Investing the Abbey: Into the light from a forest of night.
The ground floor still arrived none-too-soon, and once arrived there, I had to set down my own burdens and rest for a short time. The intimation I felt, however, was that we needed to go to that large room now known as 'The Upper Alley' to unburden ourselves, and as I led the group out of the maze of hallways, there were comments about how 'clean' the place was now compared to our first times of walking inside it.
“It is still dirty,” said Karl.
“We can walk in here without kicking up clouds of dust,” said Sarah. “That stuff was trouble for us, and it would mean trouble for those wishing to work in here.”
“You also saved well over a week's time regarding the place's renovation,” said the soft voice, “and in 'telling the dust off', you uncovered those fetishes that were laying hidden under it.”
“Meaning they'll be easier to find,” I muttered, as I turned onto the hallway that led past Iggy's Silo and into 'the hall of dead bodies'.
“Those are now gone,” said the soft voice. “Every such skeleton is now dusting the nose of witches and driving them out where they can be dealt with.”
“Even those well-hid witches in and around here,” I muttered. “There isn't a place where they can hide themselves now.”
“Not within fifty miles of this area there isn't,” said the soft voice, “and those places further away than that are now war-zones for gunfire.”
“The whole of the kingdom?” I asked. Iggy's Silo was just ahead, and I would be most glad to unburden myself in the Upper Alley. I knew we would potentially need to move fast if I found a large or especially unpleasant fetish – and I could tell there was at least one of those things present, one that the dust had hid for centuries with especially accursed care.
The hole in Iggy's Silo faintly flashed with a purplish aura as we moved around it, and I wondered just how readily the hole could be 'edged' and then 'guarded'. For some odd reason, I knew that no one up here, save perhaps those few who had come from the Valley, could truly manage such 'delicate' work; and then, for some odd reason, I had a question. I was still glad we didn't have that far to go with our heavy loads.
“Have those people been coming up here more often?” I asked silently.
“There has been a steady trickle of emigration for a very long time,” said the soft voice, “but since the bridge, that trickle has not only increased to something closer to a flood, but now word has passed back among those people as to the correct routes and other locations, and some of the less-recent escapees have set up supply-caches in that area known as the northern waste.”
“Meaning if they can get out of the Valley itself, they've an easier time heading north.” I could 'see' the columns of the Upper Alley ahead.
“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “The third kingdom now has something resembling an edict regarding escapees from the Valley – they're to be sent north post-haste into 'the land where witches die' rather than be killed out of hand when and where found in that kingdom.”
“What?” gasped Sarah.
“Hendrik's message got onto that king,” said the soft voice, “and there's been some real changes in his area.” A brief pause, then, “I'd go as far as you can with those loads short of setting them outside, as your sensing a need to hasten out of here before tonight is through is nothing short of the truth.”
“Close to the steps, then,” I muttered. “I just hope I can make it that far.”
My words seemed to speak for everyone else, and as I set the rifle I had found down, I wondered just what else I would need. The others, however – save for Sarah – had but few illusions. All they retained was what weapons they could carry readily.
“Oh, the rats of size are gone also,” said the soft voice. “Many witches received large rats along with that dust.”
“There still are some in here, aren't there?” I asked, as I wondered if I could set down my possible bag. Would I need it in the areas yet to clear of fetishes?
“I would set down everything save your pistol and sword,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to clear those fetishes by speaking to them, and you're a lot more tired than you think you are.”
“I feel like I'm about ready for a bath,” I muttered.
“You are well-beyond that, I think,” said Sarah, as she laid down her satchel on that one 'ground-sheet' I had found covering my most-recent find. “We should have time to pick this up, even if something horrible happens.”
“Horrible?” I asked. “What could be more horrible than what we already endured?”
And within a second's time, I knew there would be things that I would need to do before the end of this night that would make all of us wonder if we knew of words to describe 'horror' and 'evil'. I currently wondered just what they might be, even if by unburdening myself of my load I felt as if I could walk perhaps another mile. It made for an immediate comment.
“Heavy loads on the march are not a good idea,” I said. “Not if one must travel real distances or climb a lot.”
“You'd best write that in large letters in your notes,” said Katje. “That is nothing more than the truth, as many would have not done as you did today.”
“They'd give up?” I asked.
“I suspect they would die,” said Sarah, “and I am glad you are to be protected better soon, as this work is not helping you at all.”
With a lightened load, we now resumed searching the ground floor. I bypassed the offices we had looked in earlier, save for the one smallest example on the left nearest to Iggy's Silo. There, I went in the door, saw a near-dust-free desk, and knew beyond all doubt that it contained a fetish. I backed out of the doorway, walking backward down a now mostly dust-free hallway, and said “go to hell, you fetish.”
The office erupted with a brilliant white flash and a gout of turgid gray smoke that quickly vanished, and when I went back to the room in question, I saw piled mounds of fine thready 'sawdust' laying scattered all over the floor. A faintly sulfurous stench pervaded the air, which dissipated within seconds; and then, I went to the central mound which had once been a desk, and began to move my hands through it. The first thing that turned up was a sizable cloth pouch, which I handed to Sarah.
“What is this?” she asked.
“I'm not sure,” I said. “I think it's one of those pistols... It is, dear – only that witch kept his in a state of readiness, for some reason.”
“Mostly because that office was the 'realm' of that head arch-witch,” said the soft voice, “and he expected trouble every minute he lived – which is why that particular pistol is a most-unusual specimen.”
“Unusual?” I asked.
“All of its parts were specially hand-selected, and it has some that were 'specially imported' by devious means,” said the soft voice. “It will give you a fair number of ideas, in fact, as that particular weapon has most of its weaknesses 'fixed'.”
“Meaning it's a bit more accurate and a lot more reliable?” I asked.
“That, and it's a truly durable piece,” said the soft voice. “It won't need the kind of maintenance the others will, it will not break its parts if it receives long and hard use, and more, it will stand a significantly hotter loading than the usual for that type of pistol.” A brief pause, then, “and that pistol is a real handful with that hotter ammunition.”
“There is some, isn't there?” I asked.
“Two tins of it,” said the soft voice, “and three of the usual type, which it will handle readily. The hotter stuff is marked specially, and is in 'shiny' cases.”
“Shiny?” I asked. “As in plated?”
While there was no answer, the others now joined in looking in the sawdust with lanterns held close, and within minutes, not only did two more pistols – near-intact Tossers, these sticky and covered with sawdust – turn up, but also several tins of bullets for both the pistol I had found first, but also three tins for each of the Tossers. Sarah opened one of the tins for the smaller pistol, and screeched, “these things are made of silver.”
“Silver plating, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Plated cases were commonly used when reliability under adverse conditions was paramount – and in this instance, those hotter loadings needed plated cases to be 'perfectly' reliable.”
“Silver plating?” I asked. The idea reeked of fetishism.
“It was commonly a silver-tin alloy,” said the soft voice, “and then a very thin coating of 'hard-wax' was 'pressed' into it while warm.”
“They'd be slippery as wet soap,” I squeaked. “Blown-up guns?”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Recall how some rifles behaved where you came from when fed with 'too-soft' brass? That species of plating cures that trouble, and more, it keeps the brass 'clean' – and hence it improves the reliability of nearly all weapons.”
“Nearly all?” I asked. “There are some that, uh, don't need that treatment?”
“That rifle you found is one of them,” said the soft voice. “It might not be one of those horrible things you disliked so intensely when you tried shooting one, but its reliability approaches that of one of the better examples of that type of weapon.”
“Horrible things?” I spluttered. “You don't mean...”
And in saying so, I knew – and pictured in my mind the exact weapon in question, complete with its long and awkwardly-curved magazine, its too-short stock, and its horrible 'feel' – exactly what was meant. It made for a question.
“Chrome plating for the bore and critical parts?” I asked silently. Those weapons supposedly had that done to them.
“No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “Think 'as heat-resistant as Stellite, as hard and wear-resistant as carbide, and as slippery as oiled glass' for the barrel and many of the crucial parts. If the ammunition wasn't filthy, those rifles like that one would fire every time; they'd stand up to dust and dirt fairly well, as well as a certain level of neglect – and unlike that awful-feeling weapon you disliked so intensely, these are accurate.”
With some final gleaning, we began to find not merely empty shell-casings, but also, a handful of small vials like those found in the laboratory. While some had odd lettering printed on them that I neither I nor Sarah could decipher, the most common labeling were the oddly-stylized letters 'L.M.R.K.A.'
“What gives with these numbers on this glass thing here?” said Karl.
“I am not certain,” said Sarah, “but we will wish to retain a sample of all of these things, as they are important, and those across the sea will know of them.”
“Especially those with the five letters,” I said. “Do you know what that means?”
“Yes,” said Sarah. “I have seen those letters on a number of tapestries, and while they did not explain much, I suspect I know their meaning.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“The name of this country was...”
A pregnant pause.
“L'amerika,” said Sarah with finality. “That name was said to have come from elsewhere, and until recently, I wondered what those writing that tapestry meant by their words.” A pause, then, “I do not wonder now.”
“W-why?” I asked.
“That one witch-hole had that word spelled out upon its walls,” said Sarah, “and that in both runes and common letters – so I suspect it was given to those witches by Brimstone.”
“Partly true,” said the soft voice. “It was confirmed by Brimstone, and that confirmation occurred in that now-vanquished location some time prior to that war.” A pause, then, “they received that name by other means entirely.”
“So that was what those letters meant,” said Gabriel as he stood up. I noted that all he had for carrying was one of those cloth satchels, and its grime-free nature spoke of it being 'held in reserve' by some unknown means. He seemed to read my mind.
“I brought three of these,” he said, “and this is my second one. The third one I gave to Katje.”
“What?” I gasped, as I looked around. I was the only person without such a satchel.
“I packed several spares also,” said Sarah. “I have no idea how that room has as many of them as it does, but it has hundreds at the least.”
“They're quite old,” said Katje. “I suspect they were made down in the fourth kingdom...”
“No,” said the soft voice. “That type of satchel is currently made in a number of places, but those you found in that room were made in the marshes nearly a hundred years ago.”
“Then why are they still good?” asked Sarah.
“Dryness, most likely – that and the cold that's said to be present in the house proper,” I said. “The bugs that like to eat cloth want warmer environments than the upper portions of that building.”
“That many?” asked Sarah. “How..?”
“Look at one carefully in good light, dear,” said the soft voice. “They are not hand-sewn, and that cloth is not woven by the usual means.”
“Meaning it's machine-woven and machine-sewn,” I said softly, “and that place most likely has some truly capable people... Duh, it's the marshes. That place has a lot of marked people in it – and most of them have, uh, substantial markings.”
“Not quite true,” said the soft voice. “While a lot of them have markings beyond 'toes', few people there currently have 'genuine' substantial markings.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You must be born with those,” said Sarah. “Acquired ones are not quite the same, unless the person is particularly suited toward them.” And in lower voice, “Hans told me about yours.”
Once back out in the hallway, though, I asked of Gabriel, “you spoke of letters. What were they on that you saw?”
“One of the things was an old sword I saw in a lecturer's rooms at Maagensonst,” said Gabriel. “He said he bought it in the scrap-market, but I suspect now that he lied to me.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“It was marked with a great many strange markings in addition to those letters,” said Gabriel, “and he said he was trying to trace them down.”
“Runes,” I spat. “That man was a well-hid witch.”
“He did not act like one then,” said Gabriel.
“I suspect Dennis is right,” said Sarah. “I've heard of swords like that, and if they're as old as those I've seen, then only a witch would have the desire and the money to purchase one.”
“Those were not the only letters, either,” I said. “Now what were the other letters on that thing – those on the other side of that witch-forged and triple-cursed blade?”
Gabriel gasped, then said in a faint voice, “B-b, two others, a 'K', and then a 'Y', all of them separated by dots.”
“That was no common witch-sword, you wretch,” spat Sarah. “That was a sword used at the worst slave-camp of all of them, and everyone named 'disgraced' by a witch was sent there to die!”
“Berky,” I said with finality. “Work makes freedom – in Underworld German, no less. That was the sign over its gate.”
“You have not read that story, have you?” asked Sarah. “Smokestack Heroes?”
“N-no,” I said.
“I doubt you would need to, actually,” said Sarah quietly. “I suspect you lived in a place much like Berky for a very long time.”
As we came back into the 'area of interest', I once more mentioned the lifts and their motors. “Since those were electric motors, that means a power-source – and if those motors were that inefficient, then that means it would be quite sizable – and potentially very heavy, heavy enough to put it on this floor in a section that's built especially solid.” A brief pause, then, “now where is that thing? It feels like it's being hidden by fetishes.”
“It is, which is why you need to find and clear those before you think to find it,” said the soft voice. “More, these fetishes will need you looking at them, as you'll see ones like them in the future and knowing about them and their tricks beforehand will help greatly.”
“Like those things tagged as evidence,” I muttered.
Yet still, with the fetishes hiding the area in question, I had a very definite idea as to the place's 'general' location, and I began to move in the direction of the stairs, at least at first. I then realized the place was located off of 'the main drag', and reversed course for an instant – then realized what I had actually been after, that being one of the 'hiding fetishes' that were 'guarding' the area surrounding the generator.
“Smelly thing has got to be hiding in a desk somewhere,” I muttered, as I once-more reversed course. “Gotta get these things in a definite order, as they're mutually supporting and pretty bad, also.”
“They aren't that bad,” said the soft voice, “even if their aggregate effect is quite troublesome, and you'll not wish the others to come much closer to that one you're moving toward than they are now.”
“Meaning I must find it, look at it, then come back here and speak to it?” I asked.
While I had no answer, I suspected strongly that such a tactic was a wise one, and when I left off with Sarah 'restraining' the others, I felt the thing's presence with such 'force' that I seemed drawn to it as if it were a magnet and I a small piece of iron. Without hesitation, I walked along through the maze of hallways straight to the room in question, and as I held my lantern high in my left hand, I was stunned to see a peculiar 'design' upon the wall.
I slowly walked closer, knowing with each further footstep not merely the raw and raging spiritual power of this infernal design, but also more about its author, and also, what it actually meant.
The loop portion itself was the symbol of capture, this being the upper portion perched upon a strangely-footed widespread 'T'. That too had significance, even though I did not understand the meaning of that. I did understand the loop portion, for I had felt its like 'under test' in the fourth kingdom.
I touched my neck where the twisted wire had seared itself into my memory, and I was surprised to actually feel a thick scar nearly an inch wide left by it. I had literally been hung from and by this symbol, and now, here I saw it depicted in purplish-red upon a faded and mottled dark-blue background. I wondered if I was smothering as I noted this last dusky hue.
Within that upside-down-pear-shaped loop, however, were three things that had but a smattering of meaning to me: two swords, these of a shape but vaguely resembling mine; and in the center, what looked like either an oddly-winged missile, or perhaps a spearhead, and perched upon its tip, what might have been the very point of this horrible barbed weapon. This point was detached from the main body of the 'spearhead' – almost as if the spear was a winged missile sent toward whales.
And under the whole peculiar design, I saw burned in the color of just-shed blood that backwards lighting bolt of evil recollection. I instinctively knew that this infernal rune was not merely a most-potent symbol of destruction, but was thought to be so by all witches here, ever since the first witch 'awoke from slumber', to have special power over their ancient and accursed enemy, and that by one means, and one means only. The meaning of this entire tableau, even though much was yet hid from me, was now plain. It could only be but one single thing:
The conjuring of Sieve.
“What am I thinking?” I thought, as I began to back away from a design that seemed to assay pulling me forward and unto the death that witchdom decreed for those like me. Conjuring Sieve wanted a monster, as Sieve was the definition of a monster; it lived to but destroy...
“Sieve is not a spirit, so it cannot 'live',” said the soft voice. “Turn around and run out of this room, and do not stop running until you are at least thirty feet from the doorway of this room.”
I did not hesitate: I did exactly as I was told, and as I turned upon the hallway that reached where Sarah was but barely restraining the others, a massive eruption of hazy red fire picked me up to fetch up on the floor sliding. I came to a stop just to Sarah's left with my nose but inches away from her ankle. I slowly reached out and touched it, then squeaked.
“Yes, I am,” said Sarah. “Now might not be the best time for a foot-rub, even if...” Sarah stopped in mid-sentence as I gathered myself up to a standing position. I could now clearly feel not merely where at least two of the other fetishes were, but I knew precisely where that generator was hiding; more, I knew that these fetishes needed to be 'dealt with' in a definite and precise order; and finally, I knew who had actually arranged them.
“That one stinking witch,” I spat. “She did that drawing in that room, and she wrote down the instructions for her chosen 'lackey' as to what to do upon her leaving, and then she put all of these things here so as to 'control' the place like a puppet upon a string.”
“Precisely correct,” said the soft voice, “and when you next see that symbol, you'll be both much better protected and witchdom as a whole will be a good deal weaker.”
“Was this symbol a loop perched atop a widespread letter 'T' with swords and a spearhead in that loop?” Sarah's tone was insistent.
“Y-yes, it was,” I gasped, as I began to walk back down the hall. The next fetish of the five that needed to go before the generator was investigated was easily fifty feet away in a straight line and over a hundred yards distant when traveling through the maze of hallways – and while I did not know just what it was, it would glow redly, and that no matter where or how it happened to be hidden. The first of the five was by far the worst, I now knew.
“That is a symbol I have only seen on one tapestry, and it was surrounded by dried blood,” said Sarah, “and that tapestry was in that place I needed to bathe for.”
“Were it anywhere else, it and those keeping it would burn as witches and the tools of witches, and that by the call of the witches in that area,” said Gabriel. “Now what did that symbol you just spoke of mean?”
“My guide said it was a most-evil symbol,” said Sarah quietly, “and that the witches of before the war used that symbol to indicate how this thing called Sieve was to be 'conjured'.”
“Thing is right,” said Gabriel. “No living witch has any real idea as to what it actually is, and while they all want it to come here, they would think and speak otherwise most quickly if it actually manifested itself in any form that is remotely like the thing the witches speak of.”
“Since when did you learn that, Gabriel?” asked Sarah pointedly.
“Since now, it seems,” he said, “as I but vaguely recall what I just said.”
“I was told it was not a spirit,” I said, “but that... I do not remember just when I heard that beyond 'it was recently' and 'it was before the hall went where it belongs'.” A pause, then, “oh, stop here. This is the next fetish, and it's hiding itself.”
However, as I turned the corner, I almost wanted to laugh at the spirits bound to this thing. They thought they were hiding that which 'retained' them, but I would find them and what they were guarding as if they were shooting up skyrockets and lighting huge signal fires so as to advertise their presence.
“That thing's in a desk,” I thought. “The one furthest from the door, as that was once the communications center of this place, and that witch wanted to control everything this place did by word as well as by deed.”
And with this thought, I had others: “how did the witches of that era communicate? Did they use 'spiritual' means, or something more common, or both methods intermingled and separately as per their inclination of the moment?”
I then by some means came to the door – I had forgotten all else in my pondering – and in this long and yet-dusty room, I saw empty metal racks.
They glowed redly, as was appropriate for metal that was thrice-cursed; faintly, I saw massive black 'boxes' studded with huge strangely-shaped knobs on these ghost-riven racks, and as I walked past these racks now brimful of humming and hissing equipment, past the two overturned and going-to-rust metal stools, and back toward the five listening positions with the sixth desk all by itself some feet further on, I seemed to pass through a wall and...
And the whole mess, once filmy and vague, became utterly real – much as if I were a spirit and observing the whole of the vast and static-crackling mess that witch had cursed.
No, this was its state before she had cursed it. This was the nerve center of the place, that realm owned by the head arch-witch set over the Abbey by the 'ranking' witch of that time. This was the ruler of the entire realm, the true arch-witch of L'amerika and not that upstart titled 'The Mistress of the North'; that person as I knew of her was some time in the future, actually, and as I passed the first of the five glossy black offset desks, I saw hunched over what looked like monstrous 'typewriters' black-clad 'beings' hazed with so much red 'mist' that I could but barely see the creatures hid by these 'flames'. These 'beings' wore a species of headphones upon their heads, and their monstrous and bulky forms were such that I felt reminded of the recalled picture that spoke of witch-soldiers.
“These witches were their far-removed superiors,” said a strange and peculiarly echoing voice that took some 'seconds' to recognize, “and this is not the Abbey's communications room, but one very much like it located somewhere to the north and east of where the Abbey stands.”
“And it was set up almost identical to what was in the Abbey, even as to the chief fetish in that drawer there,” I thought, as I pointed to the rearmost desk. It had no occupant at this time, for that witch had business elsewhere; he showed intermittently, this without warning at all hours of the day and night; and woe befall the stupid 'fool-witch' who angered him.
He would do sacrifice upon the spot if he found any such 'Disgrace', and as I saw what seemed a ghostly form materialize in the wall ahead of me as if it were a far-seeing witch-mirror, I then knew that firstly, that that witch was coming here in very short order; and secondly, in some fashion, this witch was a counterpart to the Mistress of the North.
“Her teacher, in fact,” said that echoing vague-sounding voice, “and the reason the fetish you're about to look at is so important is because that witch copied what this man did to a very substantial degree.”
“And her 'teacher' was no witch to trifle with, either” I thought. “For some reason, I feel reminded of that one person I once knew.”
“He did not teach her,” said the now muffled voice. I could still feel that one witch coming in a great hurry, which gave me but a short time to act. I seemed to flow...
Or did I fly?
Past the remaining desks, there to 'alight' in front of the desk at the rear of this long and narrow room with a soft rush of wind that blew from behind me. I reached out toward the upper desk drawer, which opened at my touch; and with that one open – it was the controlling drawer, and the fetish-wrought mechanisms contained within the desk needed it to be open so as to open the other nine drawers of the desk – I could reach toward the upper left-hand drawer. Within that drawer, my hands followed the red-hazed vision of my eyes, and there found an oddly-faceted 'saucer' that burned so 'hot' with red flames that I flung it and screamed after it “Go to hell, you stinking fetish, and take these accursed witches with you!”
The result was astonishing: I was literally blown out of the room by the eruption of smoke-billowing red and yellow fire, and I 'came to myself' running down a hall which took me what seemed three seconds to recognize. I had touched the thing in the room, I had tossed then it and spoke to it what needed to be said, and now...
Another massive eruption of flame and noise launched me like a spear to thump into a wall – and when I turned my head, I saw silhouetted by hazy yellowish-white light amid a thick cloud of darkness the group that Sarah was once more holding back. She then spoke.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
I shook my head so as to clear it, then muttered, “the first was worst, eh? I don't think so – at least not for tossing me.”
“The reason you were tossed like that is because you didn't just deal with the one here,” said the soft voice. “You dealt with that one back there also, and forestalled the 'coming of age' of the Mistress of the North by a good five years.”
“What?” I squeaked. “How?”
“Now that I can speak of,” said Sarah as I groped my way toward her. My light was out, and my vision was being effected somehow, at least until I came close enough to assay a relight. I then opened the door and saw that my candle was not merely out: it was gone entirely from my lantern, and the chill of the cold dull brass said it had been 'gone' for some minutes at the least.
“How was that thing giving light like that?” asked Sarah, as she fished out another candle from her right pocket. “It was glowing as bright as ever, but” – here, she touched my lantern as she inserted the candle into it – “not only is there no wax or wick in this thing, but if I trust my touch it's been nearly a turn of a glass since it had a flame in it!”
Once Sarah set the candle in the lantern's holder – I needed to bring the wire up to its top position for her to do so – I brought it down to surround the wick for some reason. Faintly, a yellowish glow started showing within the wire within a second of my doing so – and with a faint hissing noise, the candle entirely lit to then show a glaring whiteness. I closed the side of the thing in shock.
“What did you do?” asked Sarah.
“I think these things give off fumes that react with that wire,” I said.
“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice. “You just learned how those titanium lanterns actually light.”
“What?” I asked. “Catalytic action?”
“Just like a glow-plug, only no battery is needed,” said the soft voice. “That particular candle-formula off-gases a lot more than most wax candles, which partly accounts for their greater light – and, as you just learned, their capacity to self-ignite if an activated wire is brought close enough to the wick.” A pause, then, “and that will be no small asset in the days to come.”
“So that's why those things keep poorly,” said Sarah. “They always told us to buy fresh candles when we were to go traipsing, and my cousin needed me to bring her some on a regular basis so she could study in that smelly place.”
“Boermaas demands tallow, doesn't it?” I asked.
“Boermaas forbids the use of tallow candles currently,” said the soft voice, “and demands wax for its starting students; and now, it also mandates the use of distillate-fueled lighting during its seventh year.”
“Wonderful,” I spat. “The place stinks horribly of distillate and bad food, and blows up twice a week!”
“During its better seasons, yes,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, the about-to-graduate students get thinned out to no small degree by distillate-fueled explosions, and that maintenance crew is both sizable and busy, with two shifts laboring around the clock almost every day.”
“And those that come from that place are now witches to reckon with,” muttered Katje. “I know about distillate and how it likes to explode.”
“You learned that recently, did you not?” asked Sarah. She seemed to 'know something', and she was not speaking of it.
“Yes, because when our town caught fire, there were many such explosions,” said Katje, “and the stink of that stuff was nearly as strong as that of strong drink.”
“I tossed more than one jug of distillate before I left those cattle to their business,” murmured Sarah. “Now there are three more fetishes that need to be dealt with, and finally that big metal thing and its trouble, and we are done here for tonight.”
“You'll still have to hold everyone back, won't you?” I asked, as I went through the group toward the next fetish. The Mistress of the North had laid these things out in a most definite pattern, almost as if the outstretched fingertips of a giant hand formed a cage about her 'prize'; and with the passing of first the thumb and now the smallest finger, I was now after the middle and furthest-reaching one. I would get the left finger after, and finish with the pointing finger.
“Or is that right?” I asked. “Those other two after this one are practically right down the hall here.”
“If you were to stretch out your right hand with its fingers forming a cage upon the floor, then the actual locations of the fetishes in question fit that precise map you were just given – and while the path you'll need to take is an easier one for the remaining three, the five points are actually in the form of a cage.”
“By intent, no doubt,” I spat.
“Exactly so,” said the soft voice. “Be glad the Mistress of the North was delayed in her 'testing' by several years by the death of her foremost teacher, as otherwise the witches would have won that war and Brimstone would now have this planet.”
“And other ones as well,” I muttered. “Now this one, at least, should not blow me up.”
I not only found the next item – an odd-looking palm-sized mirrored thing surrounded by filigreed nonsense of some kind – hiding in a desk within less than a minute of entering the sizable office, but I was also altogether wrong about not getting blown up.
While I was blown up, I was only tossed against the wall opposite the doorway of the office in question; and while I was tossed, my impact was relatively soft, unlike the previous two fetishes. I turned to look at what was inside where I had just been to see a smoke-billowing mound of going-to-sawdust wreckage, and without a word, Sarah grabbed me by the hand and towed me along down the hall and away from what I was looking at in stunned horror. The room – a large one – had had over a dozen desks packed close enough to make me wonder if I had accidently showed up in part of General's Row.
“Yes?” I asked. “The next two?”
I was answered by coughing from the rear of the 'column', which was then followed by choked-sounding speech mentioning 'bad fumes' and 'that wood-substitute is nasty for smoke'.
“That stuff didn't catch fire, did it?”
“No, but that binder did holding it together certainly did, for that stuff worked more by curses than by chemistry,” said the soft voice, “and it went up in smoke when that fetish 'binding' its remaining curses in place went where it belonged.”
“Will I get tossed more?” I asked.
“Yes, but not hard,” said the soft voice. “The other two fetishes could be spoken to from a distance, but they will need looking at also, as both of that type will become most-common in the time to come.”
“How..?” asked Sarah.
“Remember how this entire area is sitting atop one huge and long-buried witch-hole?” I asked. “I'll bet part of the reason people act like they do in the first kingdom is because there's piles of nasty fetishes under their feet.”
“That's the case for the entire northern half of the continent,” said the soft voice, “and many regions in the rest of it – and 'piles of nasty fetishes' is an understatement, at least for the worst areas of that northern half.”
“And they'll all need to go,” I said. “If the fetishes are all gone, then becoming a witch is a whole lot harder, isn't it?”
And in saying so, I knew that while I was correct as to quality, I was far off as to quantity. Becoming a witch then – even a half-baked supplicant, once the fetishes were entirely gone – would be all-but impossible.
“And if the witches themselves are killed off, and...”
“It will become impossible when the Curse is fully broken,” said the soft voice, “as part of that curse breaking is a cleansing of people's hearts and minds.”
I found the next fetish so quickly it astonished me, for I had not merely underestimated the distance between the the 'middle' and the 'left' finger, but as I turned the last corner, I could feel the thing so 'hard' that I had to hold myself in check to not run toward it. That proved wise, as this thing was not merely tricky – it was that, as it was not where I thought it was, but elsewhere – but also, it had a wire of hairlike fineness serving as a trip-line. A glance at what the 'fetish' was told me plenty: it was a fully-primed witch-grenade with one of those detonators I had found screwed in instead of the usual pin-and-lever arrangement; and as I backed away, I turned and stumbled into a run while yelling at the others to dive for the floor. I was perhaps ten feet from Sarah when the blast of the device picked me up and tossed me over her prostrate body...
To then land upon Gabriel and bounce off of his prostrate body. I then thumped into the nearest wall and planted my nose into the concrete. I hoped my nose had not broken.
“What was that?” shrieked Sarah. “It almost got me!”
I lay stunned, face to the wall, and for some reason I seemed to see large numbers of sharp fragments littering the stony arid soil all about me. I blinked, and the odd sensation of being 'not entirely here' redoubled, at least until I saw the red haze about the fragments. I then learned a particle of truth about 'witch-grenades' – they not only had the nastiest splinters imaginable, they also tended to direct those splinters toward their individual targets so as to achieve the highest possible levels of lethality.
“Stinking witches and their damned-to-hell grenades,” I muttered, as the 'state' faded with a shuddering rumble to leave me with fresh-ringing ears. “That thing must have had more than one wire. Did it?”
“No, it did not,” said the soft voice, “and that witch was not then an expert in trapping.” A pause, then, “while she learned much about traps in the months after her business here, the chief matter with that device was it, like the one at the foot of the stairs, was about to explode of its own accord – and the mere tread of your footsteps was sufficient to 'get it in the mood for work', which it did some seconds after you saw it.”
“Directional splinters?” I asked. “Really bad ones?”
“The latter far more than the first, at least with most witches,” said the soft voice. “That witch was strong enough to apply the 'directional curses', and she'd put those on that example.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “It had its splinters turn around the corner and come this way.”
“I am not sure if the walls here are made of iron,” muttered Sarah dryly, “even if that thing tossed enough rocks at me to give me a sore head.”
“Sore head?” I asked, as I fully came to myself and felt my own scalp. My hand showed a faint trace of blood, which made me wonder what had happened. Soft steps came from behind me, then a faint touch on my head; and then a less-than-faint screech almost imploded my still-ringing ears.
“Yours is worse,” squeaked Sarah. “What happened?”
“He landed on me and collided with the wall,” said Gabriel, “and it seemed that while that bomb spat its share of gravel at you, it was interested in him far more.” Here, Gabriel picked up a sizable chunk of concrete studded liberally with what looked like chopped-up scrap metal. “They put wires in this stuff, but this here seems worse than their usual – and I see a few pieces of dark hair on it.”
I still felt dazed, but I took my feet, and within less than a minute, I began moving further along the corridor. This was the last fetish, the last of the five guardians, and when someone placed a damp rag in my hand, I said “thank you” absentmindedly. I then began dabbing at the sore spot on my head.
“I'm glad we're nearly done for tonight,” said Sarah, “as that rock was not a small one, and while Gabriel spoke of gravel, I'm glad I brought several rags.”
“You have blood in your hair too?” I asked.
“Not nearly as much as you seem to have,” said Sarah. “Now that thing up ahead is quite a stinker, so I would hold my nose when it tries to spray you.”
“What?” I gasped.
“I would like to know the same thing,” said Sarah dryly. “I think that to be a clue.”
“This is not a gaseous fumigant, is it?” asked Gabriel nervously.
“No,” said the soft voice. “The chemicals that witch used deteriorated to the point of uselessness long ago, so this one will merely smell like bad soap.”
“That is bad enough to suit me,” said Karl. “I will help her keep the rest from trying to help you, as I do not like the stink of soap much.”
“This is not normal bad soap smelled from miles away, Karl,” said Sarah. “This is like making a large batch of bad soap – with poorly-rendered lard-mingled tallow and lye from Grussmaan's.”
The office ahead – some distance ahead, even if it was otherwise but little hidden – seemed to lure me like a hungry fish, and this time, I had some intimation as to what I might see. More, I knew this particular trap, because it had lost the help of the four others of the set of five, would be less able; and then, I had been told by a most-reliable source as to its lack of real danger. I needed to see it, as some traps like it would 'keep' their chemicals far better – and those would need similar precautions.
“And a much better degree of protection,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you won't have to try this nonsense again without such protection.”
“Stench?” I asked.
“Such protection will protect to a degree against stink,” said the soft voice. “What I meant was that protection will cope with exposure to poisons fairly well – and those like this you will encounter in the future will be done by people who knew their chemistry and had sense enough to build traps that would endure.”
“Stinking witch thought the trouble would be over before she died,” I muttered.
“In terms of the trouble she expected, she was absolutely correct,” said the soft voice. “She was not that dark-haired witch.”
As I came closer to the doorway, I could now 'feel' the trap, and when I came to the door, there, on an ancient piece of that wood-substitute between two ancient and rust-streaked chairs, sat three jugs side-by-side. The whole was tied together with what looked like a long and still-supple piece of mottled brown snakeskin, and as I looked at it carefully, I noted the following:
The jugs were obviously from that one store of them in Iggy's Silo, if I went by their writing, yet unlike any of those, these jugs were absolutely 'hazed' with redness.
The chairs were also covered with this redness; they were as cursed as anything I had yet seen, and only the curses that made this trap 'work' held their corrosion in abeyance. As it was, they were barely holding themselves up from the floor with the destruction of the deep witch-hole.
The jugs were completely and utterly empty, and I knew another matter: the curses that drastically increased the reactivity of the chemicals had also weakened the glass, and put a short and definite 'shelf-life' upon a trap of this nature.
“It lasted long enough to suit that witch,” I muttered. “It was probably still troublesome until that one curse was uttered.”
“That cracked the jugs and let their chemicals leak out,” said the soft voice, “and by that time, the Mistress of the North had been dead – she was entirely dead, and where she belonged – for some time.”
With this pronouncement, the reddish haze grew thicker with the passing seconds, and I leaped back to thump against the wall, then jumped to the side as a red-flashed crashing roar spat a wall of flaming glass where I had been but an instant before. I gathered myself up from the floor to once more find myself at Sarah's feet.
“Such nice feet,” I muttered. I wished to touch them, in fact.
“Not now,” she said. “That one was as bad as any of them. What was it?”
“Th-three jugs,” I muttered. When I tried to describe them, however, I found I did not need to – and more, I was not able to.
The stench spoken of previously was of such an intense and ghastly nature that all of us broke into shambling runs while trying to avoid spewing, and I turned to the side to retch and then spray the wall with a bitter reeking mess as I stumbled and tried to run while being tormented by a convulsive desire to vomit. That seemed a signal, and until we had gone out of the maze and were back in the hallway leading to it at a run, we had all – multiple times – decorated the walls with vomit of various colors.
“What was that stink?” screeched Katje as she choked back a spray of fresh 'stuff'.
“That cursed jug-collection,” I spat, as I then resumed retching. I finished doing so – or so I thought when with a final heave, I spat a green-tinted mess downrange.
“Be glad that will be taken care of soon,” said the soft voice. “The stink was not due to the chemicals, but rather the remaining potency of that witch's curses.”
However, as I passed the entrance hallway on the way toward 'the main drag', I had to answer a question. I had no words for she who asked, even if someone else did.
“Why are you going here if those fetishes protected that generator like a cage?” asked Sarah.
“Not merely is that room where that generator is lurking quite large, it is also shaped peculiarly,” said the soft voice, “and those fetishes barred the conventional paths to it, as the only witches then able to 'go around' those traps did not wish to tangle with the Mistress of the North.”
While we had formerly gone south only upon 'the main drag' – I was wondering why that term kept coming to me – this time, I turned north; and within not more than perhaps fifty feet and a handful of dust-mounded offices, I came to another somewhat narrow hallway, one that ended in a doubled door with wire-reinforced glass windows in the upper portion of each door. I could see clearly the lock, and while this one was not cursed, it was indeed locked in its closed position. I thought to speak to the locking mechanism, and while I heard a click and the doors trembled, they did not open. I knew what that most likely meant, and I began backing out of the hallway, then turned south and herded the others away from an obvious trap. They seemed to have an idea as to what might happen, but I still thought to speak of the matter.
“That witch was thorough enough,” I muttered. “Put a ring of cursed traps around the 'prize', then rigs the prize itself.”
And in saying this, I wondered if I was still underestimating the long-dead witch once known as 'The Mistress of the North'. I thought not to chance matters, so much so that I retreated all the way to the entrance hallway, and with my back to the wall ten feet from the corner that fronted on that one cross-hall that led to the main drag, I waited until the others did as I did. Only then did I actually speak once more.
Faintly, a deathly groan seemed to ring my head about as if I were dead and buried myself, then as the cursed chain to the trap went taught, the complaints of five tormented rusty hinges were buried utterly by a trio of blasts of such magnitude that I dived for the floor while screaming for divine aid.
And as I hit the floor, I felt and heard the screaming noises of splinters shooting our way, and I was more than a little surprised to hear – audibly – a faint rattle and then see a metal sphere roughly a quarter inch in diameter roll past my nose.
“Oh, no,” groaned Katje. “The floors have become slippery again.” Then a question: “three explosions, and each of them that big?”
“More mines,” I said. “I hope that armory has some of those things.”
“Why?” asked Katje, as I raised myself up from the floor, hopefully for the last time tonight. I was not looking forward to riding twelve miles home on horseback.
“Perhaps we can rig them so as to put metal into some swine, dear,” I said. “I doubt an Iron Pig will do well if it has ample iron inside it, and if these things are even close to how I suspect them to be, they can be done so as to make that happen readily.”
“I would like to know how you plan to do that,” said Sarah, “as those pigs are as tricky as anything, and they can tell about traps better than most bombers – and the same for poisoned food.” A pause, then, “how do you propose to make them eat such little balls as these?”
“First, rub the bomb with a mixture of the worst tallow one can find along with a collection of strong-smelling spices, like, uh, Krokus and perhaps a few others, then use some...” I paused, then my question:
“Are those things fond of High Meats?”
“They are,” said Sarah. “They really like bald wood-pigeons, so much so that I tried using one of those stinky things as bait for a trap, and that pig would not take it.”
“It smelled your scent, dear,” I said. “Next time, use a long two-tined fork, and smoke the thing really good over a smoky wood fire for about twenty minutes. The pig will have trouble smelling you then, and it will think that pigeon to be cooked for it especially.” I then asked thought to ask about Sarah's use of the word 'bald', and put the matter aside. I was too tired to press it further at this time.
“I'll need to remember that,” said Sarah. “Now given that, how will eating iron make one of those things sick?”
“Oh, the pig does not eat the iron with its mouth,” I said. “The pig-trap has a number of those mines, and when the 'Big Grunter' takes the bait, it sets off a, uh, carefully fitted detonator fitted to a collection of lightly buried mines surrounding the bait-stake. They explode, and our pig gets a lot of high-velocity iron in its un-armored underside.”
“Then even if the pig is able to endure such wounds, it is doomed,” said Sarah. “That might work if we can get enough of those mines you speak of.” Sarah began to shuffle aside the ball bearings as we went into the hallway leading toward 'the main drag', and I did likewise.
At least until we came into another dust-cloud, and its size gave me an idea just how large the room in question was.
“Cursed machinery, most likely,” I spat.
“Most of it, no,” said the soft voice. “Most of it was seized from businesses which had either 'secretly' imported it from other regions, or had legitimately imported it while witchdom was yet young in the area, with the latter situation predominating.”
“And the remainder?”
“Was purchased and then 'donated' by the Mistress of the North,” said the soft voice, “and its 'cursed' aspects, while indeed powerful while she lived, faded within a hundred years of her death.” A brief pause, then, “all you will really need to concern yourself with now is actually running that thing when it becomes time to do so.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me, the generator itself is a fetish.”
“It is not intended to be a fetish,” said the soft voice. “They needed 'common' witches to be able to run the thing, which meant it could not be strongly cursed – and that means it could not be built in the manner of a fetish.” A pause, then, “it does, however, have its 'secrets', and while it can hide nothing from you, it can – and will – hide all it possibly can from everyone else.”
The first sign of trouble I saw was a bent and twisted metal door laying against the wall across from the hallway leading to our 'prize', and the other door of the pair lay in pieces scattered among a swarm of small ball-bearings that skittered along the floor when we attempted to move them aside. I and Sarah moved both doors and scattered wreckage aside to leave a narrow path, and behind Sarah, I hoped and prayed someone was making the path wider. I thought to ask.
“Is someone moving the wreckage to the walls?”
“Yes, I am,” said Sepp, “and I just got Karl to working on it too,”
“More than just the two of you,” said Sarah. “If you aren't clearing this path, start doing so, as we might have to run again.”
“You?” I asked.
“I have read of tricky witches on tapestries,” said Sarah, “but the very worst of what have I read and what that witch did are the smell of the mule and the mule itself.”
“More like 'the smell of one mule and several large teams of mules, and all of those teams Genuine Plugs,” muttered Maarten. “I wished I had brought our broom now, as we could use it.”
“The dust, Maarten,” said Katje. “Just use your feet, and mind that junk so you don't get hurt.”
It took us perhaps three minutes to move the bulk of the steel balls to the side, and perhaps two minutes more to move aside the wreckage of the door. As the 'cleaning' finished, however, I adjusted my lantern, and thought to look inside – and the instant I did, I knew again the place was trapped further yet.
“No one inside here, please,” I said. “I underestimated that woman again, as there's at least one other trap in here.”
“It was supposed to go off when the mines did,” said the soft voice. “It did not, which should indicate that even a witch like the Mistress of the North can be overconfident.” A brief pause, then, “you can go inside, but do not go in more than two steps from the doorway – and I would have the others get ready to run in case that other trap decides to go off without warning.”
“I'd get out in the hallway, if I were you,” I muttered. “This one is tricky enough to scare me, as it uses something involving curses.”
“No, it's just a 'hair-trigger detonator',” said the soft voice.
To my complete surprise, I heard soft shuffling noises, and I turned around where I stood to see everyone except Sarah walking slowly – and gingerly – out of the hallway. Maarten turned as he reached its end, then said, “should we go back to where you had us wait on that last one, or go further yet?”
I wondered for a moment, then as I was about to speak, I heard Katje speak something unintelligible and Maarten vanished as if he was a hooked fish.
“You also, dear?” I asked.
“I am staying next to you,” said Sarah, “and I heard what you were told. I'm going no further in that place than you do.”
“Does she..?” I wondered if Sarah routinely heard what I was told.
“More often than anyone else, and that by a wide margin,” said the soft voice. “Andreas has the wires and well-placed – and well-groomed – sources, unlike her; and then, she's seen much that he hasn't – and no, he hasn't nearly been ended on burn-piles twice. He's not had those kind of mobs raised.”
“You know what that means, don't you?” I asked.
“I might not 'show' like you do right now, but should I be hurt beyond the trivial, I most likely will do so then,” said Sarah. “I'm more than a little surprised I'm not living in the marshes right now, in fact.”
I took my first shuffling step beyond the threshold, and then a second; and as I stood still and staring, my lantern held low, I gasped. Sarah, however, did not make such a noise.
“I do not know what Georg will say if he learns of a place which has more machines than the whole of the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah quietly. “You know what this stuff is, don't you?”
“I do, dear,” I said, as I looked down the long-running aisle leading to our left. “I've run equipment like this before, and I even owned some few pieces of equipment like it.” I then saw what looked like a dark cavern directly ahead, and as my eyes adjusted to the light of the lantern, I said softly, “there, behind that fence over there. There's the generator.”
As my eyes took the massive size of the thing – the 'generator' had what looked to be an engine easily as tall as myself and eight or nine feet long, while some few feet away to its right lay an obvious 'generator' nearly as tall and as long as the engine – I had but a few words to speak of it.
“That thing is a monster,” I softly murmured.
“I hope it is not one of those,” said Sarah. “If I close my eyes, I can still see Iggy's flaming, and I hope I can sleep tonight without nightmares.” I then recalled one reason why we could only go inside two steps, and when I shined my lantern down and saw an obvious trip-wire, I slowly backed up a step. Sarah did so likewise, and looked at me.
“What is it?” she asked. “I saw what looked like a trip-line.”
“That's just one of those things,” I said. “There are others like that one in here, and this one isn't a mine.” My voice became just above a whisper. “This is something like what happened last year when I went here just days after I came.”
“With the two of them?” asked Sarah.
“Yes,” I said. “My first ride in a buggy, ever.” A pause, then, “I found a trap then, and while it had mines, it also turned loose something really evil for fumes – and I saw it drop this odd, uh, creature but seconds after it sniffed the fumes.”
“That is no fumigant I have ever heard of,” said Sarah. “Not one used now, anyway.”
“Deadly poisons, unseen yet lethal, drifting in vast clouds that withered plant and flesh whence they drifted...”
“N-no,” gasped Sarah. “You did not go in that place. I read that on that one tapestry, and none of those people knew a thing about what I read, and no one else I asked did either, and now you quote from that tapestry?” A brief pause, then quietly, “what does that?”
“That chemical,” I said. “I was reminded of a really bad one where I came from, one called... I cannot recall its name, but its letters were G and B.”
“That was on that tapestry also,” said Sarah. “Now what was it?”
“A very deadly poison,” I said dryly. “Where I came from. This stuff might well be worse – a lot worse, in fact, as that stuff didn't kill that quickly where I came from.”
“How long?” asked Sarah.
“Minutes,” I said, “but the stuff that hit, that, uh, rodent took effect in the time it took my eyes to blink twice.” A brief pause, “that stuff where I came from killed everything, almost, and it remained.... No, 'it bided the space of three turnings of the moon, and until an entire season was gone, to tread but a moment's time upon such poisoned ground meant death upon the spot'.” I then screeched, “what? Three months? That stuff didn't hang around that long!”
“Mostly because you were reminded of something you knew of, and not what this material actually is,” said the soft voice. “Slowly, back out of the door, and keep moving until you're at least thirty feet from the entrance to the hallway before you turn around.”
“It is onto us,” said Sarah, as she began backing. I joined her steps, matching them with my own. I thought to speak, then knew doing so was very unwise.
“Not here, anyway,” said the soft voice. “Get some distance into the main hallway, as this isn't a canister like that last bomb was. This one is a specially-made gas projector used for trapping, and that means the liquid chemical will come out in a stream that will hit the wall behind you and turn to vapor instantly.”
We continued backing, then as I saw the open corridor of the main drag, I wheeled about Sarah such that she remained to my right. I began counting my steps, as I could now feel the accursed nature of the trap; our mere presence had sprung the thing, and it was being held back somehow. Had any of the others been in there, we would all have died.
“True,” said the soft voice. “Very true. Now another fifteen steps, turn around, and walk back to where you're about half-way to Iggy's Silo, and then speak to the trap from there. That will give you enough time to clear the building.”
I silently counted off the steps, then as one, Sarah and I turned and began walking normally. Our ringing and echoing steps seemed impossibly loud, so much so that I wondered if I were hearing them conventionally. I could hear the others' quiet speech 'somewhere' ahead, and as we turned the corner onto the entrance hallway, I could see them all clustering in a region somewhere 'north of the laboratory'. The two of us walked, our pacing slow and deliberate, then as we came within a distance that permitted individual lanterns to show, where before they blended into a blob of light – roughly even with what used to be the Abbey's drink-house, I turned and was about to speak when a muffled thump made my ears ring – and less than a second later, a huge and billowing gas-cloud showed. It somehow seemed far in the distance, but its speed was that of a hurricane and its deadliness beyond questioning. I seemed transfixed, even as I backed away and someone tried to yank my arm down the hall, but I recalled one thing.
The word 'clear'. We did not have three months to wait for the place to become safe to enter.
“Gas, go back to your component atoms, and do so now!” I yelled.
The flash of light that erupted picked me up and turned me about in what seemed an instant of time, and as the lightning-like eruption blasted about me like a slow-blooming chain of connected brilliant strobe-lights, I saw before my 'eyes' what first looked like a swarm of minute coiled springs weaken...
Bend back and forth, shaking in a howling wind, a hurricane with hands like iron...
And then break in two and three pieces, this each of them separately and all of them at once...
And finally, fall to the ground and shatter like glass, as the curses that caused them to function were dead and torn into pieces. I landed upon the ground, my feet flailing, and as I tried to run as fast as I could, Sarah's yelling seemed to echo for all of time and space.
“Run!” she screamed from somewhere ahead. “Run!”
I did so, and then shot past Iggy's Silo in a blur of speed. The others seemed to be running faster yet, however, and only when I came into 'the Upper Alley' did I see them as they slowed but slightly to grab what they could of their things.
I continued running, then as I reached down to pick up my weary load, I saw just where I was. I was a few feet from the transom, and I wasted no time whatsoever picking up my things and then darting up the stairs.
And out into the night, there to turn and close the door the glass-paned door I had opened earlier that day. I then wondered why I had done so, even as I heard what sounded like an earsplitting cacophony of noise through my still-inserted earplugs.
There was yelling, this ongoing in a ringing 'work-song', and a vast number of both bonfires and smoky torches; a huge multitude, this laboring steadily by torchlight; the ring of hammers upon iron came from some distance further. I stood transfixed, watching the vast crowd labor steadily in a long and mobile line.
“Lanterns, also,” I muttered. “How can they go so rapidly?”
I had been walking steadily while watching the line of 'labor' continue its steady and measured pace, and now I found myself crashing into the midst of a camp being broken and loaded up with all possible haste. I looked around, and to my surprise, here came Jaak, his blanket in his mouth, and I wondered for an instant if I could actually mount.
“No, best put all I can in a buggy,” I thought, as I began looking. I wanted nothing more right now than pistol and sword, as only now, I finally – and fully – felt the pain and soreness of an unnaturally long day, one which had been obviously extended by at least four hours past the usual, if not more.
I found Sarah's buggy, and while I had no idea as to how she hitched her horses to the 'pole', I found that I could put my pack and possible bag in the bed.
“I would get your lantern ready,” said Katje. “This buggy is nearly loaded, and the two of us will hold onto what all we brought out of there.”
I removed one earplug, then another – and then, I heard fully the sounds of labor. It made for a question.
“What is that snapping noise?” I asked.
“At least one person has a whip,” said Sarah, “and I suspect he has either been under the lash in the fifth kingdom, or has spent time learning of such matters from Tam.”
“Both of those things,” muttered Gabriel. “I hope I never receive a whipping like that again, as I am as raw as a piece of meat from it.”
“You are not,” said Sarah. “You will have scars from it, but those bullet-markings will be the worst for it.” In lower voice, “and I hope you learned your lessons well, Gabriel.”
“He did, dear,” I murmured. “He's still alive.”
Yet as I began to lead the 'column' out of the darkened realm of the Abbey, I noted other changes beyond the first ones I had seen. There were more fires and torches along the river, as well as teams of strangely quiet low-slung animals that made for wondering – both at their stolid pace, and secondly, as to what they actually were doing.
“They are deepening that river,” murmured Sarah as she came up behind me. “I'm glad this day is over, at least for its worst portion.”
“Your dreams, dear,” I said. “Iggy...”
“Iggy may well crowd my dreams,” said Sarah, “but dreams are one thing. Nearly being lit on fire by that lizard was another matter entirely, and I have scorch-marks on one set of clothes from his flames.”
“How fast is that ditch moving?” asked Karl to no one in particular.
“Fast enough that I think the leaders are the fourth kingdom's people,” said Sarah, “though I have never heard a whip used there.”
“You have not been to Boermaas recently, either,” said the soft voice. “Now the whip cracks much of the day and all of the night in that place.”
“And every instructor a true-witch in black-cloth,” I muttered.
“They would like to dress that way,” said the soft voice, “and they wish they were indeed true-witches, but none of them have been where you seven went today.” A brief pause, then, “and that foundation trench has progressed nearly a thousand feet since they started this morning, and the wall's foundations nearly three hundred.”
“They don't realize that they must make up for lost time, do they?” My question was obvious to me at the least.
“I'm quite afraid they do,” said Sarah. “They know now that if they do not do their utmost, they will not answer to their king, but to another entirely.”
“It is as if it were about to rain fire and brimstone,” said Katje from somewhere far behind me as I found the main road by sight but a short distance away, “and they build as if their lives depend upon them doing so.”
“That's because their lives do depend upon them doing so,” said Sarah. “I know that much; within two weeks of now, if there are not a lot of people working all the hours of the day and night here, it will not be enough to overcome the sloth they've displayed so far.”
“Unless, of course, we have a number of visitors from a far country,” I thought. “They have equipment that we do not.”
My fatigue was so total now that I failed to be amazed at the light shed by an oncoming row of groaning stone-laden wagons, these each with their eight horse teams and a pair of flickering lanterns to each side of the drivers, and as we set out under a now-brilliant pair of moons, I wondered at the change in the whole countryside. For some reason, the stars and moon were as bright as I ever recalled seeing them, and the cheering light coming from above made it easier upon my aching body to 'travel'. Within moments, my eyes fluttered, and closed involuntarily to jerk open what seemed seconds later as we passed between a place with fields on each side. We were still traveling southward.
“Where are we?” I asked sleepily.
“About three miles from home,” said Sarah on my left, “and I think you're tired enough for today and the rest of a nine-day week. You've been asleep, haven't you?”
“I dozed off, I think,” I said. “I... How long was today?”
“About four and a half hours longer than the usual length,” said the soft voice, “or about twenty-four hours from sunrise to sunset. The night will be longer also, but not to the same degree.”
“Three-hundred and thirty-six hour weeks?” I asked sleepily. It certain seemed likely.
“Those people you saw laboring wish for such weeks now,” said the soft voice, “as they now realize the true need for not merely 'haste', but also 'good tools' and then 'think as much as possible while laboring' – so much so that any Valley mason or carpenter that shows will be welcomed, and not merely 'tolerated'.”
It was not yet 'the last mile', but my aching body wished that it was; and as the moons slowly climbed, we passed southward. The light of the moon and stars showed long gently roving furrows to each side, each row showing solid-looking sprouts of some kind, and when I finally smelled wood-smoke, I said, my voice cracked and weak with fatigue, “home at last.”
“Another mile, I think,” said Sarah. “It will not be long, perhaps a third of a glass's turn.”
I could see lights a few minutes later, then as these grew larger, I noted something unusual. Not only did they not flicker, but the two of them were far brighter than any common candle-lantern. I had packed all of the catalytic lanterns, or so I thought, as two 'ready-spares' for a party of seven seemed very wise.
I planned to take all of the catalytic lanterns on our trip, for I had a distinct impression: not only would there be battle casualties among our equipment – and possibly our personnel – but there would be situations where we needed the light of massed lanterns so as to work.
And yet, somehow, I knew that I was getting 'worked up' over something that didn't warrant it. That we would deal with thugs was a given, given our multiplied dreams of them, but calling these people genuine 'thugs' was...
I yawned, then blinked again. Somehow we had come markedly closer to Roos, for we were now between the cornfields planted by those of the town. I glanced to right and left, and suddenly knew another matter.
Lukas and Gilbertus were headed to the house first, there to speak to Hendrik; and then, they were to head to this location. I wondered if they would be useful now that the place was cleared of fetishes and traps.
“They're both tired enough to wish beds before setting out for here,” said the soft voice. “While neither man minds night travel much if it's required of them, they both would prefer doing so by day, which was why they started about two hours after you-all did.”
“That, and they wanted to get that news to Hendrik before his usual bedtime,” I murmured between yawns. “Now can I stay awake long enough to bathe, or will I sleep in the bathtub?”
There was no answer, and for some reason, I suspected one was not needed. I would most likely need to be awoken multiple times, and more, Anna would wish to look me over carefully.
“She'll want to do that with everyone once she sees what happened to you,” said the soft voice.
“What happened?” I asked. “I don't stink like I came back from the Swartsburg, do I?”
“No, you do not smell of that place,” said Sarah. “You smell... I cannot name how you smell, even if I have an idea how you got that way.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there are the other smells.”
“What other smells?” I asked. I then wished otherwise, even if I could now see the beginnings of Roos clearly.
The reek, intense, vile, and nauseating, was that of a massive burn-pile, and as I looked around me, I saw far-off dots of dancing fire in every direction which was not blocked by the town ahead of us. The smoke tomorrow would be especially fierce, as finding these people meant not merely burn-piles for the witches and their families, but also, all of their property and animals.
It was no longer enough to just 'kill the witch'. One had to destroy all that was connected with such beings, this done in a scrupulously thorough fashion.
“Is this another form of curse?” I asked, as Jaak seemed to 'wake up' and head straight for the nearest watering trough.
While I received no answer, my 'dropping' off of Jaak to the surface of the yard was answered by a faint groan as my knees gave way, then as I struggled to rise, I found that I had to crawl to a nearby buggy and lift myself up hand-over-hand until my back 'unbent' and I could stand once more. As if I had called her, the door opened with a rush to show Anna – who turned and yelled for Hans to come with the medicine chest.”
“A bath first,” I muttered, as I shambled up the stairs to then stumble and nearly fall again. I was wobbling now, much as if I were drunk, and when I found the bathroom door open, I stumbled into a run. I wanted a bath worse than anything, and only the lack of boiling water prevented me from stripping off of my clothing on the spot and easing myself into the tub.
Anna was still yelling for Hans, for some reason, but as I stood staring at the unlit heating lamp for boiling water, someone came in the doorway behind me and grabbed my belt to pull me out.
“N-no, please, I need a bath,” I shrieked. “I feel awful.”
“That is because you are hurt bad,” said Hans – who sounded so different from when I had last heard him that I turned with staring eyes to see someone I but barely recognized.
He somehow seemed thinner, much as if he'd spent years eating grass, and the lack of nutrition in such a diet had caused him to lose weight; and his face...
That was changed even more. He now seemed his true self, much as if he were once more under his grandfather's roof after his parents were killed by witches when he was a baby, and Anna – she too had changed mightily.
“Why is it so bright in here?” I asked.
“I am not sure,” said Hans. “Now what did you do in that place?”
Anna had vanished, or so I thought until a moment later she returned to direct the others bringing in all of what was in the buggies. I wondered for a moment if it was wise, at least until I recalled what would need to happen upon the morrow.
For that, we would wish buggies as close to empty as was practicable, as the armory would yield up its treasures to us.
“I've started a big pot to boiling, Hans,” said Anna as she came up. She then looked at me and screeched, “Hans, he needs a bath!”
“No, he is hurt bad, and water will make it worse,” said Hans.
“How am I hurt?” I asked.
Hans put his hand to my stomach, then looked at it, and shook his head – at least until he gently lifted up my shirt. He then nearly fainted.
“No, Hans, he does not have his tripes hanging out,” said Anna. “Is that what you thought?”
“I saw that blood there,” said Hans, “and I thought...” Hans then looked at me, and asked, “is that your blood, or is it the blood of something else?”
“I think it is the blood of that dragoon,” said Karl, as he brought in a satchel and something long and heavy wrapped up in a cloth and tied with string. “I do not know why she tied that thing up like this, as I have not seen anything like it, and there are no witches...”
“No, that is not true,” said Hans. “One showed in town today late this afternoon, and then there have been a lot of lights flashing speaking of trouble, so something happened today.”
“The tricky witches are being found by swine,” said Sarah. “Now I hope you have every eye with a kettle on it, as all of us need baths before anything, and him first.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“Smell,” said Sarah, as she brought her arm up to Hans nose. “Now smell him, and you tell me he does not need a bath.”
Hans did so, then turned and began retching, then he stumbled and ran for the privy.
“Has he done that much?” asked Katje.
“Not that I know of,” said Anna, “even if something happened to everyone in town. It's almost like the fourth kingdom took the place over and made it part of the west school.”
“How so?” asked Sarah, as I saw the bathroom beginning to waft faint steamings my way. I somehow made it up the stairs, got some clean clothing, and once inside, I tossed my damaged and ragged clothing at the door. I was really looking forward to the bath, and when I got myself into the tub...
I nearly screamed.
“What... Was Hans right?”
“No, but he did notice a lot more than he usually does, and his speaking of your injuries is not a joke.”
“What happened to me?” I squeaked.
“Were you not as you are,” said the soft voice, “you would not have survived what happened to you today. Be glad you will not have to endure another day like this one without adequate protection.”