Investing the Abbey: “It is not widdershins.”
The first sign of the trouble mentioned was a vaguely sulfurous scent in the air, then as I passed a cross-passage, I noted what looked like the feeble glow of low-burning embers. I came to a stop, then without thinking I stepped on something that gave out a feeble screech. Backing away, I knelt down, and squeaked, “a spider, though... What happened to its legs?”
“It must be a smaller blue-back, then,” said Sarah, as she came up and prodded the partly-crushed spider with one of her boots. “They drop legs and regrow them if they are still small and deprived of food for a time.” A brief pause, then, “that place had its fetishes, and...” Sarah paused, then asked, “how did that spider get up here?”
“Some of the smaller ones found a secret passage with ample prey suitable for such spiders,” said the soft voice, “and they stayed in it for the most part until that prey was killed off. They then dispersed throughout the building, and now are mostly dead – or, in a few cases, dying like that one was.”
The next fetish, however, I felt at a considerable distance, and when I asked it to 'go to hell', the booming rumble was only exceeded by the billowing thick clouds of smoke that chased us out of the hallway and back toward the doorway, and as I began climbing the stairs unthinkingly, I asked amid choking sounds coming from behind me as well as my own, “was that all of the fetishes for that floor?”
“Yes, and the explosion triggered the dangerous ones on the next floor,” said the soft voice. “There still are a few present there, so wait a minute or so where you are so the fumes can clear out before going out onto that floor.”
Sarah sniffed, then said, “that witch must have set another trap above us, if I go by how it smells here.”
“He did, and that to keep non-witches out of witch-territory,” said the soft voice. “He knew about the secret passages on the 'official' plans for this building, but most of those passages weren't on those plans.”
“And hence the non-witches bypassed both the witch-lifts and his traps when they were inclined,” I muttered. “I think we can go up further shortly.”
As we resumed our climbing of stairs, I asked, “witch-lifts? As in only witches could use them?”
“Those, no,” said the soft voice. “Those were installed when witchdom was yet young in the area, and those 'curses' you saw were more in name than in reality.” A brief pause, then, “though by the time of the war, there had been enough badly-done repairs performed by 'trashed witches' that one needed at least one 'strong' witch inside so as to chant at the lifts. They otherwise functioned erratically at best.”
“Cursed parts, no doubt,” I said.
“Fourth-rate cursed parts,” said the soft voice. “They mostly were 'badly-done parts with low-grade curses imprinted upon them'.” A pause, then, “the combination of long and hard use, poor to non-existent maintenance, badly-made replacement parts of poor material, and droves of severely-impaired marginally-competent repairmen resulted in elevators that were dangerous to operate by anyone other than a fairly strong witch.”
“Severely-impaired repairmen?” I asked, as I cautiously opened the door to the 'thirteenth floor'.
“Much like today's witches tend to be drunk,” said the soft voice. “The usual 'witch' of that day did not dress in black-cloth, tended to avoid overt violence, and seldom spoke in anything other than the usual language, but – with few exceptions – was inclined strongly toward the things of witchdom; and therefore, was nearly always 'as drunk as a stinker'.” A pause. “You can guess how well they usually did things, at least then.”
“And once the place was an above-ground witch-hole, they did better work?” I asked. I hesitated upon the threshold, as the reek of death was still strong in the air. I was also having trouble breathing, for some reason, and I wondered if I was being poisoned.
“As a rule, such equipment wasn't just done 'better',” said the soft voice. “It was also seriously cursed. The two things combined meant two things: one needed to be a strong witch to use anything made that way, or it would kill the user at the least; and secondly, if one was a strong witch and could invoke the curses that made the thing 'work', the device in question tended to perform extremely well – and in many cases, there was no real competition, save from one location.”
“Vrijlaand,” said Sarah with finality. “It was the only territory which welcomed marked people before that war.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Up until the hot phase of the war ended, that location across the sea welcomed their services also.” There was more implied in what was said – quite a bit more, in fact – but now, it was time to resume our 'journey into the night'. I then led off onto 'floor thirteen'.
The first intimation of trouble was a gaping hole in the floor of the main corridor on the east side of the building. I was sufficiently tired from walking that I stopped but a foot or so short of its edge, and as the others 'stacked up' behind me, I softly said, “move very slowly to each side of me, and then hug the walls while watching your feet. I would advise crawling if you are able to do so, in fact.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl. I could tell he was going to his knees just the same.
“You do not wish to fall in that hole, do you?” asked Katje. “Now this surprises me.”
I turned, first to my right, then the left; and on the left, I saw Gabriel the first in line leading the other men – and he was crawling, just like I said was advisable. More, he was carefully tapping the floor ahead of him with what looked like an old carpenter's hammer, one so old it did not have the carved bulbous 'face' at the end of a too-long handle, but one much shorter and common-looking. As he reached the wall – the bomb had left amply wide margins, such that one could walk if one could see well in such darkness as was present here – I then began walking slowly to the left while tapping the floor ahead with my club.
“I thought so,” said Katje as I began tapping with my stick. “That witch must have used something cursed, as I can see purple here and there, and I'm glad I'm crawling, as my lantern might as well be running a bad tallow candle and no wire for all the light it is giving.”
I then saw the first crack in the floor, and this purple-flashed crevasse made for wondering, first as to how I could so readily discern it, then as to just how wide that narrow margin was on the left side – then finally, where did the women go – as they were not behind me, and I could barely hear them or the others moving. I reached mechanically for my possible bag, found a vial of honey, then sucked down two slurps of the thick molasses-like material.
I was glad I could do so by feel, as my sight came back up with such suddenness that I nearly screamed when I saw what lay down in the hole made by the explosion.
“P-pipes, and a w-walkway, and a lot of bones, and...”
The nonsense was not done with me, however, as for an instant of time I seemed to see gauzily a huge and sentient tentacle come forth from the realm below. I almost wanted to speak of something with tentacles, this thing not of this world or where I came from, but the apparition faded before I could speak.
“You'll learn more about 'things with tentacles' in the future,” said the soft voice. “The witches of that time not only knew of that creature, but also the all-too-real creature that was thought to have 'inspired' that man's stories by invading his frequent nightmares.”
I found the edge of the crater, this time by sight rather than feel, and with returned and growing vision, I easily walked around its edges. More, I could clearly see the path left ahead of me by the two women, and when I came to the wall, I found the 'ledge' to be easily two and a half feet wide. I then looked across the corridor, and saw through an open doorway and blasted hole in the outer wall that the sun had indeed gone down. It was still 'light' in the east, however, and I could still hear the sounds of ongoing labor below and some distance away.
“That's not why it's so dark in here, isn't it?” I asked, as I found first Katje and then Sarah some ten feet away from the south edge of the hole. The men were crawling toward us, Gabriel still in the lead.
“Why are you crawling like that?” asked Sarah.
“Because I spent enough time crawling in the mud last night to learn of its advantages,” said Gabriel, “and I wanted to get well clear of that hole before standing.”
“Was it playing with your vision?” I asked.
“I am not sure it was doing that,” said Gabriel, as he finally stood up and began walking, “but I am sure of what was reaching out of that hole so as to grab at me, and I knew that if I stood, it would be able to put its rope-like members around me and then pull me into its mouth.”
“Where did you hear about that?” asked Sarah – who implied Gabriel was speaking of lies and other rubbish. “Only a witch would speak of such a thing, as nothing like that lives in sea or river.”
“One of my lecturers spoke of a creature that resembled a witch-table, and it had long tenuous arms...” Gabriel was becoming confused, as what he had heard was a very vague description of something that was only described well in the larger black books. I was about to speak when Sarah did so for me.
“That sounds more like a witch than any lecturer I have heard or heard of, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “The witches believe in a great many things that are misconceived or outright lies, and I have heard them speak of that thing several times.”
“That thing?” I asked.
“I know enough now to not name anything writ in runes,” said Sarah, “but whatever that thing is, it tends to show itself whenever a witch pronounces its name, and that no matter how foolish or stupid or new to witchdom that witch might be.” A brief pause, then as we 'formed up' once more with my club in my hand, Sarah said, “it looks a bit like a very large witch-table, with a number of legs like a spider's and these strange things hanging down from its head, and then it has many arms.”
“Those were what I saw a few minutes ago,” said Gabriel. “One of those strange things was reaching for me...”
“Those are not that long,” said Sarah. “Its arms might be long enough to do that, and it has more than two of those arms, but those strange things hanging off of its head are not very capable, if I go by what I saw a minute or two ago.”
I somehow had the impression that Gabriel and Sarah were talking about different versions of the same creature, and as we passed the corner heading clockwise – I dared not traverse these corridors the other way, as that way of circling had not merely special cachet among witches then and now, but also a special name written in the black book.
“And it is not widdershins,” I thought. “It probably means something similar, but it is not widdershins.”
“Mostly because that portion of the black book is written in Underworld German and not the language you grew up speaking,” said the soft voice. “Were it written in that language on that planet, that word would be the one used.”
“You do not want to speak that word, then,” said Sarah, “as it would most likely flash colors like a rune-curse if you did.”
“Flash colors?” I gasped.
“Ever since my time in the forest, that has happened whenever I have heard witches curse in that way,” said Sarah. “More than one tapestry mentioned the colors of witchdom, and for the longest time, I wondered why they seemed to desire such bright colors for so much of what they did.” A change in voice, this time to the dryness of the tableland, “and now, I have a much better idea.”
However, as we turned the southeast corner, we went from a realm of dust and into a realm of soot and smoke, and the wind at our backs drove the smoke before us so that we could breathe. As it was, however, there were coughs and spitting, and I seemed the leader in both activities.
“The only thing that makes this floor tenable is all of those holes blown in the walls,” muttered Sarah. “Otherwise we would smother in this smoke. What did that witch do?”
“That was the exact idea, dear,” said the soft voice. “That one witch kept non-witches and those other than his people out of his favored areas by trapping them, and the rune-writ warning signs were destroyed in the fires that resulted from them going where they belonged.”
“Was there anything else there?” I asked.
“Yes, some fetishes of a most-flammable nature,” said the soft voice. “Their fuel added to the blast and fires quite nicely, and destroyed every other fetish in the building that this group might have trouble with.” A pause, then, “there are a few weak ones left on this floor and the floors above this one that can cause others trouble, and they need disposal before you-all can leave the building tonight.”
“Trouble, he says,” I muttered. “They'd be ridden like mules.”
“Which is why we must dispose of them tonight and not wait until tomorrow,” said Sarah. “Those people out there have been watching when they have not been laboring, and I can tell some of them are wanting to come inside here so as to work indoors.”
“The carpenters do,” said Katje. “Right now, anyone who can dig is on that job, and those smiths in that place are going to pound iron as long as they are able to.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl. He spat, and I turned to see a glowing mess fly in the darkness to then splat upon the wall.
“Recall just how uncommon those tools are like those we found?” asked Katje. “There aren't that many of them.”
“Yes, because most of those things are bad fifth kingdom junk,” said Karl.
“You just answered your question, Karl,” said Sarah. “Those were not common fifth kingdom tools, but bad ones, and hence they're good for little beyond fuel for stoves and scrap metal for that one furnace once they've seen a few days of hard use.”
“Then why did they bother bringing them?” I asked.
“Most likely they did not bring them,” said Gabriel. “If one must travel, and that amongst witches inimical to one doing so, then one does not wish to carry weight beyond the minimum.”
“How would you know about that?” asked Sarah pointedly. “You never dodged witches.”
“That trip back from the fifth kingdom,” I muttered. “We had them after us, and in front of us, and to each side, and traveling underground, and...”
“Yes, you did,” said Sarah. “I have also.” A pause, then, “I know both of those older men, and they were speaking of him being ridden like a smelly mule from the time you-all got into the fifth kingdom house until the group had reached this area on the return trip.”
“He needed tying in the fifth kingdom,” said Karl, “and this is strange, as when that was done, every one of us had an easier time.”
“You just now realized that, didn't you?” I asked.
“Yes, I did,” said Karl. “I think what we did down in that bad hole did something to my head, as I can think better now.”
“Do you still have any dynamite?” I asked.
“Yes, though it is safe where you live,” said Karl. “I got busy with the sword swinging on those bone-things and that bag I had it in got lost, and when I found the bag again, someone had taken everything like that out of it.” A pause, then, “and I think they were tossing that stuff, as I got tossed twice by explosions and once nearly struck by lightning.”
We left the smoke and fumes behind once northbound on the west hallway, and though the place smelled strange – off-fumes from one or more bombs, most likely, as several cross-passages were faintly hazed with purple – we were able to proceed without further incident on that floor.
The fourteenth floor: nothing, save for a single fetish. I told the thing to 'go to hell' from the doorway, and the multitude of far-off booms and rumbles told me that I was most likely wrong as to the number of fetishes.
“Yes, because you didn't just get the single example on that floor,” said the soft voice. “You cleared those on the two floors above you as well the handful you forgot on the one below, so after opening those doors above to help the smoke and gases go outside, go up three further floors past the last smoky one and look on that floor.”
“Something there,” I gasped, as I continued forcing my aching legs up the stairs one after another. A rest for the others while I opened and latched each door, then once I opened the door to the floor spoken of, the fetid reek of 'death' was so astonishing that I hesitated with my body, even if someone else to my rear spoke softly of rats and their odors. I glanced down at my club as I gripped it tighter while seeming to see the cracks in the thing, and walked in, lantern held low and to my left.
I didn't quite manage five paces inside the doorway before the first rat 'came for me' and I swatted it to the left – and then, with a squeaking rush, a swarm of rats seemed to all but drip from the ceiling to surround me on all sides.
“A rat-mine!” I yelled, as I began smashing rats as fast as I could swing on them. “I knew it, there had to be a rat-mine in the place, and I found it!”
The swish and thud of clubs now redoubled in frequency, for someone else was swinging one in addition to myself; then a yell made me jump out of the way as someone swung a hammer and belted a rat downrange like a softball. I heard someone unsheathe a sword, then Sarah yelled as a red mist seemed to float my way. A few more swings, then as an unusually large rat flew toward me as if it had hitched a ride to a skyrocket. I swung on it and heard a distinct crackling noise that echoed off of the walls amid a chorus of squeaks and shrieks.
Another rat, this one leaping from the side. I connected, sending the rat bouncing off of the ceiling with a sound worthy of a home run hit, a third one which I smacked harder yet – and then a fourth rat...
The crack that time sounded distinctly different, much as if the rat was filled with iron. It still flew downrange like a shot to smash into a wall and ricochet down the hall.
And finally, I swung on 'something' big as it came leaping along the ground, and I heard and felt the club 'go'.
“Ouch!” yelled someone downrange as a blizzard of splinters seemed to fill the air around me as the rat flew tumbling end-over-end. “Toss that club!”
“Toss it?” I wondered, as the rats seemed to vanish like magic. I then thought to look at what I was holding, for it had lost a great deal of weight somehow. I had only begun to really notice the thing's weight but recently due to my severe and fast-growing fatigue.
“Oh my,” I said softly as I saw the splintered remnants of the club ending but inches above the grip portion, then in an even softer voice, “what happened to it?”
“That club is fit for the stove now,” deadpanned Sepp, “but at least you killed your share of rats with it.”
“Yes, and I wore one of them,” said Katje. “You're as bad as Georg is said to be.”
“No,” said Karl. “He is worse. Georg does not send rats flying like rockets.”
“Mostly because he goes after pigs,” I said, “and while some rats are as large as Shoeten, those do not grow that large up here.”
“You would send them flying like rockets if you swung on them, as I saw the rat that you broke that club on,” deadpanned Karl. “Now this is strange.”
“No, Karl,” said Sarah. “These rats are not from the fourth kingdom, and witches did not bring them up here, as those were all on the ground floor.”
“Those things are on every floor in the kingdom house proper,” said Karl, “so how is it these cannot climb up here?”
“The doors were closed, Karl,” said Sarah, “and I've read about this place on tapestries as well as in the Grim Collection.” Sarah then looked upward, and muttered, “that place might well be hidden well, and there might not be any way for us to get up there now, but that place is warm enough to grow rats bigger than anyplace else in the first kingdom outside of where witches raise them especially.”
“An attic?” I asked. “As it's the uppermost floor, it has a near-flat roof of this weird, uh, rock that absorbs heat, so it never gets truly cold there – and in fact the inside of that place is usually closer to the way the fourth kingdom for is for warmth?”
“Thank you,” said Sarah. “I could never understand that that portion of that tapestry until now, and now it makes sense to me.”
“And these rats make sense, also,” said Sepp. “I've found several twice the usual size for the first kingdom's rats, and I think those were the smaller ones.”
Sepp proved right, for as we spread out to search out the nature of the 'rat-mine', exclamations rang out about 'large rats' and 'mashed rats', as well as rats that had flown astonishing distances, but when Katje shouted “I found a witch!”, everyone left off their searching for mere rodents and converged on where her yells were coming from. I came from around the corner at a run and shot through a cloud of flying insects to narrowly miss Katje and leap over a huge mess in the floor – to then be sent sprawling when I tripped over a weighty 'sandbag'.
“What was that?” I squeaked, as I got up and began walking back the way I had come.
“That was one of those rats you killed,” said Sarah. “I've never heard of rats that large flying that far after being struck with clubs.”
“Th-that large?” I asked. I then turned to then backtrack, and once close, I actually looked at the rat.
“Thing's big enough to be a member of the rat brigade,” I muttered. “It has to be three feet long in the body.”
“If it is that large,” said Sarah, “then there is somewhere warm enough to foster such animals in this building, as well as ample store of food for them in the building or some place nearby.”
“Where would they get it?” asked Maarten.”
“I am not certain,” said Sarah, “but given people's speaking of difficulty raising crops in this general area, I suspect something tends to raid them heavily.”
“Why do they bother planting anything around here, then?” I asked.
“Because some families have many children survive to adult years, and farmland, especially land that has been decently cleared, is scarce along main roads,” said Sarah. “Later-born children of larger families often need to clear their own fields of rocks, which is how most fields become cleared in this area.”
“I would ride money on them helping a family member to clear such a field,” said Sarah. “The usual is that such fields are cleared by all of the family members and relatives within an easy day's ride unless they cannot be spared, at least in this area.” A brief pause, then, “and uncleared fields, especially in the central portion of the first kingdom, are the absolute worst for exploding that I've ever heard of.”
“I know,” said Maarten. “If you're within fifty miles of the kingdom house and you clear a new field of any size at all, there's a fair chance someone will be hurt or killed by one of those cursed things showing up near your plow and then exploding.”
“Unless, of course, you're a strong witch,” I muttered.
“There are no living witches strong enough to cope with such ordnance,” said the soft voice, “so such fields would not wait for the bombs and shells to be plowed up.” A brief pause, then, “they would detonate as soon as a witch would get close enough to be reliably killed, in fact, which is why you seldom see witches plowing fields that they did not purchase already-cleared and farmed for some years at the very least.”
“Witches do not plow fields,” said Karl. “They pay others to do it for them.”
“Unless the witches are those that wish to hide especially well,” said Sarah. “There are a fair number of those people, or were, at least in this area.”
“Are, dear,” I said. “Every other type of witch and would-be witch is pretty scarce, but those people...”
“Are currently being forced to lie very low,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though, you're right. They've lost the smallest percentage of their numbers of any type of witch or supplicant that currently lives in this area.” A brief pause, then, “where there used to be five or six such well-hid witches, there now is one such witch.”
“S-smallest percentage?” I gasped. “E-eighty-plus percent?”
“That sounds about right,” said Sepp. “It would take someone like you looking for them right now, as the only witches and those people who want to be witches in this area that still live are those stinkers that can keep the pigs from finding them out.” Sepp looked at the remains of what Katje had found, then knelt down. “This witch must have been one of those dumping spiders in the building, as he did not come...”
“No, Sepp,” said Sarah. “This person died not more than a few days ago, and I doubt him to be a witch, actually.”
“He was wearing that nasty black stuff witches like, though,” said Karl.
Sarah shook her head, then sniffed. “He got into the datramonium. I know that much.”
“Then he is a witch,” said Karl.
“Or a sacrifice,” I said. “Witches dose those people with datramonium before killing them.”
“Close enough,” said the soft voice. “That man was captured by a column of witches on the way here during the last instance of unloading spiders, and he was sent in here beforehand as 'bait' for Iggy.” A pause, then, “Iggy knew better, of course, as did the Desmond, and between the two of them they ate not only all of those witches and teams of mules, but scattered the remains of their meal quite thoroughly, such that no one in the area was the wiser.”
“How?” asked Sarah.
“The witches came down from the north-tip the last dozen or so times they dumped spiders and rats in the Abbey, and that last trip was the largest one by far, which is why you've found as many live spiders and rats as you have,” said the soft voice. “Rats, especially large ones, need ample food, and while most spiders don't need to eat that often, blue-backs, especially if they are larger examples, need to eat multiple times per day to stay alive.”
“And hence this man..?”
“Wandered the floors until he finally died of thirst,” said the soft voice. “He was given just enough datramonium tincture to make him unable to think clearly for a lengthy period of time, but not enough to actually kill him.” A pause, then, “between being poisoned and then cursed, he wandered about the various floors of the Abbey until he died.”
“How did he get up on the floors, though?” I asked.
“There are other ways to get from floor to floor other than just secret passages, those stairs, and the lifts,” said the soft voice. “They just take finding – and he had time to get this far before he died.”
“How did he see, though?” asked Maarten.
“Partly due to becoming accustomed to the lack of light, and mostly because he bumped into a lot of walls and other places during the days of delirium he endured prior to his dropping unconscious and then dying,” said the soft voice. “Datramonium slightly improves night-vision in non-witches, though its effects otherwise make it the dire poison it truly is.”
“And that at a tenth of the usual witch-load,” said Gabriel, “or so Freek told me.”
“Even touching a datramonium plant isn't a good idea, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “I did once, and I was deathly ill for days.”
“T-touched one?” I asked.
“Yes, to uproot it,” said Sarah. “I didn't know that those things are best splashed with lye and then trimmed back with old corn-knives once they wither, and then gloves and a long chain used for the bulls once they're cut back to a stump.”
I thought to dispose of the dead rats by dragging them to the nearest window and tossing them out, but as I made ready to pick one up by the tail, Sarah said, “no, leave them lay. If there are other rats in the building, they'll eat these quick enough to...” Sarah stopped, then pointed with a trembling finger and screeched.
“What, dear?” I asked, as I ran to her side.
“One of those dead rats was just dragged off,” said Sarah. “I think two or three smaller ones...” Sarah paused, then looked at me before asking, “was that a rat, or was it something else?”
“I'm not certain, dear,” I said, as I 'sniffed'. “Nothing more on this floor, so we'd best get up to the next one. There is something up there.”
As we climbed the stairs, Karl asked, “what is this something?”
“I'm not truly certain,” I said. “I think it's cooking fuel, though this time we might find more than just a jug of the stuff.”
Once I had opened the door and locked it in position, though, I took off like a shot. I could feel the draw of the thing, and as I passed an open side-passage, I saw a hint of red in my peripheral vision. I stopped in mid-stride, then screamed, “go to hell!”
The bloom of red flame was so small and so brief that I wondered what had happened, at least for an instant. That one 'lure' then grabbed my attention once more, and I wondered for a good deal longer – about five rapid strides – if it was bait of a sort.
“No, because no one who has come up here since that stuff was abandoned has been able to find it,” said the soft voice. “You noticed it from a considerable distance away.”
“And will probably find it quickly,” said Katje. “Now is this just cooking fuel, or is there something to use it in as well?”
“B-both, dear,” I said. “Oh, it's up this hallway, and in this room on the right about fifty feet west, behind a well-disguised 'false wall' that has finally fallen down.”
The false wall had not merely fallen down; it had gone entirely to a fine species of thready sawdust of moldy odor, and as I shuffled through the mounded and piled mess, I found first one jug, then another – and then finally, an old 'corroded' thing that had me wondering if I had found a transmigrated antique Primus stove of some kind. I showed it to Sarah, who then screeched as if she'd set herself alight.
“This is one of those lamps I spoke of,” she squalled, “and that f-fuel...”
“Is what they were designed to run on,” said the soft voice. “That one just needs a thorough cleaning, and then you have a stove that will work better than a heating-lamp.”
“But one problem,” I murmured. “Those things they have will recognize it.”
“True, they will,” said the soft voice, “but if you are careful when and where you use it, you'll find it well worth its modest weight and volume.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Because it does not use a wick, unlike those that turn up periodically in the scrap-market,” said the soft voice. “It generates its own pressure, so while yours will simmer better, this one will put out more heat for its size and weight – and you will wish that when cooking for a group.”
Gabriel looked at me, then said, “that was the single trouble with that lamp you brought. It may have been easy to use, and it did work well for much of what we cooked, but when we needed much heat, then it was worsted by those ovens we sometimes found or an open fire.”
“Bathwater,” I said.
“No, not bathwater,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that place is cold. Recall how one must eat more during the cold season around here?”
“That also,” said Gabriel. “I also suspect we may have visitors, which means we will wish to be able to cook for more than five on occasion, and then some of those places we stay in may wish more than merely warm clothing. They will wish heat, also.”
While this speech had continued, I thought to look further over in one of the corners of the room, and I found a small region walled off by 'pressboard'. Removal of this roughly eight inch square sheet of material brought out a small cloth pouch, which I passed to Sarah – and then, another such pouch, this one long, narrow, and peculiarly labeled with faded black letters. I passed that pouch around once we had gone outside of the room and were headed back toward the stairs.
“This stuff looks like cooking fuel,” said Sepp. He'd brought out a small rectangular whitish brick that reminded me of a piece of paraffin; it had a faint and somewhat musty smell. “It smells different, though.”
“That's the old military material,” said Gabriel. “There's a sizable stack of that stuff in that armory, then there's this other material that looks somewhat like it, only that stuff is not cooking fuel.”
“Then what is it?” I asked. For some reason, I had the impression what was being spoken of was 'plastic-wrapped pre-moistened toilet paper'.
“It is not a substitute for privy rags,” said Gabriel. “It has a very unpleasant odor, is a bit softer than common cooking fuel as sold currently in the fourth kingdom, and burns very hotly, at least for a short time.”
“That sounds like cooking fuel,” said Sepp.
“After that short time, however,” said Gabriel, “this stuff explodes like mining dynamite – and I do not mean common mining dynamite.” A pause, then, “I mean the stuff that Hans speaks of giving him nightmares.”
“He has a replacement for it,” said Sarah dryly. “That stuff that looks like vlai makes mining dynamite seem tame for power, even if it can be dropped onto the floor from waist-height without exploding.”
“I think it substitutes headaches for nightmares,” said Maarten. “Mine is gone, but I still had it until we were going back up those dusty stairs.”
“That is because she” – here, Katje indicated Sarah with her lamp-hand; she had a jug in the other – “replaced it with a sword-poke.”
“Two sword-pokes,” said Maarten. “I'm glad they weren't very big big ones.”
“No, Maarten,” said Katje. “They shrank much when they were cleaned, and that I saw with my own eyes.”
“They were worse than you think they were,” I said. I had discerned this with my eyes shut tight, and their size and location made for silent prayer on my part. More, I wondered as to what Anna would think when Maarten spoke of them at a later time.
“She'll want to look at them,” said the soft voice, “and she will be very surprised.”
“What – their size?” I asked.
“That and the fact that they're almost healed,” said the soft voice. “That location normally means a long and painful recovery, especially as Sarah poked him a good deal harder than you gave her credit for.”
“Why, was he slowing up matters?”
“Nearly as much as Gabriel was, though for a much-different reason,” said the soft voice, “and Sarah, by that time, was frantic enough that she was being a good deal less gentle than she was when she first started poking and slicing people.”
“Much-different?” I asked. I suspected 'bad knees', actually.
“Not those,” said the soft voice. “He was concerned about your well-being, and wished to wait for you, but Sarah told him you could cope with such matters without any such 'assistance' from him.” A pause, then, “in that aspect, he would have only caused you trouble, and she knew that.”
“And now his knees are causing him trouble,” I thought.
“Yes, now,” said the soft voice. “Yours are but slightly better than his are, by the way.”
“Still need to go up as far as the stairs do,” I murmured, as I resumed walking up the stairs.
Each step now seemed to take an age, and at each such landing where we could open doors, I – and the others, I now realized – needed to rest for at least a moment. Even without excess burdens, climbing this many stairs was not easy; and when I looked at the others, I noted them, with the exception of Sarah, to have much smaller loads than I did. The one comforting matter that I could think of was the trip downward, and after opening what felt like over a dozen doors, I wondered how many more doors there were left to open.
And as I did, I knew that not merely was the next door the last one we needed to open, but it also led to the biggest prize we had yet found – the biggest physically, and also the biggest in other ways.
“Bigger even than that mortar shell,” I thought, as I felt the thing 'better'. There were but two more short flights of stairs to go, and some distance above our heads, moonlight was softly glimmering from far to the west through a dust-hued skylight. “I hope Anna does not become terrified upon seeing it.”
“Explain how it works carefully,” said the soft voice, “and tell her that the guns that fire them will be of a kind she will enjoy especially.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Their size?”
And while I received no answer, I had an impression. Anna had once spoken of playing a violin, and by the talk I had heard from other sources, she was no mean player – perhaps even 'concert grade' where I came from. This particular species of gun had its own quirks, and somehow, being a violin player made one unusually capable regarding aiming it.
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Anna will acquire a most-unusual 'name' once she learns about those guns, and she will become celebrated for her celerity in their use.”
“Uh, why?” I silently asked.
“You're known quite well for your tendency to hit things with what you shoot,” said the soft voice. “Anna, even if she does not know it yet, is most capable with those guns and others like them.”
“M-most capable?” I thought.
“She will be able to drop her very first round with no teaching on the matter,” said the soft voice, “and she will put that round right where she wants it to land – and with a little practice, she'll be able to lead moving targets and hit them first time – and that nearly every time.”
“I heard that,” said Sarah from the step behind me, “and I am glad these stairs are at an end.” A brief pause, then, “I might be able to help her, as I can play one of those things also.”
“What?” I gasped.
“I've not had one in hand in quite some time,” said Sarah, “but an orchestra usually has several violinists, and I traveled with Anna, even if I was younger than she.”
“Will you take to mortars?” I asked.
“I am not sure about being as good with them as she will be,” said Sarah, “but I doubt much that I will have trouble landing shells if I can see the target.”
“Indirect fire means you cannot see the target,” said Katje, “and most three inch guns are fired at targets you can see.”
“Yes, usually,” said Sarah. “I once dug a hole for a gun's tail and used distance-shells on some of those boats those northern people use, and I hit two out of three at a distance I have trouble believing.”
“What?” I asked, as I reached for the last door's handle. “You got more elevation on the gun that way?”
“And double the distance,” said Sarah. “You cannot cut a fuse long enough to shoot that far, and Willem still has trouble believing I hit those things.”
“How did you learn of hitting them?” I asked, as I held the door open and put the 'key' in the notch.
“Mirror-flashes using wire-code, and that with multiple relays,” said Sarah – who then looked up as she went through the door. “There are two floors above this one, and then that attic.”
“Two?” I asked. “Or does it seem like two floors, what with all the ducting and things they put up for those, uh, lifts?” I then had a question.
“If there are two floors, then how does one access them, and why did we see that skylight but ten feet above our heads when we went in the doorway to this floor?”
“Mostly because those two 'floors' are indeed as you said they were,” said the soft voice. “The motors for the lifts are quite sizable, they have their control apparatus, there's a lot of piping of various sizes, and then there's the building's heating, cooling, and ventilation apparatus – and above all of that is that attic.”
“And... Thirty feet?” I gasped.
“Those motors are a lot bigger than you'd think needed for a 'lift' of that size due to their inefficiency,” said the soft voice. “Given they were installed when the building was first built, that should not surprise you.”
“B-bad motors,” I muttered. “They needed a watchman for each one if they were to be used much.”
“Each section of each motor, you mean,” said the soft voice. “These are what were called 'double-ended' motors, which means two stators, a 'compound' rotor made from multiple pieces, and multiple bearings, complete with a lot of open-to-the-air machinery – and all of that stuff needed regular manual oiling and a good deal of careful maintenance, much like one of those Machalaat steam engines does.”
“I thought so,” said Sarah. “Now where is this thing you were thinking of?”
I led off at the best pace I could manage, and as I did, I finally actually 'felt' the state of my knees. I soon heard a comment from behind, then as Sarah came along side of me, she said, “spewing or no spewing, you'll want that special Geneva tonight, and no mistake.”
“Why?” I asked quietly.
“You are limping,” said Karl from somewhere close behind me. “Now how much does that bag you carry weigh?”
“Enough that it will surprise you if you try carrying it,” said Sarah. “I tried picking it up once, and it makes what I carry seem light – and my satchel is not light.” Sarah then muttered about what else I was carrying, that being my rifle.
“Did you try to shoot it?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Sarah, “but I have held it more than once while helping Anna clean around your workbench while you were gone.” A brief pause, then, “and if that gun bruises you with its weight, then it is as fully bad as a roer.”
“Yes, I know,” muttered Karl. “You should try shooting it some time.”
“Only if I run into another bad witch,” said Sarah. “I was told that I needed something that sent its bullets rapidly, and that thing does that.”
“Perhaps something that fires a lighter bullet, then,” I asked. “I... Oh! There are things here that do that, and...”
“And what?” asked Sarah.
“I think what's up ahead that I'm feeling does that,” I said. “It's a lot faster than what I have that way, in fact.”
And in saying so, I somehow recalled a weapon I had once owned, this being a rifle with a very flat trajectory. Not merely was it the most accurate weapon I had – it made hitting targets at reasonable ranges 'easy' – but I could actually shoot it a fair amount and not be sore.
“That is not the case for what you are feeling now,” said the soft voice. “This one might permit repeated firing in the course of a day, and not a little of such firing, but until you're adequately protected, you'll not wish to shoot it more than perhaps a dozen or so times a day.”
“That sounds unpleasant,” I said – as I recalled another rifle, one I had been 'loaned' – and by the middle of the match I was shooting, I was not merely very sore, but I was hoping the rest of the 'superannuated' – it was older than I was by nearly a decade, and the rifle older yet – ammunition was defective. It wasn't, and I did finish, but my scores were horrible due to the 'brutal' recoil of the weapon.
“It is not one of those,” said the soft voice. “There were similar weapons in 'common' use at one time, but they were found to be unsuitable for the majority of that country's soldiers once they became interested in fielding an army of real size.”
“Probably killed at both ends,” I muttered. “Did those try to bite the hands that fed them?”
“Very much so,” said the soft voice – whose tone then changed to a colder one. “You will see some of those weapons in a few places overseas, and in the process, learn why they were rarely used after better designs became available.”
“I am not firing one, then,” I muttered. “That thing was evil.”
“What was this?” asked Sepp. He was on my left side, while Sarah was on my right. I was glad for the company, as I was not merely well beyond any common aspect of tired, but I was also having no small amount of trouble moving. My legs seemed to not merely ache, but each knee seemed swollen to the point of limping, and each step jolted my entire body.
“This one rifle I once fired during a shooting match,” I said. “One loaded it from the top of the breech after first locking the, uh, 'handle' back, then with great care and much worry, one inserted this thing called a clip inside the action. Those clip things held eight rounds, and when one did so, this one portion of the weapon would slam home as abruptly as anything...”
I felt the prize again. It was at the end of this particular hall, or near it. It was part-buried beneath the residue of another fallen-to-dust partition, and more, this particular instance was left with the goal of catching a witch – which given where it had been hid, and how well those hiding it did their jobs, did not make sense.
“Unless they did that false-wall early enough that one of those capable witches came up this way,” I thought. “Those wretches might be able to just move through the wall...”
“Not in here they could,” said the soft voice. “That level of witch did not survive the drowning, and only a small handful of witches of that time came close to them in that way.” A brief pause, then, “the witches of today, however, wonder if such beings have returned.”
“Why?” I asked – and then wished I had not, for I recalled both instances of my 'intruding' into the Swartsburg. Getting both Koenraads had been so 'easy' that I was frightened to contemplate the matter further, and other instances...
Needing to work at being found during sword-practice was the next-biggest reminder, while the most recent one was Gabriel being more or less unable to see me before we had begun the fight with Iggy. It made for troubling thoughts, especially as now I had an idea as to who the witches thought might well claim that fifth 'title', so much that I wanted to fall to my face where I was walking and scream. Only the sense of the prize I was after being almost 'near enough to touch' made this thinking abate, and as I turned right and into a cross-passage, I nearly moaned in fear.
It was almost as if the witches naming me as they did actually made me that kind of person in truth, and as I began slowing, the diffuse sense of the region where this prize actually resided made for wondering. It was not merely still well-hid, but the hidden place was uncommonly 'large'. I picked a doorway at seeming random, and nearly tripped myself when I came upon long mounds of whitish 'granules' that I recognized as the rapidly-decomposing remains of human skeletons.
“The remains of witches, actually,” said the soft voice. “They were among the last witches to die on the premises, and what you are feeling is some of what that marked person who shot them from hiding did to confuse the issue.”
“What?” I gasped, as I mechanically reached for a honey-vial and then emptied its contents into my mouth.
The sudden clearing of my head but seconds later made for such a change in both vision and thinking that I nearly did not catch my mouth in time, and as I 'shook in place', the whole tableau before me changed utterly, almost as if I were going back in time by some odd means. I then noticed the others were no longer present.
The intense reek of powder smoke made my nose burn as if I had doused its inside with some of Hans' 'strong vinegar', and as I watched, a well-hid door in the wall suddenly 'opened' with a scraping dragging noise to show someone who looked as if they had been recently burned. Their skin was still red and raw in many places, and the limping shuffle they managed was astonishing. I expected someone hurting that much to be using crutches, if I went by how much my knees had hurt after both instances of surgery upon them – and the same for months prior to each surgery as well.
What this person – now missing both ears, at least the external portions, and much of their nose – was carrying was even more so; for it was a rifle that resembled what I had once had to such a degree that it seemed a near-exact copy. As I looked closer at what the person – I could not tell their gender – did as they came up to the first of the bodies that carpeted the floor, however, I noted differences in what they were carrying.
“It's longer,” I thought. “It's got to be eight inches longer easily, and then that handguard is different from what I had, and finally the receiver...”
The person removed the magazine – this nearly straight, not bent like some I had seen – and then retracted the bolt using the charging handle. Again, I was utterly astonished, at least until this individual caught the flying cartridge in midair. It then lay gleaming in his – his? – hands, and my vision seemed to zero in on the thing.
“That bullet's got to be over an inch long,” I gasped. “What kind of..?”
The person then turned one of the bodies over, and the hole in the corpse's back was of such massive size that I nearly fainted.
“F-fist sized exit wound?” I gasped. “What did he shoot them with?”
This same tableau showed again and again, save when one of the 'corpses' suddenly twitched. Without thinking, the person moved in what seemed slow-motion to reinsert the magazine, yank on the charging handle, then twice, both shots sounding as one, he shot the 'still-lively' body.
The brilliant flashes coming from the weapon's muzzle seemed to light up the room like a redoubled stroke of lightning, and when my vision cleared once more, the person with the rifle seemed transfixed...
Perhaps with horror.
There was no perhaps in my case, for the shooter had hit the 'mover' in the head, and now...
“No head left on that one,” I thought. “Just a ragged stump where the neck used to be, and the same for... What?”
This last was a shocked gasp, for the shooter had not merely targeted the 'twitching' corpse. He – or she, I now realized – had shot a corpse which had suddenly came to its knees, and that individual was now laying, collapsed with his back to the wall in a huge pool of blood – and this with no head.
That lay in the now-truly-dead witch's lap. The shooter had hit the witch at the base of the neck, and the ripped-up place where the bullet had hit spoke of a degree of deadliness that astonished me. Only my last encounter with Spams using strange arrows and a bow with a pull beyond anything I had ever used had shown greater 'messiness', and as the shooter resumed checking the bodies, all that I saw faded and I was back among friends.
And also, I was moving along out in the hall toward the west. The entrance I wanted was two doors further down the cross-passage, and there, I would find the decomposed wall dusting the shooter's weapon.
“If that person was using it, then why was it left behind?” I asked silently.
“Because she left the premises herself but a few days later, and her latest injuries forced her to abandon an otherwise still-functional weapon,” said the soft voice. “She made it, by the way, and died of old age in what remained of Vrijlaand many years later.”
“L-latest injuries?” I asked.
“She killed the last of the witches before she left,” said the soft voice, “and she was shot repeatedly in the process of wiping them out once and for all.”
“Shot repeatedly?” I asked.
“She was hit by one of those smaller pistols when it was used by a shamming witch,” said the soft voice, “and she kicked that witch in the head before killing him with his own weapon. She used it, as well as the witch's ammunition and that like it which she had hoarded over the course of nearly a year on her way south – and those with her who were able to keep up made it to safety also.”
“Now that I can speak of,” said Katje. “You might be hurt bad enough for Anna to want to pack you into bed for a week, but you're still moving faster than I am.” A brief pause, “and now I know why you assume witches are playing dead as much as you do.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I came to the door in question and shined my lantern inside to find several more elongated 'dust-mounds'. I then adjusted my lantern while trying to cough – and finally, with great effort, I managed to cough up and then spit a massive blob onto the floor. I gasped and choked for a few seconds afterward just the same, and then backed away as the blob ignited to burn with low flames and choking gray clouds of smoke.
“That sounds bad,” said Karl. “I would not let Anna hear you do that, as she will not let you outside for a month.”
I ignored Karl's comment, for I could feel the thing I was after in the area, at least until I took two steps inside the doorway. I then wondered if there were any spears left, and realized there weren't any. I then thought that I could ask anyway.
“Do we have any of those bad spears left?”
“I have the stick to one of them, but not its head,” said Sepp. “It works well for climbing stairs and thumping rats. Why?”
“I might need it to disarm a trap,” I said, as I put my lantern down near my left side. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a soot-streaked rectangular 'opening' with a section of floor layered thickly with that grainy fibrous 'sawdust' that I now realized was the remains of that wood substitute. It made for thinking, and then speech.
“Paper, eh?” I murmured. “That stuff?”
“The first portion of paper-making in that location across the sea is treating with lye,” said the soft voice, “and while their lye is better than that of Roesmaan's, it still smells more than a little.” A pause, then, “the result may surprise you.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“It looks – and functions – exactly like that treated sawdust you did,” said the soft voice, “and it will make very acceptable paper given their methods of paper-processing.” Another brief pause, then, “and don't be too surprised if they ask to purchase drop-wood, also.”
“They will not get much for takers if they do that around here,” said Sepp. “They'll need to speak to a wood-gatherer if they want much of it, and those people are not common around here.”
“What if people receive cooking fuel as payment?” I asked, as I began to probe the soot-rimmed 'doorway' with Sepp's spear-shaft. So far, it did not seem trapped. I then shined my lantern inside the 'hole'.
“This place had people in it, all right,” I said, upon finding what looked like a warren of small 'cubicles' branching off of a narrow passageway. I then looked down and found what might have been a recent-vintage boot-print. “Did someone come up here recently?”
“Not just one someone, but several someones – if you mean recently as being 'within the last ten years'. This portion of the building is nowhere near as dusty as the rest of the building was, so that four-year old footprint looks as if it was made last week.”
“Was?” asked someone female from somewhere behind me.
“Yes, was,” said the soft voice. “It was more than a lack of ventilation that caused it to be so dusty in here – it was the curses put upon the building and the fetishes, living and otherwise, lurking in the building.”
The warren of rooms appeared at first to be filled with trash, and a poke with the stick showed much of the faintly dusty articles to be old discarded clothing, neatly-piled short-cut sticks of some kind, some very bad and rusted knives that looked to have come from Georg's scrap bins, and now and then, a badly-dented cooking pot heavily studded with fifteen-line rivets. Those tended to have but little odor, but I knew that they were fit for turning food into poison. I somehow suspected 'decent-sized' bathing dippers were very popular among 'tramps' and 'itinerant seamstresses', as those, even when done using fifteen-line rivets, were actually usable for small meals provided reasonable care was taken in their use.
“Yours especially, which is why there have been so many orders for them,” said the soft voice. “The larger size of dipper is quite useful for one-person meals, and a smaller second-hand pot works well for boiling bathwater once it's been 'smoked' over an open fire for a few nights.”
“Smoked?” I asked.
“Those bacteria find woodsmoke, especially that from certain trees, to be quite toxic,” said the soft voice. “It tends to make the tin spotty over most of the pot by the time they're smoked enough to be dead, but if one is merely interested in boiling water for bathing, such pots tend to work well enough for that purpose once the soot has been rubbed off with damp sand.”
The others began to slowly follow me, and soft murmurs of speech spoke of 'recent use' by someone on the run from a pack of witches. As I came to one impossibly-narrow hallway, I asked, “how did they build these things?”
“Stolen materials from the witches' supplies over a period of many months,” said the soft voice, “and these chambers were commonly used for sleeping once the original sleeping quarters were converted into places for raising food.” A brief pause, then, “most of the outer rooms on the upper floors were converted into a species of greenhouse once the war started, and those who worked here supplemented their diets with both plants they grew from seeds and any animals they happened to catch.”
“Animals?” I asked. “R-rats?”
“Those and some escaped experimental animals that bred especially quickly,” said the soft voice. “There was a flock of pigeons also, but those birds mostly left the Abbey during the first days of the war.” A brief pause, then, “every wild pigeon currently found on the continent, however, is descended from those the laborers managed to keep on the premises and then breed for their food and eggs.”
“Eggs?” I asked.
“The same shape and about twice the diameter of those you ate at the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “While pigeons are not chickens for egg-laying, they are much less hazardous to keep.”
“Not chickens?” I asked.
“Chickens lay a fair number of eggs, unlike pigeons,” said the soft voice, “and you can only rob so many eggs from under a pigeon before it thinks to quit laying, unlike chickens.”
“So you keep a lot of them,” I thought as I went to the end of the hallway I found myself in. The prize was very close. “You can get your weekly egg that way.”
“By that time it was closer to an egg every other day for most of the surviving laborers,” said the soft voice, “and between the eggs they gathered, the animals they caught, and the plants they raised, many of them who survived past the closing of the upper witch-hole lived long enough to escape the building.”
“And the pigeons?” I asked.
“By that time, this floor all but swarmed with pigeons, and the hot part of the war was mostly over, so there weren't soldiers all over the place hungry for fresh meals – so when they were released, they flew south into lands where suitable forage was still present, and eventually became today's wood-pigeons.”
The hallway ended abruptly, and I thought to bust the thin 'pressboard' wall down until I recalled the possibility of the weapon being trapped. I then went into the right doorway, this narrow enough to need care as I walked, and found what looked like old broken-down bunks lining two of the walls. The remains of these structures, while no longer usable as bunk beds, were still sturdy enough for the passage between them to be quite narrow – and once I came to another doorway, I found myself in another hall, this going left and right. I turned left.
I also found it narrow enough that I had to be careful not to get stuck, and when I found another 'room' after turning a corner, I knew suddenly that this was the room.
Amid 'trash' and other materials littering the floor, a strange yet familiar outline lay under a grimy 'plastic-impregnated' cloth sheet of some kind, and while the dust was nowhere near as thick as in the rest of the building, there was enough present to cause sneezing on my part as I went to my hands and knees so as to 'sneak up on' the sheet. My lantern, freshly adjusted, was in my left hand as I crawled to the edge of the sheet, and when I came to it, I found my 'string' and tied a knot at the sheet's corner, all the while praying that it would hold long enough for me to drag the sheet off of what it was hiding. I paid out the string, all the while slowly backing, and when I came back into the hall, I bumped into someone.
“Did you find it?” asked Sarah, who began backing up as I resumed walking backward.
“I think so, dear,” I said quietly. “Now don't tell me – someone found another jug of cooking fuel.”
“Two jugs so far,” said Sarah, “though these jugs are empty enough to make me wonder if we should keep both of them. Then, someone found another of those heating lamps that does not use a wick, and finally, I found a tin of very strange things that make me wonder as to what they truly are.”
“A tin?” I asked. I was continuing to back up. If someone had put one of those 'common' grenades under that sheet, the thin material of these walls would barely slow the splinters down – unless we were a good distance away and laying with our faces in the dust when I pulled the string. “Anything else?”
“Yes, some sheets of very strange cloth,” said Sarah. “They're as light as anything I've ever felt and as slippery as if they were suffused with beeswax and then polished with a board.”
“You'll want to keep those,” said the soft voice. “They make excellent shelter-cloths, and between those and some canes cut from across the river, they'll work well for a 'boat-privy'.”
“I wondered about that,” said Sarah, as I came back to where I heard the others. I then spoke: “down on the floor, everyone. This might be a trap.”
I followed my own advise, and after yelling that I was 'pulling the string', I waited several seconds and began pulling. A faint rustling noise resulted, which continued as long as I pulled the string. I had to stop to rewind it on its stick several times, until I actually had a 'ground-cloth' in my hands at the end of the fifth such session.
“That is thicker cloth than what I found,” said Sarah upon feeling the cloth in question. “This one might work for sheltering against rain.”
“Both species of cloth will do that,” said the soft voice, “but if it rains much, what he just recovered will perform much better.” A brief pause, then, “there are more such cloths in that armory, so what you found can be considered samples.”
“Bad samples, if I go by their wear,” said Sarah. “Still, they're likely to be usable.”
“And they will not register on those people's equipment,” I murmured, as the knot came adrift at my touch.
“No, actually they will,” said the soft voice, “but those monitoring the output of those sensors will spend hours at the least identifying exactly what they picked up.” A pause, then, “note the phrase 'at the least'.”
“Yes?” I asked. “You mean 'closer to days', actually – unless those people work a lot harder than is usual for them. Correct?”
While there was no answer from one source, Sarah supplied one of sorts as she folded up the cloth. The stuff folded into a surprisingly small volume, so much so that when Sarah 'pocketed' it, I was stunned.
Until she told me that what I had found was a good deal bulkier than the three other cloths that had turned up thus far, and that those blue-suited people were regularly used as messengers across the sea.
“They would not last long at all were they messengers here,” said Sarah. “They need to be told what to do as if they wore brass cones, and they're as slow as a badly lamed horse unless those over them threaten them constantly with loaded guns.”
“Now we need to investigate what was hidden,” I said softly as if to answer Sarah about 'thick-headed thugs', as I got up from the floor. “Everyone, stay down. I need to check this carefully.”
I had the impression that what I said now was being followed, and as I trod the floor, I could tell I was also being followed – though this person was not merely careful, but very quiet. I asked a question.
“Yes?” she said softly. “I suspect you could teach my cousin much about traps, and myself yet more.”
“I could?” I asked.
“Yes, as she would have not thought to do what you did with the string,” said Sarah. “Somehow, I suspect this trap to be not what you think it to be, but something entirely different.”
“Like a brick of nail-studded C-4 explosive with a hair-trigger detonator?” I asked.
“It does not have nails,” said the soft voice, “nor does it have a hair-trigger detonator, and it was not called that by that name – but otherwise, you're quite close to what was used as a trap for that rifle.”
“A brick of plastic explosive?” I asked. “That much?”
“By that time, that injured woman was in no mood for half-measures,” said the soft voice, “and she'd become about as good as Sarah's cousin is now for setting traps – hence she used a sizable charge of that explosive, as well as the best detonator she could find in a month's careful search and pilfering.”
“Sizable?” I asked.
“Two entire 'bricks', still in their wrappings so they would keep their best,” said the soft voice. “She did not bother with nails or anything else, as she knew 'blast' by itself was ample to scatter anyone – witch or otherwise – within a reasonable distance given that large of a charge.”
“That sounds like some mining dynamite I've seen,” said Sarah. “It might not have been the type that Hans has spoken of as frightening him, but it was not much less when I tossed a stick of it at that coach.”
“What happened?” I asked. I was close to the room now, and I paused to readjust my lantern.
“The coach went up in smoke, and I flew up into a tree like a bird from its explosion,” said Sarah. “Those witches were most irritated, especially as they were entirely black from the smoke and fire, and their coach and its team of smelly mules were entirely gone.”
“Entirely black?” I asked, as I came to the threshold of the room and began to kneel down. “Soot?”
“That and severe burns, most likely,” said Sarah. “This room has a trip-line, at least one, and possibly more of them. How touchy is this detonator...” Sarah's voice rose to a screech. “What is that thing?”
What Sarah had spoken of was not merely thinly filmed with dust, but was sandwiched between two sizable bricks of a faintly gray substance. I recognized it instantly as the mottled gray-black rifle I had seen in my 'nightmare', and propping its long front end up was a tall stack of at least three magazines. Loose rounds lay scattered in large mounds in front of and next to the 'bricks', and now I knew why the woman didn't bother with 'nails'; the mounded ammunition would work more than passably for short distances.
“Those are not small bricks, either,” said the soft voice. “Each of them weighs roughly two pounds – and what Sarah spoke of regarding the power of that explosive is but the smell of the mule.”
“And that ammunition would cause enough trouble by itself when it was sent flying,” I muttered. “Now where is that detonator... Oh, the back side of that off brick, and the strings...”
“String,” said the soft voice. “She knew that anyone worrisome would either be well-beyond trashed from the drugs used by the witches of that era, or deathly ill from not using them – hence she merely tied the string to the rifle's muzzle.”
“Most likely they'd have trouble seeing, also,” I said. “Trashed? How trashed?”
“Any witch currently alive would be dead from those doses,” said the soft voice. “The remaining witches by then were usually so impaired that they'd run in and just grab that rifle up without the slightest precaution whatsoever, and by that time, she knew the strengths and weaknesses of the witches all too well.”
“She killed them all, so why did she bother trapping it?” asked Sarah, as I came closer to the rifle. Sarah, wisely, stayed some further distance away.
“Because she knew other witches might well come here when she did what she did,” said the soft voice. “Her injuries caused her to become what the witches called a 'monster' once she'd gone half the distance to Vrijlaand, and her caution – and ruthlessness – became legend, so much so that she was sometimes compared to the Mistress of the North.”
“She must have killed enough of them,” I muttered. “Ch-Charles...”
“She was his most-able lieutenant,” said the soft voice.
“R-Rachel,” said Sarah.
“W-what?” I gasped. I was still crawling, this slow and yet looking for further trip-wires. I still wanted to make certain, as well as study this woman's handiwork. I might well learn something useful.
“H-her name,” said Sarah. “I wonder if she was one of them.”
“Them?” I asked. “Oh, was she of the Chosen?”
“Not then she was,” said the soft voice. “She was 'adopted' into their tribes once she came into the central portion of Vrijlaand, and her ability in the realm of letters grew rapidly once she had a chance to be educated – and the entirety of more than one tapestry is based closely on her writings.”
I came even with the muzzle of the rifle, this now close enough to touch it, and when I came to the backside of the weapon, I had a chance to see that I had underestimated the number of magazines. There weren't three of them.
“There's more like five of those things,” I spat, “and that thing there's got to be the detonator. Now where's the string?”
I could not see the string, so I came closer to where the 'spark plug' was stuffed into the back of the 'brick of explosive, and began clearing away the clinking bags that had partly hidden it. For some reason, I turned one over – and was astonished to see written in dark 'rusted' letters the following.
“Ammunition for type 1116 Military rifle
125 loaded rounds with all-purpose bullet.”
“All purpose?” I asked, as I cleared the third such bag away from the brick' of plastic explosive. “How much ammunition did this woman leave for this thing?”
“Enough that she had planned on using a small cart to carry her supplies,” said the soft voice. “She had to leave that cart behind, along with most of her other long-hoarded escape supplies.” A brief pause, then, “all-purpose, when one speaks of the pre-war ammunition of that country, meant 'it ignores body armor if the stuff is light enough to actually wear it and move readily, it's stable enough to be accurate out to nearly half a mile, and it causes a lot of damage when it hits if it's traveling at all rapidly.”
“Fist-size exit holes?” I spluttered, as I bared the detonator entirely and began to feel for the string tying it. It had to be of the fineness of a hair for me to have such difficulty finding it, but when I finally found the 'string', I found I needed my 'wirecutters' to actually sever it.
As well as enough force for me to wonder if I'd damaged them, and a sigh of relief when I saw their edges to be undamaged. Sarah came to the other side of the rifle, then brought out a bag and began to bag up the loose rounds.
“I've seen these things twice before, but never this many,” said Sarah. “I'm glad witches are scarce around here, as this stuff would have them fighting over it worse than what was in that trunk.”
“Twenty guilders for one of these?” I asked.
“This type here is more,” said Sarah, “especially if it looks like this stuff.”
“Just needs a little dusting off, you mean,” I said. “Perhaps wipe them down with clean rags?”
“You'll want to do that with this ammunition before firing it,” said the soft voice, “but otherwise, Sarah's right.”
“It's still good, isn't it?” I asked.
“It will function fine in that rifle and the others like it,” said the soft voice. “It will, however, leave more 'soot' in the weapon's action compared to the material in that armory.”
“And hence need it will want much cleaning,” said Sarah. “Any powder that rusts guns as bad as those Tossers must have far too much niter, or something worse yet wrong with it.”
“Worse yet?” I asked. “Chlorate of potash?”
“That stuff is terrible for rust,” said Sarah. “I've seen bad fifth kingdom thimbles turn weapons into solid rust overnight.”
“Perhaps this ammunition uses such materials, then,” I said, as I began looking for a way to 'safe' the detonator. I saw a small hole, and thought to stick a sewing needle in it. As I began looking for one in my possible bag, Sarah asked me what I was after.
“A needle for this, uh, detonator,” I said. “It doesn't need to be a particularly good needle, but it helps if it's a thicker one.”
“Like this here?” asked Sarah, as she reached into her bag and drew out an old-looking brass 'thing' that might have been a needle of some kind. “I found this on the floor near where all those rats were.”
With Sarah's 'needle' in hand, I carefully grasped the detonator, and put the 'needle' in the hole along the device's body. As if it had been intended for this very purpose, the 'needle' slid right in, and as I pushed it in to the circled portion which formed its 'handle', I had the intimation that I wanted to bend the other side to a degree. I did so, and then, I was entirely surprised.
“Now you can remove that detonator,” said the soft voice. “What Sarah found was not a needle, but a detonator safety pin – and you slipped it back in the hole where one like it originally sat.”
“Are there more of these things?”
“Yes, but those boxes saw no small amount of depredation, unlike nearly all of the other supplies down in that armory,” said the soft voice. “There were a lot of those boxes, though, so you still have a fair number of those devices.”
“How many is that?” asked Sarah. “If these are touchy, then we might just want them for traps.”
“They're a bit too touchy for Hans to set without blowing himself up, at least now,” said the soft voice. “The chief trouble with this type of device was unless they were made exactly right, they tended to be erratic – with some being 'hair-trigger' devices and some a good deal less sensitive, like that one there.”
“Almost need to play with their parts some to get them to behave,” I muttered, as I bagged the detonator.”
“That was almost exactly what that woman did,” said the soft voice. “She'd gotten no less than five devices, took them apart and selective-fit the critical pieces, and came up with two 'good' ones, two 'touchy' ones – and one 'nightmare device' that was nearly as bad as some things Hans' grandfather more or less invented by himself years ago.” A pause, then “she'd used up the three worst ones, and she wanted to save one of the good ones for a souvenir so as to show the people where she was going.”
With the ammunition bagged, it was now the turn of the rifle itself, and I carefully picked it up. I was astonished, both at how its controls came readily to hand – it was exactly like the one I had had that way – a and then astonished further by its heft. It was not light.
I learned just how 'not light' it was when I slowly came out of the doorway with two weapons. Sarah had both 'bricks' of plastic explosive, and by the time I had come back into a more-visited region, she was speaking in a choked voice and muttering of 'blasted privies' and 'dead Shoeten'.
“It smells that bad?” I asked.
“I have never smelled anything like this stuff,” said Sarah, “but if I need something of a solid nature so as to call flies, I think I have found it.”
“What is that stink?” yelled Katje. “Did someone find a dead Shoet up here?”
As Sarah and I met up with the others, that seemed the general comment, at least until Karl got his hand on one of the bricks and Maarten the other. Then, more comments began to erupt, ones that I had no idea existed.
“I know what this stuff is,” said Karl, “as I recognize its stink and its look.”
“What is it, then?” said Gabriel. “It smells vile.”
“I think this stuff is moldy Kuchen dough,” said Karl, “and if Anna sees it, she will toss it.”
“It might stand that, and then it might not,” said Sarah. “That stuff is supposed to be as strong as bad mining dynamite.”
“Moldy?” I asked.
“Yes, covered with white-thread,” said Karl. “It smells really bad, just like this, and it feels a lot like it, too – only this stuff is wrapped like good cooking fuel.”
“It still stinks,” said Katje. “Now I hope this stove I found works, as ours is starting to go bad.”
“Yours is s-starting to go bad?” I asked.
“Yes, very much so,” said Katje. “It leaks much smoke, its brickwork inside is falling apart, and there isn't a door on it that isn't about to fall off of its own weight.”
“Odd, it seemed passable when I last saw it,” I said.
“That thing had to be made by a witch,” said Maarten.
“It was not made by a witch,” said the soft voice. “It was just a very old stove that was 'prettied up' by some witches while the house was being built, and now their abysmally poor workmanship is beginning to show its true nature.”
“Very old?” I asked.
“It sat in two houses before theirs, and both times it was rescued from the wreckage left by those northern people,” said the soft voice. “It's seen about four times as much use as the one where you live, as it came up to the first kingdom in a well-used state, more so than is the usual for such stoves.”
“Where did it come from?” I asked. “The fifth kingdom?”
“It did,” said the soft voice. “The fifth kingdom did much better work then, which is why that stove had functioned well as long as it did.”
“That place has gone downhill a fair amount since I started preaching, if the talk I've heard is true,” said Maarten. “Now we have much to carry, and at least the stairs are heading down and not up.”
“And once at the bottom, there are a few fetishes left to clear, as those people outside are really wanting inside here,” I said.
“Not tonight,” said Gabriel. “Tomorrow.”
“Early tomorrow,” I said. “About dawn, if not before, which means we dare not wait to deal with those things.”
“True,” said the soft voice. “Those carpenters might be sleeping now, but they're the only ones in that camp's current shift that are sleeping.”
And faintly, coming as if from a far country, I heard singing, the steady ringing of hammer upon anvil, the sounds of what might have been digging – and fainter yet, the noises of a vast multitude of trowels. This last made for an astonishing reaction.
“Ooh,” squeaked Sarah, as she dropped her bag and followed it down to kneel beside it. “Trowels!”
I almost did the same exact thing, save I was far too tired to do much more than stand mutely, at least until Sarah stood once more, this on tiptoe, and stuffed my ears with ear-corks.
“Now for your dose,” she said. “I have that special tincture, and I just got my own dose.”
I received an entire tube of the stuff, and the potent taste told me Sarah had been generous in naming it. I gasped, then said, “did you put more in that stuff?”
“This vial, yes,” said Sarah. “It got an extra tube of the bull formula compared to that batch Hans did up, and two more drops of that tincture for pain, and then a painted label speaking of trowels.” A pause, then, “I made it up after seeing those plans and how much stonework will be needed here.”
“You will wish that tincture for the trip, also,” said the soft voice. “I'd make up at least two more vials of that size to the same formula, as it works well for loud and irritating noises in general.”
On the way down the stairs, those without burdens acquired them; and the wind, this coming from each door, slowly built into a softly chilly blast that seemed to blow not merely coolness, but also an increasing amount of dust at us from above. By the time we had passed perhaps a dozen floors, the general sound was one of sneezing – and I thought to speak to the dust, then wondered if I should.
I then did not wonder.
“Everyone, hold your breath and close your eyes,” I said. “Dust, find some witch-hole and go there.”
The soft muted rumble started from seemingly everywhere to then go to a shrieking howl within what seemed like seconds, and through closed eyes I could see a veritable tornado ripping through the halls of the building to pick up dust...
Ages of dust, almost as if every fussily-neat witch-house had gathered its constant dustings and brought them here since the place was empty of its 'deeded' occupants and left with its traps and its curses...
And now, finally, those hundreds of years of curse-gathered dust and sand and dirt was now coming home to roost with a surly vengeance.
“Soot, too,” I muttered as the howling increased yet more. “Dirty up every antique, every dark witch-house, and send forth their hidden malodorous reeks unto every pig within a day's ride, and...”
“And what?” asked 'someone'.
“Oh, and send every unpleasant rodent and other crawling creature found here into the bed of a witch – blue-back spiders included. Every witch needs such a spider, and the same for every supplicant.”
The screaming howl peaked, then passed – and with a suddenness and a shuddering noise like a safe being dropped three stories to hit upon hard ground, the noise about us ceased.
“Cough, I can breathe again, cough,” said Katje. “Now what did you do – dust up every witch within two days' hard riding?”
“And sent swine to them,” I said. “What?”
“You – and every other guard that's so inclined – is going to be glad for what is in that armory,” said the soft voice. “Be glad witches are so scarce in this area, as otherwise you would ride home in a war-zone.”
“What did I do?” I asked.
“Every well-hid witch within a considerable distance is now not merely covered with soot, but is in a filthy house,” said the soft voice. “Then, every such well-hid witch has at least one blue-back spider in his bed, and finally, the swine are either at his door now or they are coming in a big hurry.”
Faintly, I heard an explosion thunder, then another, then two more – followed by storms of musketry and the booms of cannons – and over all of this, the screaming squeals of a vast multitude of pigs.
“How many of those things are there?” I gasped.
“A lot of 'private' pig-herds were 'removed' from their hidden pens,” said the soft voice, “so between the 'gone-wild' pigs and the newly-escaped pigs – the entire countryside is once more showing pigs at the doors of witches.”
“Well-hid witches, also,” said Gabriel. “Those people are now being routed out in droves, as well as a new crop of supplicants.”
“I thought they were scarce around here,” said Karl. We had resumed our downward travel, and the feeling of cleanliness and a lack of dirt and smoke in the air made it much easier to breathe. It also meant fresh spates of coughing and spitting, only these messes did not smoke, burn, or smolder.
“They were 'scarce',” said Katje. “Some towns might have had one person in ten who was either a witch or wished to be one, and all save the smartest either left or were killed.” A pause, then, “those people are now being exposed as to who they are, and not merely in the central portion of the first kingdom.” Another brief pause, then, “that net is now cast over a much larger area, and even some of those places up near the north-tip and the border of the second kingdom are now 'waking up' to the sounds of gunfire and screaming.”
“Lukas is not enjoying it much,” I muttered. “He's about thirty miles south of here, just gotten started, and where he and Gilbertus currently are is sounding like the first time I did the Swartsburg.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if both of those men are thoroughly frightened by the sudden appearance of vast dust-clouds over nearly every town they're aware of in the area – and they're further south than that.”
“How far south are they?” asked Sarah.
“About forty miles – and there is now sufficient noise in their general area that they know one chief matter.”
“What?” I asked. My knees felt better, now that we were going down past the eighth – or perhaps ninth – floor.
“They know the coming witches are not going to have it go as the witches they heard and saw spoke of such matters,” said the soft voice, “and those few witches that survive the next two days in the first kingdom will tell tales that those new-arrived witches will find difficult to believe without proofs.”
“They will have those,” I muttered. “They'll have so many proofs they'll want to turn tail and run home, and having sold out, they'll have two choices – no, not two. They don't have any choice, not any more. They'll have to band together so as to survive, and they'll be thinking they're about to sup with Brimstone...”
A fresh spate of gunfire, this deep, prolonged, and rumbling, interrupted me.
“And they've sown the wind for centuries, and now – now, the whirlwind has come upon them.”