Investing the Abbey: “Such Treasures these, that...” part C
What Sarah had been removing from its 'hiding place' was yet a mystery, even after shining my lantern's light down into the darkness to the right of the typing table. I reached down after handing her my lantern, and felt the cold chill of metal, then somehow, my groping fingers found a fold-down carrying handle, grasped it – and then lifted the thing up and out to set it down with a clank and a soft groan of pain.
“That thing...” I gasped, both with the renewed ache and at what I had found. “What is it?”
The obvious matter was that I had found a very peculiar – and sizable – air-cooled engine. The soot-blackened stub exhaust, this up-tilted and cut off so as to indicate 'power'; the brassy screen of the air intake, this going directly into the heavily finned cast iron cylinder head; the two pushrod tubes, an aluminum 'cover' topping the cylinder head, as well as two more aluminum 'covers' near it...
“Are those pushrods, or do they have some other means of actuating valves in that thing?” I thought. “Gears, perhaps, and that thing holds a shaft?”
That soon became obvious to me as unlikely, as I then saw a trio of 'zerk fittings', one over each aluminum-covered rocker-arm pivot, and a third in an area which made me wonder as to its utility, as it was very well hidden – at least until I saw a long thin injection pipe leading from an 'obvious' injector down the length of the heavily finned cylinder and entering into what could only be a high-pressure injection pump. That third 'zerk fitting' was hiding behind the injector.
I was looking at a Diesel engine. There was no question in my mind in the slightest.
“Now that belongs in Frankij,” said Sepp – who then looked down, and reached into the place the 'engine' had been hiding. He brought up something that made Sarah nearly scream and me wonder why she was so frightened – as Sepp had not found a Fenny-Snake, but something far more familiar – at least, familiar to me.
He had found an electric cord.
Sarah squawked, then in a tinny-sounding voice reeking of fear, she squeaked, “a t-tail.”
I could clearly hear the added 'e' on the end, such that the word Sarah had actually spoken was 'taile' – and I felt reminded of the instances I had heard that peculiar emphasis upon the added syllable when I had heard it before. I then recalled Sarah's speaking of dead Shoeten and how office equipment with such 'tails' reeked similarly.
“Smelly office machines?” I asked. “Tails?”
“Y-yes,” said Sarah, “and that is one of them. I hope that tail is all there is, as those smelly things were as cursed as anything I've ever heard of or seen.”
I turned where I stood, there to see Sarah holding in her somewhat grimy hands another obvious electric cord. She then laid it down on the nearest flat surface, that being another of those monstrously-heavy metal desks, and I came over to look at it. The first thing I saw was the grimy 'cloth' label near one of the portions where it plugged into something – either a wall socket, or the device intended to receive power.
“A label?” I thought, upon seeing the heavily sewn cloth 'flag'. “What does 'go with it' mean? Or is that what that statement means?”
“What is this you speak of?” asked Katje in a surprising loud voice. “If it is the label on that thing which Sarah named a 'tail' – or 'taile' as described in some of the more obscure tales in the Grim Collection – then that which you speak of is a species of curse. It actually means 'to get on with it' – as in 'hell never sleeps, and no self-respecting witch sleeps either'.” A pause, then, “whatever that went to was to be a portion of hell, one where it was active and stayed that way all of the time.”
The next portion of the 'tail' I saw was its overall layout, that being an obvious plug – three pins, hefty-looking round things of a slotted nature, possibly turned brass, and now beginning to corrode – connected to a black rubber 'rope' of unusual thinness and flexibility. I recalled the many electric cords I had encountered in the past, and those were stiff compared to the one I now touched and felt. I then looked closer at the plug end, and was astonished by what I saw.
“That one really does plug into the wall,” I muttered, as I looked close at the three-pronged plug and noted its upraised area with what looked like a ribbed surface for best 'sealing action'. It probably was difficult to insert and harder yet to remove – and seeing five grown-too-familiar letters molded into its chill-cold 'rubber' didn't help with how I was beginning to feel about what I was looking at.
“It was that, and for the reasons Katje spoke of,” said the soft voice. “You will see more of those cords and their sockets, as well as a vast number of copies that range from common cords with a similarly-located molded label to copies that are nearly as cursed as that one was.” A pause, then, “if you see something with a 'machine-head' like the one on that cord, however, you can depend upon the device it's inserted into being cursed – as no one since that time has managed to get that kind of a 'head' to come out such that it reliably transferred the power used.”
I dropped the plug, and now reached for the portion spoken of, and when I saw its even-more-intrusive nature – it went nearly two inches into the machine, was perceptibly tapered and yet somehow 'screwed in' in some odd fashion, and had three circles intersecting one another, with the smallest less than half the diameter of the largest – I gasped. For some reason, I had received information that implied this cord functioned sexually in the spirit realm – and it did not merely transfer 'power' of an electrical nature. It also functioned as a controlling 'force', one which transferred mastery from the curse-chanting source of power to the device being 'used' – much as if the device were alive, and the source was the master of his newly-risen-from-death-sleep slave – and the 'tail' was the device's 'leash', its spiritual connection to its master.
“Those curses did exactly that,” said the soft voice. “The witches of that era thought that particular type of Magick to be especially potent, and therefore they practiced it and the rites connected with it as much as they possibly could.” A pause, then, “as do many witches today, and in a similar fashion.”
Sarah looked at me and shook her head while grimacing, much as if she were tasting something especially sour and wishing to spit it out. She then asked a question, one for which I wondered if I could answer in a worthwhile fashion.
“What, exactly, is 'Magick'?”
“Their term for what they did, I guess,” I said. “I've heard of the term before, and that spelling...” A pause, then, “why did they spell that word with a 'k' on the end? Did it give a better curse when written in runes?”
“It did, because runes use the same character for both 'c' and 'k', so that ending rune was doubled,” said the soft voice. “The chief reason is that that word was 'received' and then written into that black book, and that in both spellings. The 'k-ending' form meant 'witchcraft as performed by 'true-witches', while the other species, that which had the familiar ending used in most of what they came across, was what they named 'the cheap imitation'.”
“What they thought was done by marked people?” asked Sarah.
“They had other words entirely for that,” said the soft voice. “The 'cheap imitation' was done by witches who had not been in that deep-hole and seen Brimstone's face and felt his hunger for all that existed.”
I dropped the cord, leaving it lay, but as I did, I had a strange idea. Seeing what amounted to the most-potent fetish I had yet seen today lying 'cold and lifeless' gave color and movement to this idea, so much so that without thinking, I murmured as I pointed to the electric cord with my index finger:
“Grimy, slimy, auger-snake,
Into the witch to shake and bake.
Cleanse him from the inside out,
And make that wretch scream and shout!”
The cord flashed for an instant with bluish fire, then went from curved and 'slinky' to 'as stiff as a blackwood spear' – and then, it vanished with a flash and a thump that left me reeling to nearly fall against a stack of 'junk' some few feet away. It also had Sarah looking at me with a facial expression I could not decipher – at least, until she asked a question.
“What did you do?” she squeaked. “That was like out of the book!”
“I think some witch is enjoying that snake he sent him,” said Sepp. “Now we have this heavy thing here, and it needs to go outside, same as that paper-wrecker there and that bad stand it is sitting on.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“There is another door here,” said Sepp. “I saw its crack, and I can feel something inside it that I want really bad.”
“As in?” I asked, as I began dragging the strange engine by its hidden 'handle'. One had to look closely to find it, in fact.
“It is this rocket,” said Sepp. “I dreamed about it last night, and no coach, no matter how much plate it carries, will endure one of these things. It will drill through that plate as if it was rotten cloth and light those witches on fire when it gets to them.” A pause, then, “and I drilled more than one coach with that thing in my dream.”
“Then we must have it,” said Sarah grimly. “If it is small enough, and does not weigh too much, we may wish one of those for our trip.”
“It dismantles for packing,” I said. “I suspect I could put it and at least two of the rockets... It has a carrying thing for those, one you wear, and it holds four of those things!”
“Yes, I know,” said Sepp. “If you see a line of coaches, you shoot the front one, then the back one, and if the way is narrow, doing that traps them all.”
“How did you learn that?” I asked.
“There was talk of you doing just that with those witches who came to help the hall,” said Sepp, and you trapped them that way for those shooting, and those witches got enough lead to be mines for the stuff.”
As I struggled with the engine – it seemed nearly 'solid' cast iron for heft – I heard Sarah muttering about doorstops and how what I was carrying commonly was sold as one in the 'scrap-market'.
“They do? Doorstops?” I asked.
“More than one lecturer at the west school used one that way,” said Sarah, “and he thought it a good curiosity, as did I at the time.” Sarah paused, then said, “I now think that thing needs to roost in Frankij when he is under blast with a good load of charcoal, and no mistake.”
“Perhaps I can get it running,” I murmured, as I set the thing down with a clank. It did not want to drag across the floor, which I only now noted to be roughly 'screed' and not smoothed – almost as if 'smooth floors are for sissies who want to shortchange Brimstone. It will be smooth enough for real witches when it is black with ground-in filth and dirt'.
“Not one of those,” said Sarah. “That thing looks enough like an evil engine to make me wonder, even if it looks to be much better made than those I have seen.”
I tried turning the flange, and found it frozen solid, just like the typewriter itself was, and as I resumed carrying the brutally-heavy lump outside where it could be piled with the other junk, I had a peculiar thought.
“What is an air-cooled engine – a compression-ignition engine, no less – doing running a typewriter?” I then had a question of my own, and I voiced it once back in that long narrow room within earshot of the others.
“What was used for fuel in those things?” I asked.
“The engines of that time, save for a very few, used a type of distillate,” said Sarah, “and I've read enough about them on tapestries to know they could and did explode with some frequency.”
“Hence that one goes in Frankij after I take it apart to learn what parts it has inside it,” I muttered, as I resumed lifting it. “You stopped one of those things in the fifth kingdom. Were there others you stopped?”
“Yes, several,” said Sarah. “If I was going into a place that had one, I either carried a bag of river-sand or found some founder's sand on the premises, as a handful or two of sand in their grease usually takes about an hour's time to stop them when they are running.”
“And what happens then?” asked Sepp. His strained voice indicated he was carrying something.
“They scatter themselves as if filled with dynamite,” said Sarah, “and then a big fire starts.”
The next half hour left but little time for further exploration, for now all of us were carrying as much as we could out of the 'long-room', as Katje had named it. As we removed those things that blocked paths to doors and odd doorless off-branches that had been previously hidden by 'junk', some of what we carried fell apart in the process, while other things – that engine being a chief example, even if it was the only one of its kind present – remained together and seemed strongly disinclined toward dissolution.
That could not be described for much else, however: every singled 'wheeled chair' we found went to pieces by the time it was removed from the room; the metal shelves fell apart without our attention, and lay in thickly scattered mounds of rust mingled with fragments of steadily-going-to-rust-flakes sheet metal; those advertisements we saw went to smoke once we saw – or mostly, I – had seen them...
“Cosmoline?” I asked, as one garishly 'glossy' full-color advertisement showing a blackened face but partly hidden by a 'burning' sun went to smoke and soot with a flash of flame. “That was a preservative grease, wasn't it?”
While there was no answer to my question, I had an answer for the slow-drifting clouds of soot the thing left behind – “go and soot up a witch, and make his color permanent so he cannot wash it off” – and somehow I actually heard the screaming wretch as he became 'indelibly inked' with soot.
“Given that he was about the best-hidden witch in that area, that isn't surprising,” I murmured. “Now all he needs is a pack of Shoeten in his, uh, dwelling.”
The screams again seemed to rattle my brain, for now the witch was not merely wearing soot that would not wash off; he had nearly twenty yard-long pigs underfoot, all of them screaming loudly for him to feed them – as being coated with glossy and indelible soot, he was obviously their 'eternal feeder' – and the pigs in question were most hungry.
'Eternal Feeders' were supposed to know the state of their charges implicitly – and that meant such persons felt the pangs of hunger and the constant production of gas made by swine when they had their due of ample 'rations' and plentiful drink. It was common to feed such animals mash stolen from farmers running Geneva, in fact, as that accomplished far more than merely acquiring food for swine 'cheaply'.
“Especially when they're Shoeten,” I muttered. “Yes, El Porko needs food and drink, and he needs it now, you wretch!”
The witch could not comply with the raging demands of the swarm of pigs, and he ran screaming out of his house as the pack of Shoeten – more than twenty pigs, most of which were on the large size for such animals – all but swarmed him and nipped at his flesh in their ravenous hunger. They weren't after him as a meal; they were hungry, and the pigs were communicating in the only manner they could manage.
“Were those things biting those witches in the fifth kingdom house?” I thought. “Are their bites poisonous?”
“While some Shoeten were aggressive enough to bite witches down there, what bit those witches were not swine.” A brief pause, then, “recall that large gray rat you shot in that money-changer's place? They ran into a 'rat-mine' composed of similar animals – only these rats were carrying one of the fifth kingdom's 'plagues', and the witches became deathly ill in short order even if they managed to drive off the rats.” A brief pause, then, “Death Adders might be poisonous enough to kill with one bite, but a swarm of rats carrying that bug is just as deadly should they take an interest in one – and the odors witches give off tend to attract such infected rats.”
I was then interrupted by the ghostly sounds of gunfire, this at first sporadic; it rapidly built to 'Gettysburg' levels, however, as the witch was quickly turned into a bloody sieve as the pigs chased him down the street. He might have said the hardening curses in the recent past, and have become strong in them quickly, but once he'd gotten more than twenty musket balls of varied sizes and a dozen 'heavy' loads of shot – and three balls fired from roers – he fell to the ground thrashing to then be finished off with an ax.
Not even a hard-witch could live without his head; and the man with the ax had a pole ready-sharpened to put that head on, as well as a ready bag for the hacked-to-pieces body of the witch. Once the head was off and ready for spiking, he began to cut up the witch's body where it lay, and his seeming obliviousness to everything save his self-chosen task was a matter for cringing on my part.
“Oh m-my,” I gasped. No matter that I had done this exact same thing multiple times, and the first time I had cut up a witch, I had done so with an ax as this man was doing. “I had no idea...”
“What?” asked Karl, as I passed him in the doorway. The woodpile had shrunk enough that the doorway was now obvious, even if there was still a good deal of wood remaining in front of it.
“Someone cut off the head of a witch and is going to spike it, and hang the cut-up body in a bag...”
“They must have been in the house recently to know about that,” said Karl. “There are lots of witches done up like that there, and the place stinks like it is High.” A pause, this to gather an armload of broken-up wood, then, “those witches that are hiding in the house do not mind such stink much.”
“They eat High Meats enough,” said Maarten, “so they probably enjoy the stench.”
“No, it is not that,” said Karl. “Those messy things might put the fear in most people, but if a person is much of a witch, he thinks those who hang like that were stupid.”
“Stupid for being witches, or stupid for not being careful, or just plain stupid?” asked Gabriel. He was working hard enough to 'leave sweat on the ground', which was a marvel – and his real curiosity a marvel greater yet. I but saw this briefly, for I was not stinting my efforts much.
“I think most witches think those traitors were stupid, and that is why they were caught,” said Karl. “I think a lot of those who thought that way are now wondering if they've become stupid, especially those who got sooted up so it does not wash out.”
“Full-body soot, so they're dark as ink, and that darkness as permanent as a deep-cut ink-marking,” I muttered. “That will get them killed the minute they're seen, and they cannot stay indoors forever.”
“Especially given what that did to their 'body odor',” said the soft voice. “They now emit a lot more of the smells that pigs find so attractive, which means every pig within miles is going to be coming at a rapid pace to crash their doors down – if the pigs haven't done that already.”
“What of that witch who received that 'tail'?” asked Sarah.
“He is now where he belongs, as he set his house alight in the process of thrashing around with an electric cord 'cleaning him from the inside out' – and now everyone in that town knows he was a witch.”
“It seems you will clear out every witch in a sizable area,” intoned Maarten. “Those witches that remained would have greatly helped those coming from the south, and now those people will have less help than even those witches sending them information spoke of.”
“That will mean little to those people,” said Sarah. “You will still want to put rockets to them when and as you can.”
“And hot lead,” said Gabriel. “One of those new muskets will cause their mules trouble if you hit those things right.”
“That would be almost anywhere with those things,” said Sarah. “I drilled a pig at a range fit for a tight three inch gun with distance shells with what we found yesterday, and that pig was thrashing like it was about to die.”
“It might have lasted half an hour, dear,” I said. “It wasn't going anywhere just the same, and now there are four more pigs running loose.”
“They will find witches that way,” said Karl. “Now I hope I can get one of those things I saw in my dreams and one of those like you found, as I would get a lot of notches quick that way.”
“Yes, if you pick your shots carefully,” said Gabriel. “Those coming will be expecting much hot lead from those not as they are, and they will shield themselves accordingly.”
“With what?” asked Sepp. “I've heard some muskets ignore plate unless it's thick, and those might just do that.”
“Those especially,” said the soft voice. “What witches think of as 'thick plating' will barely slow those bullets down if the shooter is within two hundred yards.”
“Oh, and given their affinity for cheap fifth kingdom slag-ridden brittle-as-glass stuff, each bullet will send splinters of such plate after it,” I said. “Those bullets will cause trouble enough, but the plate-splinters will not help matters.” I paused, then, “a few for the mules, and a few for the coach, and that one's done, for the most part – it isn't going anywhere, and the passengers can either seek some kind of assistance, and get turned into lead-mines as they leave the coach – or they can stay in the thing until they die from their wounds.”
“They are dead, then,” said Karl. “You'd best write that in your book, as most people will think those witches cannot be killed because their coaches have plate in them.”
“If they face nothing beyond common muskets, then they are nearly invulnerable,” said Gabriel. “It would take 'artillery' to stop such a vehicle, and mules, at least those with full odor, can ignore common musket balls readily unless they are hit many times.”
“They will not ignore what we will receive today,” muttered Sarah. “Anything that drops a pig that far off isn't nearly close to a common musket.”
The monitors came out one at a time, for they hid a third door behind their mounded bulk. These things, while having a surprisingly small 'display area' – perhaps as tall as some of the smaller ones I had used long before coming here, and a good deal narrower, such that their width was maybe enough to display the page of one of my smaller ledgers – had sizable and heavy 'boxes', and their circuitry had an acrid-bordering-on-fire odor that persisted after nearly a thousand years of disuse.
They also 'popped' loudly the moment they were set down outside of the room, and upon investigation, not only had the 'picture-tube' imploded, but the rest of the thing had gone to pieces worse than one of those seven-legged 'octopus-chairs' to leave a mound of broken glass, dust, bits of wire, and fragments of scrap metal. The acrid and 'burnt' smell, however, was gone.
“Bad monitor,” I muttered. “None of mine ever did that – not even the cheap secondhand ones did, in fact.”
“Those were used by witches in that one room with the desks,” said Katje, “so they were cursed.”
“Uh, mine were cursed?” I asked, as I followed Katje back in. She and Maarten had been carrying out wood, thinking to leave the 'monitor-carrying' to me and one other person, usually either Karl or Sepp, on the theory that 'he needs to look at those things' and 'they will not act up around him'.
At least, I thought that was the idea at first until Maarten spoke of 'if it tosses him, he's likely to live, at least if I go by what happened yesterday'. I kept my thoughts to myself, as I suspected the sheer weight of the things meant using the strongest people so as to get them outside the room quickly before they went to pieces and caused trouble in the process.
“These stinkers are heavy,” muttered Sepp as he helped me with one. “Why would a witch use something like this?”
“I'm not sure,” I murmured breathlessly, “even if one this big where I came from usually had a much larger display area and weighed a good deal less.”
“And used about a third of the power, and lasted a good deal longer, and cost about a tenth as much to buy in 'real money',” said the soft voice.
“Fetishes,” I muttered. “Something only a witch would want.”
“Those monitors were among the least 'fetish-built' of anything made by that country that you're likely to find in this room,” said the soft voice. “They might have made a lot of cursed things that worked better than any time since the drowning, but these 'monitors' were among the handful of things where they had the choice of 'do you want it to work, or do you want it to be cursed?' – and these worked, after a fashion.”
“After a fashion?” I asked.
“They needed a lot of repairs,” said the soft voice, “and they had trouble with displaying details, and they had a very limited color palette.” A brief pause, then, “the colors available were chiefly the following: entirely black, as in 'the thing's not working'; white mingled with black dots, which meant it was working, at least for the time being; and red, yellow, orange, and gray, which meant one or more components had failed and the 'monitor' was either billowing smoke and about to catch fire – or it was on fire, and burning fiercely.”
“And smoking even more,” I muttered. “First smelly office machines, then engine-powered typewriters, and now monitors that are best used as doorstops blocking doors for people to stay clear of,” I muttered. “No computers in that room, obviously – they were probably great huge things that were timeshared, and...”
“Those – what are left of them, anyway – are on the top floor with the other 'machinery',” said the soft voice. “They failed a short time after the war started, and the two witches in charge of keeping those things running were sacrificed within days by the then-ranking arch-witch because he could not do his work and they – the technicians – were causing him trouble.” A brief pause, then, “given that computers tended to be surprisingly rare at that time outside of military vehicles and installations, it was a not-so-small 'miracle' that this building had them installed.”
“That one witch probably had those all to himself,” I muttered.
“Entirely so, and the devices were built, installed, repaired, and leased by him only,” said the soft voice. “His income really took off after he became the sole agent for non-military data processing.”
“Non-military data processing?” I asked.
“The military computers and related equipment actually worked,” said the soft voice, “and were everything you might expect of an 'advanced' society.” A brief pause, then, “the ones those 'thugs' use across the sea are nothing like the ones in this room, and those are the 'thug versions'. The 'civilian' devices are more capable yet, and most of their computer devices are as reliable as Dietrich-102 anvils.”
By the time of our first break – this outside near the transom, where beer was the rule, and solid food the exception – we had made a substantial dent in the room's 'cursed' contents. It would soon be possible to open the wood-blocked door, but I had a hunch that we wanted to have the room cleared out enough to open all three doors we had found thus far before we tried even one of them. This was seconded by Sarah for some reason, and I thought to ask her why.
“I doubt there are just three doors,” she said, “and I do not know where those doors lead to, but I have my suspicions as to their contents.”
“Rockets?” I asked.
“Not merely those,” said Sarah. “There might be another of those stinkers, or some of those mines, and that means getting out of that room quickly.” I wondered briefly what Sarah meant by 'stinkers' until I recalled the nature of 'fumigants' and their supposed foul smells – until I knew beyond reason exactly what she meant by that word.
'Stinkers' supposedly 'sprayed' their foul-smelling musk, and that gas projector did likewise.
“And that wants a cleared path inside and outside that room at the least,” said Gabriel between swallows of beer. “Yesterday got to me worse than anything I've ever done in my life, and now I heartily wish I'd stuck it out at the west school.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl.
“Where I went taught me little of real use outside of writing documents fit for witches,” said Gabriel, “and now I know the real reasons for traipsing among those schools which do so.”
“Yes?” I asked. I suspected 'schools' should have been stated as 'school', as only the west school did real traipsing. Sarah's talk on the matter figured heavily into my suspicion. “Was I right?”
“You were, and that more than you knew,” said Katje. “There's a very good reason why more than half of the kings in the five kingdoms since the days of Cardosso went to the west school for the whole of their time, and why those kings who went to other places tended to either turn witch before they died, or lasted but a short time before they were murdered by witches.”
“No, Katje, not 'more than half',” said Sarah. “You might be right about what happened otherwise, but until the last two hundred years or so, it was a good deal more than half if you speak of all save the fifth kingdom and possibly the second.”
“Otherwise we would all be under the thumb of witches, correct?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Sarah. “If a ruler only knows how to act like a witch, then he or she will become a witch given the slightest pretext imaginable, unless someone takes him or her in hand and teaches that person otherwise before that wretch gets the opportunity to become a witch.”
The work resumed a short time later, and as the mounds of 'junk' grew in size and number in the 'Alley', I noted the following:
No one else had come inside where we were working, even if I could tell a lot of people were coming to the edge of the transom so as to learn of our progress by ear, and perhaps, smell.
The windows were continuing to be cleared of duff and then noisily scraped with the edges of knives. This permitted more and more light into the room, such that by now the much of the room's interior, while not nearly 'well-lit' enough to do exacting work, was no longer particularly dark. The screeching of blades on glass was more than a little bothersome to me.
“They'll need to clean both sides to light this place passably,” said Katje, “and that with brushes and soap before using rags and vinegar.”
“That will only help those places within ten paces or so of a window,” said Karl. “If those carpenters want to use this room much, they will want lanterns like those silvery ones they have in that market town.”
“They don't have lanterns in that supply-room, do they?” I thought. “Not hidden here?”
“No, because that one marked woman took the last three working examples,” said the soft voice, “and Iggy destroyed those lanterns the witches took with them when they tried escaping.” A brief pause, then, “the Veldters found a handful of still-intact lanterns of that type in various location several hundred years ago and got them working to a degree; then over time, they made more and more replacement parts so as to repair those damaged lanterns they found as they explored the Valley fully in the process of settlement; and finally, they began making complete units just a little over a hundred years ago.”
“Not direct copies, I take it?” I asked.
“No, as those lanterns they found were dangerous when using aquavit,” said the soft voice. “The Veldters had a sizable number of accidents with those they 'fixed' in the early days, and until they extensively modified them, they were nearly as bad for accidents as pressure-lanterns running distillate.”
“They did more than that, didn't they?” I asked.
“The current versions have little in common with the originals beyond their general nature as light sources,” said the soft voice. “While those titanium lanterns are more efficient, they are not nearly as amenable to 'field repairs' as what the Veldters currently make.” A brief pause, then, “the current Veldter-manufactured lanterns don't need much in the way of tools to keep them running, and the usual in the Valley is to package the tool needed with each lantern.” A pause, then, “and spare parts are commonly kept on hand in each Veldter 'settlement' unless it is very poor indeed.”
“Tool?” I asked. I recalled there being a small pouch of tools with the lanterns I had found in the fifth kingdom house proper.
“Those tools you found were not made by the Veldters,” said the soft voice. “The Veldter 'tool' looks like a combination 'adjustable wrench' and 'flat-bladed screwdriver', with a hollow round handle that conceals two detachable sockets that replace the large screwdriver blade – much like that big red-handled ratcheting screwdriver you had – an added screwdriver blade, and a 'poker' for cleaning the orifices. That 'tool' and a small knife is all that's needed to work on those, and that screened funnel you found was very old. It went to another species of lantern entirely.”
I had one final question, however, and the mention of that time with the lanterns in the fifth kingdom house triggered it:
“Are some Infernal lanterns close copies of what the Veldters originally found?”
“I would ride money on that being so,” said Sarah, “as they were mentioned on several tapestries, both for their running light distillate and being very hazardous to run unless one was a strong witch.” What Sarah left unsaid was 'or if one was marked beyond the trivial'.
It took perhaps another hour to clean out the rest of the room to the point where flat-bladed shovels were no longer an option to 'final-clean' the place. If it had remained together enough to be carried outside the room, it had been carried outside; and now the 'Upper Alley' was stated as indeed looking like an Alley, for the mounds of 'firewood' and 'wood-dust', as well as the scrap metal piles, were in their many and varied rows with a wide path permitting rapid egress from the long room. The first door we would open – another two doors had turned up, one near each end of the room, for a total of five – was the one that had been hidden behind 'the woodpile', and to this end, Karl produced a surprisingly large wooden 'holder' wound with 'fishing string'.
I let him tie the knot to the door handle, this being an odd metal 'bar' bent upwards. This one might well be tough enough to ignore my knots, and this door – indeed all of them – wanted remote opening from behind the yard-thick columns some distance from the doorway.
“And with an open and clear transom,” muttered Katje. “I hope there isn't one of those stinkers that spray gas behind these doors, as we won't have much time for running if one of them bursts.”
“Or those mines,” said Karl. “I think witches will like those things if they are rigged right.”
While Karl's idea was a good one, the idea of him rigging one and 'getting' witches was sufficiently far-fetched that I remained silent, at least until I allowed for the possibility of him getting help for the task. Then it looked plausible, and these thoughts were sufficiently distracting that I almost did not take cover in time before Karl began taking up slack in his string.
“I think this one needs you speaking to it,” he said,” as I began to hear a faint rumbling noise. I was about to speak when a clank rattled my mind, then a shuddering groan ended in a noise I could only describe as creepy-sounding.
At least until the bird loosed another one of its 'electronic choruses'.
“Now that's spooky-sounding,” I thought, as I looked out from behind my column. The door was obviously open to some degree, if I went by what I was feeling, and it had neither blown us up nor fumigated us with gas.
“It hasn't done that yet,” I thought. “Now if that smelly witch was involved...”
“That room was empty long after she left,” said the soft voice, “and those witches putting stuff inside were the place's 'lesser' witches up until nearly the very end.” A pause, then, “the last few items were put in as 'mementos' by witches who knew they were going to die shortly, and the door was curse--locked by the last 'strong' witch on the premises but hours before he was killed with his own weapon by that one woman.”
“And what is behind those other doors was most likely, uh...”
My thoughts failed me, even if Karl's voice did not fail him. “That one did not explode. Now I hope that room has something in it worth the trouble and dirt we got clearing that room.”
“Hist, Karl,” said Sepp. “Best let him check to see what's in there first so we don't all get killed.”
I understood myself to be the one being referred to, and with a sense of dread that increased with each footstep I made along the aisle toward the room, I trod slowly and with care. The others seemed unable to breathe, even if Sarah was speaking softly of remaining where they were so as to not get any traps in the mood for mischief.
“Are not present in any of those rooms, even if the idea of caution is best learned here rather than overseas,” said the soft voice. “Karl may think himself cautious now, but he won't learn true caution for some time.”
“Hopefully before he gets hurt,” I thought.
“He will, though he will be glad he's protected when he does learn caution,” said the soft voice. “Everyone with you today will eventually get tossed at least as much as you were yesterday, and the only reason they'll survive such treatment is because they'll be protected enough to not be hurt to any substantial degree.”
I had come to the doorway, and here I picked up Karl's string to pull the door open further. I did so from behind the shelter of the outer wall, and as the hinges groaned to finish in that 'creepy noise' once more, I carefully 'felt' for traps.
I could 'feel' none, but I had been wrong here before, if I recalled correctly. I wasn't sure how many times, though, even as I left my sheltered position and tugged once more on the string.
It came untied in my hands, and I tossed it to the side as I came inside the room.
Three steps, and I was in the room's center; and two more, I was reaching for the door itself. I brought out my oil vial, and oiled each hinge with the first awl I found in my possible bag. Only when I had oiled the lowest hinge of the five did I notice the smell.
The room behind the door was easily twenty feet deep, with walls that were perhaps three feet wider on each side than that of the doorway's 'yard and two hands' width. Why those measurements came to mind was a mystery, but as I came inside the room, I was surprised to find the room all-but entirely filled with long 'serried' ranks of narrow-bladed shovels, each one thickly coated in its entirety with a dark brown-tinted preservative material of some kind. A rag in hand, I put my finger to one – and jerked it back as if the shovel was blazing hot.
“Torment grease, or something similar,” I muttered, as I set my lantern down and began to carefully wipe my finger with a rag. “Most likely something similar, as that doesn't stink like this stuff does.”
“Mostly because one, it's a different formula, with this type of 'grease' protecting far better,” said the soft voice, “and secondly, these 'shovels' have been in here for a very long time with no air circulation – and finally, the brown tone you see is due to a measure of oxidation, which makes for a stronger and more-pungent smell.”
“Pungent,” he says. “Smells like what I recall of Cosmoline – and only the sticky feeling gives it away as torment-grease.” I then brought my rag into play, and while looking carefully at the nearest shovel to make certain it wasn't trapped, I wrapped the rag about the upper end of the metal 'ferule' that held the dark 'wood' cross-handle, and then gingerly picked the shovel up and began slowly removing myself from the room walking backwards, the shovel held outstretched in my right hand and the lantern down low in my left. Only when I was outside the room and its greater gloom did I notice the crude-looking markings on the blade of the 'shovel'.
“What?” I gasped. “This thing has runes on it! This is a witch-shovel!”
And yet as I dropped the thing with a clatter, something told me to look closer at the now-obvious 'curse' put upon the thing. I dropped to my knees as the others began to come out from hiding, and as I traced out the individual runes with a finger held an inch and more clear of the sticky blade, I heard soft and tentative footsteps come from both left and right, as well as behind.
“Disgrace, walking, and travel,” I muttered, “then night or darkness, tool of manipulation and control, and then it belongs to a witch....” I then had a question, but Sarah's screech from behind me shattered what calm I might have had.
“Th-th-that's a witch's shovel, all right,” she squeaked. “The tapestries called them 'Night-Tools', and they were said to be used by witches to hide things, and no one I spoke to knew more than what I just said...” Sarah's voice had grown shakier with each word. She swallowed dryly, then finished, “until now.”
I waved my hand over the spade to notice a near-complete lack of 'cursed' aspect to the thing, then noticed the sloppy-looking execution of the four runes. They weren't chiseled into the metal – that was the method for marking an item as a fetish, according to the witches of that era – but rather it looked as if a drunk-as-a-stinker witch had used a fifth-rate arc-welder with bad welding rods to 'draw' the runes onto a formerly 'common' shovel.
“Which is exactly what was done,” said the soft voice. “That curse only retained a modest measure of power as long as that 'fool-witch' of a welder managed to survive, which is why if that nasty-looking welding is ground off, then you'll have some decent spades for the work-parties outside.”
“Decent?” asked Maarten. “Those are not decent spades, not if they are marked that way.”
“About ten minutes each on the grindstone at the shop, or perhaps some careful chiseling,” I murmured, “and...” I paused, then, “those witches did not make these shovels, but, uh, imported them...”
“Yes, by theft,” said the soft voice, “and that one witch charged a sizable premium to supply 'true-fetishes' when in reality these spades were nearly worthless that way when purchased and totally worthless – to witches, anyway – save as wall-hangers about four days after that war started.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl.
“That fool-witch of a welder was killed when one of those aircraft shot up his training-encampment about three hours before dawn,” said the soft voice. “There were a lot of dangerously overconfident witches during the first days of the war, if you don't include those people then under the Mistress of the North.” A pause, then, “she put a stop to that nonsense quickly once enough of those fools had been killed to suit her.”
“And those...” Again, I paused, for now I had another idea: what Sarah was describing as Night-Tools and what we had found were two items that had little in common beyond their basic shape.
“Rather less and more than what you think,” said the soft voice. “Had a higher-ranking witch done that welding while chanting the correct series of curses at the right times, those spades would have become 'effectual' fetishes, though nowhere near what they were sold as being for strength or 'reach'.” A pause, then, “however, the general idea that occurred to you is true.”
“What?” squeaked Sarah.
“Real Night-Tools...” I paused, then asked, “what were they used for?”
“Hiding witch-holes prior to that war long ago,” said Sarah. “None have been found since that time, and until now, I thought that was because they'd all been put in that room.”
“N-no,” I said shakily as I stood up. “The real ones look like shovels, but they're all-but worthless for digging, unlike these.” A pause, then, “what they use up at Norden for digging is a lot closer to how they looked then, at least for some of them.”
“True and false,” said the soft voice. “The strength of a Night-Tool is in its curses and their execution, not in its shape or efficacy as a digging instrument – though the 'real' ones, especially those made by strong witches, were worthless for digging due to soft metal and 'weak' wood.”
“Soft metal?” asked Maarten. “Why...”
“Easier to chisel curses into, I guess,” I said. “Curses, especially those done with runes, need to be 'deeply' cut, with much effort, to really 'hold' – and that means chiseling, if you speak of metal. Etching is a compromise at best, at least according to witchdom, and cast-in curses don't show nearly the required 'dedication' that Brimstone demands for curses to really 'work'.”
“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and cursing tends to make most wood become softer and weaker.”
“Most wood?” I asked. “Are there types that are not affected that way?”
“That wood substitute, for one,” said the soft voice. “The one that was most affected, however, was Bloatwood.”
“What happened to that?” asked Karl.
“I-it became as strong and as tough as blackwood,” I muttered. “That stuff was the prewar equivalent of what those witches in Norden use today, only even worse for poisoning once it had been been cursed thrice over by being processed into Bloatwood.”
“Also true,” said the soft voice, “and Bloatwood permitted maximum utilization of those trees that were grown for 'wood products' in this area – the trees that eventually were sent to Norden once they'd mutated.” A pause, then, “the reason the wood from Norden's trees grows back together once made into finished articles is that those things made of Bloatwood did the same given proper cursing, and that curse-collection yet remains upon Norden's trees.”
“They could not make lumber from those things then, so how could they..?” Sarah was showing no small confusion, even as I began walking back toward the room with the shovel laying where I had set it down. There was more in that room than just shovels, I knew – though whether the added matters were rockets or other things was yet a mystery.
“Conventional lumber, no,” said the soft voice. “That needed importation, which meant dealing with that one witch. Bloatwood, however – those trees worked well for that material, and stands of those accursed trees – shaped or or otherwise – were farmed wherever sufficient room existed for them.”
“And paper?” I asked, as I reached the outer doorway leading to the main room.
“Could be made from those trees, but it was most-commonly imported or made from condemned batches of that wood-substitute.” A pause, then, “conventional paper, at least in L'amerika, was more expensive – and scarcer by far – then than it is now in this area.”
“Advertisements..?” I glanced to the right, then the left for some reason. The decomposition of all that remained of a cursed nature was continuing steadily. It would all be dust and rust before we were through with this room's non-cursed contents.
“Used rag-stock paper to start with, same as most books and all 'witch-grade' paper,” said the soft voice, “and witch-grade paper took large bribes, much pull, and bags of money to acquire, and cursed equipment to both process and utilize.”
“R-rag stock paper?” I gasped in mid-stride. “Where..?”
“Berky, most likely,” said Sarah. “All of those named disgraced had clothing when they came, and when they died, that clothing was taken.”
“It was confiscated and replaced with slave-uniforms made on site,” I muttered, “even if you're absolutely right about the confiscated clothing.” A pause, then, as I held my lantern up for the others to enter 'the room of spades', “that still does not explain where they got all of that cloth... Did they steal it?”
“Yes, that also,” said the soft voice. “The border-regions of that country also tended to grow fiber crops as well as food, and all of their clothing was that which they made themselves – and their worn-out clothing was a salable product, with substantial competition among the rag-merchants of that country.” A pause, then, “they were able to get money for those, as otherwise they were forced to use barter to survive.”
“Mostly as they were treated like slaves,” said Sarah, as she looked around the room in question, perhaps to plan its emptying. I wondered if that was wise, especially given the likely reaction to spades marked up with a 'curse'. Such emptying needed care and educated people, as well as the cover of darkness both within and without, and I would need to do the work at the shop 'after hours'. “About three out of ten tapestries that I've seen spoke of such matters, and while those people lived a lot better than most 'commons' do in the second kingdom, I'm not sure I which place I'd prefer to live in had I a choice in the matter and was forced to choose.”
“Lived a lot better?” I asked. I recalled conditions in most of the second kingdom as being 'unbearable', with the truly bad places being worse yet in multiple ways. I was moving further into the room as I thought this, for I could feel something hidden in a small 'hidey-hole' near the rear right corner. It would need moving the spades out of the way enough for me to investigate it, as it held a real prize – or rather, prizes.
“Those communities may have lacked many amenities and 'real' money, but they did not lack edible food, wearable clothing, or livable shelter,” said the soft voice. “Unlike the worst parts of the second kingdom today, however, witches – and those wanting to be witches – were not rare, and confiscatory 'taxation' was the rule then, much more than it is in the second kingdom today.”
“Which is why I said what I did,” said Sarah. “It might not have been the 'hot' part of the second kingdom house as to the number of witches, but they were both common and well-hid in that place, and one dared not do anything that might cause them displeasure.”
“They did sacrifice often,” said Katje. “Only their betters in that evil city were worse.” A pause, then, “now where is it?”
“What, dear?” I asked, as I moved to the closest space and thought to set up a 'line' for spade-handling so as to clear a path big enough for me to crawl into the small space.
“What is in this room other than these spades,” said Katje. “Had we a suitable buggy, I'd be more than happy to smuggle them into the shop for you and then bring them back to those working here, but we do not have any such thing right now.”
“Perhaps one can be arranged while Tam's looking,” I murmured, “and whoever hid these things hid them good, as it's down low, in this corner, and it will need me crawling so as to tie a rope to it.”
“Trapped, most likely,” said Sepp. “We'd best pass these out in a line, with Gabriel close to where you or someone can watch him good.”
“Not him,” said Sarah. “He's got to watch for any traps those stinkers put in here. Best if me or Katje does it, as I can tell she knows more about witches than she's spoken of.”
“Almost as much as you do, dear,” I thought, as I began to pass the first spades back. “Just outside the door to each side in neat rows,” I said, “as they'll need to stay hidden until they're, uh, cleaned up.”
“Yes, and how will you do that?” asked Karl. I then wondered about him, given that Katje had supplied a likely answer.
“They'll need sneaking out of here when the place is dead,” said Sepp, as he took his place in the line. Gabriel had Katje on his right and Sarah on his left, and she was right behind me.
“Yes, and when will that be?” asked Karl. He was really sounding like Hans now. “They are going to want people in this room every hour a day might have, as this place needs a lot of carpentry-work done to it, and that does not count that new part they were speaking of when we went after tools.”
“Does it need woodwork now, or will it need woodwork once it's built – or are you speaking of matters beyond just the Abbey?” I asked, as I handed back another spade. “Right now, I think there might be enough work inside this building for about five carpenters, unless someone feels a strong and current need for usable desks.”
“There might be ten of those things in this building,” said Sarah. “Most of them have gone to dust, as they were that false-wood for the most part, and those metal things just need cleaning.”
“And a good buggy for hauling them...” I wondered about those desks in those two secretariat rooms, then did not. Those didn't count, for some reason. “No, not really. There is at least one 'decent' wood desk on this floor that isn't too far from here, and that one won't need a freight-wagon for hauling it.”
I then knew the matter: those in the secretariat rooms would be very difficult to move with what we could get our hands on now. If it wasn't in one of the closer rooms fronting on 'the hall of dead bodies', it was going to be nearly impossible to get out of the Abbey readily without a lot of work – and those desks that were close enough to bother with would involve substantial effort just the same.
“So they have that one,” said Karl. “It might hide ten of these spades, and this place will need all of those things this room has, if not not twice what it has, and all of them as good as those things made in the potato country. So how do you get more of them cleaned up?”
“The easiest way would have Hans get them,” said Sarah. “He can hang out the red arrow going back to town from here, and no one will bother to stop him.”
“So he can haul fifty spades each trip, then,” said Karl. There were more spades in the place than I thought, almost as if for each one I removed from its place, two more suddenly 'materialized'. I was making uncommonly slow progress. “He does not have time to make a lot of trips, as this place has hundreds of them.”
“Oh, I think he can manage,” said Sarah. “He might need to visit Paul some, or Willem – and I...” Sarah almost dropped the spade she was handing off to Gabriel, then screeched, “their hay-wagon, and they're back to running nights now!”
“So now you have it,” said Karl with a jolting aura of finality in his voice. “They drop the hay off at the right place regularly, they come right by here regularly, and that hay-wagon can hold a lot of these spades in their hay.” A pause, then, “and once they are cleaned up, then they will be no trouble.”
“Wrong,” spat Gabriel. “There will be witches then, and many of them, all of them full-loaded and black-faced, and they will wish to steal such things so as to deny them to us.”
“So let the people transporting them back here be greens-wearing guards with rifles and rocket-launchers, and let the farmers have plenty of black-dressed bodies for their manure-piles,” I murmured. “I know Hendrik's planning on at least four new suites of green clothing, and that's for now.” A pause, then, “I have no idea how he'll get those tailors to make green dresses.”
“Easily,” said Sarah. “I've spoken to Maria about the matter already, and a lot of that cloth is on order.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “You did very well, as that first class of ladies is going to all receive greens, and you'll be testing that clothing across the sea.”
“I planned on trousers for that, mostly,” said Sarah. “Those are better for living rough. Now you speak of dresses, and trousers are not dresses.”
“I meant what I saw you working on for your clothing recently,” I murmured. “While I did see several pair of trousers, I also saw what looked like at least three 'dresses' – and I'm not that knowledgeable about clothing, especially for women.”
“They are better for cold, as then you wear them over...” Sarah paused, and I looked at what she was wearing now – which could be called a dress. It, and several like it, had stood up to Iggy; the Desmond; that deep-hole, with its animated 'bone-masses'; being tossed by explosions and climbing stairs; fighting rats; and a fair amount of traveling, both on foot and in a buggy.
“I thought so,” I muttered. “Like what you're wearing now. It stood up to about as tough a species of fighting as anyone is likely to realistically endure here, and you yourself – at least I think it was you – said Iggy was as bad as an Iron Pig.”
“I did not,” said Sarah. “I've faced those things, and burned them, and Iggy was worse by far.” A pause, then in lower voice, “you're right about clothing for fighting, then, as what I wore in the last few days worked.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “Now I hope these spades are not growing in numbers, as then I'll never get at this th-thing – no, things, and they're hidden... Is this some kind of a hiding curse?”
“No, because I have counted nearly eighty spades so far,” said Karl, “and what is strange is that about half of them have that curse falling off the metal part by the time I have touched them.”
“And by the time they are stacked, it is on the floor in pieces,” said Maarten. “There is this trail of rusting metal the whole way, so all they need is a good soak in distillate and then wiping.”
“They have distillate here,” said Sarah. “I would ask that they keep such distillate...”
“Because we, or some people here, can use such a solution to protect their parts?” I asked. “Is this stuff a decent lubricant?”
“It is, though not nearly as good as some you'll receive shortly,” said the soft voice. “More, these spades will only need a brief dip in distillate – as in 'dunk them, count to twenty slowly, remove them from the solvent-bath, wipe them well with clean rags, and then put them to use.” A pause, then, “the remaining film of preservative grease will wear off quickly enough in use, and these spades will see a lot of use in the near future.” A pause, then, “a quick wipe-down with a distillate-dampened rag will suffice for shorter periods of non-use, much as it does with your tools.”
“A lot of rags, then,” I murmured. “Old diapers will work well, and those are common in this area.” I then had a question.
“Why do I seem to be pulling out so many of these things?” I asked.
“Because they are needed on site and in a number of other nearby places, and there aren't any people able to make usable ones – yourself excluded – close enough to be worth bothering with,” said the soft voice.
“And I have yet to make anything resembling a spade,” I murmured. “Those things probably need equipment the shop does not have, so that means I must first make the equipment needed if we make them.”
“The shop here does, even if where you work doesn't at this time,” said the soft voice, “and those narrow-bladed 'hoes' used for digging aren't nearly as tough to make as spades.” A brief pause, then, “more than a few of those people arriving are bringing the metal portions of the tools they need, as they know the first kingdom has some passable carpenters outside of those who are coming here.”
“And the metal parts..?” I asked. I had been handing out spades steadily, and while their number seemed unlimited, I was slowly but surely making headway. I did not wish to have unduly sore arms, however, when crawling into a small space that might be trapped; and upon my thinking that, the spades seemed to all but vanish in front of me over the course of perhaps a minute to leave a crawl-space wide enough for my passage and a small 'rat-hole' in the wall but barely large enough to permit my shoulders passage.
“There,” said Sarah tiredly. “That's enough spades for me without beer.”
A soft chorus, this speaking of steadily-growing soreness, seemed to answer for an echo, and as Sarah came to the yard-wide 'passage' that had appeared before me, she shined her lantern above the ranks of spades. She then turned back to the line.
“Karl!” she hissed. “Where is that string you have?”
“He'll bring it out soon enough, dear,” I said. “We'll want a breather after getting these out, with someone going into the camp and speaking to a gaffer or two from the fourth kingdom about a big metal washtub and some heavy distillate so as to put these...” A pause, then, “how many of them did we bring out of this room?”
“Enough that the current 'diggers' will be most glad of them,” said the soft voice. “They'll want the rest once more 'diggers' arrive, but that will need you dealing with them beforehand so the runes fall off.”
“Runes, go slag up a witch-kettle or three somewhere far from here,” I muttered tiredly. “I do not have the time or the energy...”
The abrupt eruption of fumes clutched my windpipe, and Sarah screamed, “out! It's trapped!”
The others responded with alacrity, and even so, I barely made it out of the room as the choking miasma of fumes billowed out into the 'Alley' itself. I then noted another matter in my peripheral vision as I stumble-staggered toward the still-open transom – there was dust, dirt, and 'smoke' coming off of a great many things to join the quickly-subliming preservative grease, and as I came into the light and air of the outside, the long 'line' of window-cleaners seemed to look up, then slowly, achingly, much as if they were enmeshed in a deathless nightmare, they drew back from the growing cloud of wind, stench, and dust.
We continued our rapid pace until we reached the buggies, there to find them 'surrounded' by a newly-arranged camp hard at work arranging itself into proper living order. The sun seemed to have barely moved from the time we had arrived, and I wondered if our day would be unnaturally extended again.
“I think so,” spat Sarah as she coughed up and spat a gray-toned blob on the grass between swallows of beer. “I hope those spades will be decent now.”
“Spades?” came a faint echo. It seemed an omnipresent one, one coming from every direction save that of our exit. “Did someone speak of spades?”
“Yes,” muttered Katje. “My arms are sore from handling those smelly things, and now they stink worse than ever.”
As if by magic, one of those laboring in the newly-neat tent encampment came to Katje's side, then asked, “now what will they need to not stink, assuming they're decent for using?” A pause. “They have no such things here unless someone brought them from home – and not many did, at least entire spades.” He paused, then, “they don't do decent metal up here, even if carpenters are common enough both in the camp here and close by.”
He then paused, looked at Katje's beer jug, sniffed it, then said, “they do decent beer, if my nose is not telling lies.”
“You'll want two metal washtubs, jugs of heavy distillate, a lot of rags, and then a lot of people to bring those smelly things out,” said Katje. “They have this grease on them that's not merely smelly, but very sticky...”
“That's an easy thing,” said the man. “We knew that the first kingdom has had trouble getting distillate, and has for a long time, unless you're one of those black-dressed thugs that call themselves witches, so every buggy that came up here brought at least one jug of what's called 'well-dried distillate' by witches.” He paused, spat, then said, “if you want distillate to not smell, it needs distillation in the right kind of still, and they don't have those anywhere close to where that stuff is made.”
“That smelly distillate is better for cleaning rust and, uh, bad grease,” I murmured.
“Aye, which is why we brought up forty jugs of it at the least,” said the man. “Now the other things might be hard to do, as every washtub we have, metal or otherwise, is busy with travel-dirtied clothing right now, and if we're getting things out of the grease, a wooden one will be worthless for clothing after using it that way and a metal one will want long-boiling with lye afterward before it's fit for clothing again.”
“Best to use such a tub for removing grease and that only, then,” said Sarah between gulps of beer. “I have no idea how many spades are in that room, but I counted at least a hundred that I handled...”
The man vanished like a shot upon hearing that statement, and Sarah looked at me as if I might know why. “What did I say?” she asked.
“They need spades bad,” said Karl, “and if those stinky things all lost those bad marks on them, then they can start using them as fast as they can clean them.” Then a question for me: “why did they start smoking and steaming like that?”
I was about to answer when another did. “None of those spades have runes now,” said the soft voice, “and that metal left with such alacrity for far-distant witch-pots that its leaving softened much of that grease noticeably – as well as changed it into something a bit more 'usable'.”
“Usable?” I asked.
“The jugged 'cleaning solvent' will make an excellent tool preservative solution,” said the soft voice, “and if some of it is distilled in what you use for 'motor oil', the resulting material will work well for keeping the house's type 'sharp' overnight.” A pause, then, “you won't need a lot of that solution – about three batches, or perhaps half a small jug – as that press will be a museum piece within a year's time.”
“Then why is it being built?” asked Sarah.
“You need an effectual means of printing now,” said the soft voice, “and that press will go on-line within perhaps two weeks of your return at the most. It will be most-busy then, and remain so for some months.”
“They'll buy that kind of printing, also,” I murmured. “What will replace it most likely needs a level of infrastructure we do not currently have, as well as substantially changed minds for the majority and a lot fewer witches and supplicants – in general, not just locally – to cause trouble.”
Sarah looked at me with open mouth, even as a dull uproar seemed to be steadily growing to all sides. That one man had learned his lesson well regarding slackness, and now at least three sizable oblong 'bathing tubs', as well as enough distillate to fill them entirely and then some, was en-route to a nearby location. I suspected this place would be somewhere on the yet-deserted 'plain' at least a hundred yards distant from the northern edges of the still-settling camp, and also well away from the large and fast-growing network of deep furrows being dug to uncover the remains of where the 'turnip-patches' had been 'installed'. There were now many large and growing mounds of scrap-metal going to rust dotting those portions of the 'plain' where the furrows had meandered following the boundaries of various 'turnip-patches', and I wondered how Frankie could eat such metal once it was 'to hand', as the local vernacular said.
“Use more black-cast and flux for that stuff, as well as some of Norden's metal,” said the soft voice, “and be ready for a lot of slag with each run.”
“They'll want that stuff, won't they?” I thought.
“Those that come, yes,” said the soft voice. “Expect them to be 'howling' for it within a month after you get back from that trip.”
“That blower will be howling twice a week, then,” said Sarah, “and you will wish to make coal-retorts so as to keep that thing under blast.”
“N-no,” I muttered. “Not the way they're done now, at least if I go by what I saw recently.” Pause. “We need something that is faster to load, faster to unload, seals tight without constant and heavy maintenance, and holds a lot more coal per run – and that for not merely the shop, but the fifth kingdom as well, so they can quit stinking up the place with their current coal-ovens.”
“I did not think of that,” said Sarah. “What will you do with the gas that comes from such a retort?”
“I'm not sure,” I said. That uncertainty bled into every word I said when I resumed speaking. “Lines of metal catch-containers connected in rows so as to fractionate and condense the off-fumes better than what I saw Andreas using, then use what is left of the gases for fueling the furnace built around this thing?”
“That would be most wise, at least at first,” said the soft voice, “and yes, you do need to build what you just had in mind. It's fully as important as anything else you're doing, as there has been communication between the fifth kingdom and this one about effectual coal-processing – and that well beyond what you spoke of during that meeting down there.”
As if to punctuate what we were speaking of, the man returned, and the less-than-faint reek of distillate that seemed to hover about him spoke of his most-likely recent labors. He said, “so if you have spades in that place, then bring them to that entrance there” – he pointed at the transom – “and we can clean them up.”
“You will want the used distillate to be jugged carefully,” said Sarah, “and we can use some help in there.”
“You'll get that quick enough, miss,” he said. “Whoever got made that noise this morning and then got rid of the witches put a fire under everyone who got in last night, so as soon as they're ready, they can help out inside that place.” He then sniffed and said, “unless it's still got cursed things in it. Only some few people in this place can go in there and not get ridden easy, and a lot of people in the camp still want to be witches enough that those people dare not show themselves that way.”
“The cursed parts of those spades are gone, sir,” said Sarah. “I am not sure about the other portions we were bringing out of this one room, but...” Sarah ceased, then while holding her nose, she went back to the transom. Cautiously, she stepped down into it, then turned and shouted, “I doubt there is much cursed in here now, as most of what we brought out has gone to rust and wood-dust!”
I ran back toward the transom, then went down inside and rapidly began walking toward the former mounds of scrap-metal and 'trash'. Everything save the metal desks we had brought out and that engine – it was still intact, even if the typewriter had become a mound of rust and 'junk' – was indeed either a pile of dust and fragments of rusted metal, or a mealy-looking mound of wood 'dust'. The spades were untouched, or so I thought until I touched one and nearly screamed.
“Torment-grease,” I screeched as I drew my hand back and began wringing it as if my finger was on fire. “That stuff is the worst torment-grease I've ever touched in my life!”
“Best that you or others that find it trouble not touch it, then,” said the man as he joined us. “Now those spades is prime there, and if they've been greased like that, they'll be good once they've been cleaned up decent.” A slight pause, then “and if you're wanting that used distillate, then I got an idea as to who you are.”
“You do?” asked Sarah.
“Yep,” said the man. “Tall, dark-haired, and every single witch that lives wants him dead 'cause he's death on witches worse than Charles was, or so talk was going before we left Kranaache.”
“K-Kranaache?” I asked.
“It's the part of town just outside the palisade on the south side o' the market,” said man. “They've been talking of moving the palisade out to wall it in, like they've done twice before in my years, but the king said this work here was more important.” A pause, then, “that, and there'd be no need for a palisade in a few years, and that's so no matter what happens.”
“And until then, though, you will wish it extended for protection,” said Sarah knowingly. “The witches do all they can, as they know they do not have much time.”
“Aye, though those stinkers don't know they have little time no matter what happens,” said the man. “If the place goes to hell, they get eaten first, and if it goes where it's supposed to go, then they get killed off to the very last of 'em before the Curse breaks entire.” A pause, then, “and I gave oath in church before I left to see that happen, and I put three pounds of lead in witches on the way here from the coast where the sun drops into the water.”
“With what?” I asked, as I began moving toward the doorway of the room in question. I could feel a small 'crowd' forming at the transom, with the others holding them back.
“I'm not much for roers, but I do have a tight number one-sized musket with cut grooves,” he said, “and I spent much of the ship-trip casting cheese-bullets for it and then greasing them up. I'm glad sailors don't hold much with witch-nonsense, as there's this special grease for bullets that's got blacking in it, and I got the formula from someone up here not two months ago.” A pause, then, “it keeps the fouling soft, so's you can reload those things a lot easier, and I suspect the bullets hit a good deal harder on account of it being so slippery.”
“I know about that grease,” said Sarah. “It works well in guns, and decent in unsleeved wheels, and it works well for drawers, also.” A brief pause, then, “and I've greased every drawer in the kitchen at home, as otherwise I would have tossed some of them by now.”
“You can start with the spades we've brought out so far,” I said. “They're safe to handle, if a bit sticky. Once they're out, then we need to resume our work in that room there.”
The man nodded, then turned and whistled softly.
The 'dam' then broke, and before I could count to three, a small 'mob' clambered down the still-crumbling steps of the transom. Our group was all but shouldered aside, and these gloved 'fiends' formed a a shoulder-to-shoulder line in a trice and the spades we had thus far removed went up and 'out' with a will. Before the spades had all left the floor, however, the reek of distillate seemed omnipresent in the Upper Alley, for that stink was of a quick-migrating nature; and I began to feel sick as the last of our 'intruders' left with the spades we had removed. The silence that remained behind them seemed beyond appalling.
“Now that is quick,” said Karl. “They want those things bad, as it takes time to put handles to such tools, and they have no decent carpenters in that big place behind the wall.”
“None that are set up yet, you mean,” said Maarten. “I know for a fact that there are three carpenters in that new camp, as I counted that many carpenter's chests while looking for their privy-hole.” A pause, a sniff, then, “we'd best get on with it. That distillate out there stinks.”
Once back among the spades with Sarah holding a pair of just-adjusted lanterns above me, I began to get down on my hands and knees with Karl's string in one hand. My joints were stiff, and the pain made for tears in my eyes as I finally got down such that my face was eye-level with the hole; and when a lantern came down hanging on a stick, I gasped.
“This hole isn't anywhere near as deep as I thought it was,” I murmured, as I inched forward. “There are three boxes that I can see, and all of them look like they're made of metal.”
“Those things are bad for trapping,” said Karl. “Tie my string to one of them, and then we can pull those things out from behind cover.”
As I inched forward such that I could touch the nearest can, I noted that the lanterns remained such that I could readily see, and with the string, I tied a triple knot in one of the handles. These 'boxes' looked more than a little like old ammunition cans, with their solidity but amplified by their dark green paint and uncommonly 'sturdy' construction; and when I felt about the first one in the line with my hands so as to learn of wires or other indications of trapping, I marveled at its smoothness and total lack of rust.
“No,” I thought. “If these are fetishes, they've got bad curses that hide good...” Pause, this to think; then, “only these things don't feel like fetishes at all.” I then knew the obvious answer: “they are not fetishes, and neither are their contents.” I began backing out, and once back on my feet, I noted that I was the last in line as I carefully paid out Karl's fishing line, at least until we were at the doorway that formed the boundary with the Upper Alley. I then began paying it out faster, all the while muttering to myself about being 'better safe than scattered'.
At least, that was my speaking until I got behind a column and knelt down. I then began to pull on the string.
Karl's string must have been intended for uncommonly strong fish, as I heard the scraping noises an instant after the string grew taut, then other noises that suggested collisions with the business ends of spades. Once that had finished, I laid down the 'string-carrier' and began to cautiously walk back toward the doorway, each step slow, measured; setting my boots down slowly, and just as slowly removing them from the floor. Unlike that one 'long-room', the 'Upper Alley' had a tolerably smooth floor, which made for wondering: was this long and narrow storeroom an add-on after the main structure of the building was completed? Was it done by individuals unskilled in construction? Was it a matter of haste..?
“All of those things,” said the soft voice, “and it was done at the command of 'The Mistress of the North' some time before she closed off the deep-hole unto herself.”
“Some time?” I asked, as I came to actually see where the box had ended up. It was out in the aisle between the close-ranked shovels, and though my knots had come undone, they had remained effective long enough to get the thing out where I could more-readily check it for traps. As I did so, I heard, “she learned about what was to be done during its early planning stages, and made her initial moves nearly three years before the start of the war, when the building was being 'hardened',” said the soft voice. “Those rooms were originally intended to house traps of one kind or another, but she did not have the time to trap them them when she took the place over, and once the war started, she had her hands well-beyond full, hence she could not return to finish the job here.”
“And those small holes?” I asked. I knew that room we had just been in was not the only one with a hidey-hole; at least one other such room had one or more such holes.
“Those were made by those laboring so as to conceal rations in while they were working,” said the soft voice. “While they were slaves, their overseers knew they had to do decent work, and more, do that work quickly – hence they overlooked 'stolen rations' and 'concealed rations' until that work was done and signed-off by those in charge of disbursing the final payments.” A brief pause, then, “once those overseers were paid, though – every single slave that had worked on the job was sent to the training camps the very next morning, and their overseers received their own call-up notices but a week later.”
“Training camps?” I asked, as I began worming my way back into the hole to tie the line onto the second box. I would carry the first one outside out into the Upper Alley and set it down but a few feet from the doorway.
“To become 'common soldiers', at least for the slaves,” said the soft voice. “Conscription had just started then, and once war became 'likely' some time later, the press-gangs started in earnest.” A pause, then, “that was the case save regarding the Mistress of the North – whose more-effectual methods of conscription and training became the rule within a week of the start of hostilities.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“Harden her soldiers to slaughter while rounding up every likely-looking person she could find in a given town or village,” said the soft voice. “When her people came, the more-experienced witch-soldiers 'softened matters up' with 'random-seeming' sprays of gunfire, then their 'lackeys' rounded up every person who looked fit enough to 'serve' militarily. The ranking witch-soldiers then 'signed them up' at gunpoint, and all who were so selected were marched off in columns led by the truck-transported witch-soldiers, while the common soldiers remained behind to confiscate everything of value before driving off the livestock and draft animals ahead of them in their loot-filled trucks.”
A pause, then, “finally, those who were deemed yet 'callow' were left behind to 'mop up', where their cadre forced them at gunpoint to kill everything that yet lived and burn the town and all around it to the ground as a warning to those 'over-fools' who thought to flout the Mistress of the North and her people. Only then were those 'trainees' then double-timed back to their training camps, with the bulk of their cadre driving behind them in trucks so as to keep them moving at that same pace for the entire distance without stopping. If the trainees faltered, they were killed on the spot, either by gunfire or being run over – and those witches preferred 'death by truck' as it saved their ammunition.”
“If a third of them do not die...” I tried to recall what Sarah had said what seemed ages ago as I felt around the second box, then ceased speaking as I tied another 'triple-knot'.
“That was the rule in her camps from the very beginning, and those she was 'given' to oversee after the start of the war became likewise in all ways,” said the soft voice. “The survivors of her training camps were to a man serious witches, as that was the only way one could survive those training camps.” A pause, then, “only the death-camps for those labeled 'Disgraced' were significantly worse – and she killed every such individual she possibly could, save for a bare handful of people whose services were essential to her.”
I could hear a pause at the end, and as I began to carefully carry out the first box, there to set it some feet from the doorway next to the wall, I asked, “and what else?”
“That portion of your training involving swimming in that one nasty pond in back was one of her training tactics, as were the poles and much else that happened before you nearly killed Karl,” said the soft voice. “The fact that you endured it as you did told that teacher, at least at first, that what he'd been told about you being an especially strong witch was nothing more than the truth.”
“He knows better now, I hope?” I asked, as I took my position again behind that one column.
“Only your nearby presence and seeing you do what you did on a daily basis caused him to believe otherwise for a few weeks,” said the soft voice, “and once you were no longer someone he saw daily, he promptly forgot everything save what he had been told about you being an especially strong witch, with your observed and recalled behavior reinforcing what those Generals had told him about you.” A pause, then, “while that man is not a witch, if ever a man that did not go to the higher schools truly warranted the title of 'fully-owned-witch-slave', that man does.”
“Then why isn't he a witch?” I asked silently, as I took up the string's slack
“Because he's been around enough witches over the years to know he'd never be allowed to make his bones, and if he ever tried to do so, he'd die on his back in a witch-hole as the object of adoration.” The chill sound of the soft voice as this was said was enough to all-but erase what caution I retained regarding the three boxes, and I barely caught myself in time as I began to slowly pull the second box out with the string.
It made much the same noise as the first one, save for a longer period, and as I walked back toward the room with the spades, I wondered: were there just three boxes – three hefty and sizable boxes of uncommonly sturdy construction – or was there another smaller box behind the three, this one filled with other things we would desire?
In my crawling inside the hole so as to first feel around the last box, I noted that while it was much as the others were, there were a number of stacked 'tins' that it had concealed. As I retreated to my sheltering column, I wondered: were these tins filled with something useful, or were they round mines..? Mines rigged to detonate when and if touched, much less moved? I wasn't sure, and this time, I was even more careful than the first two instances when reeling in Karl's string.