one of them?” I asked. I then realized my obvious 'mistake'.

“I would like to learn how to use one rightly,” said Katje, “as those people who worked upon our house were not masons. I'd even put up with Jochen, his stink, and his beard if he came, as at least he can do decent work if he's inclined toward it.”

“And his beard?” I asked, as I went by the doorway. A glance showed a jumbled mound of scattered and sizable 'wood chips' and a jagged hole where the window used to be, and the smoldering nature of that wreckage said 'get a move on if you don't want to get sick'. I picked up the pace slightly.

“Beards are not liked much,” said Katje, “as a large beard, especially if it is not well-cleaned and trimmed carefully, is thought to be the property of a most-serious witch.”

“What?” I gasped. I could feel another closet, and thought to ask this one to detonate from where we were. The booming thump down the hall – it did not wait for speech on the matter – erupted as a fiery red flash that billowed fire and then soot nearly a hundred yards distant – and as the smoke cleared from that explosion, I saw no less than three new sources of light. I knew I'd cleared this particular hall then, and sped up yet more.

“I doubt she talked to Freek about the matter,” said Gabriel. “I did, and she's right – and most witches wish they could grow a beard like he has.” A brief pause, then, “most men might manage facial hair like Hendrik or Andreas if they care for it well, as it tends to fall out once it's longer than about an inch or so.” A brief pause, then, “and your lack of facial hair is one of the chief things that has the witches onto you.”

“What?” I gasped.

“That was another thing Freek spoke of, and he spoke of his too-real fear when he saw you the first time, even if he was too drunk to acknowledge it fully.” Gabriel paused to spit, then said, “he then knew witchdom was utterly and completely finished, and more, he himself was doomed.”

“Why?” I asked. I passed by the second of the three sources of light to our left, and it too had wrecked shelves, just like the one I had passed less than a minute prior. That wood substitute was going to hell in a hurry, because it needed curses to stay together past its 'sell-by' date – which was typically about five to ten years after its manufacture. Only non-use and a dessicated environment had kept those cheaper desks 'intact' for over nine centuries, that and the curses put upon them in that deep witch-hole when the place was dedicated to the service of Brimstone entirely. It made for a question, one I left unsaid: would we find mounds of sawdust in those drawers which hid pistols yet?

“Because he knew he was dealing with a 'monster',” said Gabriel. He spoke that last word with distaste, for some reason. “Even I've seen enough tapestries to know about 'the beardless ones'.”

“The beardless ones?” I asked.

“They were also called Indians,” said Sarah, “and while Gabriel has not seen nearly the number of tapestries I have, I can tell you he's right in this matter. In the past, all of those men with markings beyond the trivial were said to have very sparse facial hair, or if their markings were what were called strong, none whatsoever.” A brief pause, then, “it tended to migrate to their heads as a rule, though some few tapestries spoke of 'hairy ones', and I have wondered for a long time as to what they meant.” A brief pause, then, “I wonder much less now.”

“My hair!” I squeaked.

“I think that is why those Veldters of that one tribe wear their hair long,” said Sarah. “Yours is nearly long enough to pass for that of one of those people, and none of those men I've seen had gone twelve hours without a razor's use.”

“One of the main tenets of the Mule Totem is a hairless face,” said the soft voice. “No man of that Totem may show facial hair, in fact, and that no matter what his standing may be.”

I could now clearly see the corner, and twenty feet from its apex, I came to the inner side of the wall, halted, and yelled “all windows, open yourselves!”

The eruptions and explosions that resulted made my ears ring and the floor shake for nearly ten seconds without letup, and when I turned to Sarah, I asked softly, “what did I do?”

“I think every window that heard your voice has opened,” said Sarah dryly, “and I suspect you will wish to do that as much as you can.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “Every curse-lock that closed a window in the whole building just detonated as if it was of the highest grade available, and those weren't the only 'curse-locks' to explode. Look to the west when you next can do so, and you'll see what else has happened.”

That was surprising quickly, for with no curse-locks left to detonate and impede our progress, we moved at a 'quick-march' in the light shining upon our path. I hurried as much as my steadily-growing fatigue permitted, and as I walked, I seemed to feel the state of the rooms above my head. They were a carbon copy of these, save for one or two things that could possibly be of interest in the foreseeable future, and as I came to the west wall – here, the corridor was the widest yet, so much so that 'twelve feet if an inch' seemed appropriate as to its naming – I went to the first source of light I saw. As I peered out through the doorway, I could see clearly on the horizon several clouds of smoke, and as I turned to go, I noted the state of the shelves.

“They are going to sawdust,” I muttered, as I resumed my 'march'. “Will that mean we can..?”

“Yes, that also,” said the soft voice. “Don't toss those messes, by the way – there will be people coming who will gladly remove that material and put it to use.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“Paper, perhaps,” said Gabriel. “That place across the sea values paper like witches value black-cloth, and they make it from anything that looks likely to work.”

I was about to reply when I wondered silently about the use of paper in an advanced society. Where I had come from – when I had left, anyway – was loudly chanting the virtues of electronic storage in lieu of hard-copy, and I suspected my reliance upon paper records was thought stupid and worse by the company I worked for. I still wrote or printed out what I could, and I lived with a foursome of 'military surplus' filing cabinets in that room I had built for silence. They tended to be quieter when used compared to common 'commercial' cabinets, and their sturdiness was a definite plus, even if it meant they were great trouble to move for 'cleaning' due to their weight. Mrs. Ulyanov had approved of them just the same, as she had spoken of those where she came from and how much trouble they were.

“They do use paper extensively,” said the soft voice, “and for much the same reasons as you concluded from your own experiences.” A pause, then, “they passed through their paperless stage about eighty years prior to that war.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Remember what you used to write on the non-picture portions of your monitors to remind yourself as to what you needed to do and recall?” asked the soft voice. “Remember the times you wrote on the viewing surfaces of some of those monitors while more asleep than awake at your desk?”

“Now that I can believe,” spat Sarah. “What is a monitor, and why were you working like a fifth kingdom slave in that place full of lazy dullards?”

“Which place?” I asked. “Where I worked, or the entire..?”

“There were many such dullards,” said Sarah, “but that place gathered them and marshaled them into ranks like witches, and they ran the place like a fifth kingdom manufactory making fetishes!” A brief pause as we turned the corner and I restrained myself from breaking into a run, then, “what is a monitor?”

“Uh, this thing that, uh, shows pictures that can change quickly,” I asked. “Why do you ask?”

“Because those blue-suited thugs get much of their information from these strange glowing boxes, and they call those things monitors,” said Sarah. “I had no idea you had the use of such things, so when he spoke of them I had to ask.”

Boxes?” I asked. I could see the doorway, and I now ignored the lighting coming to the side save as a brief glance. This was once 'witch-territory', and it was the most-thoroughly-ransacked portion of the whole building. Only once we were out of their realm would we find treasures – and even in those upper floors they were scattered widely due to the visitation of centuries of long-gone looters.

“Do we need to look on the floors above this one, now that the curse-locks are gone?” I asked. “Can it wait?”

“Yes, you do need to look, because there are those things present that you will want – and no, clearing the rest of the building cannot wait because there are a few fetishes remaining that that need disposal,” said the soft voice. “Go up four floors after this one, and then make a quick circuit of that level. Look carefully on the the east wall of the west corridor, as there you will find something you need to see.”

A few minutes passed at a 'quick-march', then Sarah resumed speaking.

“Yes, boxes,” she said. “Why, are there other types?”

“There were,” I said, “and I had one of those and was about to purchase another like it when I came here. The old ones I had been using were going bad in a hurry, and the 'box' type was no longer commonly being sold. Why?”

“They only use those boxes,” said Sarah, “though I saw one type that looked like a ledger, and that thing was strange.”

My question for Sarah as to the device that resembled a ledger had to wait until we reached the sixth floor, for climbing stairs was something I had limited stamina for – and everyone else, even Sarah, less yet. We needed that sixth floor walk-around as a breather, and as we began our clockwise circle, I said, “we aren't going home before dark, people,” I said.

“True, you won't,” said the soft voice. “It will be a good lesson for you, though.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you will actually see that second shift labor,” said the soft voice. “With the place cleared of serious fetishes, everyone in that camp is now entirely awake – and those few fourth kingdom people that are currently on site are now finally realizing the full charge their king laid upon them prior to his sending them north as a vanguard for the others who are en-route now and will come in the future.

“Those in charge will go after the workers with clubs and swords?” I asked.

“Chiefly because they do not have those handy,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though, you will be surprised at what they do.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Those people need to wake up and get to work, as they do not have a day to waste.”

“Much as we do not have a day to waste,” said Katje. “Now I smell something strange, and I am not sure what it is.” Katje then sneezed, and spat furiously. I turned to see something faintly glowing on the wall, and asked, “do you still smell it?”

“Yes, so it was not that stuff in my nose,” said Katje, who then softly coughed. “I think it is something we will want, actually, and I hope it is not heavy.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The remaining floors?”

“Those especially,” said Katje. “I'm glad you learned how to keep those doors open without us putting bits of that broken stuff to them.”

“I've seen things like those things that hold open doors,” I said. “I'm surprised those here still worked.”

“The oil leaked out long ago,” said Gabriel. “That metal piece and its notched rod needed no such oil to work.”

“Yes, and they looked decent still,” said Katje. “I am not sure you will have time, but if those people come here, they will fix those doors readily if they have numbers on site beyond the trivial.”

Who will come here?” I asked.

“Those from across the sea, if they come,” said Katje. “Much of our future depends greatly upon what you do over there, actually – which is something I think Rachel has little knowledge of, even if she knows a great deal as to what you will actually need to do while there.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Now what was this you smelled?”

“I have smelled this odor before,” said Katje, “and the person who was thinking to carry it off had to leave in a hurry, which is why he left it here.”

“Yes, and I know what it is,” spat Karl. “That is cooking fuel I am smelling, or I am a horse-turnip.”

“Cooking fuel?” I asked. I but vaguely recalled the single instance of seeing the soap-like material 'somewhere down in the fifth kingdom'. It was at our first stop northbound from Badwater. I recalled that much.

“Yes, and some more showed up at the house recently,” said Sepp, “and I wish Karl had gotten some more of that while he had his chance, and not so much of that soap he bought.”

“I would not be too certain of that,” said Sarah. “Karl, you're right. I smell it too, and it's not the solid type, either.”

“The liquid type?” I asked. “I heard you say there was a kind that was a liquid.”

“Yes, and we will wish it,” said Sarah. “It burns nearly as hot as distillate should you put it into an old wick-lantern that's been worked on, and I heartily wish we could have taken one of the two our group had at school on our trips.”

“What?” I asked.

“Old brass wick-lanterns are common in the scrap-market,” said Sarah, “and if you do a bit of work to them with a file and poke a small hole in them with an awl and then fill them with that stuff, they work decent for cooking, which was why I knew what that heating lamp was the instant I saw it.” In lower voice, then, “I did not know its tricks then, so I could not put it back together when I fouled the wick.”

“Wick-lanterns?” I asked. “D-don't witches want those?”

“These are not like those preferred by witches,” said Sarah. “Their shape is much different, with a squatter tank, and they're old enough to usually need a lot of cleaning before you can use them – and while they will burn distillate, they give a very poor and smoky light.”

“Does that light fluctuate?” asked Gabriel.

“No, but if you put much distillate to them, you had best light them with a thrown candle, as you will have a big fire,” said Sarah. “Veldter's lantern fuel just gives a lot of smoke in those things, but if you find a decent one and clean it well, then make some extra holes in the right places and fill it with that cooking fuel, you can use it to cook with.” Sarah paused, then gasped as she came to a door and held up her lantern, “there's a jug of that stuff right there!”

I came to where she stood, her other hand yet pointing, and shined my lantern inside the doorway also. I wondered briefly if the room was trapped, then moved to the side of the hall nearest that room. As I edged away from the door, the others followed my lead, much as if they had taken lessons from Lukas. Even Gabriel did so without any real objections – and for some reason, I knew he had few if any reservations about my actions now. He'd had some few remaining up until he'd gotten himself sliced by Sarah's sword.

“Come out, please,” I said, “and leave that string behind you.” This last was whispered.

Slowly – I could feel something happening – the jug seemed to move, then as I saw the glazed blue-mottled-white pottery 'jug' come out into the hallway, I saw the string tied to it come undone and fall to the ground. I then saw what it had been tied to, that being the skeleton of a dead rat some three feet long in the body and a longer-yet tail. This last came as something of a shock, as I then knew it wasn't a common rat – and I doubted this rat to be imported, especially as some of the bones of this critter were shaped different. For an instant, I wondered how I knew this, even as the jug continued moving closer without its previous load.

“What?” I gasped, as the jug came slowly closer to then land softly at my feet. “Why was it tied to that rat?”

“Be glad that rat's skeleton been sitting so long, as those bacteria spores died out centuries ago,” said the soft voice. “That jug of lantern fuel may date from before the war, and it may be of an old formula, but it will work well in your heating lamps.” A brief pause, then, “that skeleton was of one of the types of rat used to make the original version of 'tincture of rat'.”

“Old formula?” I asked regarding the fuel – though then I had a question regarding the rat skeleton itself. It was going to powder, now that I had seen it. “Is that why that rat's skeleton had an unusual shape compared to those I've seen?”

“The sniffers won't know what it is,” said the soft voice – whose tone then changed to that of 'advice approaching command'. “I would not bring that cooking fuel you recently received, save if you put it in bullet-tins sealed with wax and then only use it in certain select situations.”

“Then how is it we cook?” asked Karl.

“This stuff,” I said, as I picked up the jug and sloshed it. It was easily half-full. I carried it in my left hand and resumed walking on our former course. “We got it for a reason, and we heard at least part of that reason. Now we can continue our circuit of this floor.”

As we walked in the soft glowing light of the fading sun coming in from a multitude of open doorways – this floor's rooms tended to have windows as a rule, and hence the 'smoke' had already left ahead of us – I asked, “there's more to that stuff, isn't there?”

“The old formula was done with much less of an eye to costs than the newer material,” said the soft voice, “and hence it gives significantly more heat for a given volume.”

“Hopefully this will be enough,” I said.

“More than enough, in fact,” said the soft voice. “It isn't the only such jug on the premises, by the way.”

“That armory?” I asked.

“There's a fair amount there, and more in a few other places on the upper floors,” said the soft voice. “That armory has some of the solid form, also, and that you will desire greatly.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “It too has a different formula?”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “Unlike the current formula, which is for civilian consumption without much eye to anything beyond its ready saleability to a very non-critical group of buyers, that which is in that armory is the military material.”

“More heat and less light-signature,” I said.

“More like 'a lot more heat, an indefinite shelf life, and almost no light signature',” said the soft voice. “It has so much heat-energy, in fact, that it lends itself peculiarly to a particularly nasty species of bomb.”

“Nasty?” I asked.

“If you need to breach a thick wall,” said the soft voice, “make a shaped charge and put some of it on the inside of the cone or cup. It will burn through almost anything then, and then cook whatever happens to be on the other side.”

“What?” I gasped.

“One of the most effective field-expedient weapons that came out of that war,” said the soft voice. “Most of those mobile fortresses were stopped using that precise type of bomb, in fact.”

I then asked, “was this what we needed to see? Or was this a distraction?”

“I suspect it was not merely not a distraction, but it was also not that which we wish to see,” said Katje as we turned the corner to head west. “I think what we want to see is ahead.”

I had been heading at a 'rapid' pace for the west wall anyway, and when the next corner showed some minutes later, the slow-fading light shining in from a multitude of doorways was only exceeded by the breeze that was now causing the formerly stuffy and close-feeling building to rapidly cool. Dust was in the air, faint motes that were steadily flowing across the corridor ahead of us, and as I passed first one cross-passage, then another, I gasped, “cross-passages!”

“Yes, but those are not what you need to see,” said the soft voice. “That which you need to see is up ahead, and the first one is on the right side.”

“What?” I asked.

There was no answer, save the sense that 'it's really important' – or so I thought until I recalled the need to look for the lifts. I then hurried yet more.

“No, slower,” said the soft voice, “and get closer to that right wall. You'll miss it otherwise, at least this first one.” A pause, then, “you want to be almost close enough to touch it when it shows, in fact.”

This seemed a warning of sorts, so much so that I began tapping the wall ahead of me with the club in my right hand. When I found open air, I stopped to hand off the jug, then with caution-slowed hands, I began to probe the wall carefully with my fingers. I was so intent upon this matter that when I found an 'open shaft' I was profusely thankful I did not fall into it – or so I thought until I adjusted my lantern once more and shined its light about what looked to be a huge rivet-studded 'box' framed by coarse-looking iron plating incised with strings of runes overhead and to each side.

“Wonderful,” I spat, “this thing is cursed.”

“Yes, with a tendency to let its users down, if I what I see is as those I have seen like it,” said Sarah dryly. Her tone changed abruptly when she saw the runes to each side. “A witch-lift!”

“Those aren't very strong curses, dear,” said the soft voice. “Dealing with that main witch-hole took much of the 'punch' out of a lot of otherwise still-working curses.”

“Hans?” I asked.

“He'll be a great deal more amenable to instruction now,” said the soft voice. “The chemistry curses currently need most of the people involved to truly think like witches for those curses to have any real hold upon those involved in chemistry. That means they either need to have been trained at length to think like a witch, or they are so wed to habit they're totally disinclined to change anything about all that they do.”

“Meaning Korn is still going to think... Where did he go?” I recalled hearing about his schooling, but I had trouble remembering what had been said due to my growing fatigue.

“He spent considerably more time at the west school than at Guymus, so he's now wondering just why some of his equipment is showing its 'true colors',” said the soft voice. He's thinking strongly about taking that equipment where you work, in fact – and that with the goal of first its disposal, and then its replacement with non-cursed equivalents.” A brief pause, then, “most chemical-workers, though – they're still glued to the practices of witchdom, at least for the time being.”

“And this thing?” I asked.

“It looks like a fifth kingdom mining hoist, save somewhat better as to its construction,” said Sarah as she adjusted her lantern and then looked closer at the metalwork. “I suspect, though, that to speak of this thing as being as good as a fifth kingdom mining hoist is to call it good when it is not.”

“Only an over-fool would call this thing good,” muttered Gabriel. “It could have taught fifth kingdom mining hoists how to cause trouble.”

“Yes?” I asked. “You spoke with miners, Gabriel. Sarah went to those places, and she's been down inside a few of them, also.” I then turned to Sarah before 'moving on', and asked, “haven't you, dear?”

“That is why I spoke of that lift as I did,” said Sarah, “and that is why I made certain to not go down one unless I'd first made a rope fast to catch me if its cable let go – and I spent half a turn of a glass on my knees praying before trying those things just the same.”

“They're a lot smaller than that one, aren't they?” I asked, as I resumed walking. I moved to closer to the middle of the corridor, as while there were several such witch-lifts, the others had much less to show, chiefly as they were 'locked' on other floors and their outer doors... I had a question, now. Did these things have outer doors?

“They are,” said Sarah. “Those I saw might be big enough to hold two men and a mining car, and though the ones I saw used their share of parts from Badwater, as do most mines...”

“The better ones do,” said Gabriel. “At least, that is what every miner I talked to said.”

“That means little, given how many mining people are,” said Sarah.

“Uh, those two men...”

“Were not those I had in mind, if you speak of two miners who recently came up here,” said Sarah. “Those I spoke of commonly ran such mines, and I avoided both those people and their holes.” A pause, during which time I saw a distinct and dull rectangular patch of 'shine' that contrasted darkly with the otherwise reflectionless appearance of the east wall of the corridor, then, “I did my listening in the fourth kingdom during term and my watching from cover for at least a day before I dared approach a mine while it was in use, and the same for mines not in use.”

“The power-source?” I asked. “Uh, those dangerous noisy things?”

“Those are the chief source of trouble with many mine-hoists,” said Sarah. “Then, there are those woven wire ropes they use – and neither thing is made in Badwater, even if most other things that are found in or near a mine can be had there.”

I paused to turn around, even as the third of the three dull-gloss patches showed to my right, then noted thicker dust clouds slowly moving across the corridor. We were stirring up a fair amount of the stuff. It made for a further question on my part: “the dust?”

“That will wish brooms and other cleaning things,” said Sarah, “though with this place, it might not merely want brooms, but hundreds of people with them if it is to be cleared quickly of such dirt.”

“Perhaps spade it up and bag it, then toss it out of those windows?” I asked.

“I think that is a good idea, if you can find decent spades enough,” said Karl. “Those drunk people they have here can manage those if you watch them close and keep a loaded fowling piece pointed at them.”

“Drunk people?” I asked. “Drunk?”

“They sound as if they came from General's Row for how loud they talk,” said Karl, “and Lukas told me how there were some things he had heard of that can make a person drunk as a stinker and not stink like drink.”

“Yes?” I asked. I had sped back up again, for time was marching fast and we needed to move faster than we were doing so. I'd want Geneva for rubbing once we got home, but it could not be helped – even if that Geneva was the evil vomit-inducing stuff. I then almost laughed, for I now I had a name for it – only how I would spell that name here was a mystery, even if the pronunciation of the word was close to that of the nonsensical rhyme I recalled from my childhood.

Gabriel, however, had his own question, and wondered as to its sense for an instant once he'd asked.

“How hard was it to make that blower?”

“Hard enough that I'm not in the market for making another one anytime soon,” I said. “The engines are a trifle easier, especially the smaller size, though they're still quite difficult given what I currently have for tools – and they need a fair amount of maintenance, also.”

“What would that be?” asked Gabriel. “I was thinking that you might rig such a thing on wheels and tow it around these floors.”

“Yes, and you would need to fetch a smelly mule to carry it up the stairs,” said Karl – who then made me wonder even more about him. “That thing makes enough noise to make people crazy, and enough wind to be its own dust-storm, and then its pieces are heavy, or so that man Georg says about its weight.” Karl paused, then said, “and I do not need to speak to him about its noise or its wind, as I have heard its noise, and I have seen that thing burn.”

“When?” I gasped.

“When you last ran that thing,” said Karl. “I went to that town with that one shoe place, as that one shop is better than anywhere that does shoes within a hard day's ride, and I could hear it from the yard there, and I borrowed a horse while my boots were being looked over so as to see what was making that noise.”

“It is not a smelter,” said Sarah. “No smelter runs with such little fumes or smoke.”

“Yes, and it is not one for noise, either,” said Karl. “I shot my pistol dry before I got that horse back to its owner, and I put lead in two swine and a marmot.”

“The marmot?” I asked.

“I was thirsty by then, so I got a jug of beer and two guilders when I went to a Public House with that thing,” said Karl.

“That must have been this one publican, if he only gave you that much,” said Sepp. “Now that looks like the door over there.”

It was, and as we climbed the stairs with the jug left behind next to the wall on the first upward landing, I tried to feel what was present on the floors above us. I was too tired, at least until I opened the next floor's door and blocked it open. I then smelled the air inside the doorway.

“No, not this one,” I said, as I resumed climbing stairs. The effort was not getting easier.

I opened two more such doors before I thought to once more go inside a hallway, and in this case, I knew exactly 'what' it was. I made a near-beeline for the nearest cross-passage, then when I came to the 'hallway' where I felt the thing, I began backing away instinctively, as it wasn't quite what I had thought it to be. The others, thankfully, weren't crowding me, even if I could feel questions brewing in my wake, and when I turned to go, Sarah looked at me. I dared not even think of the matter, at least until I got out of the passage – whereupon I spoke.

“That stinking fetish...”

The 'stinking fetish' erupted with a massive flash and a rumble that filled the area behind us with smoke, and I – and everyone else – broke into a run that did not end until we were on the next floor with the doorway some fifty yards to our rear. That one, I opened the door and locked it at a tearing pace, then as I got inside, I gasped, “what was that?”

“A 'stinking fetish',” said the soft voice, “though I would be most glad there's such a good breeze blowing in that area now.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“That was another trap set by that one witch,” said the soft voice, “and he used something he and two of his compatriots concocted in that laboratory before he died involving several of those jugged chemicals you found.”

“Poisonous as well as flammable,” I said.

“Especially the former,” said the soft voice. “Be thankful one of the chemicals leaked out and evaporated long ago, as otherwise the entire building would have become a deathtrap for at least a month.”

“Now it is just a deathtrap for a day or two,” said Gabriel.

“No, you wretch,” spat Sarah who then looked at me. “Is it?”

“Only if you plan on going back on that floor right now and staying there for an hour or so,” said the soft voice. “Between that witch-hole being dealt with and the loss of that one chemical, what was originally a potent chemical weapon lost about nine-tenths of its potency and a greater-yet portion of its staying power.” A pause, then, “as long as you explore those upper floors that occur to you and then return to the bottom floor quickly once you finish, you will not be affected by it.”

“And those that explore that floor well?” I asked.

“That immediate area will remain illness-inducing for upwards of a week,” said the soft voice, “but it will give ample warning of its inclination.”

“Its smell,” said Katje – who then seemed to sniff the air before sneezing mightily. “The unreacted portions of that mixture have an odor that resembles that of a stinker.”

Eew,” said Sarah. Her tone was, in this situation, surprising to me. I had expected her to react much worse. “I have only been stunk up once, and that but slightly, but I learned my lesson about stinkers when I was a small child.” A brief pause, then, “and I smell more cooking fuel. Is this why you left that one jug where you did?”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “I know there's enough that we'll want to put our things such that we can pick them up on the way down, as lugging heavy stuff around while tired isn't a good idea.”

“Especially if we must run,” said Katje. “I'll carry the jug this time, as by the time we get to the top of the stairs and start down, there will be enough for all of us to carry things.”

Katje proved prophetic: I found the jug quickly, and while she carried it readily – it too was part-full – I did not speak of the pair of fetishes I had 'felt' until she had set it down on the landing and we were near the door to the next floor. As I opened the door carefully – this floor might be either the twelfth or the thirteenth, and if it was the latter, a full circuit was warranted so as to clear the place of fetishes – I spoke of the fetishes going where they belonged; and the dull chorus of booms that came from below caused a near-stampede into the hallway's darkened embrace. As I followed Sarah inside, I knew this was the floor for trouble, as the most of the floors above this one almost never saw witches. This one, on the other hand, saw them with some frequency.

“That was mostly true most of the time,” said the soft voice. “In the beginning, witches went hunting when and where they might find suitable sacrifices, and at the end, they were looking for both fetishes to sell once outside and food to 'sustain' them for their journey.”

“Which was not two days spent walking, but a much shorter period – even if they successfully evaded Iggy,” I muttered. “They might need two hours to find shelter, if that.”

“Actually they usually needed more than two hours,” said the soft voice, “but you are right about them not needing anywhere near two days, especially if they were at all familiar with the area prior to the start of the war.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “What's now called the secret way? They got into the underground regions?”

While there was no answer, the feeling I had was so uncanny that I knew I'd stumbled onto something of dire importance – and more, that part about the first kingdom being perched atop a huge and long-buried witch-hole was nothing short of the truth.

“It is for the central portion, anyway,” said the soft voice. “If you go about halfway to the sea on the west side, and about thirty miles from the Main on the east, then you're out of the area that was heavily built up for east and west. North, a bit further than to east and west, and south, perhaps a bit less – with the central 'building-cluster' of the place being just on the other side of the Main and about half a mile north of here.”

“Meaning this location was near the epicenter of witchdom,” I muttered.

“Not 'near',” said the soft voice. “It may have been 'near' the geographic center of a huge 'town', but this particular location was the center of witchdom in that era.” A brief pause, then, “this floor, and the next one above it, have most of the remaining fetishes in the building that can cause immediate trouble.”

“And the rest?” asked Sarah. She was asking about fetishes in general, or so I thought.

“Are scattered widely,” said the soft voice. “For the most part, they're not only very hard to find, but also unwise to remove today.”

“They're too strong?” I asked, as I began 'looking'.

“Not right now they are,” said the soft voice. “The immediately troublesome ones are on this floor, the one above it, a few on the three floors above these two, and a handful on the ground floor – and that handful are all in one small area.” A pause, then, “in the future, you not only will need to totally clear the building, but also you'll be able to do so.”

“Able..?” I wheezed.

“I heard that,” said Katje. “I think what he meant was that you need a bit more help before you try those things.”

“H-help?” I asked.

“Yes, help,” said Katje. “I didn't just hear what was spoken. I heard your breathing, and were it possible to go home now and stay there for two days while you rested in bed, it would be very wise.”